Letter from Jerusalem
by Haim Baram
in Middle East International, 8 February 2002
[this is not a translation from Hebrew, but an article written by an Israeli author in English]
The other day I had to go to the city centre, off King George Street, to take my ageing mother to a health centre. She is 88, and as a widow of a cabinet minister enjoys the privilege of seeing a private physician of her choice at the government’s expense.” Yet she refuses to accept any preferential treatment and clings to the old egalitarian norms, norms that seem to have vanished from our social landscape.
The clinic used to belong to the General Federation of Labour (Histadrout), but the nationalization of the sickness benefits funds has deprived it of its conspicuous trade-unionist character. Many members have left for more prestigious health organisations, or opted out into private schemes. Our family, in the broader sense of the term, is still loyal to the old Histadrout health system but can hardly justify it ideologically. It is purely emotional, like supporting the former Histadrout football team, despite its dismal showing in Division Three.
At the clinic the receptionist beamed at us and did her utmost to be helpful. Her late father was a relatively well known local Labour party official, and her cosy job was facilitated by my own dad, to reward her family’s efforts during the hectic election campaigns of the 1960s. When my mother consulted the doctor, the receptionist told me of her fears. Working at the corner of Ben Yehuda St and King George St, she had witnessed several bombing incidents since 1996 and, like all of us, had had some narrow escapes. Then she rebuked me mildly: “I listened to you on the radio. You are always on the side of the Arabs against us.,” I smiled.
Such talk is not uncommon in Jerusalem. Two years ago I had a weekly programme on local radio, chatting to increasingly disgruntleed callers. I resigned once I realized that 70 percent of my interlocutors were out-and-out fascists. My boss was not all that astonished. “Only 70 percent? That’s not so bad,” he quipped. “What about the other 30 percent?” “Oh, the minority?”, I replied, “they were mere Nazis”. He was not amused, and my resignation was accepted without further questions.
But the receptionist hailed from good Labour party stock. I can still picture her father on May Day, 1955, leading a long procession alongside my dad, carrying the red flag. Next to the clinic, with the twin anthems, the Zionist Hatikva and the Socialist Internationale. We lived around the corner, in 17 King George St, and the red flag adorned our balcony, much to the chagrin of Menachem Begin’s nationalist followers, who regarded us as communists.
This childhood landscape is now contaminated by blood and hatred, and the sick fund receptionist spoke about the “absolute necessity” of driving all the Arabs, both the denizens of the Occupied Territories and the Israeli Palestinians, to the neighbouring Arab countries. “I have voted Labour all my life,” she said, “this is the way I was brought up. But now even Likud is too liberal for me. My husband and my children are the same. They’ve retained only one vestige of their Labour upbringing: they cheer Hapoel against the Likud team, Beitar, in derby matches.” She only said that as a gesture to our common past, or perhaps she detected the horror in my face when she talked about the Arabs with such intense hatred.
“I had come back the day before from a trip to Tel Aviv, where I signed a contract to write a potentially interesting and even lucrative book. Cultural undertakings always take place in the sensual and blatantly secular Tel Aviv. The big city was much warmer than Jerusalem, people there seemed relatively carefree, almost happy. Although it’s only a 50 minute journey by bus, the difference between the two cities is striking. Jerusalem, when I got back, was reeling after yet another suicide bombing. It was cold and foggy, and the main streets were almost deserted, apart from the soldiers, the road-blocks and the few gloomy citizens who dared to venture out. I experienced almost a physical sense of suffocation.
I still live some 100 yards away from my old home. My father’s old fortress in Histadrut St. the Jerusale Workers’ Council, has moved elsewhere, and the town centre is dominated by the ultra-orthodox. The tourists have vanished too, and many businesses in King George have closed down., The red flag has not been seen since 1984, and even then it was devoid of any class significance.” My beloved city is no more, only a mirage, a faint memory.