Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Reflections sparked by the sight of a war-torn city*

Imre Kertész



n the evening before last I saw the sunset from my balcony at the Renaissance Hotel in Jerusalem. The sky was dwarfed by the white hills across the distance. A light wind wafted in from the old town and suddenly broke the light and the approaching twilight was like a melancholic cease-fire—Camus’ The Stranger came to mind. But the bus from Haifa to Jerusalem flew in the air. The impact of the detonation swept the vehicle upward. Severed body parts flew through the air.

I’m trying not to order my muddled and scattered thoughts at the sight of the city at dusk. I came here with my wife to attend a conference, to which I never would have gone had it not taken place in Jerusalem. I don’t like fruitless conferences. Especially those that bear titles such as The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors: Moral and ethical Implications for Humanity. April 9th stood out in my planner for months. And although I acted as though I would seriously consider the urgent advice of my friends from Berlin and Budapest—most of them advised against it—in truth I stood under the spell of my original plans. We’ll fly back to Budapest from Berlin, I’ll vote at the elections there—giving a vote that is more than likely superfluous, and two days later we’ll leave for Jerusalem. The only question that really presents itself is whether or not I should travel alone. But my wife would hear nothing of that. Together or not at all. After some reflection it became clear to us that we have to fly there, just because afterwards we’d have to live with the thought that we were called and never went.

I Understood Why the Gods Were Born Here

Now I am here on the balcony on the seventh floor and am having the same difficulty judging what’s going on here as in Berlin or Budapest. I am not thinking of the local situation at this moment, but of the European reaction. It seems as though the anti-Semitism that was long behind bars, is bubbling up again as out of the recesses of the subconscious like a sulphurous outburst of lava. On the TV screen I see demonstrations against Israel in Jerusalem as elsewhere. I see synagogues set on fire in France as well as desecrated cemeteries. Only several hundred meters away from my Berlin domicile, in Tiergarten, two young American Jews were attacked and beaten up in the street. I saw the Portugese writer Saramago on TV, how he bent over a sheet of paper, compared Israel’s line against the Palestinians with Auschwitz—proof that the author did not have the slightest idea of the scandalous irrelevance of his comparison. Even worse, he did not know that the concept represented by the term Auschwitz has long had a fixed meaning in Europe’s cultural consensus and can be used indisputably in a populist way and for populist purposes.

I ask myself if one should not distinguish between an anti-Israel attitude and anti-Semitism. But is that possible? What is one to make of the fact that two continents away, in Argentina—where people have enough problems notwithstanding—it can come to anti-Israel demonstrations. Probably because, I think, that the over 2,000 year old perpetuating animosity toward Jews has solidified into a worldview. The object of hate is a people which is in no way ready to disappear from the face of the earth. I try to think clearly and honestly about this and to push aside every taboo clearly and sincerely and to speak out about this in my own voice. That young people blow themselves up in the air for sheer pleasure (in addition to this I read in the papers that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein pays their families 25,000 dollars for this) points to the fact that it is not only about whether or not the creation of a Palestinian state takes place. These suicide bombers all prove to be fundamental losers. Their actions express a bitterness that do not allow themselves be explained by nationalist feelings alone.

During a previous trip to Jerusalem, in its subtle light in its golden-hued evenings among these picturesque hills inhabited by olive trees, I understood why the gods were born here in this very place. Now I need to understand why they are being slaughtered like bloody human sacrifices with self-exhibitory readiness. I admit that I don’t understand it at all and I don’t like to believe that this is only a political question and that I am simply a victim of manipulation. Yet, while millions fall victim to this manipulation, the character of this manipulation changes. It becomes internalized. Many people start to believe all of a sudden in all seriousness that their madness is not attributed to outside powers, but that it bursts out of their own souls and out the torments of their souls. And then the irreparable evil sets in.

I openly admit it: the first time I saw the tanks roll into Ramallah, a spontaneous and uncontrollable thought came over me: my God, how fortunate that I’m seeing the Star of David on Israeli tanks and not on my chest as in 1944. I am not uninhibited and couldn’t be so even if I wanted to. Never have I played the role of the impartial hangman. I leave that to those Europeans—and non-European—intellectuals, who play this game so brilliantly and often damagingly. After so much authentic and false solidarity a new leaf has been turned over: the bureaucrats have turned against Israel with a harsh face. In certain questions they might even be right, except for the fact that they still have never redeemed a bus ticket from Haifa to Jerusalem.

The Cool Judgment of European Bureaucrats

Here in Israel, metaphorically speaking, everyone carries this ticket in his or her pocket. And this fact slowly brings everyone to sober understanding. The cool judgment of European bureaucrats is experienced here as a burning existential question. A friend captured this inner turmoil most succinctly when she told us at Yad Vashem, this horrible cemetery for those murdered in the Holocaust: “first we go to an anti-war demonstration with our families and then we enlist in the army.”

I have—at least here, at this conference—met no Israeli intellectual who doubts the importance of a Palestinian state. “The Israeli settlements there must end,” said a leading historian from Yad Vashem, “this will lead to a mini civil war but one we must fight.”  The isolation, the lack of solidarity generates psychical pain. It is not possible to endure terrorism without acting and impossible to respond to terrorism without terrorism. A torturous predicament, agonizing questions with which everyone is alone in coping. “One locks us in a moral ghetto” says my friend, the writer, Aharon Appelfeld. By glancing around here, I see fear, helplessness and determination. Just as David Grossmann describes it in his dramatic contribution in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: today’s Israel is like a clenched fist but also like a hand that falls as if weakened by desperation.” The city is like a ghost town. The cab drivers circle around the hotels like avid hawks. As soon as one steps out of the door they land on him or her. Mostly in vain since there is hardly anyone else here other than those who conducted official business and is waiting to picked up officially. We have breakfast in our hotel, in a half empty room. The tourists stay away, even the usual business people—the gentlemen donned in ties, the ones who read the newspapers with their coffee.

I almost forgot that I also came here for a conference and have to present the text I prepared. “When I say that I am a Jewish writer I am not saying that I myself am a Jew,” I read. “For what kind of a Jew is somebody who never received a Jewish upbringing, does not speak Hebrew, barely knows the sources of Jewish culture and does not live in Israel, but in Europe? Someone who derives his primary Jewish identity perhaps exclusively from Auschwitz, in a certain sense, should not be called a Jew. He is the  ‘non-Jewish Jew,’ of whom Isaac Deutscher speaks, the uprooted European variety who barely find an personal connection their imposed Jewishness.”

I am almost ashamed to read these lines. I am almost ashamed to lay my existential conditions bare and the subtle problems of uprooted Jewish intellectuals and their homelessness. At once I see through the unbearable irony of my role: as a survivor of the Shoah I hold a lecture on Israeli soil, an Israel at war, and explain basically why I cannot demonstrate my solidarity with a people to whom I do not belong. My solidarity in any case consisted in the fact that I dared to board a plane to Tel Aviv. I am a visitor who collects useless impressions, and continues in vain to pose questions to people he will never understand because he did not share the burden of those to whom he actually belongs.

I’ve never felt as decisively about this. Now I am filled with compassion, involvement and anguish, and it is if I were still a stranger here. Not a single Israeli neglected to thank us for coming here. This is how almost every conversation ends and my strangeness emerges even more prominently from this. I ponder why this is so and as I look more closely at the faces at the automobiles decorated with flags and this difficult to define, excited and yet closed atmosphere that dominates the city, and suddenly become aware of the change that this country has been through. The French historian Ernest Renan maintains that neither race nor language define a nation: the people supposedly feel it in their hearts that they are connected to one another through thinking, feeling, memories and hopes. This country which, was until recently for its founding fathers, its European survivors, the shelter seeking, militant Zionists, rigorous soldiers, mild musicians, for northern White and African, Arab and Levitananthian Jews of many colors, the most diverse cultures and the most diverse people an incoherent land has shaped itself now in the course of this desperate and inexorable war into a nation. I don’t know whether one should be pleased about it or curse the fact that the time of nations is now nearing its end. But it’s a fact and it no longer admits approaches with certain reservations, characterized by smiling sympathy, sometimes with superior irony nor the ambulatory behavior with which European and American Jews attempted to get closer to Israel. It is a peculiar transformation and this transformation will—at least in Jewish-Jewish relations—have its effects undoubtedly.

I would serve this best by not seeking after the truth but seeking after the so-called objective truth. And “if the “truth” is not one that is valid for all times, but one that is mutable, the more deep, conscientious and sensitive the care of the intellectual for it must be. His or her attentiveness to the stirrings of the world spirit, to the changes of the representation of truth,” as Thomas Mann formulated it in the critical years of Europe are crucial. It is perhaps precisely because it is so mutable that the “truth” is presently so visible in the foreground and incessantly demands a current definition. The wars of our epoch are, in perhaps never before seen proportions, always morally tinted wars. In our modern—or post modern—world the boundaries don’t run so much  between nations, ethnicities or confessions as much as they do between world views and world dispositions between reason and fanaticism, tolerance and hysteria, creativity and destructive thirsts for power. In our secular world epochs biblical wars take place, wars between “good” and “evil.” In this secular age of ours, biblical wars are taking place—wars between “good” and “evil.” Even these notions need to be put in quotation marks because we simply do not know what is “good” and what is “bad.” Our notions of these values are too diverse, to divergent and will remain debatable as long as a fixed system of values of a collectively structured and collectively supported culture does not emerge.

This is only a utopia, particularly here in the Near East. I continue to brood over how active and energetic young people decide to commit suicidal acts of terror? Their acts make clear the value they ascribe to the lives of others. But how do they measure the value of their own lives? A friend explains to us that they are told that “over there” in the harem on the other side 72 virgins would be awaiting them and would pamper them there. And what does one tell the women, I asked. Our friend shrugs his shoulders laughingly. I have always perceived hatred as energy. Energy is blind, but paradoxically its source is the same vitality that nourishes the creative forces. The European civilization to which the people here still and in spite of everything refer, holds the perfection of human life as a most noble value. Fanaticism holds the exact opposite of this. On what basis can humanity and trust be engendered here? Meanwhile fear and hatred predominate. “Words like peace, reconciliation, coexistence ring like the last signs of life from a ship that has already sunk” writes David Grossmann.

In this region darkness comes down suddenly. On the streets below, beneath my balcony the lamps fire up. Cars race down streets fading in the distance—down streets that take to orange groves and universities, to well built cities and well situated fields. Many have told of how they came here after the Shoah in the hope of finding peace and security. This land was built with hard work. Its residents had to defend it in difficult struggles while its right to exist was questioned in neighborhoods near and far. When this doubt—coupled with the feeling of abandonment also plants its roots in this place, then it can fall in deepest despair. At present, at least in my experience, the vitality of this country makes self reflection still possible: if of course not the resistance to terrorism, then the type of defense, the fruitless campaign for revenge that is passionately criticized by the majority of intellectuals in the country. But if the world’s hostile indifference really leaves this country to despair, it opens the road to catastrophe; and in this world filled with hatred, fanatical paranoia and powerlessness the catastrophes will not only apply to the Near East.

I have Not Been Properly Understood,
Perhaps This Is Really the Case

it is with a heavy heart that I leave the balcony and the view of Jerusalem at night. We are leaving tomorrow morning and I’m taking a special gift from here with me. Nation, homeland, the feeling of being at home—these were inadequate concepts for me up until now. The harmony of the citizen, who identifies unconditionally with his homeland, his nation is unimaginable for me. My fate brought with it that I would I live in a self-chosen and accepted minority situation and if I wanted to define this minority situation even further, I would use no racial, ethnic and also no confessional or philological concepts. I would define the accepted minority situation as an intellectual life form, which is based on experience of the negative. It is true, the experience of the negative was bestowed upon me by my Jewishness. I could also say that I was initiated into the universe of negative experience through my Jewishness; because everything I had to experience because of my Jewish abstraction I view as an initiation, an official opening into the deepest knowledge of the human being and his or her contemporary situation. And because of the fact that I have experienced my Jewishness as a negative experience in a radical sense, in the end it led me to my liberation. It is the only freedom that I, during my life spent under various dictatorships, have conquered and which I guard up until this day, precisely for this reason. Now, during my sojourn in Jerusalem the earnest and uplifting feeling of national responsibility has touched me for the first time. And if I should become aware of the fact that I don’t know what to do with this feeling because my life was decided long ago, it has moved me deeply nevertheless.

Stirred by this feeling, I board the plane to Budapest. The security officer, a young lady, thanks us, after posing the mandatory questions and inspected our luggage, for coming here, “to us, in Israel.” This thank you is like a meager discharge from further duties, and I see that it hurts my wife as much as it does me, who is not bound to this country through blood ties, or through religion, but is tied to it only through love.

Happily, our plane lands in Budapest. As I exit I cannot refrain from saying “God save Israel!” to the service personnel at the door. But I probably pronouncd the words wrongly or omitted one. In any case, I heard foreign questions behind me: “What did he say?” Before I can turn around I am pushed farther out to the outside. 

I have not been understood. Maybe it’s better this way. I exit the plane and step on Hungarian soil.


* This article initially appeared in Die Zeit and was translated into German from the Hungarian by Laszlo Kornitzer and then translated into English from the German by Elena Mancini.