My last two posts had the quality of academic mini-lectures. I don’t want my readers to suspect that I have gone into the business (a growing one, judging by ads all over the place) of long-distance education, so this post will break the pattern. It is somewhere between an intuition and a meditation.
There were two photos in The Jerusalem Report of December 3 dealing with the move by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestine Authority to ask the United Nations General Assembly to accept Palestine as a non-state (and thus non-voting) member of that body. (The move has just been successful, with a great majority voting for acceptance.) The move was long expected and its outcome not surprising. What attracted wide attention before the vote was a statement by Abbas on Israeli television, in which he said that he would like to visit Safed, his home town now in Israel, but not to live there – because it lies within the 1967 borders of the Jewish state and must be Israeli “now and forever”. Rightly or wrongly, this was widely perceived as a retraction of the “right of return” of all Arab refugees that left (or in some cases were made to leave) in 1948 during the war in which the State of Israel was established (also, not so accidentally, after a declaration in the General Assembly). This “right of return” was perhaps named ironically to allude to the law of that name which makes any Jewish immigrant immediately eligible for Israeli citizenship. The Palestinian version of the law would give the right to an estimated number of five million Arabs (which includes the original refugees and their descendants) to settle anywhere in Israel, presumably with citizen rights. No small matter: It would cause a demographic revolution leading to Jews becoming a minority in their own state. Abbas’ statement led to a storm of Palestinian protests. Abbas quickly modified his statement, this time on Egyptian television, saying that “It is not possible for anyone to give up the right of return”. Obviously both statements by Abbas are capable of different interpretations.
But this is not the topic that concerns me here. Rather it is something seemingly more marginal: Two photos published by The Jerusalem Report with the Abbas story (subscription required). The photos show, respectively, a woman and a man holding up what the captions describe as “a symbolic key”. What it symbolizes is not explicated, but the context makes it clear: it is, precisely, the Palestinians’ “right of return”. The keys are large, evidently house keys or replicas of these. The allusion here is to an occurrence in the 1948 war: Many of the refugees took along the keys to the houses they abandoned in their flight, as an aid to remembering, but also as a token of their intention to return. Quite apart from the political reality that Israel will never agree to the mass return envisaged by the Palestinians, that intention is belied by the fact that many of the villages from which they fled no longer exist. There are no more Arabs there. The inhabitants are Jews. Even the Arabic names have disappeared from the map, replaced by Hebrew ones. Some years ago I read an English translation of a story by an Israeli author (I don’t remember which one, I think it was either Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua). It describes a Jewish boy in one of these ex-Arab villages, who tries to imagine the former inhabitants and who has the sense that they are still somehow present, haunting the places they used to call home.
Readers of this blog will have noticed that free association is something of an obsession with me. I see one thing, I think of another. The keys reminded me of something. At first I wasn’t sure of what, then I remembered: When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many of them took along into exile the keys to their houses. Andalusia in particular had been home to many Jews. For them it was the homeland for which they pined, in all the places where they had found refuge (many in countries under Muslim rule). They continued (to this day) to speak Ladino, the antique Spanish in which they created a literature that expresses nostalgia for the country after which they are still called “Sephardim” (Sepherad is Hebrew for Spain). Sephardic sensibility has been shaped by exile and the longing for a lost home. It is no accident that—of all places in Safed, Mahmoud Abbas’ home town—the mystical school of Isaac Luria, himself a Sephardic refugee, created a cosmology of exile in which even God exiles himself from the world.
The olive tree has been a symbol of Mediterranean countries, evoking both happiness and its loss. Federico Garcia Lorca, a man of Andalusia, ends his greatest poem, “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias”, with the line “I remember a sad breeze in the olive trees”. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) comes from a small village near Haifa to which he cannot return. He also mentions the olive tree in his best known poem “I Come From There”: “I come from there and I have memories….. Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words, and the bounty of birds. And the immortal olive tree…. I learnt all the words and broke them up to make a single word: Homeland.” In other poems Darwish rejects terrorism against Jews, and he recalls that three important characters in his life were Jews—his first girl friend, the man who taught him Hebrew, and the judge who at one point presided over his case.
The Austrian Jewish writer Friedrich Torberg (1908-1979) was himself an exile after the Anschluss (although he returned after the war and became an important literary figure in Austria). One of his novels, Suesskind von Trimberg, is based on a character, a Jewish Troubadour who really lived though very little is known about him. Undoubtedly Torberg identified with this figure. In the novel the statement is made that one is at home (the German word Heimat implies a country or a region) wherever one was as a child. It is where one first heard and spoke one’s original language—the “mother tongue”. I’m not sure that this is true for everyone—there are some people who come from terrible places that they only want to forget. But I think it is true for most of us. We were at home once, the memory of this is a fond one, and its loss is a great sorrow. This fact has no immediate political implications. But its evocation of a common humanity is not politically irrelevant.
[Image courtesy Shutterstock.]