In Defense of My Visit to Jerusalem

'In front of a landscape that awakened so much resonance in my memory, what I felt above all was the calm certainty of having done what I had to do,' says Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz Molina about his trip to the Holy City.

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I was sitting in the sun on the terrace at Mishkenot Sha’ananim on a February afternoon, and the towers of the Old City of Jerusalem, the rough vegetation of the hill, the foggy landscape behind it extending to the Dead Sea, gave me the precise feeling of being in Granada, looking at the Alhambra. A day or two earlier − it was difficult to calculate distances of time − I had been surprised, as I left the Tel Aviv airport for Jerusalem, by the green of a pasture that seemed much like the open and fertile landscapes of Baja Andalucia. And when the slopes and rocky hillsides began on the way up to Jerusalem, it was as if I were approaching Granada from Malaga or Seville.

The familiar quality of the landscape contrasted and accentuated the light dizziness of jet lag, the displacement of very long trips. I was in Jerusalem on an almost warm spring day, but I had left the winter of New York less than 48 hours earlier. I’d talk with my wife on Skype and through the computer screen she would show me the snow falling, slow and dense, from one of our apartment windows.

And when we would finish talking and I would check my e-mail or a Spanish newspaper, I would find other ramifications of my trip: Dozens of messages invaded my inbox, most of them congratulating me for the prize I had just received in Jerusalem, and a certain number of them, far fewer, insulting me or calling me an accomplice of Zionism and an enemy of the Palestinian cause, even suggesting that when I greeted President Peres, the hand that shook his would end up stained with blood.

Yet in those moments of tranquility on the terrace in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, in front of a landscape that awakened so much resonance in my memory, what I felt above all was a profound calmness, the calm certainty of having done what I had to do. It was not as if at any point I had considered the possibility of rejecting the prize or of not traveling to Jerusalem. But everything I had seen in the city since my arrival, each conversation I’d had, brief or long, with old friends or recent acquaintances, strengthened the conviction that was already very rooted in me before I visited Israel for the second time: that in spite of the misunderstandings, the stereotypes, the malice and opportunism of politics, the mistakes and abuse of an occupation that has lasted too many years, there is in Israel a society that is alive, democratic, pluralistic and open, in which I can recognize myself as a citizen and where there are many people very much like me.

Seen from inside Israel, this is something obvious, of course, almost insultingly obvious. Yet it isn’t for the many who are watching from the outside, or who seem to be watching but don’t want to see, or who only see what they want to see. If, as a Spaniard, I am so often offended by the stereotypes that abound regarding my country, how can I accept and repeat the ones that fall even more heavily upon Israel? Thus, in almost every interview, it was necessary, even if almost indecent, to repeat the reasons why I said no to the idea of rejecting the Jerusalem Prize, dedicating more time to that than to the unquestionable yes of a writer accepting and being grateful for a prize previously awarded to some of the masters he most admires in his profession.

About what other country does one have to explain, as if apologizing, that many of its people are decent, cultivated, supporters of secularism, of the rule of law, of equality between men and women, opposed to the dangerous mix of dual entrenchment that can come from nationalism and religion?

But as a Spanish citizen who spends much of his life in the United States, I have a certain amount of training explaining the obvious and, sometimes, in one of the interviews, I would have the thought that perhaps somebody would read it or listen to it and it would help them to let go of some prejudice, to receive some piece of information they hadn’t counted with before. I’m afraid I have an incurable urge for teaching.

I soon got used to expecting an objection. I would be speaking with a European journalist and would say that one of the reasons to accept the prize and come to Jerusalem was my conviction that in Israel many people are as supportive of a fair peace with Palestine and as critical of the settlements as any progressive European. Then, after nodding, my interlocutor would inform me: “But they are a constantly shrinking minority.”

So I was very glad when I had a response ready, by the second or third interview: So what if they are a minority? It gives me even more reason to stand by them. That is not something new for me, or for many people like me, and it is nothing disgraceful. In fact, I have spent a great deal of my life being part of minorities. Some of the people I admire the most in the world have had the courage to defend, against wind and tide, minority viewpoints in those frightening times when any disagreement with universal conformity is identified as treason. Those who opposed Franco’s dictatorship during my childhood and adolescence weren’t many. A few British suffragettes everybody laughed at started the cause of equality between men and women.

I recall the trip to Jerusalem, and it seems as if much more time has passed since everything happened, accentuating my regret that it had to be so brief. So many things, so many images, so many conversations in so few days, sometimes conversations of such passion and intellectual intensity they left me shaken, overwhelmed by the fervor to learn.

In the persistent winter of New York, I remember those moments in the sun, when I would sleepily start to close my eyes and it seemed as if I were looking at the hill below the Alhambra in Granada. And I remember going down the street, on a very short stroll, between one commitment and the next, and the man standing on a bus stop who approached me and extended his hand for me to shake, tightly grasping mine and looking into my eyes. He said, “Thanks for coming,” and I thanked him and I became even happier to have traveled to Jerusalem.

Antonio Munoz Molina is the internationally renowned author of “Winter in Lisbon” and “Sepharad,” and the recipient of the 2013 Jerusalem Prize at the recent Jerusalem International Book Fair.

This piece was translated from the Spanish by Martina Broner.

Antonio Munoz Molina at the Jerusalem International Book Fair.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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