Israelis, Take Heed: To Remember Is Not to Own

When I visited Saatz, not for a moment did I have the feeling that the place belongs to me or to my people because of the memories.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

When I arrived last week in the town where my father was born, in the Sudeten region of the Czech Republic, I shivered. When I saw the sign at the entrance to the town I even thought of getting out of the car and kissing the ground. The hours I spent later in the town, whose name accompanied my childhood as a dull echo, caused emotional turmoil. Suddenly I discovered that some of my roots are there, in the remote town in Bohemia, on the German border. Here my father was born and his personality was shaped.

After the article I published about my visit ("A stranger in an ancestral home," Haaretz, June 21 ) Prof. Shlomo Avineri sent me a nice poem he wrote the day after his visit to his home town in Silesia, the only poem he has ever written ("A Jewish Polish Boy" ). I think that we experienced a similar emotional roller coaster, although Avineri was born there and I was already born here, in Israel.

My connection to the stones in Saatz turned out to be far deeper and more meaningful than my connection to the stones in Hebron, Nablus or even the stones of the Western Wall. Although in 1967, when I first visited those places as a young boy, I was quite excited, at the time I was still a product of the heady and deceptive national religious orgy that swept up almost everyone at the time.

I soon discovered that my connection to those places is weak. The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Rachel's Tomb, and even the Western Wall are for me, and for many other secular Israelis, historical sites, or perhaps ritual sites, with which we have only a slight connection. Turning them into symbols of the Israeli occupation, with all its ugly manifestations, has made visits to them even more repugnant. How many Israelis have bothered over the years to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs or Rachel's Tomb, even when things were still quiet there? And how many secular Israelis bother to visit the Western Wall nowadays? A Czech town, which was formerly a German town, where my father was born and grew up, is far more meaningful to me today than the biblical cities where my forefathers were born and grew up, according to tradition. If there are any "holy" places at all, to me Saatz is holier than Bethlehem, the Sudeten region is holier than the Benjamin region.

Of course that is not the case for many other Israelis. For the national religious community, even the Casbah in Nablus is a holy place, as is the land of the caves in the south Hebron hills. They have a right to feel that way; nobody doubts the power and authenticity of their feelings. But what is the connection between the sanctity of the site in their eyes and sovereignty over it, between the sense of belonging based on distant historical memories, and ownership of it? There are many lovers of the land, both Palestinian and Israeli, there's no point in examining who loves it more. There are also many who sanctify it, both Jews and Muslims. But what is the connection between all that and the national and territorial conflict between Israel and Palestine?

When I visited Saatz, not for a moment did I have the feeling that the place belongs to me or to my people because of the memories. At most, I may have a certain right to the house that remained behind, just as the Palestinian refugee has a certain right to the house that remained behind. When tens of thousands of Bratslav Hasidim every year throng to the place that is sacred to them, the grave of Rabbi Nachman, nobody thinks of demanding sovereignty over Uman from the Ukrainian government. Holiness, memories, and even the Bible have no connection to political rights. Those rights must stem only from the principles of law and justice, not from the stories of the Bible or the Talmud.

Israelis have a right to their land of course, by dint of the sovereignty of a state that has been recognized by most of the countries in the world. Palestinians also have a right to the land of course, by dint of living in it for generations, and that too must be honored - in two states, or in one. For me Saatz is a realm of memories and roots, just as Beit El or Kiryat Arba is a realm for which a (small ) percentage of Israelis yearn. Those feelings must be set aside: They are unrelated to justice.

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