Tag Archives: Israel

For the Joy of Reading: The Mandelbaum Gate

There is a problem in reading this book some 53 years after it was published.   There have been events.   History has moved on.   Back then, Israel still benefitted from the wave of sympathy generated by the Holocaust.   That is no longer the case.   It ceased being the case during the 1970s, as Israel behaved with increasing brutality.   It ceased being the case with the massacres at Sabra and Chatila.   It ceased being the case during the Intifada.

But back in 1965, Israel was still regarded as a victim.   Certainly, the survivors of the Holocaust had been victims as was proved conclusively at the Eichmann Trial which is the event that gives this book its connection to history.   But I, at least, cannot re-read this book without the knowledge of hindsight.   That is part of the problem.

The other is a problem that I hope that I had at the time.   The central characters re not very likeable.   Freddy, in the unlikely circumstances that he was still alive today, would probably be a Faragista.   His view of the Common Market is summed up in one phrase: What is the point in living so close to foreigners, if we are going to allow them to put us out of business?   This comes from someone who has not done a stroke of productive work in his life.   Freddy also has a domineering mother in Harrogate who manages to interfere in his life although he is over a thousand miles away.   Barbara is the Muriel Spark figure.   She is a half-Jewish Catholic convert seeking permission from the Vatican to marry Harry Clegg, a divorced archaeologist, working on the Dead Sea Scrolls.   Her friend, Ricky, Miss Rickward, is seeking to thwart her in this for purely selfish reasons (he is working class and therefore below Barbara).   Then there are the Gardnors, Rupert and Ruth.   Rupert is a colleague of Freddy in the diplomatic service in Israel and Ruth is his virulently anti-Semitic wife.   Basically, what we have is a group of upper middle-class Englishmen and women, brought up before the war and appalled by the Welfare State.    They make Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells look moderate.

What is surprising about a book set in Israel is that there are only two Israelis – Saul Ephraim and Mendel – in the book, and neither of them are really significant characters.   There are also Barbara’s fully Jewish relatives, the Aaronsons, but they are only there to establish that she is half-Jewish and therefore in danger if she goes to Jordan as a pilgrim, which of course, in her arrogance, she does.

There are considerably more Palestinians in the book – the Ramdez family, Alexandros and others.   There are also a number of priests and nuns, who make what can only be described as cameo appearances.

So, what is the book about?   It is about Barbara and her wish to visit the Christian shrines of the Holy Land, regardless of which side of the border they are on and regardless of the difficulties that this will cause because she is Jewish on her mother’s side.   The relationship between Israel and the Kingdom of Transjordan (now Jordan) was one of undeclared war.   The British, having suffered the ignominy of Suez, were paranoid about President Nasser and Egypt.   So Barbara disguising herself in a hijab and crossing the border at the Mandelbaum Gate causes a great deal of trouble to Freddy and his upper-crust colleagues.

This is also a spy story, but more in the John Le Carre than the Ian Fleming mould.   Various people are involved in various nefarious activities and it all begins to unfold because of Barbara and because Freddy tries to help her.   You expect someone to come to a sticky end, but it is not who you think nor where you expect it to happen.

This is a novel of its time.   It does not really deal with the Israel-Palestine situation, neither as it was then nor how it may have developed.   It is more about the British negotiating their way around the crafty natives   It is like George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” or Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”

It is also an astonishing tour de force.

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For the Joy of Reading: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

This is Philip Pullman’s attempt to come to grips with the contradictions in the Gospels, and to explain how they came about through the writing of a novel.    I am not sure that it works.   It begins with a literary device.   Jesus had a twin who is not named, but is given the nickname of Christ throughout the book.   Christ is the doting brother of Jesus, always keeping in the background, in order not to detract from his brother’s fame.   Christ is encouraged by  stranger to keep a record of his brother’s sayings and doings and, in the process, he hones what is said and done to improve them, and to make them more memorable.

Now there are problems with this, which, to my mind, mean that it does not work.   If there was one Ur-Gospel, on which the others are based, why are stories in one gospel but not in the rest.   The story of the Good Samaritan only appears in Luke.   The story that introduces about the man asking Which is the greatest commandment?” appears in both Matthew and Luke, but in Matthew he does not seek to justify himself by asking “And who is my neighbour”.   It could be that the other gospel authors, being Jewish, did not want to record a story giving credit to a Samaritan, but it is a really good story and Pullman pays a great deal of attention to it.   But he does not mention, in his afterward, that it only appears in Luke and that Matthew does not mention it.   Also the stories of the Annunciation and the Presentation in the Temple only appear in Luke, but if Mary was living with John, as he writes, after the Crucifixion why did John not write about the Archangel and the Shepherds?   Why does Luke include the story of Simeon and Anna, when Matthew implies that Mary and Joseph fled more or less immediately from Bethlehem to Egypt?

Of course, the twin is merely a literary device but it does not explain a whole series of the contradictions that are unquestionably there.   Or at least, it does not do so for me.   That does not mean that it will not work for you.   My other problem is the Stranger, who appears throughout the book, persuading Christ to change the words so that the vision can be achieved.   In his afterword, Pullman suggests that this could be the Devil.   To me, it sounds much more like Philip Pullman himself, attempting to explain how the Catholic Church emerged from the preachings of a Jewish sage in first century Palestine.   Interestingly, Pullman does not appear to have any interest in how the Orthodox churches emerged, but then he is a westerner.

So what do I think happened?   Why do I think that these stories appear in some gospels and not in others?   Why do I think that there are contradictions and omissions?   Why do I think that they are not consistent?   I think that it is simple.   The Gospels were written by people trying to remember what happened when they were young men.   That is not always easy.   You do not remember every detail.   I know.   I am trying to write a memoir of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and I have my diaries and records to consult.   I suspect that the Gospel writers did not have the luxury of having resources, other than their memories and those of their friends, to consult.   This is enough for me to explain the discrepancies in the stories.

None of this means that Pullman’s story is not interesting, even beguiling.   It is certainly fun to read.   I think that you will learn more about Philip Pullman than you will about the Gospels.   For students of “His Dark Materials” in years to come this will be a seminal text.

For the Joy of Reading: Judas

The title suggests what the subject matter is going to be.   So the first line that tells you that the story is set in the winter of 1959 takes you by the surprise.   Shmuel Ash is writing his thesis on Jewish attitudes to Jesus, and he has come to a dead end.   He does not understand the relationship between Jesus and Judas, although he recognises that without Judas’ betrayal there would be no story to discuss.   His problem is that Jewish writers from the first two centuries of the common era who mention Jesus say nothing about Judas, and that this tradition then continues throughout the ages.

Shmuel tries to resolve his academic problems by withdrawing from writing his thesis and taking a job looking after Gershom Wald, an invalid in a strange house in old Jerusalem.   Shmuel is hired by the old man’s daughter-in-law, Atalia, and for his board and lodging all he has to do if converse with the old man and to make sure that he takes his pills and eats the food prepared or him by a neighbour.

[I did wonder if there was any significance in Atalia being named after the Biblical Queen who murdered her way to the throne of Judah, and who was herself the victim of a murderous coup.   There is however no reference to this Queen in the story.   This does not mean that a literate Israeli audience is not expected to pick up this resonance, especially as Atalia is a private detective who spies on people.]

Gershom Wald is a combative, argumentative old man who does not have the strength in his legs to enable him to look after himself.   Atalia is a very private and very attractive woman who only wants transient relations with men.   This is because her husband and Gershom’s son was brutally murdered in one of the clashes of the 1948 war.   It is also because her father, Shealtiel Abravanel, was opposed to Ben Gurion’s vision for the creation of a Zionist state.   Oz must have chosen the name Abravanel for his fictional characters because it is an extremely distinguished name in the Sephardic Jewish community.   It helps to make his point that there was an alternative to the aggressive nationalisms that arose in nineteenth century eastern Europe, of which Zionism was one.

Shmuel’s view of Judas is that he was the first Christian.   This Judas did not see Gethsemane as a betrayal because he believed that Christ would come down from the cross and confound his enemies.   When this did not happen, Judas’ belief was shattered, his faith destroyed, his life made worthless.   Similarly, Abravanel is presented in the book as someone who was a leading figure in Zionism, but who came to believe that there were other ways to create a Jewish homeland than the creation of a state.   He is forced to resign from the governing bodies of Zionism and puts himself in internal exile, a sort of solitary confinement in his own house.   Atalia and Gershom move into the house, following the butchering of her husband.

This is a book about the nature of betrayal, about the relationship between Jews and Christianity, and it all goes back to Judas and the argument that he is the archetypal Jew in Christian theology, and that he is the root cause of anti-semitism.   I think that this overlooks the anti-semitism that was rife in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds.   It also overlooks the fact that the two most anti-Jewish of the Gospels are those written by Matthew and John, both of whom were Jewish.   It is, however, an argument that needs to be examined.

The betrayal at the heart of this story, however, is characterised by Shealtiel Abravanel.   Has he betrayed the Zionist ideal by his rejection of the State of Israel?   There will be those who give the kneejerk response of saying that of course he has.   There will be those who excoriate Amos Oz for suggesting that the opposite is possible.   I am not sure from this story where Oz’ loyalties lie, and that I think is the point.   The author is not telling us what to think, he is challenging us to think.   Some people will find that seriously disturbing.

I would urge you to read this book, and to think very seriously about the possibilities that are laid out before us.   It may be essential to the peace of the world to understand what the author is trying to get us to understand.