When Sam was younger, he wanted to write the great Zionist novel. It was a high calling, he’d been called, and everything else was irrelevant. But first he had to check his email.
No one—neither Jew nor Gentile—had written, and it was back to work.
What would be in the Zionist novel? Zionists, for one. Brawny, darkskinned men with heavy forearms; tall, Moroccan Jews, with big teeth; Russians. Citrus fruits would be in the novel, and wary, skeptical Arabs, and sunsets like you would never see, if you were not so far from home.
Guilt: though this would not be in the novel, it would hang over its writing like the broken shadow of the Temple Wall. And guilt not for past sins, either: he had enough of those, certainly, but they failed to gnaw at him. Instead he was repentant for, he felt an intolerable anticipatory guilt in light of, the possibility of future sins. He was capable of great evil, and though he had never actually committed this evil, except with regard, occasionally, to women, the very likelihood of his iniquity propelled him into an overbearing virtue. He was perpetually making amends for things he might have considered doing: abandoning Israel was one of those things.
Samuel Mitnick had to write the great Zionist novel—he had to conjure an entire Zionist epic—to make up for his possible future indifference to the fate of his people. Who knows how far in the future this indifference would manifest itself? He would have to be quick about it.
Then again, he would have to be not-quick about it, he would have to be agonizingly, tortuously extended about it, to purge himself of the impulse, oft-expressed, to be quick about it.
But first, the quest. The quest for quotes. He had to see the right people, trick them into saying the right things. Or, from their point of view, the wrong things. He considered pitching all this to Rolling Stone.
He began with Lomaski, the bad Jew, the race traitor, the author of an extended anti-Zionist epic in which the crimes of Israel since 1948 were placed on an enormous chart, the chart running to 845 pages of crimes, more crimes, crimes upon crimes, compounded by crimes. A Chart for a Charter, it was called, referring to the UN Charter, which in Article 80 rubber-stamped the British policy then barreling toward a partition of Palestine into two deeply unviable states, one Arab, the other Jewish.
Lomaski during his office hours was sweaty, skinny, ill-preserved, drinking tea upon tea so that his teeth seemed to yellow while Sam watched. He was originally a seismologist who’d made a few groundbreaking discoveries in his late twenties before moving on to the comparatively glorious task of protesting American involvement in Vietnam, and then the significantly less glorious task of protesting its involvement everywhere else. Throughout the seventies he had slipped slowly from the pages of prestigious magazines, like a thwarted slug sliding down the bathroom wall in the Mitnicks’ Cape Cod home, until disappearing entirely into the floorboards in the wake of Chart. Regarding this malodorous coincidence one commentator remarked that attacking Israel was a poor career move “for those seeking to pursue the contemplative life.” It was already widely believed, when Sam came to visit, that Lomaski had gone mad, observing the humans from underfoot, and indeed, like a madman, he answered Sam’s questions with an air of great amusement, as if Sam too would share a good laugh with him at the other side’s expense. Perhaps Sam had not been sufficiently clear on the phone: he was the other side.
“Israel says: ‘We are making peace,’ ” Lomaski began, sotto voce. “ ‘Look at us, we are signing treaties, secret treaties, open treaties, and we are a textual people, the People of the Book, we do not sign lightly, these secret treaties, these open treaties.’
“Meanwhile, settlements are being built, contingency plans—also textual, but with pictures, you understand, of Apache helicopters—drawn up, settlements augmented whose express purpose is to render geographically unthinkable the possibility of a Palestinian state.
“Ergo,” up-summed Lomaski,“we have something of a logical puzzle: on the one hand peace treaties, on the other hand settlements. Or is it a puzzle? Is it strange and inexplicable that the prime minister of a country will claim to want peace, will have been elected to want peace, and even let’s say will actually want peace, but will nonetheless continue this aggression? Maybe it is a contradiction that boggles the rational mind, a bug in the eye of Mother Reason. On the other hand, what if you think it’s your right to give peace, as well as to build? What if you think, in a vaguely theological way, that whatever happens within the auspices of your military dominion is part of your general plan? Then there’s no logical contradiction. It makes perfect sense.
“The fact is,” Lomaski concluded,“ there almost never is a logical contradiction, given certain premises. You just have to find the premises.”
“I do?” Sam asked. “I have to find them?” He thought this man, in his little lair, might be giving him life-advice. He smiled politely.
“No,” said Lomaski. “One has to find them. We all do. Of course,” he added, reflectively, “I already have.”
He walked out into the Cambridge midday. The geniuses were at work—or the genii, as Orwell called them. He walked for a while along the river as the cars sped past him on Memorial Drive. Across the way, a few gold cupolas sparkled on Beacon Hill. Perhaps if he wrote an epic, if he were paid for his epic, he and Yasha could buy an apartment there. A one-state solution, he sometimes thought, a Jewish-Arab democracy, was the only way. Owning an apartment would also be nice.
He wanted to write the great Zionist epic, full of Jewish women, aye, with their breasts and hair, and their shoulders, and stomachs, their throats.
His friends said to him:“ You cannot write this, you are not the man.”
“Who is the man, then, if not me? Point him out.”
“Well,” they said,“ Leon Uris has already written a Zionist epic.”
“He has already written a Zionist nothing!”
Uris is a hack, a propagandist, a cheap sentimentalist. A functionary of literature, a bureaucrat of fiction. Uris is a symptom—he should be studied by sociologists. He is a stain, a joke, a laughing stock, a cry for help. He should be studied by social workers.
Sam pooh-poohed Uris. Pooh-poohed? Sam shat on Uris. He befouled and besmirched. He spat into the air so that the spittle landed back on his face, he played clever word games with the name. Leon Uris. Sol Urine. Un Loser, I. No Ur Lies!
“Uris is a figment, a misunderstanding. A Zionist Fadeev. He would have written copy for Coca-Cola if they’d asked him to. Coca- Cola? IG Farben! A rear guard. A rear.” Sam coughed.
They told him the Zionist epic was already underway.
“Every day that Israel thrives, that it exists, this is another chapter,” his Israeli girlfriend, Yasha, told him. “There are over nineteen thousand chapters. It is a long book.”
“Yasha, darling, you don’t understand publishing,” Sam explained. “New York is not Haifa. Such a book will never attract readers.”
“It’s already found six million readers. They read it every day they live there. It is a very popular book.”
“You are giving me a headache, with your metaphors.”
Yasha stood up. She said: “Have you seen my green bracelet?”
“I need it.”
“Okay.” He found the bracelet, momentarily distended, behind the water pitcher in the kitchen.
“You do not love the land enough,” Yasha said from the doorway, her green bracelet sparkling on her wrist. “You are not enough of a Zionist to write a Zionist epic.”
“Besides which, Sam,” she called from downstairs on her cell phone, “you can’t even read Hebrew.”
“I know,” he said. “I feel terrible.”
His parents had been radical secularists, followers of Lomaski, who’d neglected his religious and spiritual training. When he finally got around to Hebrew, the letters looked like Tetris pieces. They piled against one another as if asking for someone to collect them into the least possible space, to fit their protrusions into their cavities. He was happy to do this, of course, but it was not reading.
His ex-girlfriend Arielle was more generous. “Really?” she said when he told her. “That’s ambitious.”
Sam was a patron of highly expressive, italicized women.
But then, Arielle was his ex-girlfriend. She inspired complicated emotions in a way his current girlfriend did not. Yasha was perhaps better classified as his fiancée. They practically lived together, though they kept separate apartments, and they had merged their wardrobes if not yet their libraries. They did not say to each other, in the course of a day, fifty words. Yasha was a strategic, a territorial problem: where would he be when she was at Spot A; did he need to withdraw cash, or was Yasha’s current liquidity sufficient? Where was her silver hairclip? Yasha had weaknesses, aspirations, well-mapped idiosyncrasies. He would, perhaps, spend the rest of his life with her; that is, if he played his cards correctly, and she also played correctly; there were complications, corrections, concessions. Parents were involved.
But Arielle, his former girlfriend, was an existential question, an event of the heart. What was that feeling he experienced, when he heard her voice? And was it wrong to see her? She was a separate woman being, whose fate and finances had diverged from his, whose problems were her own to resolve. Yet she had called him, after months of not-speaking, with accusations and recriminations.
“I cannot believe I ever loved anyone,” he listened to her say, “who was so cruel.”
“Everything you ever told me,” she announced, “was a lie. It was a line.”
She repeated some of them now. They were pretty good lines.
“Where are you?” Sam asked, for there was an echoing on the other end.
He drove up the next afternoon. She had committed herself, she said, after experiencing panic, inexplicable and sudden, several times on the street. It took the form of a conviction that the sidewalks would tilt while she was walking and dump her into the rush of traffic, to be mangled. Her health insurance was paying in full.
During the drive he considered casting his epic in the form of a dialogue-interview with the State of Israel.
Q: When did you first think you would become independent?
STATE OF ISRAEL: There was the Balfour Declaration, of course, and the Compromise on the Mandate. But I didn’t consider myself a state—and what independence can there be, Sam, if you’re not a state?—until we took back the Temple Mount in ’67. That was something.
The sanitarium itself was charming, a group of cabins in the woods, a place for overworked urbanites to feel pleasantly melancholic. A slackertarium. Its chief promise, its chief premise, was a regimen of well-regulated sleep.
Pulling in to the visitors’ lot, the sharp angle of his space a neat contrast to the imminent clumsiness of his self-introduction to the receptionist, he wondered why he was still in the clutches, still within acceptable phone range, of a girl, a woman now, with whom he’d broken up five years before. Forgetting, according to Nietzsche, was strength, and they lived in a country where amnesia was peddled like corn futures. Even the Israelis were becoming forgetful. It was the Palestinians who seemed to remember everything—the Palestinians and Sam. And now Arielle. Perhaps she’d begun to do excavation work in her mind when a big undigested clump had emerged, like a baby, looking just like him. Thus are we called to other people’s sides. He wondered what he was doing here. Then he wondered what he was doing anywhere, why the mantra of his rebellious teen years, “next year in Jerusalem,” had extended so far into his twenties, and that settled the matter. For from a certain point of view, as Lomaski might have it, all places not Jerusalem are exactly the same, and from that same certain point of view, perhaps, nothing you do in them matters.
They had dinner at a small, upscale inn down the road. The place was straight out of the West Village (the new West Village), it catered to the sanitarium’s clientele, and therefore Sam was confident that the beautiful young waitress would be able to distinguish the civilian Sam from his crazy ex-girlfriend; nonetheless, he couldn’t help producing a series of gestures throughout dinner to indicate his companion’s dubious state of mental health, with the unhappy result that the waitress avoided his side of the table entirely.
“They call it psychodrama?” Arielle was telling him about her therapy. “You beat on a pillow or like a padded tube and pretend that it’s your father or your sister or whoever fucked you up.”
“Or me?” Sam guessed.
“Yes! I’ve been beating you up in absentia for two weeks now. And then I figured, why not get the man himself up here?” She smiled—a little tired she was, but straight-toothed and beautiful. As promised, over scallops, she maligned his past behavior. The time he left her in the car was pretty bad, he admitted, and he had kissed Melissa Sonnenfeld at that New Year’s party, and of course there were a number of incidents she didn’t even know about, but for the most part, if Sam were to give a general summary, he just hadn’t returned enough phone calls. They grew bored of it, finally, and that’s when he told her about the Zionist epic.
“Wow,” she said. “But what about all the other things you wanted to do? Teaching? And organizing? Is this really what you want to be doing?”
To recap thus far:
• Current girlfriend: Where did you put the red umbrella?
• Former girlfriend: Who are you now? Whoever you are, are you happy?
Was he a small-souled coward, not simply to have two girlfriends?
“It just seems,” she was saying, “so…endless. There would seem to be so many more transient pleasures.”
Temptress! Her hair was back in a ponytail, and she wore faded blue jeans and a long wool sweater, the official uniform of the mildly insane. Even in her breakdown she was perfectly conventional, a lifetime of television compressed into a few perfect gestures, and nothing could have been more devastating for a man whose life was as strange and unlikely as Sam’s, who had so badly lost his way among the many desires he was supposed to desire. He loved conventional women, he loved Arielle, he loved that she knew he hated the word pleasure and used it to tease him and remind him that she knew. The waitress came over to refresh their wine glasses, describing as she did so a careful arc around Sam, and, amazingly, he did not care. Would this have been the joy—what was the line?—he’d enjoy every day of his life?
“What pleasure?” he gasped. “The epic will be my martyrdom.”
She smiled again, as if she might just ruffle his hair. “That’s what you’ve always wanted, right? A place to lay your head so it can be chopped off?”
And with this the nostalgic wheels began to turn again, old facts remembered, a few perfunctory recriminations hurled. They laughed and drank. Part of it was that Sam had a certain relation to time, perhaps even a theory of history—he did not believe, theoretically or functionally, in deadlines, or dates. For the author of a Zionist epic this was not without its problems; for a man, an ex-boyfriend, it was disastrous. His relationships and then his breakups were characterized by backsliding, second thoughts. He kept in touch with old girlfriends, former teachers, anyone whose email address he’d figured out. Perhaps he was a creature of the dialectic, a left Hegelian—he’d have to find out what that meant. As it was, he and Arielle drifted along parallel lines, in a non-Euclidean space that allowed them, occasionally, to come close enough that their lips grazed against one another, their hands intertwined, and their tenderness settled on them with a pleasant buzz—to depart shortly thereafter, their inner beings only slightly unsettled. This was apparently such another time, for at the end of the evening they went back to her cabin and slept together.
On the drive home, Sam wondered whether Hollywood would go for it.
Come on! he chided himself. That’s all Hollywood does anymore, is epics. Scottish epic, ship-sinking epic, Roman gladiator epic, you got an epic these people will give you tens of millions of dollars and a special-effects guy with an iMac. Zionism might make the dog-walkers of Riverside Drive a little nervous, but this ain’t them. The Right of Return? Geffen and Katzenberg are liable to change the name to Roll On into Jordan, Roll.
Now he imagined the smoky back rooms, the musty chess sets. Sam was not, he should admit, as skeptical of the as most. Instead, he was hopeful. For it was abundantly clear to Sam that such back rooms existed, that decisions were reached in them, that democracy was an amiable lie. If the back rooms were populated by Zionist elders rather than fat-faced Texas oilionaires, this would have been an immense relief.
So he pictured arriving there, after a series of confidential nods from the enormous Karaite security guards, sitting down at the table and producing, in three short words, the pitch the elders had been waiting for, lo these many years: “It’ll be,” Sam imagined saying to them, “a Jewish Braveheart.”
The elders smiled, they smiled and then they roared and coughed. “I like this kid,” they said and cried, spitting. “This kid I like!”
Sam banged the heel of his hand against the steering wheel. He flung back his head and whooped with joy into the empty car. The empty car whooped back. He had a hole the size of a salad dish in his muffler.
Strangely—was he growing older?—the encounter with Arielle had misaligned his soul more than usual, and he slept at his bare home for the next week, pleading tiredness and overwork to Yasha and generally exercising caution in his physical movements. He wondered whether he had done right. Was it a trial of some sort, and had he failed? Was it part of the Zionist epic? Who knew? Not Sam. He knew so very little. He had forebodings and predictions, to be sure, and these often found, with an adjustment for spiritual inflation (conquests depreciating, losses ceasing to register), factual confirmation in the future. He knew what was going to happen with Arielle, for example, and he knew that he would eventually tell Yasha, and what would happen then. He knew that the landlord would add 150 dollars to his rent in the fall without fixing the drip that was ruining his bedroom floor, and he knew that eventually one of the companies or schools for which he now performed part-time work would offer him a permanent place, and that eventually he would accept. And he knew as well that he was a child compared to these various forces, and would not have the tenacity to reckon with them—not because he lacked courage, really, but because he hadn’t the certainty of his right. He did live near the border with Cambridge—perhaps his studio, at 850 dollars, was underpriced? He just wasn’t quite sure, Sam was never quite sure, that he was doing as he ought.
And he lost arguments, lost them with regularity and consistency, found ten thousand ways to lose them the way a streaking baseball team will find, in the late-autumn crunch, ten thousand ways to win. As the already much-rumored author of a Zionist epic, he was often called upon to argue; and, guilt-ridden as he was, he felt it necessary to oblige. More than that: at parties to which his Zionist reputation had failed to precede him, he was like a man stumbling violently about a bar just before closing time, looking for trouble. As soon as conversation inched however imperceptibly toward the Middle East, Sam would pounce.
And lose. Though skilled in debate, he reserved too much respect for his antagonists’ moral fervor, for their loud-mouthed certainty. He felt invariably like a journalist, making the precise, well-mannered objections that would set his opponent off on tirades of great passion, and then into insults, interjections, ejaculations. Also, despite numerous prep sessions with Yasha, Sam was a little shaky on the facts.
“What about 1948?” he said to his friend Aron, like Yasha an Israeli émigré.
“There was some violence,” Aron admitted, small-voiced, a hesitant, ancient Jew, a graduate student in his tenth year, a doubter of his own doubts. “In some of the villages there was violence, and where the Irgun was, there were massacres. In a few towns on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Yitzhak Rabin himself evacuated people. But the UN partition plan was completely ridiculous, and these people had sworn to destroy Israel.
“In any case,” Aron went on,“ now we are proposing to give it back. Barak offered ninety-four percent of the West Bank and three percent in other places. He offered to divide Jerusalem. They refused. They demanded a right of ‘return’ for four million residents—not to their future homeland, but to Israel. They began to fire Kalashnikovs and detonate grenades. Why?”
“Because they’ve been under military occupation for thirty years? They’re angry?”
“Okay, okay, I understand. Look. If we’re talking about Galilee, even a bit of the Negev, I say, fine, have a slice here, have one there. Arab population, Arab land, I think that’s fair. But not Jerusalem. You cannot divide Jerusalem. You cannot give them the Temple Mount, you cannot give them the Western Wall of the Second Temple after the plundering and vandalism that took place under the Jordanians. Jews were not allowed to pray there until we conquered it by force of arms! We leave Joseph’s Tomb—twenty minutes later they start carrying the stones out, they tear it to shreds. No more Joseph’s Tomb. If we’re talking about the territories, please, you think we want them? But if it’s Jerusalem they’re after, then I say we must meet force with force. If the Palestinians have embarked upon this war to see what they can get, they must emerge from it knowing that they will get nothing. If they want Jerusalem, then I say fight.”
This with the suggestion, not altogether subtle, not altogether muffled, that Aron himself would fight. The same Aron who, rather than confront the student with whom he shared a library carrel for not arranging his books neatly, had requested that Widener assign him a different carrel—this Aron would hire a taxi to the airport, board a plane, and emerge in Tel Aviv. What on earth could Sam say against that?
This was a week before he met Arielle for dinner at Souper Salad, she having released herself from Calvary with a clean bill of health. “Okay on the territories,” he said, when they also began to argue. “Let the Syrians place their guns on the Golan, let the Egyptians supply mortars to Gaza. But we can’t give up Jerusalem.”
“Not give up Jerusalem? To whom give it up? Not give it up to the people who live there? What on earth are you talking about?”
“Well, the Old City. The Temple Mount.”
“Al-Aqsa? Is that what you mean? You think that’s just a cynical slogan, the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada’? A brand name? Not as holy as our Wall is holy? You think they’re not willing to die for their Al-Aqsa? You better believe they are. And part of the reason for that, of course, is that they’re desperate, that a brutal military occupation makes people fucking crazy.”
She was furious with him, as if, here in Souper-Salad on Needham Street, the cars overheating in traffic behind them, he had unmasked himself—as if, having known him so long, having even, perhaps, loved him so long, she had never suspected what a shallow, despicable creature he would at last turn out to be. Before her eyes could adjust to this new Sam, he called out:
“All right, East Jerusalem, they can have East Jerusalem! So long,” he added, though not so quickly that his concession would lose its force, “as the Temple Mount remains under an international mandate. A shared zone.”
“Well, obviously. Of course.”
“Okay.” He smiled—a pained, humiliated smile, a grimace. He had never even been to Israel; all his hypothetical concessions came from him as easily as water sliding off a rock. It was the hundredth time in the past month that he had given up East Jerusalem.
Arielle ate her salad. She looked good.
“Yasha,” he said when they were lying down to bed together shortly before the prime ministerial election, “I think Sharon is dangerous.”
“Do you?” she hissed. “I also think he’s dangerous, actually. Dangerous to those who would threaten the security of our people. That’s right, our people. Or have you stopped being Jewish, the better to look down from above for your epic?”
In the darkness, he winced.
“Because, you know, this is what I expect to hear from Arabs. It’s not what I expect to hear, not what I ever expected to hear, from one of my own people. Because they would kill you, you understand that? They would kill you without thinking twice about it, they would dip their hands in your Jewish blood and for them it would be a great orgasmic pleasure. Do you understand that?”
“A Jew can kill a Jew.”
“But he won’t do it because the other is a Jew! Maybe you think the Nazis were Jews! Yes? Look, we offered them the West Bank. We offered them Jerusalem. Jerusalem! They refused. Now they’ll get something else from us, you understand? They’ll get the fist. And they will never have Jerusalem.”
She turned over on her side and squeezed herself into a tiny ball.
“Whoever said anything,” Sam grumbled as he put on his clothes, “about Jerusalem?”
He made a great deal of noise leaving her apartment, but no one tried to stop him.
Frightened, angry, vengeful, the Israelis elected Sharon. Intifada II continued, however, and for all of the Marx-quoting Sam liked to do, there was nothing about it of farce. He soldiered on in the libraries and coffeehouses, beating forth ceaselessly, here and there, against the tide. After receiving, in the wake of many laudatory lunches, a small advance from a publisher to work on his epic, he quit his many jobs and made even less progress than before. One morning he spent two and a half hours searching for Yasha’s sunglasses—they had been, it turned out, in her purse. That day, sitting in cave-like Café Apostrophe, hunched with the other patrons over his notebook, all of them in the darkness like a poor-postured group of shtetl scholars, Sam gave up hope. Israel was too complicated. If he had once believed he could bring his women to the bargaining table, it was increasingly clear that nothing of the sort would occur: Yasha was moving right and Arielle was moving left, and they were all moving toward disaster. Al-naqba. Sam straightened his back and looked around. Everyone seemed to be writing poetry and having a lovely time. Even if, in fact, they worked on financial reports, initial public offerings, quarterly earnings statements—they enjoyed this, and what is more they had, unlike his medium black coffee, interesting drinks. Mocha frappuccinos, caramel macchiatos, espresso con pannas. In any case, before launching his Zionist epic he would have to decide what he thought of the Holocaust.
What he thought? Well, it was a bad thing, naturally. A moral and spiritual catastrophe like nothing that had ever preceded it? Yup. A window into a realm so inhuman, with certain standard automated functions—trains, vans, showers, ovens—gone so hideously wrong as to have departed from the understandable? Check. An action so monstrous that, if it cannot be called religious, is nonetheless such in the precise degree to which the hand of God was absent? You bet your ass!
He looked around the café: no one was staring at him, he had not uttered anything aloud.
But beyond that? Was it part of the post-Holocaust world? A mile and a half away they had constructed, in the center of historical Boston, a memorial to the millions dead. Of all the places, of all the history. Was it not because they considered it justification? For a hack like Uris, the events of the forties flowed together like a meal. That Uris was a proven schlub helped little, for there were others like him, millions for whom the Holocaust was cause, Israel effect, for whom a mortal danger existed in the Diaspora, for whom six million Jews stood on a scale—or was it, more physically plausible, just their ashes?—on which scale’s other half were weighed the fact of Israel and All That Had to Be Done thereby.
“Fuck that!” Sam cried, and now people looked. He gave them all a shrug and again bent over his notebook. So Sam was not with the Urisites. To him the Holocaust was a hollow event, after which nothing could be the same but which, in itself, touched nothing. It was not a place to which any sort of rhetoric, or politics, or even anti-Semitism inexorably led, nor was it an event from which anything could reasonably be said to have emerged. It was like the year 0—it happened, people were there, but there is no way of signifying it numerically, there is only the leap from B.C. to A.D., the two 1s colluding irrefutably against sense.
He would have to formulate this, somehow, without pissing off the ADL. While trying to sell a Zionist epic, the last thing on earth you wanted was the ADL on your back.
Refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order. He felt the need to expand. Into Jordan, Lebanon, the Sinai. This body, this Boston, could not hold all of him, could not contain the bustling, bursting energies. He had two women, he loved them both, and he could not, would not, imagine it otherwise. He was just twenty-five years old; he had strength in him, and courage. At twenty-five Israel was invaded on the holy day of atonement, on Yom Kippur, from the east by Syria, from the west by Egypt. Caught off guard, it nonetheless repulsed the invaders and had crossed the Nile when the UN finally intervened. It was only at thirty-four that Israel invaded Lebanon, watched gloatingly as its fascist friends the Phalangians slaughtered the Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila, and ceased forever to be a light unto the nations, though hundreds of thousands flooded the streets, Israelis the only people on the planet to protest in such number the massacre of their enemies.
So he would set in motion processes, gradual processes, of reconciliation. Tonight he would stay with Yasha, tomorrow he would stay at home, and then the next night he would see Arielle. He called Arielle from the café to tell her about this.
“Why are you calling?” she wanted to know.
“I’d like to see you.”
“Okay,” she said, as if it were a challenge. “Come over.”
“No, not now. Friday.”
“You said you wanted to see me.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
And he began to do the calculations, count the permutations. Her italics! Her sarcasm! But he could not tell her what he meant. What did he mean?
“Sam,” he heard her moaning on the other end. “We can’t go on like this. We cannot! I will not play along anymore, I will not be the other woman, I will not be your affair.”
“You make it sound so tawdry.”
“It is tawdry. It’s unbelievably tawdry and conventional.”
“No,” he said. “No.” And he knew, all at once, why arguments were so important, why his parents spent so much of his childhood waving their hands in the air. People argued because they were deciding—how to act, how to explain themselves acting, what they believed. He was arguing for his life. “Look,” he began. “What you’re saying is reasonable, I see the logic, but it’s just not true. Look at Israel. I mean, we’re supposed to be with one person, right, we’re supposed to sit at home and believe in our tiny little life with that person, we’re supposed to just stay within our boundaries. But look at Israel—it’s the only country on earth whose borders are unrecognized by international law, whose borders are always changing.”
“A lot of good it’s done them.”
“But at least they feel alive!”
There was a silence on the other end. The metaphor, like a ceasefire, had collapsed more quickly than he’d hoped.
“I’m telling Yasha,” she said finally.
“No,” he laughed. “No, no. You can’t do that.”
“I’m going to do it. She’s a right-wing loony but she deserves to know.”
“No, see, you can’t do that.”
“I can’t?” And she began to upbraid him. While he dutifully fed coins to the extortionary Massachusetts pay phone, Arielle read, Lomaski- like, from the great chronological litany of his crimes. They must have been hanging, in large block letters, somewhere near her phone. What a woman! She wanted a final settlement, and if she did not have it she would drive him into the sea. It was land for peace—he gave up his moral land, his settlements on the territories of her conscience, allowed her the last word on everything, and she, in theory, would absolve and release and not tell Yasha. He could promise her this. That was the thing to do; that was what men did. They promised and promised and when it became clear they’d defaulted they promised again. This was the thing to do, but somehow he wanted to negotiate further, wanted not only to convince her to stay, convince her to be quiet, but, absurdly, to convince her that he was good. The moment demanded large, mendacious strokes but he had a bureaucratic mind. He was an Oslo man through and through: a coward.
He picked up the thread of the list—he had failed to email congratulations on her graduation; drunk, he had tried to kiss her at a party though he knew she had a serious boyfriend. . .They were only up to 1997! She was reducing him to rubble, and he was letting her.
“Sam,” she said, serious now in a way that boded ill, “I cannot have this in my life. I can’t have this uncertainty. I mean, when will it end? Where?”
“Why,” Sam asked, knowing before he did so that it was the wrong line, helpless Sam, “why does it have to end?”
And so it was over, again. He lay in bed for three days, tasting the residue of her voice in his throat as if, through some transference of force, he had spoken with it himself. He was getting to be a certain age, he thought. It was the age when his never-to-be-written masterpieces had begun to outweigh the masterpieces he was still going to write. The Zionist epic belonged in the latter category, certainly, but it was creeping, dangerously creeping, toward the former. He had already spent the advance a hundred times. And he could see the future. In the future, Arielle got married. Yasha got married. Neither of them married Sam, who was left alone, with slightly less hair on top than when this story began, sitting in a small academic office, sweaty and teastained, galloping his mare at The New York Times.
When Israel declared statehood in 1948, precipitating thereby the first of five regional wars, Sam’s grandmother sent a telegram from Moscow to the representative office of the Yishuv in Warsaw, where she’d been born. Just months earlier the great Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels had been murdered by the NKVD, which ran a truck over him several times to make certain he was dead. “They killed him like a dog,” Khrushchev would later write. The Mikhoels murder was Stalin’s preface to a mass expulsion of the country’s Jews into the deep Asian provinces (for their protection), and people were beginning to lose their jobs for their names and noses. Nonetheless, Arielle Mitnik’s telegram read: “Congratulations on your independence. L’shana Haba’a b’Yerushalayim!” Next year in Jerusalem. She would later learn that she’d been the only private citizen in the Soviet Union to wire greetings. It took her forty years to reach Jerusalem.
When Israelis elected Ehud Barak on a platform of peace in 1999, Sam sent an email from work to his friend Chari, who had moved to Israel the year before. Despite the fact that all outgoing emails were monitored by the company with the use of keyword surveillance technology, Sam wrote: “Dear Chari! Hail to the peace! Congratulations congratulations congratulations.” And added: “L’shana Haba’a b’Yerushalayim.”
On the day the World Trade Center was destroyed, Sam watched a lot of television. When television went into a loop, he resorted to the Internet. His cousin, a well-known journalist, filed four different articles with four different journals of opinion, each of them describing his walk down a different New York street. There was an unseemly outpouring of poetry; the radio quoted a few lines about New York by the fascist poet Ezra Pound—though not ones in which he called it, as he often did, “Jew York.” Yasha, when she wasn’t crying, could hardly be kept from gloating. “Now they’ll know what it’s like to live the way we live,” she said. “They’ll know what the Arabs are about.”
And, sure enough, that evening at www.JerusalemPost.com came the headline:
(17:55) Israel evacuates embassies, Palestinians celebrate
It is exactly a year after the breakdown of the Oslo Accords, just a little under a year after the beginning of the new Intifada. It is immediately assumed that some group with ties to the Palestinians—of blood, or politics, or sympathy—is involved. And the Palestinians go out into the streets, before the AP cameras, and cheer. Sam had to hand it to them: Every time it appeared that the international community was beginning to lose patience with the interminable occupation of the West Bank, with the transparently mendacious Israeli attempts at creating peace by waging war, with the tanks and the settlements and the prevarication, these folks went out into the streets and cheered the murder of people no less innocent than themselves. No, thought Sam, you really had to hand it to the Palestinians. In their ability to fuck up a late lead they were truly the equals of the Boston Red Sox.
Aron was on the phone. “How do you fight a country that isn’t even a country?” he wondered of the Palestinians. “Maybe we should make them a country. That’s what they want, right? Good, you’re a country. Now we’re going to bomb the shit out of you.”
Things were looking up for Sam’s book. The Middle East had come home to roost, and everyone would want to pick up an epic or two to tide them over and educate. Amazingly, his agent called him the day of the attacks, to read an editorial from the New Republic. “Are you okay?” he began by asking. “Is it an okay time to call?”
“It’s fine,” said Sam. He could summon no enthusiasm for these national days of grief; if the business of America was business, it may as well be gotten on with.
“Then listen to this,” his agent said. “We Americans no longer need any instructions in how it feels to be an Israeli. The murderers in the skies have taught us all too well. We are all Israelis now. We are all Israelis now! He might as well have said we are all Zionists now. This really ratchets up the stakes here, man. We suddenly have three hundred million more readers. Three hundred million!”
They hung up. The television trundled on. “America is changed forever,” the newscasters kept saying, the experts interviewed repeating it as if to please them. Sam did not want to laugh but, a little bit, he laughed. Nothing ever changes. No one ever changes. People can die, it’s true, and they can disappear from your life forever, so that a horrible gaseous hole seems to have been burned in the place where they once stood. It is even possible that an epic, a Zionist epic, might be written, might be finished. But change? Change does not happen. And next year in Jerusalem will always be an infinite distance away.
Is what Sam thought.
But at this point Arielle rang the doorbell. Glorious Arielle. And with tears in her eyes, shining, hugged Sam, handsome Sam, and then hugged Yasha, lithe lovely Yasha. And the three of them sat there, watching the television repeat itself—“America Under Attack” was the caption, and it was pierced by, for some reason, an eruption of bullets—their arms around one another until they grew tired, and then the three of them without speaking went into the bedroom, where, taken all in all, Sam performed admirably. Not Nobel Peace Prize admirably, but well enough. He woke up later in the night, alone in the bed, hearing a familiar, sardonic voice on the television. “To pretend like we’re surprised by this?” it said. “To pretend as if we haven’t done worse? It’s laughable. Three years ago we sent cruise missiles to destroy a medicine factory in the Sudan. The UN has been trying to investigate it, but the U.S. is intent on keeping—”
“Professor Lomaski, I’m afraid we’re running out of time. Isn’t it true that you once defended the murderous Khmer Rouge?”
“Are we really—”
“Thanks, Professor. That was Professor Lomaski, speaking to us from MIT, though frankly it could have been Mars for all I understood of what he said. You, Joe?”
“That’s a fact, Jack. Didn’t understand a word.”
The TV was violently silenced. Dozing off again, Sam heard Yasha and Arielle begin to argue the Zionist project, their voices rising and falling against his scattered bulk like the sirens out on Cambridge Street. Their meeting, their inevitable meeting, failed to stir him to fear. He sensed that their differences were superficial, ultimately, and that all they needed was to talk, to find common points of understanding, to rehearse the obvious—and while they talked Sam would sleep, tired Sam, our friend Sam, Sam of the passions, who only wanted to kiss the throats of women, and who only wanted peace.
But he could not fall asleep.
Keith Gessen is the founding editor of n+1. His novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, was published by Viking Adult in the spring of 2008. (updated 6/2010)