atonement

A few comments on this Amichai poem, part 5 of Jerusalem 1967 (below the translation).

בְּיוֹם כִּפּוּר בִּשְׁנַת תַּשְׁכַּ״ח לָבַשְׁתִּי
.בִּגְדֵּי חַג כֵּהִים וְהָלַכְתִּי לָעִיר הָעַתִּיקָה בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם
,עָמַדְתִּי זְמַן רַב לִפְנֵי כּוּךְ חֲנוּתוֹ שֶׁל עֲרָבִי
לֹא רָחוֹק מִשַּׁעַר שְׁכֶם, חֲנוּת
כַּפְתּוֹרִים וְרוֹכְסָנִים וּסְלִילֵי חוּטִים
.בְּכָל צֶבַע וְלַחְצָנִיּוֹת וְאַבְזֵמִים
.אוֹר יָקָר וּצְבָעִים רַבִּים, כְּמוֹ אֲרוֹן־קֹדֶשׁ פָּתוּחַ

אָמַרְתִּי לוֹ בְּלִבִּי שֶׁגַּם לְאָבִי
,הָיְתָה חֲנוּת כָּזֹאת שֶׁל חוּטִים וְכַפְתּוֹרִים
הִסְבַּרְתִּי לוֹ בְּלִבִּי עַל כָּל עַשְׂרוֹת הַשָּׁנִים
וְהַגּוֹרְמִים וְהַמִּקְרִים, שֶׁאֲנִי עַכְשָׁו פֹּה
.וַחֲנוּת אָבִי שְׂרוּפָה שָׁם וְהוּא קָבוּר פֹּה

.כְּשֶׁסִּיַּמְתִּי הָיְתָה שְׁעַת נְעִילָה
גַּם הוּא הוֹרִיד אֶת הַתְּרִיס וְנָעַל אֶת השַּׁעַר
.וַאֲנִי חָזַרְתִּי עִם כָּל הַמִּתְפַּלְלִים הַבַּיְתָה

Translation slightly different from that of Stephen Mitchell:

On Yom Kippur in 1967, I put on
my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City in Jerusalem.
For a long time I stood in front of an Arab’s cave-like shop,
not far from Damascus Gate, a shop with
buttons and zippers and spools of thread
in every color and snaps and buckles.
A precious light and many colors, like an open ark.

I told him silently that my father too
had a shop like this, with thread and buttons.
I explained to him silently about all the decades
and the causes and the events, why I am now here
and my father’s shop was burned there and he is buried here.

When I finished, it was time for closing.
He too lowered the shutter and locked the gate
and I returned home with all the worshippers.

My few notes on this poem, verse by verse: the date in the first verse (1967) reminds me of my daily walks from the Collège des Frères to the École Biblique, via Damascus Gate. Sometimes four times a day, between August 1966 and June 1968. There were people selling vegetables, bread, drink, haberdashery. A dense and jostling crowd came from the Gate on their way to the Holy Sepulchre or the Western Wall, or emerged from the two large shuqs where they had shopped for food or clothing. I didn’t stop to contemplate the goods of any seller, especially since I had been warned not to do that. I don’t think that the Jaffa Gate was yet open and allowed orthodox Jews and Christian pilgrims to go directly to the Western Wall. So, visitors usually came to the Old City via Damascus Gate. Gone was the tall cement wall and the no man’s land that ran along the Old City’s northern wall and that separated Jordan from Israel since 1948. That Yom Kippur was on Saturday, October 14, 1967, about four months after the Israeli victory in June and the immediate taking over of Arab Jerusalem as part of Israel. The initial shock of the loss and victory was beginning to wane.

1967–68 corresponds to תשכח in Hebrew, which can be vocalized to mean: “Forget,” or as Stephen Mitchell translates, “the year of forgetting?” The poet puts on his dark holiday clothes, though on Yom Kippur, it is an old custom to wear white. Dark clothing, as in a scene of mourning or rather because of the all-around sadness of the situation? The Arab’s shop becomes the ark in the temple, or rather the souvenir of this long-disappeared ark. A heavy curtain, the parokhet, separated the hekhal (sanctuary) from the holy of holies, where this ark rested and the divine presence was expected to abide. This parokhet was embroidered in threads of all kinds and must have been an extraordinary sight, if the book of Exodus and Josephus’ accounts are to be believed. The liturgy’s or poem’s ark and the temple extend to an Arab’s shop and the souvenir of the poet’s father’s livelihood.

The poet stands and later gives in petto explanations, as in the Amidah prayer, recited standing and silently, three times a day in synagogues, but five times on the day of atonement. Can peace arise between the two displaced peoples, without a house they can call home, caught in a concatenation of endless events?

Closing time and locking of the gate(s), late in the day. Closing is the name of a special ceremony of closure at the temple when the amidah, the prayer of repentance, was recited, silently again, for the fifth time. Closure: messianic solutions to historical conflicts are for dreamers. After closing, it is time for all the praying masses to go home to their mini-temples, in peace for now, neither in triumph nor in shame.

allegory

Last night, the Washington pharaoh read re-purposed hieroglyphs from teleprompters. Like kings of old, he wrapped his prosthetic iron hand in velvety empathy. The sun god once more guaranteed order. His family and fly-swatting servants reminded everyone that he has been showering us with infinite blessings such as our beyond-belief response to plagues. Everything is great! If only our brick-making people were content to eat onions in their gilded cages and stopped dreaming of a trustworthy foreign god in the Sinai desert.

UAE, China, Iran

Palestinians were sold out by a coalition of billionaires: the Trumps and Kushners for the USA, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—though silently so far for the latter. The quid pro quo was Netanyahu’s promise that the noises he had been making regarding the annexation of part of the West Bank would die down for a while. It is a win-win-win for the UAE, SA, and Israel. Also a win for China’s long game, and a draw so far for Iran. It will lead to the further development of military ties, energy investments, technological amd cultural exchanges. With so many winners, what could go wrong?

Why did this occur right now? The most obvious reason—the November elections in the USA—is the most superficial part of this shadow theater, as the UAE and SA have to plan for either a victory of the Trumps or the Biden-Harris ticket. The normalization of the relationship with Israel, a long-sought goal by the latter, will indeed be celebrated by either US party, and certainly by the democratic party on the whole. Biden hailed it as a “historic step.”

The less obvious and more weighty reason has to do with the new role of China in regard to Iran and Saudi Arabia. In recent developments, China has been signing not only long-term contracts in energy and technology with Iran but proposing investments in atomic energy to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s declared enemy. China has much to win in risking new relationships in the Persian Gulf, and not much to lose. The USA is retreating in diplomatic terms if not in military posture. Its own global dominance over the oil business and lesser need for the Gulf oil is not the only reason for its retreat, however.

Iran is likely to benefit from China’s involvement. It may suffer little in the long term from the alliance of the UAE and Saudi Arabia with Israel. Iraq, Syria, southern Lebanon, Hamas, Houthis, are not likely to follow the emirates and the Saudis. The larger question is that of China’s goals in the area. The fact that they engaged both Iran and Saudi Arabia very recently shows that they are willing to keep these new allies in an unstable equilibrium and to take advantage of the US mistakes. Their military development, however, and especially that of their navy and air force, is not yet very far ahead. Even Israel may be of interest for them in this respect. As many observers have been saying (in Haarets and other publications), Israel may soon have to choose between the USA and China.

UAE and Israel

Trump is keen to get the votes of as many Jews and Christian evangelicals as possible. This may be one reason for announcing the successful negotiation of a diplomatic arrangement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. There are plenty of other reasons. Commercial, technological, military, cultural, and diplomatic ties are to open between the two states, provided that Israel promises, for now, not to annex the Palestinian territories. This is likely to be an empty promise, as the right in Israel will keep the pressure on Netanyahu to annex a large part of the West Bank, while the center or the left will not reward him with any support. It looks like a sellout of Palestinian aspirations for great financial gains. And finally, there is another, more global reason, having to do with the realignments of the global capitalist scene. It is an insurance policy by the UAE and Saudi Arabia (silently) in case either Trump or Biden wins in November, as well as a tightening of close ties by the US, UAE, and SA, as China and Iran (perhaps also Qatar, which shares large natural gas resources with Iran), and China and SA (atomic energy), are doing their own long-term deals. Biden would play along and has already hailed the arrangement. Israel may have to choose between China and the US sooner than later.

democratic senate

My present hope, in the wake of the democratic party’s and Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as co-runner, is that more Black women and independents or disaffected Republicans will vote for the democratic ticket. I don’t think that the young will be moved to vote in greater numbers. This conservative ticket, however, makes it possible now to achieve a majority in the senate. Harris will be replaced by another democratic senator in California, which is an addition. A democratic majority in the house and the senate will encourage this center-right president to aim bigger than thought possible and pursue more progressive and smarter policies in health care (a public option for instance), in education (debt reduction?), family support, banking regulations, industrial policies, labor protection, international cooperation, and climate change.

On deck

While we sit on a still deck,
tethered to the house,
tree fronds around us rustle
at the slightest breeze.
We trust in joists, planking, paneling,
cut years ago from rooted, swaying, living trees.
We keep pulling up stakes
to seek food and companions, shelter and home.
Yet our roofs, fields, and shops
turn into hard-edged shells, till the next big storm
draws soft skins from below the nacre.
We sing, teach, paint, cook, knit, write, and dance,
at the most imperceptible move of the spirit.

bible as weapon

The Council of the Society of Biblical Literature issued a statement under the title “Black lives matter” that protests the US President’s actions, words, and appalling use of Christian symbols:

We protest the actions by the president of the United States, who, on the evening of 1 June 2020, called for military action against US residents on US soil, had peaceful protesters tear-gassed out of his way, stood uninvited before an Episcopal parish, and waved a Bible.

We call out the president for abusing what is for many a treasured spiritual resource and symbol, and we deplore his violation of sacred space.

We call out political leaders to engage the Bible in thoughtful and responsible ways. The Bible should not be brandished as a weapon to attack humanity or to violate the dignity of the human spirit. We commit to the work of studying and exposing how the Bible has been and continues to be used in this way.

blasphemous obscenity

Most obscene and blasphemous today was the use made by the president of the Bible. In search of a photo-op, he walked from the White House to St John, the nearby episcopal church of presidents. Part of the church—the crypt?—had been burned by demonstrators on Saturday night. This short walk required that the White House’s surrounding blocks be cleaned of any demonstrator by federal agents and military police. Once there, he lifted the holy book above his head, somewhat as it is done by excited evangelical preachers, with the boarded church in the background. What did the ad-men of his entourage think? It was a strange gesture for all kinds of reasons, the major one of which is that the hope for justice and peace, a most common cry in the demonstrations, is a central point of the Bible, especially in Isaiah. We have ample evidence that Trump doesn’t care about that idea, and that his idea of justice is vengeance. So then, was he calling for brimstone and apocalyptic punishment (domination) to rain down upon what he keeps defining as terrorists? Or even claiming the divine right to use all necessary power to quell the huge movements all across the nation? It was strange also because Trump is rather remarkable and famous for having no principle or convictions whatsoever, no belief in compassion, kindness, or forgiveness. Strange furthermore because he did swear to uphold his office on that same Bible in January 2017, while speaking of the “carnage” of life in the US a few minutes later in his inaugural speech. The carnage he mentioned is all around him now, much of it due to him and his sycophantic partners.

leadership

All large US cities saw major demonstrations again last night that often continued past the official curfews. The national government is gone AWOL. The White House used its special bunker Saturday to shelter the president for an hour or two because of a fear that demonstrators might overrun the fences. No official declaration. No national emergency speech by the president but a fresh spouting of foul twitter messages, mostly to taunt all opponents, who might now count everyone but the 40\% or so of the voters who still support him. Even independents and middle-of-the-road Republicans, if there are such, are abandoning him. Today, in a craven call to governors, he kept true to form, hiding behind their reputations but goading them and demanding that they use force to quash the demonstrations (they need “to dominate” activists), if they don’t want “to look like jerks.” He prodded them not to be too careful about the use of violence. Fortunately, there is a huge, proteiform movement of support for radical change in our society. What form it will take, nobody knows. But peaceful people seeking justice and peace—in that order—are demonstrating everywhere, sharing food and money, volunteering, mobilizing forces for voting, etc., while sheltering in place. And fortunately also, there are governors, civil authorities, health professionals, teachers, parents, a multitude of people who take upon themselves to be the leaders needed in this crisis. Governor Newsom of California again today addressed the public in this spirit of hope, courage, grassroot organization, and thoughtful cooperation. Santa Cruz had a small demonstration downtown on Saturday. The mayor of Santa Cruz and its chief of police knelt together at one point in memory of George Floyd.

fascism or compassion

The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has been a spectacular political leader, the more so when compared to the narcissistic and violent fascist who still occupies the White House today. During his press conference today—done by video link as usual now—Newsom called everyone to do their part in taking the events, including the pandemic, as opportunities to be more caring, more compassionate towards each other. He made clear that this care has to be the life-blood of a systematic eradication of racist behavior. Racism is deeply set and entangled in our social and institutional structures. With the terrible events of last Monday on everyone’s mind, when George Floyd, a Minneapolis black man, was killed by a police officer while already shackled on the ground, he tasked everyone with doing their utmost to care for each other, transform perceptions and old habits, and implement social justice and equality. Protests have erupted in Minneapolis and other cities. The National Guard has been called in by the Minnesota authorities after violence threatened to engulf the city.

The president of our country, meanwhile, pours gasoline on the fire in the middle of a pandemic. He considers any supporter or even claimant of justice to be an enemy that needs to be destroyed. He is not content to use media platforms to spout lies and incendiary one-liners, he is now aiming at killing free speech if it clashes with his villainous views. Only stratospheric stock market numbers may pacify him for a minute or two. He has not hesitated to encourage violence via his Twitter account to the point that the media company at last flagged one of his messages (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” an old racist phrase that has the cause and effect backwards). This new stage in seeking to divide and polarize a nation looking for unity of purpose will solidify his core base. Let us hope that it will also decrease any chance he has of getting the votes of independents or even those of some Republicans whose embarrassed and shameful silence may include absence at the polls.

Gildas Hamel

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