Sunday, January 20, 2013

Did you mean Palestine?

While the prospects for peace in the Middle East are bleak, it is not forbidden to hope nor especially trying to "take the place of the others" - the protagonists of the conflict - and strive to understand their point of view. Today, this approach is widely adopted in most western countries, but the only "other" who is entitled to this compassionate understanding is the "Palestinian people", presented as the victim of the Israeli intransigence and oppression, or even the indiscriminate and murderous brutality of the "Zionists."
The "Palestinian" national identity is of recent origin. It was only after the Six-Day War of 1967 that the Arabs of Palestine began to claim a national specificity, whose emergence was cleverly brought about by the Arab countries. It was for them a good excuse, a fixation abscess, to divert the frustrations of their enslaved peoples on "the Zionist enemy". But let us admit - why not? - that there are grounds for a Palestinian national aspiration and it deserves to be supported by all, including Israeli citizens. Still this aspiration has to become a reality on a sound and healthy basis. However, a lasting myth exists on the matter - accommodatingly echoed by many of our media - asserting that Jews have no historical ties with Palestine, sot that, ultimately, they have no right to be there… After all, Arafat did not hesitate to claim that no Jewish Temple ever existed in Jerusalem. And today, it is fashionable to say that Jesus was a Palestinian...
No lasting peace can be built without a serious consideration of History and, if necessary, an acknowledgement of the harm inflicted by each other. On this plan, several Israeli historians have gone very far – sometimes too far. The so-called "new historians" have denounced, sometimes in a totally inequitable way, the excesses committed by the Jews during the historical process that led to the founding of the State of Israel. We always wait for a similar effort on the Arab side.
Yet, there are irrefutable historical documents. This is the case of an amazing book published in the early 18th century by a Dutch philologist and geographer: Palaestina ex monumentis veteribus illustrata, a work written in 1695, the result of a thorough exploration of Palestine by Hadrian Reland. This scholar - he masters the Latin, Greek and Hebrew - is the son of a Protestant minister. His purpose is to identify and record all the places of the Middle East whose name appears in the Bible and the Mishnah (a collection of ancient rabbinic comments upon which the Talmud is based). [It is not sure that Reland went himself on the spot; he presumably used information collected by travellers or published in various books. Anyway, it seems that his work is quite reliable].
With remarkable scientific reliability, Reland mentions the Hebrew name of more than 2000 locations (towns, villages, localities), referring to the verses of the Bible or the Mishnah where the name appears. He completes the information with the old Latin or Greek name, where they exist. But Reland does not stick to this toponymical survey, he also works as a geographer, is interested in the populations of the region and tries to make their census. The data so collected are impressive and go widely against the current assertions of Palestinian nationalists.
I repeat, in this respect, some of the data presented in an article published in 2009 by Raphael Aouate about Reland’s book.
* First observation of Reland: at the end of the 17th century, the region is sparsely populated, even almost deserted. The majority of the population is concentrated in the cities of Jerusalem, Acre (Akko), Tsfat (Safed), Yafo, Tveria (Tiberias) and Aza (Gaza).
* Second general observation: the population of the region consists mainly of Jews, some Christians and few Muslims, mostly Bedouins.
* The vast majority of towns and villages bear a Hebrew name, some a Greek or Latin name. Practically none of the cities that today have an Arabic name - Haifa, Yafo, Nablus (Shehem), Gaza or Jenin - possessed it at the time. No trace of the name Al Quds for Jerusalem, or Al Halil for Hebron... Ramallah is called Beteïle (Bethel), etc.
* Most cities were inhabited by Jews, except Nablus (Shehem) which had 120 people from a Muslim family, the Natashe, and 70 Samaritans. Nazareth is fully Christian. Jerusalem has more than 5000 inhabitants, almost all Jews, some Christians. Gaza has barely more than 550 people, half Jews, Christians for the rest. Tiberias and Safed are entirely Jewish.
To these data of the late 17th century, I think it useful to add another, which goes in the same direction and that is just as compelling. In the Grand Dictionnaire Larousse du XIXe siècle published in 1875, we read, about "Jerusalem": "City of Asiatic Turkey, capital of Judea, chief town of a sanjak of the pashalik of Saïda. The population can hardly be estimated at more than 18,000 or 20,000 inhabitants: 8,000 Jews, 5,000 Muslims, 3,000 Greeks, 1500 Latins, 1000 Armenians, 100-200 Syrians and Copts." And we know that, in 1899, Jerusalem has 70 000 inhabitants, including 45,000 Jews.
In fact, as several historians noted it, it is especially in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, by the immigration from nearby Arab territories, that the Arabic population of Palestine considerably increased. And these historians consider that the immigration in question was widely aroused by the economic development that followed the settlement of Jewish immigrants in Palestine.
To say all this, it is not to deny the suffering of the Palestinian populations, but it is to remind that if this region – which the Roman Empire called Palestine – can, justly, offer them a territory, it is, to say the least, also the case for the Jewish people. Résolution181 of the United Nations of November, 1947 said nothing else. When will the Arab world accept to share this land? (Knowing that they already obtained - it is Jordan - 80 % of the territory of the Mandatory Palestine)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Makar Ivanovitch, drawing by Dostoevsky
(Manuscript of The Adolescent)

Those of you who have the patience to read me regularly have already met with Makar Ivanovich Dolgoruky, the putative father of Arkadi, the hero of The Adolescent. I have, here and there, briefly evoked this bright figure, a humble servant whose master, the aristocrat Versilov abducted (he prefers to say “acquired”) the wife a few days after his marriage.

Arkadi has practically never seen the one whose name he bears. After years of wandering, the man, old and sick, is now hosted in the house of Versilov, his former master, where also live Arkadi and his mother. After several days of high fever, during which he even lost consciousness, Arkadi’s attention is attracted by a discreet noise coming from next room.
On the fourth day of consciousness I was lying in my bed at three o’clock in the afternoon, and there was no one with me. (…) Suddenly, in the midst of the profound stillness, I clearly distinguished the words: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us’. The words were pronounced in a half-whisper, and were followed by a deep-drawn sigh, and then everything was still again.” (1)

This is the voice of the old Makar. Sofia Andreevna the wife who was abducted of him, accommodated him in her room, akin to that of Arkadi. The words heard by Arkadi are those of the “Jesus Prayer”, a short and repetitive prayer which, in the spiritual tradition of the East, is as popular as the rosary in the West. The famous Stories of a Russian Pilgrim, an anonymous work from the mid-19th century, helped to make it known.

Intrigued, Arkadi goes to the nearby room, opens the door and remains motionless on the threshold. “There was sitting there a very grey-headed old man, with a big and very white beard, and it was clear that he had been sitting there for a long time. He was not sitting on the bed but on mother’s little bench, resting his back against the bed. He held himself so upright, however, that he hardly seemed to need a support for his back, though he was evidently ill (…) He did not stir on seeing me, he looked intently at me in silence, just as I did at him, the only difference being that I stared at him with the greatest astonishment, and he looked at me without the slightest. Scrutinizing me, on the contrary, from head to foot during those five or ten seconds of silence, he suddenly smiled and even laughed a gentle noiseless laugh, and though the laugh was soon over, traces of its serene gaiety remained upon his face and above all in his eyes, which were very blue, luminous and large, though they were surrounded by innumerable wrinkles, and the eyelids were swollen and drooping. This laugh of his was what had most effect on me”.

After a long digression on laughter, which is “as a rule something vulgar, something as it were degrading”, Arkadi concludes: “… a laughing child (…) is a sunbeam from paradise, it is a revelation from the future, when man will become at last as pure and simple-hearted as a child. And, indeed, there was something childlike and incredibly attractive in the momentary laughter of this old man.”

In fact, the old Makar is one of those “absolute children” described by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. The next part of the meeting with Arkady makes it clear. The teenager is sitting near the old man: “I know you, you are Makar Ivanovitch. – Yes, darling. It’s very good that you are up. You are young, it is good for you. The old monk looks towards the grave, but the young must live (…) Ach, it’s bad for a sick monk, he sighed; the soul hangs by a thread it seems, yet it still holds on, and still is glad of the light; and it seems, if all life were to begin over again the soul would not shrink even from that (…) the old monk should take leave with blissful resignation (...)A monk must be content at all times, and ought to die in the full light of his understanding, in holy peace and blessedness, filled full with days, yearning for his last hour, and rejoicing when he is gathered as the ear of wheat to the sheaf, and has fulfilled his mystery.”

With his unpolished language – that the writer tries hard to restore – the old Makar expresses a disproportionate wisdom compared to the learned verbosity of many philosophers or theologians.

The young Arkadi, down from his bookish education and with the fashionable scepticism of the youth, gently mocks the piety of the old man Makar who questions him: “– Do you pray at night? – No, I regard it as an empty ceremony (…) – You’re wrong, my dear, not to pray; it is a good thing, it cheers the heart before sleep, and rising up from sleep and awakening in the night...” Makar tells then Arkadi an experience of plenitude which he lived during a pilgrimage. “ I waked up early in the morning when all was still sleeping and the dear sun had not yet peeped out from behind the forest. I lifted up my head, dear, I gazed about me and sighed. Everywhere beauty passing all utterance! All was still, the air was light; the grass grows – Grow, grass of God, the bird sings – Sing, bird of God, the babe cries in the woman’s arms – God be with you, little man; grow and be happy, little babe! And it seemed that only then for the first time in my life I took it all in… I lay down again, I slept so sweetly. Life is sweet, dear! If I were better, I should like to go out again in the spring. And that it’s a mystery makes it only the better; it fills the heart with awe and wonder and that awe maketh glad the heart (…) Do not repine, young man; it is even more beautiful because it is a mystery, he added fervently”.

Boy playing balalayka. Anonymous Russian painting
Makar is a deified man. He is ripe for the Kingdom about which we are told that we shall not enter if we do not “become like children” (cf. Mat 18, 3). He has this cleansed and restored glance, which sees people and things in their original goodness and beauty. Arkadi understands it, when thoughtfully taking back the last words of Makar: “ ’It’s the more beautiful for being a mystery…’ I will remember those words. You express yourself very inaccurately, but I understand you... It strikes me that you understand and know a great deal more than you can express.

The meeting of the old man Makar will deeply impress and transform Arkadi. He who thought of having a “soul of spider”, aspires from now on to the “seemliness” – clarity of soul – about which the old man spoke to him. “The longing for ‘seemliness’ was still there, of course, and very intense, but how it could be linked with other longings of a very different sort is a mystery to me. It always has been a mystery, and I have marvelled a thousand times at that faculty in man (and in the Russian, I believe, more especially) of cherishing in his soul his loftiest ideal side by side with the most abject baseness, and all quite sincerely.” With this last reflection, Arkadi expresses one of the fundamental themes of Dostoevsky's thought, to whom no character is ever completely good or completely bad. Is it not also the case for each of us? Let us have the lucidity to recognize it...

For us who, so often, flounder through the gloom, shall we find a pressing call, in the words of the old man Makar? As Arkadi, let us be attracted by him: “What attracted one first of all, as I have observed already, was his extraordinary pure-heartedness and his freedom from amour-propre; one felt instinctively that he had an almost sinless heart. He had ‘gaiety’ of heart, and therefore ‘seemliness’.” Why not to aspire, us too, to this clarity of soul which transfigures the old man Makar?

Fiodor (the other one)

(1) Quotations are from an English translation by Constance Garnett: