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Sunday, 21 February 2010

'Assassinations Inc.'

‘The machine’s on? Make sure it’s on. Tov Me’od. Good, now it’s on. Now I’ll talk. I’ll tell you what you want to know...

‘It’s 20 years ago, more, but I remember everything: the planning, the operation, the hotel, the room, we went up to the fourth floor, we knew the layout, he was in the shower – have you ever killed a man? – no? - of course not, tipesh, stupid to ask. We always did your dirty work for you. Every country needs its operatives, those of us who do the things no government ever talks about – the removal of those in the way, quickly, efficiently – that’s the skill, the training. And we were the best, everyone knew it then, even you Brits admitted it, Mossad, we had the intelligence, the know-how – my God, we trained half the world: in surveillance techniques, infiltration, intercepts, how to use informers, how to leave no marks...

‘Do you know how to kill a man and make it look like he’s had a heart attack? It’s an art, like a surgeon’s – it needs precision, delicacy, the hood and the rope – we call it the ‘golem’, it’s our joke, how to snuff out life till the body becomes inert and all breathe is gone, Yossi and Hagai held his arms, he had no chance, he was naked from the shower, he struggled but they forced him down, and I slipped the hood over his head, like a tallit, like I’d seen my grandfather do, and you take the ends and you pull, and he thrashed around because he knew – what was his name? I forget, it’s a long time ago...What? al-Mabhouh? Are you sure? The one in Dubai? Well he wasn’t the first...

‘It doesn’t take long. We were in the room, what, ten minutes? Less. It’s like a dream. You imagine it all – in advance, you do the work so there are no surprises. Like you have seen it all in a film. There was a mirror on the wall, bronze frame, heavy, cracked, flecks of shaving foam smeared across, an empty bottle of mineral water on the table, papers, a passport. Two passports. I had his head cradled in my hands as he struggled for breathe, he was strong but we were stronger, and you grip like this, see?, and you put pressure here, and here, like this, can you see?, and there’s pleasure in knowing you are doing a good job – it’s professional pleasure, pride, sure, why not? – and in the back of your mind you know he has killed and will do it again, and then there’s the cause, that justifies all things, the sacred duty, Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel will live...

‘What you Brits never understood was that we were at war. You think ‘Never Again’ was just another slogan? They murdered us then, and they’d do it again. We knew that. We knew it in our kishkes. And nobody would care. They may even be glad. Killing Jews is what goyim do. No? You look shocked. But you don’t know your history, you youngsters. Jews are the bad conscience of the world – we gave them ideals, we dreamed up dreams of justice, of caring for the oppressed, of loving even those who didn’t love us. Impossible dreams. They go against the grain of human nature, human selfishness. But we insisted on those ideals, that killing was wrong, that coveting was wrong, that there’s a duty of compassion. Who can live like that? That’s why they hate us. Always have, always will. We said we were chosen - and expected them not to envy us? That we had a special destiny – and expected the goyim to kiss our feet? We expected too much – and now we have finally learnt our lesson: expect nothing, except contempt and more contempt...

‘You know what Sharon said about our chief, Meir Dagan? “Meir’s speciality is in separating the head of an Arab from his body.” He knew his job, inside out. And he taught us well. And we had a tradition to maintain, a reputation. Remember Munich? For years we tracked down the murderers of our children. A debt of honour. And if we made a few mistakes on the way, so what? Life is cheap. If you don’t die one day, you die the next. We learnt that in Auschwitz. So we hunted them down, across Europe. It took years, but we have long memories. And we did it well. And don’t think we are the only ones. Your country has its hit squads, and the Americans, the Russians, the Germans, they all do – and whether you kill by drones from the air, by poison at night, a bullet to the head, or a car bomb as your target sips his cappuccino in a sunlit cafe, assassinations happen as they must. The law of revenge. The law of retribution. The law of elimination. We all have enemies. And Israel has more than most...

‘And don’t tell me you didn’t feel a twinge of pride as we went about our business. Don’t tell me you just held up your hands in horror at what we did with such intelligence and efficiency. Such prowess – like David against the Philistines. Outnumbered but devastating. You admired us, secretly, didn’t you? - our ruthlessness, our determination, our ingenuity, our refusal to be intimidated by our enemies. Your mouths said it was wrong, but in the hidden crevices of your soul you cheered us on...

‘Yes, enemies come and enemies go. Now we’re friends with Iran - you now the story, how we engineered regime change there, after we got the green light to bomb their nuclear facilities - but then, back in ’10 or whenever it was, they were supplying arms and rockets to Hezbollah and Hamas, and the guy we took out, al-Mabhouh, he was in the middle of it all, so it’s a long game we’ve been playing and we don’t play by the rules – there are no rules, rules are for losers, and you Jews who sit on the side and profess your shock, your moral qualms, you’re hypocrites, you’re worse than them, the goyim who hate us...

‘Remember our old motto? “Through deception we make war”. You liberals always think peace will come through compromise. Yes, we talk to Hamas now, we’ve done it for years, we always knew we would – some of our best agents are in Hamas – but what has it brought us? It’s bought us time, that’s all. But that’s enough. Peace is a dream for the innocent. And we are not innocent. No more Jewish innocence...Are we out of time? Is the machine still on? Good. They are coming soon to take me back... They’ve let me talk to you – it’s rare, I’m kept here against my will, you know. The nurses hate me, you know? - they give me medication but I don’t take it, it’s easy to hide the pills, the blue ones, the white ones, it’s all in a day’s work for someone like me, they forget who I was, who I worked for, how we learnt to deceive. A way of life. Deception...

'What? Self-deception? No, no. It’s reality. Enemies. They’re real. Aren’t they? There are others here who are paranoid. I keep away from them...Thank you for listening. Time’s up. Better keep quiet now. Switch off the machine. You never know who is listening. Thank you for listening. Thank you.’

Thursday, 11 February 2010

First anniversary: Listening to what’s there...

This blog is now a year old. A baby blog, crawling its way - I find I’ve just written ‘scrawling’ - into homes near and far. I hope the scrawling - ‘to write awkwardly, hastily or carelessly’ my dictionary says, so some truth there from my unconscious - has nevertheless been enlivening for you who read it.

I’m told these postings go on too long, sometimes: we are not used to reading at length on the screen. I can only empathise, and apologise. Thought is discursive – my thought is discursive – it seems not to like straight lines with neat building blocks of well-honed ideas that assemble themselves into definitive statements. I can write like that, if need be. But I prefer the organic, associative, free-floating form of narrative, that unfolds idiosyncratically and ‘By indirections find directions out’ (Hamlet, act2, scene1). Expansiveness of narrative discourse as a metaphor for the rich inner world – ever-expanding, bifurcating, alive to the impulses of the moment – that each one of us contains.

From Obama to Samuel Beckett, from Israel to Haiti by way of Berlin and Prague, the blog has led a peripatetic life these last 12 months, wandering from sermons to poetry to politics via films and plays, anti-semitism and climate change – and looking back I see no unifying theme or abiding preoccupation. No more than a wish to let you eavesdrop into one man’s confusion about how to make sense of life when there is a superabundance of stimuli straining to make themselves heard within the din of daily living.

I hope you keep posting your Comments where there is space at the bottom of each blog. Other views lend vitality to the enterprise. Emails too are welcome. We are, or have become, a kind of ‘virtual’ community – by courtesy of Google, and by virtue of your shared interest in (or passing curiosity about) my stumbling attempts at crafting sentences which try to offer a personal perspective on stuff that comes into my line of vision.

And in that attempt to generate meaning from amidst chaos and randomness, there has been (from time to time) the wish to bring in a Jewish angle of vision. I see the Judaic tradition as containing certain resources that offer another point of view, another perspective on events in the present. ‘Unless one has the past in the present, one can’t understand oneself’ the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris has said. That resonates for me: I think that’s true individually and collectively.

And I feel fortunate in having access to a way of seeing that is rooted in that ancient mode of knowing that suggests we are held within a form of being, a form of life, that unfolds moment by moment within us and around us, an immanent ‘presence’ (for want of a better word) that both sustains us and cajoles us towards ways of being human in which our creativity, our compassion, our sense of justice and mercy can outweigh our destructiveness.

In the language of the tradition, this is the realm of the ‘divine’, of ‘God’ – the force that generates all that is and sustains it in being, that is being. Jewish tradition personifies this as a Being. As if ‘being’ is a personality, a character in a cosmic drama being played out here on earth. But once we start to think of it in this way – the numinosity of being as, in essence, a personality - we are falling away from the tradition’s own revelatory understanding of ehyeh asher ehyeh – the words that the storytellers in the book of Exodus put into the mouth of the character they call Adonai. This ‘God’ character says that ‘His’ name is ehyeh asher ehyeh : ‘I will be what I will be’. So if you have to have a name for the unnameable fluidity of being and becoming in which we are all bound up – and Moses is portrayed as saying, astutely, ‘Look, the people need a name, they think concretely not abstractly!’ – then ‘I am what I am and I will be what I will be’ is as good a ‘name’ as you are ever likely to get.

The prophets of Israel tried to articulate their hopes for the people from this perspective: a vision of how people should treat each other, grounded in the seemingly impossible-to-enact hope that one’s care for others should become as important to you as one’s care for oneself. It is not out of arrogance that one places oneself in that line of tradition. For me, it feels that developing this perspective on life is almost an existential necessity, a grounding in something more substantial than my own passing whimsy or the latest modish intellectual fad or theory. It may mean a life of constant failure – but at least it has the consolation of being a failure rooted in a vision that matters, that offers a stay of execution from nihilism and meaninglessness.

The Hebrew Bible is (for me) a unique repository of fragments of wisdom, often contradictory, often baffling, often disagreeable, but still texts filled with insights into the nature of being human – and ways of telling the story of being human, with all its vicissitudes – that I value above all other texts. It allows me to listen in to contemporary events with ears attuned to eternity (as Abraham Joshua Heschel might express it).

And it allows me to read the most supposedly ‘secular’ of modern texts – poetry, prose, sociology, psychology, anthropology, scientific literature – and trace connections between the angles of vision of the Jewish tradition and the angles of vision of the present. One can read Samuel Beckett - ‘Fail. Fail Again. Fail Better’ - with eyes thousands of years old. Moses was not allowed to finish his task. His was an education in failure: leading a ‘stiff-necked’ and constantly complaining people on a journey into the unknown. The promised land is always over the horizon – utopia is endlessly deferred - and life has to be experienced and lived now, attuned to the present moment. And the Judaic task came to be understood as listening to the present moment with ears attuned to eternity.

This last Shabbat I spoke in my community about a verse from Exodus we’d just read:

‘Now! If you listen very carefully, really listen, attend to My voice (V’ata, im shamo’a tish’m’u b’koli ) and keep my covenant, then you will be a treasured possession to Me... and a kingdom of priests and a holy people’ (Exodus 19:5-6). Jewish distinctiveness, purpose, destiny - it all depends upon learning to pay attention to the Divine Voice. (The Hebrew uses the verb shema, in a doubled, intensified form). That kind of listening is, as they say, a big ask. First inwardness – then action. First reflection, mindfulness – then outer behaviour. First attentiveness - then the covenant of practice and the commitment to holy living.

And to do this knowing that no promised lands are achievable. But the journey - ah, the journey, that ‘fortunately, is a truly immense journey’ (Kafka) - that’s where our all our consolations and satisfactions are to be found, and where our innate rebelliousness is played out: the journey in the wilderness, and the stories we tell about it. Or the journey in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’:

They spent the day there, sitting among boxes and crates. You have to talk to me he said.
I’m talking.
Are you sure?
I’m talking now.
Do you want me to tell you a story?
No.
Why not?
The boy looked at him and looked away.
Why not?
Those stories are not true.
They don’t have to be true. They’re stories.