Frank Kermode

Retirement, like other less pleasant conditions, is something one never seriously expects to suffer. After a lifetime of compliance with constraints which, however gentle, were not of one’s own choosing, one experiences for the first time a dreadful liberty to do as one likes. In principle, anyway. For example, in principle I can now live anywhere I want. The other day I had a letter from a distinguished colleague, postmarked ‘Verona’, which described the almost terminal happiness of living there and ended: ‘I don’t mean to die in Cambridge.’ Of course not: but where? Supposing for a moment that there were no considerations at all except the immediate satisfaction of my own desire, I think I might choose Jerusalem.

This city has long been a favourite choice.

Hierusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?

The poet meant a heavenly city, but the earthly was its model. On maps it was the centre of this world, in the mind’s eye the frontier town of the other. You can feel like this about later cities, as Wallace Stevens (who had never been there) felt about Rome:

The threshold, Rome, and that more merciful Rome
Beyond, the two alike in the make of the mind.

But Rome is only, in this respect, an antitype of Jerusalem. No other city answers so closely to the make of the mind: its historical compactions, its repressions, its dreamlike absurdities, all echo the mind of the observer; the topography is a projection of human aspiration, muddle and fraud.

Here is a physical space in which myth and reality are inseparable, as in our heads; and here too, the desert stops just outside the wall. Within the wall are many enclaves: fierce orthodoxies, souks, holy places piled together. In various rooms the Last Supper was eaten. The Holy Sepulchre is divided between mutually hostile sects, but the Cross is placed exactly above the tomb of Adam. From the hotel on top of the Mount of Olives you walk down past Gethsemane to the city, taking the road used by Jesus: what other could he have used? This brings you near the Golden Gate, by which Messiah must enter: it is blocked off, and the Muslims have craftily established a graveyard in front of it, so that no priest can pass. Everything happened at some spot that can be exactly marked on this living map: the Stations of the Cross, the mugging which called forth the charity of the Samaritan, commemorated by a stone marker on the Jericho road. Dominating the city is the Temple Mount, occupied by two tremendous mosques. Below, at the foot of the Western Wall of the Second Temple, the Orthodox pray; they may not set foot on the Mount itself. In this city the most palpable fake and the most obvious bit of tourist razzmatazz acquires some mythical resonance. Incidentally, it is remarkably beautiful and has a benign winter climate; these qualities no doubt enhanced its geo-political attractions for successive waves of invaders – the Jews themselves, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Moslems, the Crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Turks, the British. They might well appeal to an aging goy, uncommitted to any of the religions of the city, or to any of the places in which he has lived.

However, this doesn’t seem quite the moment to settle in Israel, even if I could get in. As I write, there is a peculiar peace in the Lebanon, but nobody, least of all the Israelis, supposes that in itself this cooling-off is the prelude to a general settlement. Among the citizens of Jerusalem I came to know there seemed to be none, even among the least militant, who gave one to believe that true peace could be entertained as a possibility. Many are shocked by the present action in the Lebanon, but their indignation is more likely to express itself as a violent distaste for Begin and Sharon than as sympathy with Palestinian Arabs.

Last December Begin annexed the Golan while everybody was looking at Warsaw. This caused anxiety in Jerusalem, but two or three days later, when I drove over the annexed territory, there was nothing to see but a few tanks. We lunched at Tiberias, on St Peter’s fish, of course, and then drove back on a dark winter evening through the West Bank. Lots of roadblocks, but nothing more. It seemed inconceivable that the West Bank should ever be an Arab state, just as it seemed inconceivable that the Golan should ever revert to Syria. Yet Israel, so conscious of the need for depth in its defences, did give up Sinai.

Recently I’ve been receiving a lot of Israeli propaganda, mostly justifying the action in Beirut but also taking longer views. Some of it consists of multiple copies of articles, reprinted from the afternoon paper Ma’ariv, by Shmuel Shnitzer: these are aggressive, and, I should have thought, counterproductive. Then there are detailed lists of PLO-inspired terrorist actions outside Israel from 1968 to the present. More to the immediate point is a pamphlet by Moshe Aumann called ‘The Palestinian Labyrinth’. Its arguments are familiar and not merely topical. ‘Palestine’ was a name given to the area by the Romans, an anti-Jewish gesture. Its borders are, on the west, the Mediterranean, and on the east the Arabian desert. Palestine east of the Jordan River became, by British mandate, Transjordan, later Jordan. There is, accordingly, already a homeland for Palestinian Arabs: it is Jordan. When those Arabs ask for self-determination they are absurdly asking for something they already have; their claim was settled in 1922, and they have no right to Judea and Samaria (what they call the West Bank) or indeed to Gaza. In 1948 Abdullah actually wanted to call the new Arab state ‘Palestine’; and at the present time 60 per cent of the population of Jordan is West Palestinian in origin. The Jordanian occupation of Judea and Samaria, which lasted from 1948 till 1967, won recognition only from Pakistan and Britain; and throughout that period the Jordanians made no attempt whatever to establish an independent Arab Palestinian State – naturally, since there was one already. Nevertheless the Israelis have been forbearing: they are willing, in accordance with the Camp David arrangements, to consider allowing autonomy to the West Bank Arabs, and are sorry they refuse to take part in the negotiations.

The apparent reasonableness of these arguments cannot conceal the fact that they result from a typical transformation of a quasi-mystical belief in Eretz Israel into a series of political and strategic proposals. Israel is like that. A wholly modern state, it finds room for extreme theocratic fundamentalisms, including that very vocal variety which denies that Israel is properly a political concept at all, and therefore opposes all its diplomatic and military actions. The Orthodox rabbis can insist that the Hilton and the Sheraton should have kosher kitchens, two sets of crockery and cutlery, and so on; they will insist that if you marry you do so in the manner they prescribe. A very modern army pays ritual tribute to Masada. In the winter months the Friday rush hour starts at lunchtime. What everybody shares is the difficulty of running a modern society under ancient constraints: a difficulty impressively overcome. One cannot avoid being impressed, too, by the calm good humour of the inhabitants. Inflation at over 100 per cent per annum is hardly a problem; salaries go up with the RPI every month, and you simply don’t try to save money. The rapidly increasing numerical superiority of ‘Oriental’ Jews in the population will, as everybody knows, bring great cultural changes, and soon: they will be accommodated. Military service to a remarkably advanced age is the common lot, cheerfully accepted.

The history of these territories does not encourage the belief that anybody will stay in charge for ever. Romans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks and British all cleared off, leaving behind them grand monuments or merely touching ones, like the English pillar-boxes. To hold on as long as possible requires you to fight. The Lebanon operation, whatever one may think of its conduct, came about because of an unillusioned recognition of the alternatives.

The same arts that did gain
A power must it maintain.

And it’s clear, alas, that if what one seeks is a little peace, then Jerusalem, for all its extraordinary beauty and depth, is not going to be one’s happy home.