In a hotel near the Taj Mahal, I thought back on my week in Israel leading into a month in India. The Taj, a marble poem to lost love, was built by the Muslim king Shah Jihan, the “Emperor of the World.” His wife died after nineteen pregnancies during her fourteenth birth and this, perhaps the finest building ever built, became her resting place.
But the Emperor of the World was cast down by one of his sons, who had killed three others, leaving himself the sole heir. Battles had raged among these brothers, just as they had among the sons of King David. Like the Jewish Bible, the Hindu epics brim with war and violence.
Christianity’s “turn the other cheek” turned to vast violence as and after the Emperor Constantine embraced it. Even Buddhism, filled with compassion for all sentient beings, spread through Asia because the Emperor Ashoka adopted it and forced his subject peoples to embrace it—after he had slaughtered a million of them to conquer those lands. Islam proudly spread across the world through violent conquest, and now Buddhist monks violently persecute Muslims in Myanmar while Muslims do the same to Christians in Egypt.
In India though, Buddhism and Hinduism alike are at present mainly compassionate and peaceful. With its kaleidoscope of languages and religions, unnerving human density, and stunning poverty, this country is inexplicably at peace and inching forward. But in the Middle East, religious belief continues to devolve into violence.
Walking across Jerusalem on the eve of Shavuot, “The Time of the Giving of Our Torah,” I saw the mild, pale faces of couples and families coming home from synagogues or seeking lectures and seminars explicating the Law. “Its ways are ways of pleasantness,” we sing on Sabbaths and holidays, “and all its paths are peace.” But that same hymn ends, “Renew our days as of old,” and many of those same tender couples and swelling families infer not just spiritual renewal, but a return to the piece of earth now widely known as the West Bank or, in anticipation, Palestine.
Observant Jews know it as Judea and Samaria, not just part of Biblical Israel but its heart. Here, and not in Tel Aviv, the Patriarchs found their faith. Here, and not in Haifa, David built a kingdom. And here, by an irony of history, the Palestinian people will have their state, while the Jewish one tries to thrive on the rest of the land between the river and the sea. Jerusalem, that ancient city of sacrifice, will see more of it—in the form of, at best, reluctant sharing. But if the most religious people on both sides have their way, future sacrifices, like past ones, will include more war.
I cannot tell a lie. On Shavuot morning I did not just not go to synagogue, on an impulse I went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where I had visited at least twice before. There a respectful Palestinian Muslim guide described the storied origins of the faith that belonged to neither of us, and in passing noted the sad divisions among those who embrace it. “Brother,” he said at one point, “you are sitting in the Armenian section, but your feet are in the Greek Orthodox section.”
This Church, like that of the Holy Sepulchre, is strictly territorially divided among branches of Christianity—a reminder that the babe born to bring peace to the world, who would later cruelly die in the same cause, had followers who brought his words to the world by conquest, bitterly persecuted the people he was born to, and mounted wars against each other that had Europe licking its wounds for centuries.
In the afternoon I went to Kibbutz Magen—the name means “shield”—from which you can easily see the Gaza Strip. I was with good friends one of whom, Varda, grew up there, and I got to renew my acquaintance with her father, Yona, who with other Romanian Jews founded Magen around 1950. As I strolled with him around the lush garden community, he told me in self-taught English about the early days, when they had to truck water from miles away to drink, bathe, and coax a few things from the sandy soil.
Over sixty years he, his wife, and friends had built a thriving agricultural community from semi-arid Negev soil, defended it in four wars, and lived to celebrate their first fruits on Shavuot every spring. In recent years, they have had rocket fire from Gaza, so they built a three-foot thick concrete slab over the colorful one-story elementary school and went on with life. In response to my praise for his life’s work, Yona, 83, smiles and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, what else could I have done?
Magen’s first fruits pageant included the seven species of ancient Israel—dates, figs, olives, pomegranates, almonds, wheat, and barley—as well as potatoes, corn, and others, and (in this atheistic left-wing community) Torah readings about this harvest holiday. It also presented the babies born during the year, and dancing children.
David, Yona’s son-in-law and a leading Jerusalem obstetrician, had delivered triplets the night before to a woman who’d sought fertility treatments in Europe, because Israeli clinics will only implant two embryos; mother and babies were doing well.
Israel, warts and all, is here to stay, and whenever I go I get a sense of increase. But Jews are not, and will never be, the only people there. Before I left for the airport, I ate several ears of corn and also a couple of radishes with a taste of the earth about them. They reminded me that not all that sustains us is sweet.