The 11th Floor

A Perpsective Overlooking Jerusalem, Israeli Life, and Talmud Torah

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Is there a blessing... for the Tzar?


President Bush canceled my Talmud class.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But not by much. After all, with all the security precautions in Jerusalem for the President’s visit, my Talmud teacher would not have been able to enter the city by car if he hadn’t left home at 6:15am. There are no trains that work from the suburbs of Jerusalem. Busses have been rerouted in ways so complex even the kabalah teacher can’t explain them. And if you are a reform rabbinical student, your Talmud class really was cancelled along with every other class you have; the authorities shut down the entire Jerusalem campus of HUC (Hebrew Union College). So things are a bit messy in terms of getting anywhere in Jerusalem while Mr. Bush is in town (until Friday).

The core of the city is shut down, even to pedestrians, with kilometers of blue metal barricades. Where are these things kept? These are not stackable wooden horses- these are metal gates with wide feet to prevent being tipped over. They have sealed off the streets with thousands of the things- they must have their own suburb. Oh, and there are 8,000 extra police in town, in addition to the local Jerusalem constabulary.

What are they all doing? First and foremost, they are freezing their buts off. It’s not that cold per se, but its’ been drizzling rain all day and they have to stand in place. And of course, most Israelis are made miserable by temperatures that would find most Canadians outdoors in shorts. So they shiver in place and perform and a few other tasks, some more obtrusive than others. For example my Hebrew teacher went home to her apartment across from the Israeli’s President’s residence between jobs. She found a policewoman waiting in the doorway to her building. When she wanted to leave, she had to wait for a police escort from the area. Note that when she came in, there were no questions, but to leave she needed to answer a questionnaire and then wait for two officers to walk her down the street. What was usually a 5 minute walk took her over half an hour. She didn't mind, though. I think the message is clear: most Israelis like Mr. Bush, and they don’t want anything to happen to him.

The center which houses us has put up a banner welcoming Mr. Bush (sorry mom, but I’m still going into the building to study). We get a side benefit from all the chaos. Normally our intersection is one of the most noisy and dangerous in Jerusalem. Part of that comes from the fact that it is a point where 6 streets come together. Also, on the east-west avenue, the middle of three lanes in both directions is the left turn lane. To review, the street works like this: right lane, ahead or straight; left lane: ahead; middle lane, TURN LEFT THROUGH THE LEFT LANE. Makes for a fun intersection and endless honking, no? But today, there was a delightful silence around the Yeshiva. Not a single honk could be heard, which I must say was great.

Also around the yeshiva are the products of the local side of the fight to release Jonathan Pollard. Kikar Paris (Paris Square), which is scheduled to have a 30 meter high replica of the Eiffel Tower built in 2009, has been renamed “Freedom for Jonathan Pollard Square” until he is released. Also, there is a 50 foot wide banner on the building across from the Yeshiva. Frankly, his sentence is so lopsided and unfair that even Caspar Weinberger, who as SecState made Pollard into a target of his patriotic wrath, is saying it is time to let the man go (which it is). People are hoping Bush will free him from prison, but I think that won’t come until President Bush is on his way out.

One of the most ironic parts of the visit remains the political polarization. Here, the left is welcoming Bush’s mission and his efforts (in general) , and the right wing is telling him to not say anything and please go home soon. The right wing only wants him to praise Israel; they are furious that he is saying that any settlements should be stopped or that Palestinian prisoners should be released. I’m not saying they are wrong or right- but it is ironic how much of the right wing of American Jews must be uncomfortable with the rhetoric from the right wing of Israel these days.

I’ve never heard of English being on the front page of Israel’s largest circulation paper “Yediot Achronot.” But today, this flagship of modern Hebrew placed a greeting for Bush on the front page in English. Hell, they didn’t just greet him, they called him “righteous among the nations.” That’s putting him on the same level as Oscar Schindler and Chiune Sugihara. 50 years ago, this would have been seen as the worst of heresy; a Hebrew paper wouldn’t have put English on the page even for Truman.

This visit is costing the Israeli government $25,000 every hour. It’s costing Jerusalem economically, as all sorts of stores and cafés are empty- nobody can get to them. Major bus lines are being re-routed all over. In what must be a nightmare for those running group tours for American kids, Pizza is not available for delivery, no matter how much money you offer. Nobody can enter King David street, with its high- end stores and restaurants. I hope that the trip is worth it, because Israelis are footing quite the bill. I fear that Israelis may come to feel about this visit what many Americans have begun to feel about Mr. Bush’s presidency- ripped off.

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