September 15, 2007

Closing down

In the year 67 AD, the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in what is now Israel was in full flow. Perched on a towering camel-shaped peak overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the town of Gamla was a focal point of the rebellion. The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius wrote that even though other towns in the area "had been persuaded at the beginning of the revolt to submit ... Gamla had refused to surrender, relying on its inaccessibility" to hold out against Roman attempts to invade.

Naturally, the superior strength and tactics of the Roman armies eventually wore down the Jews. Trapped on top of the mountain, faced with enraged Romans swarming up the slopes bent on avenging comrades killed in earlier battles, many of the defenders chose suicide rather than death and dishonour at Roman hands. They "flung their wives and children and themselves too" into the ravine below. "4000 fell by Roman swords," wrote Josephus, "but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over 5000."

That was 1940 years ago. A long time. Yet I write this because it took a visit to Israel to understand that in that land, the ancient is never forgotten, never irrelevant.

Should it be?

For millions of Jews, it is not the "West Bank", but "Judea and Samaria", the names used in the Bible for that stretch of land. Those names, the biblical roots themselves, are fundamental to Jewish claims to the land. "Large numbers of Jews," said an announcement about the time I visited from FLAME, an American Jewish organization, "have been living in Judea and Samaria since biblical times. Most Arabs living there are in fact relative newcomers. [Therefore] the Israeli claim to the 'West Bank' is far stronger than that of the Arabs."

Well, if you go back to biblical times, every subsequent resident is indeed a "relative newcomer." If that's how you measure the strength of claims, we had better shut down any discussion right away.

Noam Friedman would have agreed. On January 1 1997, this young Israeli soldier sprayed bullets from his gun around a Hebron marketplace, wounding several Palestinians. Why did you do it, Noam? He explained to the press: "Our forefather Avraham bought Hebron for 400 shekels and the city belongs to us."

Only in Israel, I thought then, could a figure wrapped in millenia-old myth and religious legend have a role to play in events of today.

Though that was then. Today my country is caught in an angry debate over a bridge built by Lord Ram. Minutes before I wrote this I learnt from my morning paper that some say this is about "nationalist feelings."

Avraham bought a town, Lord Ram built a bridge: for evermore, such events are supposed to close down discussion. Close down minds. Invoke an undefined "nationalism". Such is the power of religion.

And what about Gamla? Aagain while I was there, an ad in the Jerusalem Post offered much about Palestinian "terror" and the "extreme Left", while arguing passionately against handing "Judea and Samaria" over to the Palestinians. But at the bottom of the ad were words that made me comprehend why peace in this torn country is so tragically elusive. Just five words, but impregnated with 1940 years of history as they are, they invoke ancient Jewish fears and defiance.

They read: "Gamla Shall Not Fall Again."

End of discussion.


Keerthi Kiran said...

somehow it reflects on the education we kids receive at our schools and from society.

schools picture history to be a collection of dates and numbers and society gives us a narrow view of history.

the real beauty of history is lost in between this numbers and chauvinism.the lessons lost and forgotten...

is there hope?? i just hope....

Professor Bakwas said...

i suppose our nation's sentiments are quite easily hurt and this always frustrates intellectual debate, or atleast its relevance in the final outcome. from your post its difficult to ascertain which side of the fence you lean towards; so there really is no avenue for debate. as for hope, ah, pandora!

Dilip D'Souza said...

Professor, with a line like "Close down minds" I would have thought it was obvious which side of the fence I'm leaning on. I think it is sad and absurd that we have to decide this issue based on what Lord Ram did. Just as I think it is sad and absurd that Noam Friedman invokes Avraham to justify his murderous intent.

Jai_Choorakkot said...

"...Lord Ram built a bridge ..."

I support the SethuSamudram project if its benefits outweigh the environmental and other costs without regard to Lord Ram.

But this reference to Ram as a real historical person and this natural structure as a man-made (or monkey made?) bridge threw up an interesting aspect.

I realize that if Lord Ram were a real person, say a heroic king, and the evidence suggested that this was a structure put up by that person, and the large majority of the people of this country wanted to preserve this work of his, we would likely not be having this discussion at all. There would be no SethuSamudram project and ASI would be under fire for any damage to this 'heritage structure'.

And I would support that.

As nearly always, reading this space brings in some interesting new perspective.


Professor Bakwas said...

Dilip, I do agree with you that the basis of discussion should ideally be on scientific terms only. However, that is an ideal scenario. The truth is that these concerns do exist, and it's impossible to ignore this reality. Using this issue to rake up politics, communalism and suchlike, of course, is unacceptable. But again, that is the nature of our political scenario. If there is a way to avoid breaking the bridge or sandbar (depending on your view), it would be a pragmatic way to solve what is doubtless going to be a tricky problem. Of course, I can preempt your lament (and mine too) that this is not the way such matters should be addressed.

Jai, how does it matter if Ram were a heroic king or not; the point is that science proves that this structure is not man made (your parenthesizing was a lowblow, btw). Or, as the religious would have you believe, science as we know it. There is no point arguing an issue when the debate is on theological terms. That is a never ending path. What is instead to be looked at is that we live in a democracy. If there is a public sentiment attached to certain things, they have to be respected. The flip side is, of course, where does this sentimentalism stop?

All in all, this is a far deeper issue than what it has been made out to be, which is saying a lot given the kind of coverage it’s getting. In the end, it is an existential issue; and whatever else might be said, the majority of the world bases its existentiality on some form of Supreme Being.

Dilip, on an entirely separate note, I have just gone through your recent posts. My condolences; by all accounts your father was a stellar citizen of our country.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Professor, you said it: how far does public sentiment go in driving policy? Should Israeli policymakers have listened to Noam Friedman, or I assume the many more like him who believe that about Avraham?

I don't know what the solution is here. I wish that we had a statesman who could have taken and then explained an apparently unpopular decision. Instead we are now stuck with one more cruelly divisive issue that clouds any reasonable debate.

Thank you for your comment about my father.

Anonymous said...

Sorry abt the monkeys. One of the things I judge myself by, is how much I avoid intentionally hurting other's sentiments, their prized beliefs, and avoid judging them by my criteria and value systems which perhaps place Ram Sethu at a rather dispensable level, polity subordinate to policy.

That is some kind of liberalism to me, however odd and contrary to defined liberalism it appears.

Whenever I do that, it appears to me that I dont have too much of an open mind myself.

I consider myself a religious Hindu, but realize I dont have much at stake here in the Ram Setu, no tangible sense of loss.

Asking others to bear costs I dont even perceive for benefits that I do share does come across as a little iffy on my part.

But I suggest that the sense of loss is being exaggerated by vested interests. For the rest, I am with Dilip and his well-considered replies here.