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O Jerusalem: Two Tears for Modernity

By Krishna Kumar

The Times of India,
10 September, 2003

The old part of Jerusalem is like no other place in the world.
Sharply divided into four quarters "named the Jewish, the Arab, the
Christian, and the Armenian quarters" it reminds you how weak the
force of modernity has proved.

Walking down the ancient lanes, one feels humbled, emotio- nally
exhausted, and insecure. Densely surrounded by historic sites, you
don't know where to look for seeking relief from the oppressive
burden of the past. That was also the moot question for the workshop
on education and cultural pluralism I had gone to attend. Three years
later I am still debating whether education should actively build
cultural identity.

In Israel it does. There are three kinds of schools: Secular,
religious, and extremely religious or orthodox. I got a chance to
know about each category, and none looked secular in the sense our
mainstream schools are. The Jewish sense of an irreparably injured
collective self impels the system of education to reinforce the
divisive aspect of identity. For the children of Arab, Christian,
Druze and Bedouin minorities, there seems little scope to avoid a
sense of alienation. A visit to an Arab school in the old city was
arranged as part of the workshop, but the risks of getting there were
judged to be far too serious, so that headmaster and one of the
teachers from that school came to the university where the workshop
was being held. The stories they told us of life in that school
suggested a sub-world of poverty, neglect and confusion.

The library of the University of Jerusalem carries a plaque reminding
the visitor that Sigmund Freud, Martin Buber and Albert Einstein were
present at its inaugural ceremony. I was particularly struck by the
mention of Buber, whose principle of inclusion of the 'other' I
annually explain to my students as the primary basis of any
meaningful dialogue. Why hasn't Buber's idea worked in West Asia is
like asking how Gandhi's Gujarat got to be so violent. As far as
education is concerned, it seems no force at all except as a social
filter to legitimately select a few for coveted roles. Israel is
among the few modern nations today to have a policy of early
streaming. I was able to visit one such school which only the
brightest attend.

My hotel kept its emergency exit stairs open all night. In the middle
of my third night, I was woken up by screaming ambulances rushing to
the site of a suicide bombing. Two suicide bomb attacks took place
during that week; one very close to the university. I can hardly
convey what it meant to know that one could be a potential victim of
such an incident, but the message of the suicide bombers was clear to
my foreign mind. The nagging question was why the message was read so
remarkably differently by the government and its supporters. The
suffering of the Palestinians is known; so is their militarily far
weaker position, yet the view prevails that violence must be answered
by violence. The point that violence necessarily forms a cycle
arouses surprisingly little interest or worry and the ethos does not
inspire the hope for peace. If anything, it inspires a sense of
waiting for the inevitable and ultimate war. A vast mural in the main
library of the university portraying an all-out conflagration conveys
precisely that message. An exhibition of Einstein's photographs was
on display nearby, and it brought me a great sense of recognition to
find Gandhi in one of the frames, though he looked out of place.

Israeli liberals must be greatly disappointed today with India's
warmth towards Ariel Sharon who symbolises the odious record of
callous conservatism. It has been a difficult period for secular,
humanist forces. Far from fulfilling its promise of reinforcing
reason, modernisation has given Israel the dubious status of being an
exporter of high-class weaponry. Each time it acts in blind revenge
against a weak and hapless adversary, Israel blurs the terrible
universal memory of the Holocaust. Israel's dependence on the US
makes a mockery of its tradition of meticulous hard work and
self-reliance - characteristics that we associate with Gandhi's
personality, which were undoubtedly reinforced by his many Jewish

My best personal memory is of my young tourist guide. While walking
through the old city, he showed me a Roman map and explained why its
top must face the east. That is what the word 'orientation' means, he
said, reminding us that once upon a time the world looked to the East
for guidance. He had heard of the Buddha and he asked me if I could
summarise his main message. I muttered something about the need to
concentrate on the present, leaving the past behind.
My guide looked as if he had been stopped in his tracks. If only we
could learn that, he said, we would be fine here in West Asia. I
often wonder if the Buddha's message has the same attraction for the
hundreds of Israeli youngsters who spend their first holiday, after
serving the draft, in Dharamshala. In a list made according to
nationality of persons who took the Vipassna meditation course at
Macleodganj, Israel was on top. History is often shaped by casual,
even trivial things. The daily plane load of draft-drained youth
arriving in Mumbai have a fair chance of nudging the going trend.