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Excavation site on the southern wall of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem© Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos
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Bellow in Jerusalem

A reader’s notes from the Old City

Paul Berman
January 21, 2020
© Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos
Excavation site on the southern wall of King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem© Leonard Freed/Magnum Photos

The only full-length work of nonfiction that Saul Bellow ever wrote is a book called To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, published in 1976, which is a scrapbook journal of a few months he spent in Israel, together with commentaries on his apposite readings, reports on conversations with Middle East scholars, and recollections of a glamorous evening at the White House with Kirk Douglas, Danny Kaye, and Henry Kissinger. I reviewed the book at the time for a supplement of Harper’s magazine. Lukewarmly I applauded. And yet, for all my reservations, these many years later I discover that certain passages of To Jerusalem and Back are imprinted on my brain, such that, whenever I have found myself in Jerusalem, the vistas before my eyes turn out to be Bellow’s.

I venture out of my hotel. Up and down the hills I wander, out to the shopping mall and the old train station; and one face after another seems to peer at me from the pages of To Jerusalem and Back. Then again, it may be the nature of Jerusalem to make people lose the distinction between books and reality. Perhaps I have learned this from Bellow. In the course of his own wanderings around Jerusalem, the names of one distinguished author after another flicker by, as if he can’t go anywhere at all without thinking about books he has read. The French writer Pierre Loti, for instance—does anyone think about Pierre Loti today? Bellow thought about Pierre Loti.

I stumble across Loti’s little book, Jérusalem, in a secondhand bookstore. It is an account of his own month in the city, in April 1894—the difficulties that he had in getting there (he arrived by caravan from Gaza), the costumes worn by the different religions, his Christian excitement upon seeing the Holy Sepulchre. And yet on the first page, before he has even begun, Loti, too, found himself thinking about the writers who had preceded him in making their way to Jerusalem—which leads me to wonder who those earlier writers would have been, in his mind. But there is no mystery on this point. Loti’s slender book was a contribution to a French tradition of literary pilgrimage that began with Chateaubriand, the grand Romantic—whose own book came out in 1809 under a title, Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Paris, that strikes the same travelogue note as Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back.

Chateaubriand’s tome opens before me. He, too, arrived by caravan, under conditions much more primitive and challenging than anything Pierre Loti had to endure. This was in 1806. Brigands hover nearby, ready to pounce. Janissaries protect him. Chateaubriand brandishes a pistol, intent on persuading everybody that a Frenchman like himself should never be trifled with. It is hard to imagine that, under those circumstances, Chateaubriand brought along his own personal library, strapped into the saddlebags. And yet, life for Chateaubriand was an adventure in reading. He pictured his own identity as an onion-like layering of texts, and he pictured the universe as a vaster onion-like layering, and he went about his travels in the spirit of a man peeling the layers of literature in search of deeper layers—quite as if he did have a library at hand.

In Jerusalem he cites the antiquities scholars. He quotes Racine from the 17th century. He dwells over the greatest writer of all on Jerusalem and its history, who was—in Chateaubriand’s estimation—Torquato Tasso, the Renaissance master. Tasso composed an epic poem called Gerusalemme liberata, or Jerusalem Delivered, in 1581, about the First Crusade and the Christian conquest of Jerusalem, which Chateaubriand regarded as one of the foundation stones of civilization, together with the poems of Homer, Virgil, and Milton. He takes the divine Tasso as his guide. And he wanders the streets in the footsteps of Tasso’s Crusader heroes, Godefroy and Tancred, agog over Tasso’s scenes of knights and supernatural beings battling it out over the Holy Sepulchre.

Well, I’m game. I have gotten hold of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, in the translation by Anthony M. Esolen, and I have begun to read. It is a pleasing translation, disciplined and musical. Eight-line stanzas march by in rhyme. Tasso’s armies, Crusader and Saracen, line up. A beautiful Saracen spy-girl wreaks havoc among the Christian knights-errant. Women warriors take their place amid the fighting. Amorous liaisons spring up unexpectedly and even inter-religiously, as if still another army, consisting of winged putti, were flying overhead, zapping everyone with Cupid’s arrows. Tasso’s Italian qualities do seem pronounced. He is good on feminine wiles and masculine delusions. “Under the fiction of / yearning for honor, they all yearn for love.”

And Tasso, too, appears to be in the grip of a still earlier book, which, in his case, is Virgil’s Aeneid, without any connection to Jerusalem, except that, among the medieval Catholics, a degree of confusion over Rome and Jerusalem was normal. Jerusalem Delivered falls into the monotony of the Aeneid, too, which leads me to conclude that Chateaubriand’s recollections of Tasso are more exciting than Tasso himself. But this merely complicates my own attention to the Old City. In front of me is a stone Crusader site, marked by a plaque, and, under Bellow’s influence, I gaze baffled at the edifice, lost in reveries of Chateaubriand’s reveries of Tasso’s reveries of Virgil.


Bellow blamed this sort of thing on a peculiar glow of the sky in Jerusalem, and perhaps he is right about that. The light refracts reality into two: an ordinary reality before your eyes, and a different reality that you remember from books you have read. Ultimately there is a division between the natural, as seen with the naked eye, and the supernatural, as seen with a bookish eye. A bookish traveler is someone who yearns to see the two realities blended into one, such that, with a simple glance of the unaided eye, natural reality and supernatural reality would turn out to be the same. The whole purpose of making a literary pilgrimage to Jerusalem is to have such an experience.

Pierre Loti’s pilgrimage was successful in that respect, and the high point was achieved at the Western Wall. He and his traveling party make their way there in time for Shabbos. Jews at the wall are bedecked in black velour robes and fur-lined yarmulkes. Loti says: “The faces, which turn halfway to examine us, are almost all of a special ugliness, an ugliness to give the shivers: so thin, so slender, so sly, so perfidious, with little sly and weeping eyes, drooping from dead eyelids!” He continues: “In penetrating into this heart of Jewry, my impression is above all of shock, of unease, and almost of fear. Nowhere have I seen such an exaggeration of the type of our old clothing merchants, of rags and of rabbit skins; nowhere the noses so pointed, so long and so pale.”

What accounts for those terrible appearances? It is the supernatural influence recorded in still older texts: “Truly, to have crucified Jesus leaves an indelible stigmata; perhaps it is necessary to come here to be convinced of it, but it is indisputable, there is a particular sign inscribed on these foreheads, there is a seal of opprobrium which marks the entire race …” Loti saw, in brief, something miraculous, which was the supernatural ugliness of the Jews. A negative miracle. This was, of course, thrilling, for him. He thought he was seeing the truth of Christianity and the power of the Lord.

Chateaubriand underwent the same experience, except in a more sophisticated version. Loti appears to have been a simple bigot, but Chateaubriand was a disciple of Bossuet, the Bishop of Meaux, who was the marvelously erudite author of Discourse on Universal History, from 1681. Chateaubriand’s reliance on Bossuet has led me to get hold of the Universal History, and faithfully I have slogged through its chapters. They are stately. The entire book appears to have been composed with the bass pedals of a cathedral organ, which cause the pages to rustle and the pews to tremble. The book is more than a little obsessed with the Jews, and more than a little angry, and the anger swells, as only a cathedral organ can do. But, then again, from a Jewish standpoint, Bossuet’s obsession with the Jews can seem almost flattering.

The Jews stand at the center of pretty much everything in world history—originally as God’s chosen people, and then, after the arrival of Christ, as a scattered and defeated people whose unbroken fidelity to their own tradition testifies to their continuing holy nature. And the suffering of the Jews serves the necessary and salutary purpose of teaching Christians to fear God. It is miraculous. From Chateaubriand’s standpoint, it made for an exciting tourist prospect, once he was in Jerusalem.

His Itinerary brings him to the Jewish Quarter. The inhabitants are miserable wretches. They are “all in rags, seated in the dust of Zion, looking for the insects that were devouring them, their eyes fixed on the Temple.” The miracle consists of their wretched condition, combined with their continued existence and their persistent fidelity to their own, most ancient of books. Chateaubriand writes, with Bossuet very much in mind:

Penetrate into the dwelling of this people, you will discover them in a frightening poverty, making the children read a mysterious book, which, in turn, the children will make their own children read. What they were doing 5,000 years ago, this people are still doing. Seventeen times they were present at the ruin of Jerusalem, and nothing can discourage them; nothing can prevent them from turning their eyes to Zion.

Like Bossuet, Chateaubriand knows how to swell his tones:

When one sees the Jews dispersed on earth, according to the word of God, one is doubtless surprised; but, to be struck with a supernatural astonishment, it is necessary to find them in Jerusalem; it is necessary to see these legitimate masters of Judea as slaves and strangers in their own country; it is necessary to see them waiting, under all kinds of oppressions, for a king who is going to deliver them. Crushed by the Cross that condemns them, and which is planted on their heads, hidden near the temple, of which not a stone upon stone remains, they dwell in their deplorable blindness. The Persians, the Greeks, the Romans have disappeared from the earth; and a small people, whose origin precedes that of the large peoples, still exists without any foreign admixture, in the ruins of their fatherland. If anything among the nations displays the character of a miracle, we think it is here.

So he saw it, pop-eyed with excitement: a supernatural miracle.


In the single most remarkable passage of Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back, Bellow frets over his own ability to see and appreciate miracles and supernatural astonishments. He wants to see and appreciate, but he worries that he does not have the capacity to do anything of the sort. In this one respect, he resembles Chateaubriand pretty closely, give or take every conceivable difference. Chateaubriand had an exciting experience in the Jewish Quarter, but that was only because of exceptional qualities that, in his view, adhered to Jerusalem and the Jews. Mostly Chateaubriand considered that, for an intelligent man like himself, attuned to the modern ideas of 1809, it was no longer possible to undergo supernatural astonishments. Tasso in the 16th century could see supernatural creatures flit through the sky. But after Tasso came Isaac Newton and the scientists and the modern age, and, no matter how keenly Chateaubriand wished he could do what Tasso could do, the era of supernatural sightings had come to an end. It was distressing.

Still, Chateaubriand felt that, without showing any disrespect for science and its discoveries, it was still possible to catch glimmers of a more-than-natural truth, if only by gazing with sufficient intensity at ancient ruins and cemeteries, or at treetops, or leaves, or gardens, or at anything at all, where a vibration of eternity might be discovered. He gazed, then. He was good at gazing. He also knew how to sob and tremble at what he saw, and he took his own sobbings and tremblings as scientific confirmation that he was actually seeing what he thought he was seeing.

But Bellow’s difficulties were graver. Deeply he yearned to sob and tremble in the Romantic style; and, just as deeply, he knew that science had continued to advance, which made the sobbings and tremblings seem ridiculous. He shuddered in embarrassment at the absurdity of his own yearnings. And, in recording his Jerusalem experiences, he paused to contemplate the Romantic yearnings and the modern embarrassments alike.

The Jerusalem sky reminds him of the psalmist who sings of “God’s garment of light.” He wonders if, in gazing upward at the sky, he isn’t seeing the garment:

You can take this seriously in Jerusalem. A character in one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s extraordinary stories thinks, looking at the sky in Israel, “No, this isn’t just an ordinary khamsin but a flame from Sinai. The sky above is not just atmosphere but a heaven with angels, seraphim, God.” This is Jewish transcendentalism, too, in a very different part of the mind. With Singer it comes out as though a spring were pressed at the appropriate moments in a story. My inclination is to resist the imagination when it operates in this way.

Bellow’s relation to Singer is pretty much Chateaubriand’s relation to Tasso. Bellow is envious. He hopes that, with sufficient effort, maybe he can, in fact, achieve a Jewish transcendentalism, just as Singer did. It is a matter of adopting the right mental state. He needs to give himself permission.

Yet I, too, feel that the light of Jerusalem has purifying powers and filters the blood and the thoughts; I don’t forbid myself the reflection that light may be the outer garment of God.

Bellow in this passage is at his guesthouse in Jerusalem, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, which overlooks Mount Zion. He continues:

I go to the door and look toward the Judean Desert. I see not so much the terrain as the form of some huge being. Its hide is gray. The distant small buildings are gray also. Letting down the barriers of rationality, I feel that I can hear Mount Zion as well as see it.

About Mount Zion:

There is no reason this hill should have a voice, emit a note audible only to a man facing it across the valley. What is there to communicate? It must be that a world from which mystery has been extirpated makes your modern heart ache and increases suggestibility. In poetry you welcome such suggestibility. When it erupts at the wrong time (in a rational context) you send for the police; these psychological police drive out your criminal “animism.” Your respectable aridity is restored. Nevertheless, I will not forget that I was communicated with.

He also does not forget that, scientifically speaking, all of this is nonsense. In order to see the garment of God or hear the rumbling voice of Mount Zion, he has to perform a mental maneuver capable of letting down “the barriers of rationality.” Down go the barriers. And the whole experience leaves him feeling the way the heroes of his novels do—the befuddled professors in Chicago or New York who would like to abandon themselves to wild contemplation of the divine and the miraculous, and who recognize meanwhile how laughable they are: inadequate nobodies who cannot begin to cope with their frightening wives and the big-city gangsters and tycoons, let alone the cosmos and its mystic secrets.

The difference between To Jerusalem and Back and Bellow’s novels is that, in the Jerusalem book, he does not present himself as a daffy professor, comically unequal to the challenges of life. He is, on the contrary, the sort of man who is invited to attend White House receptions, someone for whom Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, sets aside valuable time. A worldly and successful man. Happily married, too, he and his Romanian mathematician—though, to be sure, anyone who has read the novels knows that marital stability was not Saul Bellow’s strong point.


I tramped around Jerusalem at the end of 2015 in the company of some 25 people, most of whom were American law professors with national-security credentials and past and future careers in the United States Armed Forces, the National Security Agency, and the State Department, or, in one case, as an adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The lot of us were on a junket arranged by a project called Academic Exchange, whose organizers escorted us from one political talk to another. An Israeli peace negotiator explained to us how he and the government of Israel tried their best to give away the Golan Heights to Bashar al-Assad, back in the days before the Syrian civil war. A philosopher fretted over the rise of the Israeli right; a journalist, likewise.

Then it was Friday afternoon at the end of the day, and our junket headed into the Jaffa Gate and the Old City and its skyless vaulted streets, up the rickety narrow metal stairs for a quick stroll across the rooftops. And there it was, the darkening sky—my chance, at last, to examine whatever it was that so fascinated Bellow. Only, we descended right away along broader stairs to the base of the Western Wall, in time for the same Shabbos intensities that so horrified Pierre Loti in 1894.

Men were dancing in merry Hasidic circles, some of them looking pretty dapper in their big-brimmed hats. Among our group somebody’s son was said to have solved his personal problems by entering into the religious life, and here he came, rounding the turn, his arms interlinked with 20 other pink-cheeked black-hatted Shabbos-observers. I cannot imagine what Loti would have made of it, or Chateaubriand, or Bossuet.

We returned through the vaulted streets, our own procession crossing paths with an even larger procession, headed the other way, of very short people carrying a Mexican flag. And the next morning, having been reminded of how to thread the labyrinth, I crept away from my junket mates to return to the Jaffa Gate and the merchant stalls and up the narrow stairs to the rooftops for an opportunity, at last, to contemplate in tranquility the whatever it was.

This time the rooftops were empty. It was December, and the garment of God was the color of bleached-out blue jeans. Only, it occurred to me that my lonely contemplation might be lacking in street smarts. A “stabbing intifada” had been underway for a few months by then, and it was easy to imagine that, in the eyes of any teenage fanatic who might come along, my isolated and immobilized self could offer an opportunity for murder without martyrdom. Haredim on bicycles peddled along the rooftops. It struck me that I was lost.

Another blackhat came rushing by on his own two feet, and I asked directions in pidgin English, finger in the air. Jaffa Gate, which way? His own finger waggled wordlessly leftward. My finger waggled appreciation. And not a few days later the news media reported that, sure enough, a couple of Jews had been knifed, and one of them was killed, and the attack took place precisely at the Jaffa Gate, and not on a rooftop. The photos displayed the stone arch, the shop fronts, the sloped concrete roadway. The fatal victim turned out to be an Australian Jew, who had immigrated to Jerusalem, only to meet a destiny that would not have been his in Australia.

The news drove me back to Bellow. He reports that, during his time in Jerusalem, a bomb blew up a coffee shop on the Jaffa Road. Six young people were killed. A seventh died later of her injuries. Many people were wounded. “And this is how we live, mister!” a taxi driver tells him. “OK? We live this way.” Bellow remarks that, in those days, the hospitals were still filled with victims of the 1973 war. No one had forgotten that, in the opening moments of that war, the Israeli army had been caught off guard, which made it easy to suppose that, given a few more such blunders, Israel could well be overrun someday by the Arab armies. The fear was national, then, and not just individual. It was a catastrophic fear. Bellow: “The nightmare of annihilation. This is what Israel lives with. Although people will not often speak of it, it is always there.”

Now, here is an oddity in Bellow’s book. Today everyone knows that Israel’s circumstances have improved, such that Israelis themselves are sometimes giddy with satisfaction. I attended a dinner in New York where the guest of honor was Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, who in those days was Michael Oren. And Oren orated at length on Israel’s multiple achievements—greater levels of investment in information technology than in all of Europe, and that sort of thing—capped by the boast that, furthermore, Israel has mastered the challenges of viticulture. The science of technology and the art of life. Everyone was impressed. And yet, in one respect nothing seems to have changed since 1976.

A bus brought the law professors and me to the Israel-Gaza transit station at Kerem Shalom, near the triple border of southern Israel, Gaza, and Egyptian Sinai. The security measures at the station required the Israeli and Palestinian truck drivers to execute a do-si-do maneuver to permit them to exchange cargoes without coming into face-to-face contact. These were precautions against suicide attacks from Gaza. Even as we went about inspecting the facility, fizzing noises in the air were said to be mortar explosions across the Egyptian border. Such was the flame from Sinai. Probably those were incidents of the war which, by then, had been going on for three years between the Egyptian army and the Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate.

A flotilla of three helicopters carried us northward to the foot of the Golan Heights. Up the craggy slopes we went by bus, past the minefields, until we stood on the summit at Mount Bental, a conquest of Israel’s from the 1967 war—an aspect of the fighting that Bellow, who was a war correspondent for Newsday that year, had observed from the Galilee. A couple of lonely Irish soldiers lounged about on behalf of the peacekeeping aspirations of the United Nations. We gazed downward at the pale greens and browns of the lowlands directly to the north, where a variety of wars were underway.

A retired Israeli military intelligence officer, serving as our guide, pointed to the left, which was southernmost Lebanon and at that moment a fiefdom of Hezbollah, which meant a protectorate of Iran. Directly to the right was a strip of Syria that had remained under the control of Bashar al-Assad and the Baath Party, which meant another protectorate of Iran. Further to the right was a zone belonging to the Islamic State. Next was the zone of al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, which in those days was called Al Nusra. One of our law professors was a military man from West Point, who drew my attention to the rat-a-tat of automatic rifle fire from the last of those zones: the second time in my New Yorker’s life that I have had occasion to hear the racket made by al-Qaida.

Israel’s borders, then, south and north—these were the borders of insanity, back in 2015. Have they become any saner over time? The claims about Israel’s internet and the grapevines have a solid look, and it could even be true that, as some people say, the Islamic Republic of Iran is less fearsome, militarily speaking, than it appears to be. The Israelis, huddled within their bomb shelters, could survive the new Lebanon war that everyone has expected for many years now. Still, there is something worrisome about those reassurances, amid the popping and rat-a-tat of mortars and automatic weapons, south and north. The distraught emotions that produce those noises have been burning for nearly a century, and have somehow lost none of their intensity, such that Bellow’s passages on terrorism and fear could just as well have been written earlier this afternoon. “And this is how we live, mister!”


But it is not just those passages. If someone read aloud to you from To Jerusalem and Back without saying what it was, you could end up supposing that whole segments of the book, and not just occasional remarks, were a report on today’s news. Oh, perhaps not every page. Bellow had lunch in Jerusalem with the political philosopher Shlomo Avineri, whose books I have admired—Avineri, a liberal socialist in the 1970s and a first-rate scholar of Karl Marx, who would shortly go to work for Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister.

Avineri’s vision of world affairs, according to Bellow, added up to a left-wing delusion that has come to look antiquely preposterous in our own time—though Avineri himself has reminded me just now that, in Dissent magazine (in the spring 1978 issue), he made clear that Bellow made a hash of his ideas. But mostly the contentions and debates that Bellow reports have survived into our own time, altered only in their names.

Bellow in the tone of a news announcer: “There are troubles in Jerusalem over the Temple Mount, and demonstrations and riots on the West Bank.” A civil war is raging next door, though next door, in 1976, happens to be Lebanon, instead of Syria. The madness of the slaughter horrifies him. “The bottom has fallen out of Beirut.” He notes an almost unbelievable grisliness in the hatred of the Jews. Terrorists on the Golan Heights want to behead the Israelis. He quotes a speech by the defense minister of Syria, who speaks cannibalistically in praise not only of beheading the Israelis but eating their flesh.

He takes note of the peculiar mania that causes so many people around the world to affix their indignation obsessively to Israel, instead of to any number of struggles and wars and oppressions that might appear to be far more dangerous for the human race. “In India, in Africa, in Europe, millions of human beings have been put to flight, transported, enslaved, stamped over borders, left to starve, but only the case of the Palestinians is held permanently open. Where Israel is concerned, the world swells with moral consciousness.” The grand intellectuals bewilder him, Sartre especially—Sartre, who sympathized from time to time with the Israelis, and, even so, agreed to boycott Israel, in order not to offend the Arabs: the very image of intellectual corruption.

Bellow regards Israel’s leaders with dismay. He wonders why those people fail so consistently to address the criticisms and incomprehension that come their way. He does not warm to Rabin, nor to Shimon Peres. Can’t the leaders display a little more sympathy for the Palestinians? Don’t they understand that, in the United States, they are losing the battle for opinion? “I briefly try to persuade Rabin that Israel had better give some thought to the media intelligentsia in the United States.” “Rabin says he is aware of all this. I doubt that Israel’s highest officials understand the danger.” Bellow concludes: “If history is indeed a nightmare, as Karl Marx and James Joyce said, it is time for the Jews, a historical people, to rouse themselves, to burst from historical sleep. And Israel’s political leaders do not seem to me to be awake.”

The West Bank settler zealots, a new phenomenon in those days, frighten him. He notes how sharply alienated are the Israeli intellectuals. The novelist Y, whose name is not revealed, is fed up with incompetent leaders. Professor Tzvi Lamm, whose views are summarized at length, thinks Zionism has lost its way. Bellow speaks to the philosopher J.L. Talmon. “Jewish survival is not only threatened by Arab enemies but undermined from within, says Talmon.” Bellow notes the political situation in the United States: “Congress is, for the moment, pro-Israel, but the State Department is not.”

He reads books and articles by the “Arabists”—the scholars of the Arab world—and sometimes he engages them in conversation in Israel, or London, or Chicago, or California. From those people he draws conclusions:

The root of the problem is simply this—that the Arabs will not agree to the existence of Israel. Walter Laqueur writes that the issue is neither borders nor the formation of a Palestinian state. The core of the problem is, as Elie Kedourie puts it, the right of the Jews, “hitherto a subject community under Islam, to exercise political sovereignty in an area regarded as part of the Muslim domain.” And Laqueur, citing Kedourie, asks, “Why … should the Arabs, who have been unwilling for twenty-eight years to grant this right to the Jews, suddenly be willing to do so just when Arab power and influence have so greatly increased?” Nationalist movements do not renounce national territory.

Bellow wonders about the attractive-sounding alternatives that some people propose. “But then you remember that those who know the subject best are most pessimistic.” The binational possibility comes up. “A binational state would not last long, says Laqueur. In a ‘secular democratic Palestine,’ a civil war would be inevitable. And what prospects are there for a peace guaranteed by outside powers? Which powers?”

Bellow’s discussion with Elie Kedourie and with Kedourie’s wife and colleague, Sylvia Haim, takes a troubling turn. “I ask Kedourie whether there are Arab intellectuals who dissociate themselves to any extent from the traditional religious patriotism. It is useless to apply our Western measures and expectations to Arab intellectuals, he says.”

Here, at last, is a sneer that would, in fact, sound antique in our own moment. Surely there had to be someone among the Arab intellectuals capable of arousing Kedourie’s admiration, no? But then, Kedourie was himself indigenous to the Arab world. He grew up in the old Jewish Quarter of Baghdad, before making his way to Britain and an academic career. Perhaps he meant to say that, even among the ostentatiously secular Arab intellectuals, a politically inflected Islam remained the touchstone of truth. Sylvia Haim likewise grew up in Jewish Baghdad. She has written about the significance of Islam even for the Christians—the Arab Christians of the last century who, without abandoning their Christianity, came to look upon Islam, in its Baathist iteration, as the inner spirit of the Arab nationalist idea.

Bellow interviewed an Arab newspaper editor in Jerusalem. The editor advised him that time was running out on the Israelis—another staple of commentary that seems never to have changed. But Bellow failed to speak to anyone else on the Palestinian or Arab side who might be regarded even remotely as his own counterpart. He feels an antipathy for Henry Kissinger (he thought Kissinger was capable of selling out the Jews, and he had other objections, too), but, in Kissinger’s case, his dislike does not prevent him from arranging an interview—which goes badly. Kissinger has plainly sized up Saul Bellow and has no intention of saying anything memorable.

So why not arrange a similar interview with somebody on the Palestinian side, regardless of how unsympathetic the somebody might appear to be, from Bellow’s perspective? Was the chasm between himself and the Palestinians so enormous? In 1976, Edward Said was the flashy new star of the English Department at Columbia University in New York, or perhaps he was at Stanford for the moment, and, in either case, was easy to find. Said was just then at work on Orientalism, his chef-d’oeuvre, which came out a couple of years later. Only, I can imagine why Bellow might have shied away.

Said thought of himself as a playful man, intellectually speaking, but, in his playfulness, he cultivated a habit of shrinking or even erasing the Jewish place in the history of the Arab world. He was a proper student of Foucault, and, in Orientalism, he elaborated a Foucauldian theory about ideas as mechanisms of domination, according to which the European writers and artists who studied the Middle East, the “Orientalists,” did so in order to impose a colonial domination over the subjects of their art and scholarship. And, in the course of unmasking the “Orientalists” and their imperious intentions, Said did them one better and quietly imposed his own domination. Chateaubriand, he observed, was “moved by the plight of the Jews” in Jerusalem—though only in order to supply “the necessary poignance to his Christian vindictiveness.” And Said carefully failed to mention what made the poignance poignant, which was Chateaubriand’s remark about the Jews as “slaves and strangers in their own country.” That was always the problem with Edward Said. A phrase like “their own country” was never going to make it into the post-colonialist masterpiece of 1978. Said was a man with a program. But programs do not make for good discussions.


At the American Colony Hotel, in East Jerusalem, I attended a talk by Sari Nusseibeh, formerly the president of Al-Quds University, greatly admired for his intellect and moderate style—and I wondered if here perhaps could have been someone for Bellow to look up. Nusseibeh is more of a scion of Arab Jerusalem even than Said, given the ancient Nusseibeh family role as Muslim guardians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Back in 1975 or ’76, he was a graduate student at Harvard, which means that, even if he was not at Said’s level, he was, at minimum, equally accessible. And Nusseibeh and Bellow seem to share a humane instinct, which is, in principle, anti-programmatic.

Bellow in To Jerusalem and Back reflects that a writer’s role is to hold himself back from the pressures of politics, even at their most extreme. “Stendhal’s heroes,” he says, “when they are in prison, choose to think about love,” which makes him admire Stendhal. He admires the Soviet dissidents. “Andrei Sinyavsky, in his prison journal, concentrates on art. Perhaps to remain a poet in such circumstances is also to reach the heart of politics. Then human feelings, human experience, the human form and face, recover their proper place—the foreground.” Bellow, I imagine, must have admired Yehudah Amichai on the same basis—Amichai, who, in one of his Jerusalem poems, says: “I go to Prophet Street, there aren’t any.”

And Nusseibeh thinks similarly, or, at least, he says he does—a main contention in his book, What Is a Palestinian State Worth?. Nusseibeh considers that people have authentic identities, and, then again, they have ideologically imposed identities, which are shaped by “meta-biological” or “leviathan” doctrines (his academic discipline is philosophy, which makes him a more systematic thinker than Bellow, and a clunkier writer). And he supposes that, if only the meta-biological and leviathan identities could be thrown off, like a sack, the authentic identities would stand revealed. We would see “history’s human face”—which is Bellow’s phrase almost exactly.

Only, when he tries to draw practical conclusions from these ideas, every one of his thoughts or observations amounts to an argument that, all in all, a Jewish state ought not to exist. The argument is pragmatic. It is already too late, he said at the American Colony Hotel (and says in What Is a Palestinian State Worth? in 2011), for a two-state solution. Therefore he would like to consider a return to the old idea of a single, binational state for both peoples—which would, by definition, bring the Jewish state to an end.

Or his argument is humanitarian: He worries that a Jewish state, by gathering the Jewish people together, makes the Jews more vulnerable to their enemies, instead of less. His argument is demographic: He predicts that, in 20 years, the Arab population within the 1967 borders of Israel will have become as numerous as the Jewish population, and the Jews themselves will no longer be able to identify with Israel. Or else the Jews will transform Israel, if they haven’t done so already, into an apartheid state in the old, officially racist, South African style, which will make the Jewish state morally repulsive.

Or the argument is biological: He wonders if, genetically speaking, the Jews are the Jews. He points to the investigations of an eccentric Israeli scholar who has revived an old fantasy about the Jews, according to which the people who think of themselves nowadays as Jews are actually descended from other populations altogether, instead of from the ancient Hebrews. From a genetic standpoint, the real Jews may be the Palestinians, etc. (There is something of this in Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History.) And never does he pause to consider the possibility that Israel’s Jews, in organizing their state, may have acted rationally and responsibly, given their own circumstances and prospects.

So what would Bellow have discovered, if he had looked up Sari Nusseibeh, the distinguished and moderate philosopher? It is dismaying. He would have turned up still more evidence to bolster his suspicion, drawn from his “Arabist” experts, about “the root of the problem,” as he labels it—namely, “that the Arabs will not agree to the existence of Israel.” But then who should have been his interlocutor? I wonder if he shouldn’t have stayed faithful to his own sensibility, and turned to the poets. Bellow was the most poetic of novelists, and was at home among poets. Mahmoud Darwish, then—should he have looked him up?

In Paris one day I saw in the bookstore windows that Adonis, the Syrian poet, had brought out his own book about Jerusalem. And it struck me that here, perhaps, might be a proper interlocutor—Adonis, who is not a Palestinian, but is a big thinker, and is always said to be up for a Nobel Prize (Bellow himself won the Nobel in that same 1976), and never wins, but ought to have done so: Adonis, who was described by Edward Said himself as “the most eloquent spokesman and explorer of Arabic modernity.” Or better still: “today’s most daring and provocative Arab poet.” Or, by the critic Maya Jaggi in the Guardian: “the greatest living poet of the Arab world.” But I will return to this in a follow-up essay tomorrow—the topic of Jerusalem, as seen from the perspective of a Bellow reader who has opened the pages of Adonis.

Read part two of this essay on Bellow in Jerusalem here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.