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War and Palestine

The great screenwriter remembers a wartime visit to the Holy Land

Walter Bernstein
February 01, 2017
Illustration: Esther Werdiger / Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Esther Werdiger / Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Esther Werdiger / Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Esther Werdiger / Tablet Magazine

In the years 1943-44, as a soldier in the American Army, I spent time in what was then officially called Mandatory Palestine, the area mandated by the League of Nations to the British after World War I. Most Europeans just called it Palestine. The Jews who had settled there called it Land of Israel. The Arabs who lived there preferred Palestine or, for some of them, Southern Syria. I knew nothing of this and cared less. I was a correspondent for Yank, the Army weekly magazine and, although I am sure it was not its intent, the Army had cut me orders that allowed me to join the war wherever I saw fit. Flashing them successfully before any baffled officer who questioned me, I would hitchhike my way to the action, catching rides in planes or trucks or the occasional jeep. In those days, the war for me was the campaigns in Sicily and Italy, where I would temporarily join various units and write about them. The soldiers were bemused that I was there at all when I didn’t have to be. They thought I was crazy. But I had had infantry training and carried a gun along with my Olivetti typewriter and a bedroll and so could be temporarily useful, and for much of the Sicily campaign I hooked up with a reconnaissance unit at the tip of our advance. The reason I was at the tip was that the Army was feuding with Yank and didn’t want a Yank correspondent in Sicily. If found, I would be deported back to North Africa. I had decided that nobody would be dumb enough to look for me where there was a chance they might be shot. Mostly my little group advanced without incident while the Germans retreated, but not before mining everything in sight. We would hear a popping sound in the distance and know some unwary soldier had picked a cactus pear or an apple from a tree and it had gone off in his face. We liberated a hill town after a brief and bloody skirmish and I saw my first corpse, an Italian soldier lying in a ditch. He looked lightly asleep, as if a nudge would awaken him. I was not sure what I felt. Nothing seemed adequate. I was learning the uses of denial. Death could not possibly happen to me. But I had the immense luxury of leaving the war on my own terms and so, from time to time, I would repair to the more welcoming haven of Palestine or the lush pastures of Cairo and lie to myself that I needed rest and recreation.

In those days, Palestine was an R&R area for American soldiers, particularly the airmen. They were flown in from their various bases along the Mediterranean, deposited in hostels and taken to beaches during the day and nightclubs at night. There was little or no contact with the local population, whether Arab or Jewish. The Army felt this would expose the soldiers to exotic sexual practices or disease, the one inevitably following the other. This was true wherever the Americans went. The idea was to create a little bit of America to make soldiers feel a little less homesick. Everyone agreed this was a good idea. There was fresh milk to be drunk and sheets to sleep under, and after what they had been through, the airmen considered Palestine a fine and friendly place, a respite from killing or being killed.

I first came to Palestine after having spent six miserable weeks in Tehran, not by choice. I had been sent overseas to go to Moscow as the Yank correspondent there. In its unfathomable way, the Army had thought the best route was through Persia. This entailed a 42-day trip on a Dutch freighter from Philadelphia to the Persian Gulf and then a bone-cracking ride up to Tehran, where I was to report to our military attaché, who would then funnel me on to Moscow. By the time I got there, the Russians had changed their mind. They would accept a civilian correspondent, but not an Army one. This left me with no assignment. The military attaché was sympathetic. He ordered me to stay put until I heard otherwise. Given the Army, that could be forever. I felt trapped. Tehran was beautiful—snow-topped mountains shimmering in the distance—but it was not Moscow. Its beauty was skin-deep. Up close, it was hot and dirty when it wasn’t cold and dirty, and no one seemed to like Americans very much. It might have been different if the few who were there were combat troops who could be at least feared. The only job of these men was to ferry lend-lease material to the Russians. I filled the time by entering a boxing tournament. I had taken instruction on the Dutch freighter from one of the Navy gun crew who had just started a professional boxing career, and I had the dangerous delusion that I could fight a bit. My opponent would be selected from one of the men who drove the trucks that carried the military equipment from the gulf ports up to Tehran, where the Russians took over. The roads were either bad or nonexistent, and most of the drivers suffered from kidney problems due to the pounding they took. On the other hand, or possibly because of this, they looked very tough. My trainer was the resident Yank correspondent, a cheerful Irishman whose advice was to get in close and hit him in the kidneys. I was not sure I could do this. It would certainly invite retaliation, possibly severe. But I was saved by a command from Yank to go at once to Jerusalem and be part of a world-wide radio broadcast celebrating Yank‘s first year. I flew, badly hungover after a boozy farewell from my Irish friend, but happy to escape.

And there was Jerusalem.

The spell of great cities is hard to explain. Jerusalem was all past. History was not only in its stones, but in the air. As some cities smell of the sea or the automobile, Jerusalem smelled of its tangled, bloody history. You could look at a bare hillside and almost believe that a marvel had happened there. I checked in at the YMCA, an unlovely pile of Kansas City Gothic, and found the radio unit that was to give the broadcast. They assigned me a pair of small Arab boys as guides, cheerful and impish, their speech enlivened by slang they had acquired from the Australian or British or New Zealand troops who had preceded us. They even had a bit of Polish. They liked the idea of having an American to show around, sensing infinite rewards at the end. The broadcast went well. I had written a short, modest piece about what I had reported on the war so far, careful not to elaborate its nonexistent dangers beyond credulity, and read it to approving nods from my two guides. Afterward, I gave them candy. They said the Australians had also given them cigarettes. I said I didn’t smoke. They took this as some kind of bad American joke and abandoned me on the spot.

I was back with no definite assignment. The war beckoned, but I decided it could continue to do without me for a while. I couldn’t get to Russia, but I could still write stories about our brave fighting men. I trolled the rest areas and found waist gunners and tail gunners and fighter pilots who were braver than they had any right to be. They were having a great time in Palestine. They could sleep as late as they liked. The beds had sheets. Their stories were often hair-raising and they told them with eager innocence, pleased that a writer thought them important enough to write about and that the people back home would know about them. They were like children playing hooky. They reveled in their current freedom, but knew the truant officer would soon be coming for them. No good time lasted forever. I was careful to get their names and the names of their hometowns right, not wanting to think how many of them would never get home to read the stories.


I had an introduction to an American who had settled here and was now an editor at the English-language newspaper, The Palestine Post, and looked him up. He generously invited me into his home for meals and talk. His name was Ted, and he was a New Yorker who had come to Palestine in the depths of the Depression, but not for economic reasons. He said he had wanted to live where he could walk down the street and nobody would call him a dirty Jew. He spoke as though no one but Jews lived here. He was married to a lively attractive Sabra fluent in English, Hebrew and Arabic. I marveled at how effortlessly she slipped from one language to another. Her attitude toward Arabs was one of friendly contempt. Their friends were mostly professionals like themselves, and the evenings would be filled with good food and local wine and intense conversation. One friend was the son of Judah Magnes, the president of the Hebrew University. He would report on the quarrels with his father over which kind of state Palestine would become after the war. President Magnes believed in a single binational state. His son did not. I listened without any particular interest. It all seemed faraway. We were all Jews; that in itself seemed enough. I had always felt thoroughly Jewish, happy in the diaspora. These Jews wanted to make a country here. It was all right with me; it wouldn’t be my country. The war was what was meaningful, the fight against the Nazis, against fascism.

Often, the talk was about how to get refugees, the lucky few who had escaped the camps, into Palestine. They had nowhere else to go. Latin America was receptive, but you needed money for passage on a boat, and few had more than the clothes on their backs. The United States had imposed a punitive quota. The British patrolled the Palestine coast, turning back refugee ships. I saw a rusty freighter they had allowed to dock for refueling. The passengers were confined to the boat. They crowded the rails, looking dumbly out at the promised land. A British escort ship lay outside like a dog guarding sheep. They were both gone by the morning.

During the day, I wandered around Jerusalem, inspecting the bazaars, waving away the peddlers selling pieces of the original cross. Lured by the pungent smell of spices and perfumes, I would stop and buy scents I would never use. Mostly, I just walked, inhaling the city, happily losing myself in the mix of people thronging the narrow streets. Most were Arabs or Jews, proximity taken for granted. Women strolled with covered heads, laughing behind veils. I was sure they were laughing at me, another military tourist. Jerusalem had seen enough of them. Some women were bolder, head uncovered, hips swinging, hair flowing down to their waist. Invitation in their eyes: Come, but beware. Soldiers from the desert campaigns were everywhere, hard-bitten Australians and New Zealanders you would not wish to cross. Where they had been was stamped in the lines on their weathered faces. Music was always in the air, escaping from the houses that lined the streets: the wailing Arabic sound that had echoes of the klezmer music I had grown up with; classical music from a phonograph; a child practicing scales on a piano. Sometimes I would stop walking and just listen. I visited the Wailing Wall and watched old bearded men and shawl-covered women rock back and forth, praying, and felt the distaste I always felt when encountering the Hasidim. They were what I needed to get away from. Maybe their medieval flimflam still belonged somewhere, but not in my neighborhood. My prejudice was total. I could not see behind their beards. The only Jews with beards I accepted were the members of a professional basketball team called The House of David, who only wore their beards as publicity and were probably not even Jews. The Hasidim offended my aesthetics and threatened my aspirations, which were to be totally assimilated. So far I had been successful. We had nothing in common except, of course, in other circumstances, we would have shared a boxcar on the way to the crematorium. I did not dwell too much on that bond. At night, I would find an outdoor cafe and, because of the blackout, eat my dinner in total darkness, unsure of what was on my plate. Occasionally, a German plane would appear out of the night like a guest at the wrong dinner party, make a desultory loop over the city, drop a single bomb and then disappear back into the dark. There seemed to be no good reason for this. Jerusalem contained nothing of military value. The bomb never seemed to hit anything of consequence. But the air was soft and the food tasty and the dark usually without menace, and all that was lacking was romance.

Out of curiosity, I attended a criminal trial I had heard about. Several hundred rifles and boxes of ammunition had been found in a kibbutz and six of its leaders arrested for arms smuggling. The trial was held in what had been a private house, and British soldiers patted you down as you passed through an elaborate doorway. Inside, more soldiers and a few journalists and civilians milled around while an Arab tea seller moved among them, carrying his cart and murmuring softly as he poured his tea. You had to prove you were either a relative or a bona fide journalist to get into the courtroom itself. I showed my orders, which had the usual effect of confusing everyone who read them, and talked fast. The courtroom was small and crowded and airless. The few chairs were taken by a few men and women from the kibbutz. The women looked worried, the men defiant, lined up against a wall, and watched the accused. They seemed very young in their shorts and open shirts, possibly in their 20s but with the baby fat not entirely gone. They stood at ease in the dock, looking unconcerned while the prosecutor made his case. He insisted they were part of a Jewish terrorist group devoted to expelling the British from Palestine. He carried on at length about this, using the word “terrorist” like a hammer. These men were terrorists—killers, pure and simple. The guns were to be used to kill British soldiers in the name of a Jewish state that did not exist. Innocent people would be killed. Occasionally, one of the young men would spot someone in the audience and smile reassuringly at them. The trial was being held in a British military court, the prosecutor a British colonel, as starched as his uniform. He was particularly exercised about homemade grenades that had been found along with the rifles. He wanted to know more about them because they were discovered to be more powerful than the ones the British army used. The accused said they knew nothing about the grenades. They had no idea how they had gotten there. The kibbutz was unguarded, a place of peace. Anyone could have placed them. Possibly they had been planted by the Palestine Police, which, as everyone knew, was riddled with Nazis. This last theory was not far-fetched. I had read in the British press of members of Oswald Mosley’s Fascist Party enrolling in the Palestine Police to avoid conscription in the British army. Others with similar sympathies had come from Ireland, where they had belonged to the hated Black and Tans, the constabulary set up to hunt down Irish revolutionaries. The Jews regarded them with fear and scorn. Later, I was told about the unsurprising verdict: guilty, with long prison terms.

I looked up another soldier-writer named Irwin Shaw I had met briefly in New York and whom I found was living for the moment in Tel Aviv. I liked Tel Aviv, although not as much as Jerusalem. In its shabby modernity, it reminded me of Miami Beach. There were no high buildings, no sense of history. Everything seemed a bit makeshift. But there was the beach and an esplanade that ran along the sea, and music still flowed from open windows: no Arab music here; this improvised city was for Jews but you could hear the piano lessons and sometimes a live duet or trio or even a quartet playing Brahms or Beethoven. I wondered about those musicians, in what famed European orchestra they might have played. From which occupied country had they escaped, bringing their indispensable music with them? Who had been left behind?

Irwin received me graciously. He was a large, generous, crewcut athlete from Brooklyn who had achieved success as a short-story writer principally for The New Yorker. In the Army, he had been part of a film unit headed by the director George Stevens. When they got to Cairo, Irwin had dropped out of the unit with murky permission and gone to Palestine to write a play. He was staying at the home of a refugee woman from Berlin, and she rented me an extra room. She would walk around the apartment with a sad distracted air as though she were looking for something she had lost. She had no need to say what it was. In the morning, she would bring us a breakfast of fruit and cheese and different kinds of olives and warm flat bread, and afterward Irwin and I would each sit down at opposite ends of the room, backs to one another, and write whatever we had to write. Irwin was a creature of appetites, and writing was one of them, along with food and sport and women. He would sit down and almost immediately his typewriter would go off like a machine gun. I sat there, paralyzed. Irwin had no patience for anything like writer’s block, and if he did not hear my typewriter clacking away, he would turn and demand to know what was the matter with me. In the afternoons, we would go to the beach or else find a tennis court and rent racquets and play until the sun went down. The war did not exist.

Through Post editor Ted, I was invited to visit a kibbutz a few hours from Jerusalem. The visit would be a privilege; they did not ordinarily encourage strangers, but Ted knew I would be welcome because most of them were Americans. He also arranged for a car and driver to take me there and back. The car was an old Citroen, and the driver a burly Romanian refugee named Branco who liked to talk. We communicated in a soupy mixture of Romanian, English and Yiddish. He was particularly happy to speak Yiddish because he said the Zionists berated him for speaking it. They said it was the language of the shtetl and the concentration camp, a language of defeat. He should speak Hebrew, the language of the new militant Jew. But Branco considered Hebrew a language without euphony, unlike Romanian. He would demonstrate with sentences first in one language then the other. I thought he made his point. His personal story had an awful banality: just another ordinary Jewish family rounded up and sent for extermination. Branco had escaped by hiding in a manure pile and then scrounged and hid and talked his way to Palestine. He did not know what had happened to his wife and two small sons, but he knew. He was grateful for being safe now, but Branco did not like Palestine. He did not think of it as his homeland and felt no connection to Zionism. They were not his kind of Jews. I had met others like him, refugees who clung to their own language while wanting only to return to their former country. Branco could not wait for the war to end so that he could leave and become a European again. He did not think he would return to Romania. He believed in the diaspora; if Jews scattered around the world, it would be harder to find and kill them.

We set off in the early morning before the heat closed in. For most of the way, our road ran through a pitiless desert, on either side nothing but the sun beating down on scrub and rock, but every so often the desert would suddenly burst into colorful groves of lemons and oranges. Branco explained that these belonged to different collective farms. I marveled at the struggle it had taken to wrest this fruit from this unforgiving earth and felt a modest pride that Jews had done this. It was the same pride I had felt about the homemade grenades. We were not only people of the book or the counting house. We drove through small Arab villages, where brown-skinned children stopped their play to watch us pass and Branco would take candy from his pocket and throw it at them. I watched them scramble after the pieces. Behind them were women sitting in doorways, holding infants in their arms. Behind them were men watching us silently as we sped past.

The kibbutz was set on top of a hill, more for defensive purposes than the fertility of the land. This was brown and scrubby, but fruit trees dotted the slopes and there were garden plots between unpainted wooden houses. We parked in front of the largest one. A young man came out. Shorts, open shirt, a long, unsmiling face browned from the sun. He greeted us formally in Midwestern English. His name was Amos; he had been assigned as our guide; just tell him what we wanted to see. Branco decided to stay with the car. Amos took me for a walk around the premises. He pointed out the pears and plums they were growing, the plots of tomatoes. He was not unfriendly, but neither was he welcoming. He answered my questions from a polite distance. He came from Cleveland, he had two children, but another was on the way. Everyone here had children, there was no limit, having them was encouraged although they were not Orthodox. The kibbutz was new, but growing. More recruits were coming from America all the time. They expected a flood when the war was over. They had bought some of their land from local Arabs, the rest they had simply occupied. No one had been living on it. They had no idea who owned it. Whoever did, he had done nothing with it. The land belonged to whomever could make it grow. We could see what it had been before the kibbutz had gotten hold of it, see what they had wrought. It was only the beginning. It was their land by right of occupation; they would not give it up, no matter who claimed it. He had no interest in me, where I came from, whom I might be. I was getting the tour.

Afterward, we had lunch in a communal dining room, seated at a long table together with a dozen or so young men and women who looked and dressed like Amos. They all seemed very healthy. Amos explained that the children ate separately. The meal was homegrown vegetables and sour cream. The talk was mostly in Hebrew sprinkled with English and there was much laughter. No one talked to me. I was ignored. At first I believed this was not happening. It could not be deliberate. I had asked a few questions and gotten no answers; perhaps they were shy or occupied with weightier matters. It was as though I was not there. I finished the meal in silence and, outside, I asked Amos what that was all about, Had I been rude? What had I done to provoke this? “You’re not a real Jew,” he said. “That’s why they weren’t talking to you.” I thought he was kidding, making the kind of joke that Jews told on themselves. I said that I was as real a Jew as any of them. He shook his head. “You’re not here,” he said patiently. “If you were a real Jew, you would be here, not back in America.” He said this without rancor. A fact, undeniable. They are not my kind of Jews, Branco had said.

I did not stay much longer in Palestine. I did make another broadcast, speechless this time. I was asked to ring the bells at Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, again for an international audience. My helpers were five Arab children between 9 and 12 who looked just like the two who had been my guides for the Yank broadcast. They treated me the same as the others had, as a kind of curio who could be examined for amusement. We got along well, and when the red light came on and we pulled the heavy ropes and the bells began their rich plangent sounds, we all of us whooped and hollered, laughing as we pulled, shouting, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” the boys holding onto the ropes so that they got pulled high up to the ceiling, where I was afraid they would hit their heads. But they had done this before and knew how close to come. Afterward, we shook hands all around and I gave them the candy and gum I had brought. They said I should come back and visit again. I said I would certainly try. We all agreed Palestine was a beautiful country. The 12-year-old said it would be even better without the Jews. I watched them for a moment, smiling and nodding, and then I said I was a Jew. They shook their heads. I couldn’t be, I was an American. They liked Americans.

I went to say goodbye to Ted and his family. A friend was there whom I had met before: Gershon Agronsky, the publisher of The Palestine Post. Middle-aged, attractive, sophisticated, he had fought with the British in WWI and had gone on to found this English-language newspaper. I enjoyed listening to him; he had a keen, liberal outlook. He came with me when I left and we drove down to Tel Aviv. He suggested a walk along the esplanade before we parted. The sun was going down and the sea was flat, and it seemed fitting to take leave in such a calm and pleasant way. Agronsky talked about the war and Palestine and what a democratic Jewish state would look like when it was formed, as it would surely be whenever the big war was over. There would be sacrifices, of course. You could not form a nation without them. He pointed to Jaffa, a headland jutting out in the water, inhabited almost exclusively by Arabs. “They will have to go,” he said. I was not sure I heard him right. I said they had lived there for hundreds of years. He knew that. He sympathized. Still, they would have to go. We walked on, talking about this and that.

I flew to Cairo with Irwin and we found a place to live and ate the famous ice cream at Groppi’s and played tennis at the Gezira Sporting Club with little Arab boys to pick up our balls if they strayed off the court. But soon it was time to do what I should have been doing, and I hitched a ride on a B-24 back to Italy and found an infantry unit battling its bloody way up the coast and fed myself back into the war. But for a long time I could not get that pleasant liberal voice out of my head. They will have to go. It did not matter how long they had lived there, what they owned, whom they had buried there. Nations are built on dispossession. They would have to go. And, of course, they went.


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Walter Bernstein wrote the screenplays for The Molly Maguires, Fail-Safe, Semi-Tough, and Yanks. His script for The Front, starring Woody Allen, received an Oscar nomination. A longtime writer for The New Yorker, he is the author of the collection of World War II stories Keep Your Head Down and Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist.