My Friend in Kfar Saba

Whenever I visit Israel -- most recently, last month -- I spend a day with Haggai. We have shared a deep friendship for thirty-five years, ever since I taught American history at Tel Aviv University as a visiting Fulbright Lecturer. To my surprise and initial unease, Haggai -- the faculty member who had invited me -- attended every seminar meeting. But in our weekly after-class cafeteria conversations, our roles reversed, and he became my Israeli teacher. Ever since, during our sabbaticals and frequent visits back and forth between Israel and the United States, our friendship has deepened and our families have become closely intertwined.

Haggai fought in the Palmach during Israel's war of independence, receiving serious battle wounds that nearly took his life. Then, dedicated Zionist pioneer that he was, he and his wife Adina moved to kibbutz Revivim in the Negev, near Gaza. I still persuade Haggai to retell his "owl" story from when he was kibbutz secretary.

A Moroccan woman refused to permit her baby to sleep in the children's house because an owl, a symbol of bad tidings in her native land, had taken up nightly residence on the roof. Not wanting her child to be cursed by its presence, she had decided -- in violation of kibbutz rules -- to bring him home each night to sleep. She finally relented only when Haggai explained that an owl's curse, admittedly menacing in Morocco, lost its evil potency in Eretz Israel. After a decade of kibbutz life, Haggai enrolled in the Hebrew University, then received his doctorate in American history from Columbia and taught for many years at Tel Aviv University. At age 80, he remains the living definition of a "mensch."

Haggai and his family have lived for many years in the small, pleasant city of Kfar Saba, northeast of Tel Aviv. In the Second Temple era, Josephus reports, Kfar Saba was an important battleground. The Talmud refers to a sycamore tree by the same name. Perhaps it was called Kfar Saba as a reminder of someone's "grandfather's village." Established as a Zionist community in 1898 on land purchased from local Arabs, it endured hard times until after World War I, when it became a permanent settlement. Just outside the city is Nabi Yamin, reputed to be the tomb of Joseph's son Benjamin.

Kfar Saba is located a kilometer west of the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and Jordan. During the second intifada, the city suffered several terrorist attacks launched from nearby Arab villages across the old "Green Line." Three residents, including a young girl, were killed, and 75 were injured. Col. Dror Weinberg, a graduate of Rabbi Kook's Mercaz HaRav yeshiva -- who became the brigade commander in Hebron and was praised as "a modern-day Maccabee" after his heroic attempt to rescue Israelis during a terrorist attack outside Kiryat Arba in 2002 -- is buried here, near his boyhood home.

Now Kfar Saba is once again just a small, pleasant city -- the best of middle Israel, where normal Israelis live. It is neither as prosperous nor as Americanized as nearby Ra'anana. But it has a splendid park and modern municipal center, streets crowded with high-rise apartment buildings, and a handful of tiny bungalows (including one on Rehov Ostashinski near Haggai's home) that have been preserved as reminders of bygone years when Kfar Saba was a small, intimate village of Zionist settlers. But now, in the city center, there is -- in vivid testimony to Kfar Saba's modernity -- a garish "M" beckoning locals inside, even on Shabbat, for a burger and fries (treife, of course).

Several hours into my recent visit, Haggai and I had already shared warmly intense conversation updating each other on our personal lives, assessing the state of Israeli and American politics, and recounting my recent visit to Petra and then to Hebron for Shabbat Chaye Sarah. When it was time for a break before evening darkness descended, I ventured out alone because Haggai's accumulated war wounds and medical problems make walking difficult. But we had so often walked together along nearby streets that I could almost close my eyes and find my way past the small synagogue, just then beginning the Mincha service, to the bend that led me past the modest cottage on Ostashinksy that was once inhabited, as the sign outside reveals, by the first head of the municipality of Kfar Saba.

On Rehov Weizmann, the tasteful main shopping street with its tree-lined divider, I headed east, down the hill, past clothing and home appliance shops closed for Shabbat and a cafe that was just then reopening. Glancing into the distance, I suddenly stopped, riveted. The setting sun behind me illuminated two hilltop villages several kilometers to the east. The one with the tall minaret is Qalkilya, through which Haggai, Adina, my wife Susan, and I had passed more than two decades ago on our way to visit Haggai's colleague in Shilo -- because I wanted to see a settlement. On the adjacent hill is another settlement, Alfei Menashe, founded in 1983 and named after the ancient tribe of Manasseh, whose land it was in biblical antiquity.

The sheer aesthetic beauty of their illumination by the setting sun was breathtaking. So, too, was their paired proximity -- a vivid symbol of two peoples precariously coexisting on one land under Israeli military supervision. But I could not escape the realization that if there should be a State of Palestine whose western border follows the old "Green Line," then the post-1949 divide to which so many Israelis fervently wish to return for "peace," all of Kfar Saba will literally be under the nearby guns and missiles of the Palestinian Authority. Nearly one hundred thousand Israelis will then have as much security in their daily, and nightly, lives as did Londoners during World War II.

When I returned to Haggai's apartment, I asked him and Adina how they could possibly imagine a State of Palestine one kilometer away, with every pedestrian on Rehov Weizmann a constant and tempting target from now until eternity. They will accept it, they both responded, "for a secure peace" -- the only possible answer I had anticipated for these loyal and devoted Labor Zionists. To this skeptical American, however, their response posed another question: in the foreseeable future, can Palestinians possibly be relied upon for a "secure" peace? There is not, I believe, a shred of historical or contemporary evidence to support an affirmative answer. We agreed, as always, to disagree.

The next day, at twilight, Susan and I sat together on stone slabs overlooking the Tel Aviv beach, near Neve Tzedek just north of Jaffa, to watch the setting sun. It was our last evening in Israel before returning to Boston. Both the site and sight were unspeakably gorgeous as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon. Just then, my cell phone rang: Haggai was calling to say goodbye and wish us a safe journey home.

Jerold S. Auerbach, professor of history at Wellesley College, is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).
Whenever I visit Israel -- most recently, last month -- I spend a day with Haggai. We have shared a deep friendship for thirty-five years, ever since I taught American history at Tel Aviv University as a visiting Fulbright Lecturer. To my surprise and initial unease, Haggai -- the faculty member who had invited me -- attended every seminar meeting. But in our weekly after-class cafeteria conversations, our roles reversed, and he became my Israeli teacher. Ever since, during our sabbaticals and frequent visits back and forth between Israel and the United States, our friendship has deepened and our families have become closely intertwined.

Haggai fought in the Palmach during Israel's war of independence, receiving serious battle wounds that nearly took his life. Then, dedicated Zionist pioneer that he was, he and his wife Adina moved to kibbutz Revivim in the Negev, near Gaza. I still persuade Haggai to retell his "owl" story from when he was kibbutz secretary.

A Moroccan woman refused to permit her baby to sleep in the children's house because an owl, a symbol of bad tidings in her native land, had taken up nightly residence on the roof. Not wanting her child to be cursed by its presence, she had decided -- in violation of kibbutz rules -- to bring him home each night to sleep. She finally relented only when Haggai explained that an owl's curse, admittedly menacing in Morocco, lost its evil potency in Eretz Israel. After a decade of kibbutz life, Haggai enrolled in the Hebrew University, then received his doctorate in American history from Columbia and taught for many years at Tel Aviv University. At age 80, he remains the living definition of a "mensch."

Haggai and his family have lived for many years in the small, pleasant city of Kfar Saba, northeast of Tel Aviv. In the Second Temple era, Josephus reports, Kfar Saba was an important battleground. The Talmud refers to a sycamore tree by the same name. Perhaps it was called Kfar Saba as a reminder of someone's "grandfather's village." Established as a Zionist community in 1898 on land purchased from local Arabs, it endured hard times until after World War I, when it became a permanent settlement. Just outside the city is Nabi Yamin, reputed to be the tomb of Joseph's son Benjamin.

Kfar Saba is located a kilometer west of the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and Jordan. During the second intifada, the city suffered several terrorist attacks launched from nearby Arab villages across the old "Green Line." Three residents, including a young girl, were killed, and 75 were injured. Col. Dror Weinberg, a graduate of Rabbi Kook's Mercaz HaRav yeshiva -- who became the brigade commander in Hebron and was praised as "a modern-day Maccabee" after his heroic attempt to rescue Israelis during a terrorist attack outside Kiryat Arba in 2002 -- is buried here, near his boyhood home.

Now Kfar Saba is once again just a small, pleasant city -- the best of middle Israel, where normal Israelis live. It is neither as prosperous nor as Americanized as nearby Ra'anana. But it has a splendid park and modern municipal center, streets crowded with high-rise apartment buildings, and a handful of tiny bungalows (including one on Rehov Ostashinski near Haggai's home) that have been preserved as reminders of bygone years when Kfar Saba was a small, intimate village of Zionist settlers. But now, in the city center, there is -- in vivid testimony to Kfar Saba's modernity -- a garish "M" beckoning locals inside, even on Shabbat, for a burger and fries (treife, of course).

Several hours into my recent visit, Haggai and I had already shared warmly intense conversation updating each other on our personal lives, assessing the state of Israeli and American politics, and recounting my recent visit to Petra and then to Hebron for Shabbat Chaye Sarah. When it was time for a break before evening darkness descended, I ventured out alone because Haggai's accumulated war wounds and medical problems make walking difficult. But we had so often walked together along nearby streets that I could almost close my eyes and find my way past the small synagogue, just then beginning the Mincha service, to the bend that led me past the modest cottage on Ostashinksy that was once inhabited, as the sign outside reveals, by the first head of the municipality of Kfar Saba.

On Rehov Weizmann, the tasteful main shopping street with its tree-lined divider, I headed east, down the hill, past clothing and home appliance shops closed for Shabbat and a cafe that was just then reopening. Glancing into the distance, I suddenly stopped, riveted. The setting sun behind me illuminated two hilltop villages several kilometers to the east. The one with the tall minaret is Qalkilya, through which Haggai, Adina, my wife Susan, and I had passed more than two decades ago on our way to visit Haggai's colleague in Shilo -- because I wanted to see a settlement. On the adjacent hill is another settlement, Alfei Menashe, founded in 1983 and named after the ancient tribe of Manasseh, whose land it was in biblical antiquity.

The sheer aesthetic beauty of their illumination by the setting sun was breathtaking. So, too, was their paired proximity -- a vivid symbol of two peoples precariously coexisting on one land under Israeli military supervision. But I could not escape the realization that if there should be a State of Palestine whose western border follows the old "Green Line," then the post-1949 divide to which so many Israelis fervently wish to return for "peace," all of Kfar Saba will literally be under the nearby guns and missiles of the Palestinian Authority. Nearly one hundred thousand Israelis will then have as much security in their daily, and nightly, lives as did Londoners during World War II.

When I returned to Haggai's apartment, I asked him and Adina how they could possibly imagine a State of Palestine one kilometer away, with every pedestrian on Rehov Weizmann a constant and tempting target from now until eternity. They will accept it, they both responded, "for a secure peace" -- the only possible answer I had anticipated for these loyal and devoted Labor Zionists. To this skeptical American, however, their response posed another question: in the foreseeable future, can Palestinians possibly be relied upon for a "secure" peace? There is not, I believe, a shred of historical or contemporary evidence to support an affirmative answer. We agreed, as always, to disagree.

The next day, at twilight, Susan and I sat together on stone slabs overlooking the Tel Aviv beach, near Neve Tzedek just north of Jaffa, to watch the setting sun. It was our last evening in Israel before returning to Boston. Both the site and sight were unspeakably gorgeous as the sun slowly dipped below the horizon. Just then, my cell phone rang: Haggai was calling to say goodbye and wish us a safe journey home.

Jerold S. Auerbach, professor of history at Wellesley College, is the author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009).

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