Around 1972 I went to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the holiest place in the Jewish tradition. In the five years since Israel had conquered East Jerusalem, including the Old City, archeologists had conducted excavations around the area and developed a center that included a tour of the subterranean layers beneath the Western Wall and its environs.
I participated in one of the tours, led by an enthusiastic guide who took us below. By now I have only a hazy memory of what we saw, except for one exchange that I remember vividly.
The tour ended at a small seating area, like a miniature theater, which included a diorama of how the place above us must have looked before the Jewish Diaspora two millennia ago, when the people of Israel would make regular pilgrimages to the Temple Mount. (This tour took place over 50 years ago; it’s probably changed and been enlarged since then.) The guide pointed out various elements in the diorama, which had been constructed based on archeological findings:
“The archeologists dug and found remnants of the various Muslim cultures that had lived here before. They dug underneath those and found remnants of the various Christians over the ages who’d lived here. But then they dug even further, and here it is, remnants of what the city must have looked like when the Jews were here. This diorama is constructed based on those findings,” he finished triumphantly.
Around me, everyone smiled happily. I raised my hand. “Did the archeologists dig under that, too?” I asked.
The guide gave a quick shake of his head. “They didn’t dig further.” His tone conveyed Why would they?
But of course, there were people in Israel before it became Israel, people who occupied Canaan, as it was then known, and were mostly swept away by the Israeli tribes who took over the land in fulfillment of God’s promise that this land would be theirs. This Biblical promise, reflected in the yearning to return to the Promised Land, is repeated throughout Jewish literature, liturgy, and religion. Add to it the bloodshed and persecution of Jews over millennia, and the Zionist dream of Israel as the Jewish homeland became the pulsing heartbeat of a nation.
Which is all a beautiful thing—and there were people there before they conquered the land in Biblical times, as there are people now who have lived there for hundreds of years. But 50 years ago, archeologists weren’t digging any further to see what lay under the Israeli ruins. Finding artifacts of people who had lived there earlier—and who are explicitly described in the Old Testament—adds too much nuance, too much subtlety and shadow. Too complicated.
It reminds me of how many Americans think that this country is defined by the first European settlers who came—white, Christian, and European. People who were fleeing religious persecution, they proclaim. Certainly, a very worthwhile reason to come here—and there were people who lived here before, those we call Native Americans, who were not white, not Christian, not European. We don’t like to dig that far because it gets too complicated.
A friend asked me what I thought of the Israeli attack on the Palestinian city of Jenin this past week, when soldiers, helicopter gunships and armored vehicles went in. They stayed for two days, killed people, destroyed homes, and found guns before withdrawing. They’ll be back, as will the Palestinians wanting to take revenge and remind the Israelis, who don’t like to dig deeply enough, that they’re on the land, too.
Almost every time such an event happens, my sister, who lives in Jerusalem, tells me this (in paraphrase): We cry about Israelis killed in the West Bank and missiles coming in from Gaza, but the truth is that we’ve gotten used to it and, consciously or unconsciously, we are ready to pay the price in order to leave things as they are. Our government has no intention of taking serious steps towards peace, no interest in a two-state solution, no taking risks and initiatives that will change the situation over the long-run. It’s become our way of life. We will rule over or dominate them. Every once in a while, they kill a few of us, we go back and kill a lot more of them, and this is repeated nonstop.
Only recently I heard the phrase mowing the grass, referring to this pattern of keeping the Palestinians short, compliant, and quiet, like the pretty grass in your backyard, and going in to fight limited battles to get rid of the weeds, meaning those they refer to as terrorists, the people who won’t stay passive and docile. They say that everybody would get along very well if only Palestinians stayed submissive as grass, and the only reason they go in is to kill off the weeds, or terrorists, as they are officially referred to.
This Orwellian phrase gives me the shivers.
We no longer mow the grass around the house. By we I include Lori, my housemate, who used to do all the mowing. In the spring of 2022, I decided to stop mowing our big back yard. That summer we had a drought, so the grass didn’t grow much anyway. But this summer, oh boy! The yard has become a meadow.
Grass is a monocrop, which doesn’t work in the wild and has severe impact on wildlife. When grass grows less dominant, there is more room for wildflowers and much less work to keep up (or down). The bees and grasshoppers like it more, as do the butterflies. Weeds are left to pop up. Somehow, there’s a sense of working with nature, not against it. All manners of life appear that haven’t appeared before.
Right now, it’s a long trek through the tall grass towards the Lady of Compassion in back, but I don’t mind it. Perhaps before next summer we’ll have specific designs for what to plant in a meadow. Meantime, it’s perfectly okay that the backyard no longer looks like a manicured English garden. We have lots more variety, lots more flowers, crawlers and winged creatures, lots more life.
And we also have grass.