NYT Op-Ed on Tel Aviv-Jerusalem train recycles sentiment for mythologized past

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“In the winter months the landscape is as lush as Ireland,” writes Matti Friedman of the train between Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in his October 18, 2018, New York Times opinion piece, “A Train Ride Back to the Old Israel.”  Gazing at the view from the train line, he continues, “but now, at the end of a long summer, it’s dry olive-green and limestone under a pale blue sky.”  This gorgeous travel log is a nostalgic exercise in Zionist revisionist history. Throughout the essay, Friedman fetishizes Palestinian history, ignoring the real human beings–and their point of view–at the center of this history to further his agenda of portraying Israel as a Zionist utopia.

The cause for Friedman’s sentimentality is the completion of the first section of the new high-speed electric train that opened in Israel last month, a symbol of what he calls the “new Israel.”  The train’s efficiency is impressive. The roughly 35-mile trip from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem will take less than 30 minutes and will cascade over high and long and new bridges, ultimately guiding passengers into a new station 260 feet underneath Jerusalem.

As he takes in the view from the older, sluggish train, Friedman wistfully longs for a slower Israel, the one from long before the plans for the new train began, “a small, inefficient but compelling place.”  “I’m writing these lines in the first carriage of the 10:57 a.m. from Jerusalem,” he writes, “winding down through the Sorek River Valley at the speed of a bicycle.” The journey between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem on the old train can take up to four times longer than the new electric rail.  The old train has been running on and off since 1892 and is known to be an impractical way to commute. But Friedman prefers the low-speed lumbering of the old train; it represents the “old country”–what Israelis call the “good old land of Israel.”

Friedman paints a delightful scene, to be sure, but he picks and chooses when to ignore Palestinian history and when to mention Palestinians only as part of the ancient scenery–and it’s always self-serving.  He gets to create, and rewrite, a history that intentionally leaves out the Palestinian point of view.

For example, he describes a man he sees from the view of the old train, but he is merely a representation of Israel’s ancient ruins.  He only matters as part of the background scenery:

We pass near the homes of the Palestinian village Bittir, where an old man looks out from a stone terrace. Eucalyptus trees lean overhead, and at some of the sharper turns it feels like we might tip into the stream beside the track. After about 20 minutes without a sign of human habitation, the valley bottoms out, the train cuts through a rock quarry and a few miles of citrus orchards.

The man is in the Palestinian village, but we’re not told he is Palestinian, or anything else about him.  The man is part of the landscape but not its history; he remains anonymous–he’s from there but he’s not from there.  Friedman sentimentalizes the past, linking Palestinian life with Israel’s ancient history but in a way that ignores Palestinian history.

Friedman suggests that others on the train feel as he does, too–longing for the past while gazing at the landscape of ancient ruins:

‘I ride the old train because it lets me see landscapes that haven’t changed in thousands of years,’ Deborah Harris, a Jerusalem literary agent and another of the train’s aficionados, told me. ‘It feels like traveling through space and time.’  The train is a commute, a nature excursion and time travel, all for $5.60.

For Harris and Friedman, everything before 1948 is prehistoric.  Friedman’s time-travel narrative rewrites history so that 1948 becomes year zero.  It’s as though he draws a straight line from ancient Jewish history directly to 1948, and then only focuses on Israel’s Zionist triumphs since Israel became a state in 1948.  This tactic perpetuates the mythology that the land of Israel has always been Judaized.

Instead of giving a Palestinian history of Bittir, he provides an old Jewish one.  Bittir is “thought to be the site of ancient Beitar,” he writes, “where a Jewish revolt against Rome led by Shimon Bar Kochba ended in defeat in 135 C.E.”  Ancient Jewish history–and a Jewish revolt, no less!–is the only history that matters.

Of course, it doesn’t take much effort to learn about the Palestinian history of Bittir, and its connection to the old train.  Bittir was an ancient village, inhabited mostly by Muslims. In 1948, the village fell under Jordanian rule. Bittir was ultimately occupied by Israel in 1967, and remains occupied today.  Though Friedman hints that Bittir was occupied by Israel in 1967, he won’t use the word “occupation.” “In 1967 the land on the other side of the track, the West Bank, including Bittir,” he writes, “came under Israeli control.”  The notion of Palestinians living a daily reality under Israel’s military occupation is sanitized and watered down, reduced to “the other side.”

Alternatively, the Palestine Remembered website chronicles Bittir’s (also spelled Battir) history:

Battir used to be known to all visitors to the Holy Land, but that was back in the days when people took the train to Jerusalem, and when the train stopped at Battir for passengers and water.  Battir was then part of a unified Palestine, not just a West Bank village.

The old train was essential to the village’s livelihood.  The Palestinian villagers took the train to Jerusalem to sell their crops of fresh mint.  “For six generations, the villagers had been commuting by rail to Jerusalem,” Palestine Remembered states.  “They grew the mint with spring water that had been tapped at Battir even before the Roman era.”

The train was an integral part of the village in later years, too.  “In modern times, Battir’s development since 1890 was linked to its location alongside the railroad to Jerusalem,” Palestine Remembered reports, “which provided both access to the city’s opportunities as well as direct income from passengers who would disembark when the locomotives stopped to take on water.”  Today, Bittir overlooks the old railroad tracks. Friedman prefers this view, even though he reminisces about a Zionist past that bypasses this Palestinian history.

When Friedman does mention politics and the old train, he makes both sides appear equal, and he uses trees (!) instead of people to make his point.  “The train traveled through years of political turbulence,” he writes, “by the Jewish trees and the Arab trees and the trees that don’t belong to anyone.”  Friedman also conveniently uses the word “Arab” rather than “Palestinian,” further delegitimizing Palestinian history.

The only history of the old train Friedman provides involves its Zionist history.  He connects it directly to Theodor Herzl:

An early account of the train was written by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who rode it in 1898 from the port of Jaffa, adjacent to modern-day Tel Aviv. At the time, the train was the only one in this remote and impoverished corner of the Ottoman Empire…One day, Herzl thought, there would be a modern Jewish state here, and a wonderful network of electric rails. (The new train is, 120 years later, Israel’s first electric line.)

Friedman seamlessly ties the old (“Ottoman Empire”) to the new (“modern Jewish state,” “Israel’s first electric line”) thereby joining Israel’s Jewish past to its Zionist present.  He doesn’t mention that the train was a vital part of Bittir’s village life.

Friedman writes about the new train in a seemingly apolitical way, too.  The shiny fire-engine red train represents the “new Israel,” he writes, one of progress and efficiency, “a place that can look any Western country in the eye.”  It is estimated that the project will cost two billion dollars and has been in the works for the last decade, but here again, Friedman ignores the effects the new train–and, by extension, the “new Israel” has had on Palestinian life.

Friedman doesn’t say that the path of the new train actually cuts through Palestinian land in the West Bank.  On September 25, 2018, Reuters stated that the train’s path “runs through sections of land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war near the Palestinian village of Beit Surik, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and in the Latrun Valley.”  In the same article, Saeb Erekat, former Palestinian chief negotiator and Secretary General of the PLO, says that Israel is “illegally making use of occupied Palestinian land” and that the train is part of Israel’s larger “agenda of turning its occupation into annexation.”

To be sure, one could argue that Friedman’s essay isn’t about politics.  It’s about the dangers of progress and a longing for a time when life was slower. I can relate to this part of his essay.  I’d much rather take in a view on the slow train than the speedy commute I have to take to work. So many of us have been forced into a more efficient lifestyle than we’d like.  But the evasions in Friedman’s piece are dangerous because they perpetuate the idea that Zionist history is the only history that matters. In presenting only one point of view, Friedman contributes to the Zionist mythology that demands Palestinian history be ignored.

When I read the section about the man on the stone terrace in Bittir in Friedman’s piece, I remembered one day in 1992, when I had just moved to Jerusalem.  An ardent Zionist, I was on the number 23 bus with other American classmates going up to Mt. Scopus for one of my graduate seminars. On all other days, the bus would curve around the Idelson graduate dorms and then speed up on the straight shot into the university bus terminal.  But on this day, the bus turned the corner and then came to a dead stop. In the middle of the road were about 20 sheep and a shepherd. The man was trying to get the sheep to cross the street. He looked old and tired. The sheep looked thin and tired, too. It was hot outside. The man was sweating.  The bus driver honked at him, scaring many of the sheep, who had started to scatter. From the inside of the air conditioned bus, many of us Americans laughed. We would be late to class. What an excuse we’d have, we joked.

Later, I called my parents in Chicago from a pay phone.  “Can you believe there were sheep and a shepherd crossing the road?” I exclaimed.  “This would never happen in Chicago,” I laughed. “Only in Israel!” Then they laughed, too.  I had regarded the shepherd as nothing more than part of Israel’s background scenery. His point of view–his history–didn’t matter to me.

Ultimately, Friedman’s piece does nothing but recycle Zionist blind spots.  He doesn’t say anything new, and the New York Times loves it.  Friedman’s commitment, above all else, is to preserving a myth, rewriting history, and then mystifying the whole experience until it becomes nothing but sentiment for a mythologized past.  To do anything else would require a shift in mindset. And why would he ever change? From where he sits in the old train car, looking out at the “Jewish trees and the Arab trees and the trees that don’t belong to anyone,” his view is already perfect.

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In addition to being a tribe, a collective, a culture, a people, a nation, a civilization and a religion, Jewish is now a tree. Huh.

So…if a forest fire burns down (“wipes off the map”) a grove of “Jewish trees”, does that mean it’s anti-Semitic?

In the UK a multi billion pound project is underway to create a high speed rail link between London and the Midlands. The line of the route will cut through various old villages,church and graveyard sites which are being carefully excavated and catalogued by dedicated teams of archeologists as part of the project. For example a huge excavation is currently under way at the beginning of the projected line near Euston station in London involving… Read more »

“the Jewish trees and the Arab trees and the trees that don’t belong to anyone” An idea so weird I have trouble focusing on what it might mean. Possibly, somewhere in Northern Ireland, someone is talking about Catholic trees and Protestant trees, but I have a feeling that such a person would be shunned in polite society and possibly sectioned under the Mental Health Act. But then, in a society where everything is defined by… Read more »

RE: “NYT Op-Ed on Tel Aviv-Jerusalem train recycles sentiment for mythologized past”

MY COMMENT: Superbly written, Ms. Rose. Much thanks!

P.S. Speaking of a mythologized past:

“‘I ride the old train because it lets me see landscapes that haven’t changed in thousands of years,’ Deborah Harris… told me.”

How does she know they haven’t changed?