We took a trip to Europe last month to visit our daughter, who is doing her second year of National Service teaching Hebrew in a Jewish school in Toulouse. El Al was very helpful, giving out tickets to Europe at ridiculous prices, and so we met her in Marseilles, rented a car, and drove through the countryside stopping along the way at various spots recommended by our guidebooks.
We spent some time in Avignon, and Montpellier, and Nimes, each a beautiful modern city which carries its historic quarter like a jewel at its heart. In each we found the aging memorials to local sons who fell defending the homeland. It was difficult to make out which statues were for World War One, and which for World War Two, as sun and rain and exposure had aged both equally, covering them with moss and darkening them with the content of wind and air. The military cemeteries, too, are old, as, I imagine, must be those who come to visit them. And in Carcasonne, a perfectly preserved medieval city right out of Disneyland, we found a museum of Inquisitorial tortures that were used against the Cathars, Christians with a slightly different take on theology than their brothers loyal to the Pope in Rome. Everywhere we went, our guidebook pointed out reminders of the terrible religious and territorial wars that had raged through Europe for hundreds of years, setting brother against brother, the result of blind intolerance and small-minded hatred whose cost was countless lives.
Looking out at the sun-dappled, pastoral beauty of Provence: the old farm houses that seem to have been around for centuries, the endless calm, it was hard not to imagine such tales were simply horror stories, made up to frighten small children around a campfire. And in our travels, as we neared the borders to Monaco or Italy or Spain, we readied our passports only to find – to our shock and delight – that there are no more border crossings in the New Europe. The stations, already artifacts of the past, are boarded up and abandoned, sporting signs in many different languages, all of them welcoming .
Wars over religious beliefs, or territory, or national pride – all this is ended now, in the New Europe, where Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and Spaniards, look back at the violence of centuries-old enmities bathed in so much blood as relics of an incomprehensible and primitive past long gone. The new European is busy with ski vacations, and buying new cars, and listening to music. There is a mutual respect and tolerance – even interest – in each others’ culture and religion, which is deemed each man’s private business, something that does not concern the government or one’s neighbors. And the radios in Nimes and Barcelona and London are all playing Cher.
We felt calm and happy as we got on the plane to go home to Jerusalem. That is, until the El Al stewardess handed us a copy of an Israeli newspaper. In it, we found a picture of dear friends standing at their son’s newly dug grave at Har Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. David Granit, charming, intelligent, religious, brave, wonderful boy, had just fallen in Lebanon. He was twenty-two years old.
We missed David’s funeral, but were on hand for the service that took place when his parents got up from their seven days of mourning. There we stood amidst a crowd of young soldiers in their red berets, David’s friends, watching his young parents, sister and brothers (including his twin), bear the unbearable with such dignity and faith. And as we walked towards his final resting place to lay a stone, we passed the graves of so many, many others – graves but a few months old, fresh with stunning floral displays, graves so new there were still no markers.
Oh, when will the military cemeteries of the Middle East grow old? Our war memorials grow moss? Oh, when will we, all Semitic peoples, who are part of a culture much older and, therefore potentially wiser, than our European brothers, put the barbarism of religious, cultural and national intolerance into a history long past? When will we be horrified and appalled enough at the idea of settling territorial and other conflicts with bullets and bombs; disgusted enough to discard that option forever, making it a barbarous relic of a primitive time long-abandoned? Oh, when?