There is nothing more vicious than parish pump politics, they say—and so it proved to be, when our photog Ben Shoub happened by an eye-catching scene of fire engines, ambulances and police cars clustered at Cavendish and Kildare looking up at a young man in a grey track suit, arms outstretched, threatening to jump off a high-rise apartment building.
The pictures Ben brought back to the office were certainly dramatic enough, and reporter Gerry Wagschal called the police and got more details than I could ever have hoped for. All of which provided the front-page picture and story under the headline: "Boy threatens suicide for a bigger allowance." Our investigative reporter Wagschal unearthed the salient facts that the 14-year-old lad demanded $20 a week from his father, who was only offering $10. But the cops talked him down for $15.
I was surprised at the uproar our story caused with a half dozen angry women calling in, saying how dreadful we were to treat the story in the "sensational" manner we did. This, they felt, ought to have been treated as deep tragedy and not so matter-of-factly. It all showed a "lack of sensitivity."
I resented such talk. We did not identify the boy, and the photo was taken at such a distance that he could not be identified. I agreed with my boss Avi Sochaczevski, the co-owner of the paper, that we should not use the picture of a man who had hanged himself in a local park. Though it still broke my rule that if a person makes a public display of such a deed, he's fair game, I was happy to receive the stand down order in that case.
At first, the largely female advertising reps were all for me with my treatment of the rooftop boy. They offered to comfort me as the incoming calls rained in. But when the angry father arrived, a handsome dentist in his mid-30s driving a luxurious Lexus, the clucking hens were overawed and warmed to him. He demanded to see Gerry, whose byline was on the story. Gerry was summoned to reception without knowing why. Once he’d been identified as the reportorial culprit, the angry dentist was about to physically attack him. Gerry scurried downstairs, where he acquainted me with the situation as he cowered behind his desk.
As I ascended the stairs, I could hear the receptionist explaining about Michael Sochaczevski, confusingly gazetted as the Suburban's publisher in the editorial page box detailing the newspaper’s legal data. Michael, whom I do not think any but the oldest Suburban hands had ever seen, was in London, Ontario, en route to an MBA at the University of Western Ontario. I remember when I first applied at the Suburban, I first tried to contact him before being told I was barking up the wrong tree and had to go to his father, Amos, or his uncle, Avi. I never knew why he was gazetted as publisher, probably to establish a line of succession, as the two brothers were not always on the best of terms, it later turned out most spectacularly.
As this was being explained to the angry dentist, I emerged from the small twisting stairwell and introduced myself as the editor. He shouted something like "So it's you!!!" and shoved me downstairs. But I recovered my footing, sprung back wearing my Ulster snarl and bellowed: "Oy! You horrible little man!!" At which point he thought better of pursuing the matter and hurriedly left the building, threatening that I hadn't heard the last of this.
The police were called, and I was summoned to a meeting with two uniformed cops who seemed bent on making this as close to a death threat as possible, encouraged by the risk-averse female majority, whom they also interviewed. All I wanted, if I wanted anything, was for the cops to visit the guy and warn him. But I have since learned that cops don't win any brownie points doing that. In fact, they risk charges of "conduct unbecoming" for doing the minimalist things that citizens often want them to do.
Not that this is their fault. It's a bureaucratic necessity that everything police do must have an acceptable beginning, middle and end. A call comes in, they attend that call, and the matter is resolved, or developed with a view to eventual resolution. No loose ends. Either it comes to nothing, which is an acceptable ending, or it results in a charge or a referral to detectives to pursue an investigation in anticipation of a charge.
Warnings are loose ends. What's more, they may be questionable or lead to unwanted questions. For instance, had the cops done what I wanted them to do, questions might have been asked of them: Why did you visit the dentist when you had no intention of charging him? Were you not harassing a citizen who had done nothing illegal? If he had done something illegal, why were you not charging him with an offence?
The incident rattled Avi, though prior to publication he approved of the treatment we gave. On the day before publication, every week, he arrived to check all our camera-ready pages. It was a process we called the "churn." There were light churns and heavy churns, as Avi wanted stories killed or made more or less prominent. I did not disagree very often, and when I did, it was because he was protective of some special Jewish interest or fearful of rubbing a potential ally the wrong way. While such occasions were clearly egregious, they were rare. Most of his changes were personal preferences one like-minded journalist might have while another would not.
To the few letters to the editor complaining about what they considered our new sensationalism, I wrote an editor's note, arguing that it was plain to see from past editions that such a charge could not be justified. That is, we did not seek out sensational news to publish. But when sensational events came our way, we did not shrink from reporting them in a straightforward, plainspoken way without euphemism, obfuscation or embellishment. Avi was pleased with that and called it "classy."
Joel Goldenberg and I had a little joke saying the main enemies of the Suburban were Yasser Arafat, the head of the terrorist Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and the mayor of Cote St Luc, Bernard Lang. While I could readily understand the antipathy towards Arafat and the PLO, I was never able to get to the root of the animosity towards the mayor, a former Rolls Royce engineer, whom I found quite inoffensive. I had met him once or twice. Knowing I was from the enemy camp, he was not chummy but civil, answering questions in a reasonable manner. But when I discovered that Mayor Lang and neighbouring Hampstead Mayor Irving Adessky hated each other with equal unreasonable intensity, it revived my belief that there was nothing quite as vicious as parish pump politics.
This was reinforced still further when the mini-political became micro—if not atomic. Long ago, back in the 1950s and '60s, Jews in their impoverished days were card-carrying Communists or at the very least fellow travellers. As they reached middle-class status they rented, then bought, properties with crude but comfortable cabins in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal as summer retreats for wives and children. In pre-air-conditioning days, most anyone who could escape the Calcutta-like heat of the city for the idyllic lake country did so. It reminded me of a similar role played in British India by Simla, which became a summer refuge from the baking Punjabi plain where, in Kipling's words, "the heat would make your bloomin’ eyebrows crawl."
After loggers had logged out the forests, the mountains looked like the stubbly heads of drill sergeants. This reduced the value of the land in the'40s and opened it up to a cottage industry. It was a long, dusty three-hour drive over rough gravel roads until the state-of-the art Laurentian Autoroute, Highway 15, was built.
The larger cottages were grand affairs of several stories, increasingly less Jewish-owned as size and grandeur increased, becoming substantial summer homes with elaborate landscaping and impressive fencing, or sitting in vice-regal splendour on private islands in the many pristine lakes in the valleys.
Such shtetls were spotted throughout the Laurentians east and west for 85 miles along Highway 15 to St Donat.
Our little cantonment, called the Meadow by its inhabitants though without a sign to indicate that, had two driveways. The shorter of the two ended in front of our "shack," as it was then before it became fully winterised.
I was first surprised to the degree the Meadow was peopled by retired communists and fellow travellers, who preferred to be remembered for their "liberal" views.
My then-wife Miriam's parents had been divorced some years before. Her father, Michael Schleifer, the UQAM psychology prof, had remarried to Carol, who had enough from a previous marriage to occupy a big house in the Town of Montreal, itself something of a Raj’s cantonment with its streetscape laid out in the 1920s like a Union Jack—perhaps in the forlorn hope that Montreal would remain, as author Hugh MacLennan in his book Two Solitudes described it, an "English garrison surrounded by a French village."
Miriam's mother, Faggie, managed to retain the family house on Girouard Avenue in NDG, where Miriam in her teenage years had her own basement apartment with separate access to the lane. Faggie had taken up with Moshe Coodin, a civil engineer. I had met him in that men's consciousness-raising group I joined five years earlier when his relationship with Faggie was just beginning. As we were used to sharing details of relationships with our significant others at those meetings, I assume he divulged material that would be gripping to female readers, but I cannot remember much of that.
By the time the men's group broke up, Moshe had long decamped from his flat on Mayfair Avenue and moved into the Girouard house. To this was added Miriam's black adopted brother Steven, three years older than she. He was a homosexual living with his boyfriend elsewhere, though they were occasional visitors to the Girouard house, often on falafel nights, where we ate Moshe’s spiced falafel balls, stuffing them in half disks of pita bread with condiments, sort of an Israeli hamburger that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The village of St Donat had a summer population of 20,000 but fell to 4,000 in winter. Our Meadow sat on 10 acres on the shore of a huge Laurentian lake spotted with islands. The menfolk arrived on weekends. Miriam and I bought a modest house trailer and parked it discreetly behind the house to provide a guest room for visitors or an office. In front of the house there was an outdoor fireplace, which would often have me chopping wood taken from a half cord we bought from locals. Down from us, there were two similar cottages occupied by older people with whom we were on nodding terms only. To their front was the forest, and to ours a shallow rank of trees, beyond which lay the meadow proper. To the right was a stand-offish elderly couple, and rare sightings of them were reported in whispers with palpable resentment. They occupied a biggish bungalow forbiddingly sealed off with high hedges.
To the left, lower down the hill were the Scholniks, a lawyer and his wife with whom we were chatty. Ahead were the Goldsteins, Harold and Rosalie, whom I had known in town. Harold was the founder of our men's consciousness-raising group, and his social worker wife was the main source of income. Of all the Meadow dwellers, we had the most to do with them, partly because on the way to the beach we passed by their front door and often dropped in for a joint.
Past them was the bottom of the second driveway, where as many as five cars were parked on the left, belonging to four houses elevated above the road to the right, or three set below road level to the left. These people we seldom spoke to beyond exchanging greetings to-ing and fro-ing from the beach.
Intra-Meadow socialising was largely confined to the tiny sandy beach, little more than 30 feet wide—enough for two or three beach chairs but little else. Its main feature was a 20-foot wooden jetty that formed a "T", and 20 feet farther on was a raft anchored to a rock a fathom down. Two canoes, one of them mine, were overturned and left on the shore.
All this was set upon magnificent Lac Ouareau, 11 miles long, three miles wide, and 180 feet deep. I have since discovered singer Celine Dion owns a house there. I recall taking my then-20-year-old daughter Aislinn from England in my canoe. Having taken a few strokes into the lake at sunset, she looked up and was transfixed with the awesome beauty of the land of the silver birch, home of the beaver. It took her some time before she recovered.
What makes this relevant to a professional memoir and parish pump politics is that I wrote a big double-page spread under a headline: "Where have all the Marxists gone? Gone to Audis every one." While I had not misrepresented myself, and everyone knew me as a working journalist, they were shocked by what I had written. Even Miriam was surprised by the explosiveness of the reaction.
I had traced the history of the place, a refuge from lingering McCarthyism in the '50s and '60s. The cottagers set up Beaver Camp for the children and did their best to provide a communist idyllic summer for themselves when the logged out mountains were again sprouting sturdy saplings—and mature pine trees by the time I got there in the '90s.
But it wasn't long before one of the families, the one with the big hedge, wanted privacy and complained about the children’s noise. And when nothing could be done about that, others followed suit, as personal preferences displaced collective ideals that had governed the Meadow in earlier times.
The article was a repudiation of Marxist ideals, noting that the only solution to the problems of personal preferences was coercion if persuasion had no effect. Such a situation prevails in normal military life. I have been asked by leftists how I can love the military and yet be opposed to similar demands in civilian life. I would have thought that was perfectly obvious. In one case, a fixed number of people for a limited time are obliged to subordinate their will to a common code, while the other case involves a life-long contract in which the citizen is conscripted into an army of self-improvement until that happy day he dies, if the state does not "wither away," as Marx said it would.
During my time in the country, I read Conrad Black's biography of Quebec's Premier Maurice Duplessis, who ruled the province from 1936 to 1959, with a wartime 1939-44 interregnum under a Liberal premier. These were the Red-baiting days of the 1950s that the Meadow dwellers remember with such horror, particularly when, with the beginning of the cold war, Igor Gouzenko, the Russian cipher clerk in the Ottawa Soviet embassy, defected with a couple of bags of incriminating documents that exposed a goodly number of Russian spies—including Fred Rose, the Communist MP, whom elderly Meadow dwellers had supported and worked for.
While a long-time Communist and having run as such in two previous elections, Rose was induced to change his party label to that of the Labour Progressive Party, as the Communist Party was banned during the war for advocating the violent overthrow of the government. But it was discovered that Rose led 20 Russian spies targeting atomic secrets. Rose was jailed for six years. But as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg did the heavy lifting in getting the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, they went to Sing Sing's electric chair in New York on my ninth birthday in 1953, I have just discovered.
On his release, Fred Rose briefly opened an appliance shop in his old riding. But he was harassed by police into emigrating to the place of his birth, Poland, where he lived unhappily, editing an unread English magazine singing the praises of Poland and always yearning to return.
Central to the Communist campaigns to elect an MP for the federal riding of Cartier was the provincial Padlock Law, or an "Act to Protect the Province Against Communist Propaganda." I was surprised to learn that I had earned the undying loathing of John Switzman, the brother of Moshe’s ex-wife. Switzman was revealed to me in Conrad Black's Duplessis biography as the man who broke the Padlock Law in a deft legal maneuver.
I was hoping to interview him, but he cut me dead—but not before I snapped his picture. He stared at me menacingly, then after a pause walked away.
Later, in his absence, I read what Black said about the Switzman case, and Miriam’s father, Michael, said it was the best thing he ever read about the affair. As Black tells it, Switzman rented a flat, which he intended to make into a Communist Party organising centre. In time, it was exposed as such and padlocked by the provincial authorities. What Switzman then did was to persuade his landlady to sue himself and the Quebec premier as co-defendants on the grounds their quarrel was depriving her of legitimate income. Switzman's case was dismissed in the lower court but taken up by the fledgling Supreme Court of Canada. Not only was he upheld, but the court brought down a ruling that nullified the Padlock Law as ultra vires, beyond the competence of the provincial legislature.
While the negative reaction to my article lasted for the rest of the summer, I remember when it first appeared, quaking and quailing with my then wife and our NDG friends Arianne and Chris Little on what we called Paradise Island about a quarter mile out from the beach. They were the only people, being Miriam's nominally Christian friends and contemporaries, who did not have strong views on what I had written. Buoyed by some of their cheering words, I headed back to the Meadow to face the universal hissing. Miriam's father conceded that I got nothing wrong in the article, but I had failed to take into account—which meant, show any sympathy with—their idealism at the time.
Needless to say, the Sochaczevski owners did not pay attention to any of this. They may not have even been aware of it. They were not part of this Russian-Polish Jewish community that had supported the Communists of the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion to fight in the Spanish Civil War, or who supported Fred Rose, the Communist MP. The Sochaczevskis came to Montreal from Israel, and while intensely interested in Jewish affairs and active members of their orthodox synagogue, their focus was Israel. Moreover, they were partisan Likudniks against Israel's opposition Labour Party.
There seemed to be two solitudes in the Jewish community—the devout and the secular—and they had little to do with each other. Few of the secular group actually held the communist views they might have done in decades gone by; like superannuated hippies of today, they were now long established in conventional careers they once despised. Yet they still had a residual leftist outlook and would espouse radical views over dinner tables as long as there was little chance of anyone taking them seriously.
Because I was the fly in the ointment within my new family, being an unabashed rightist, a defender of Conrad Black, having more sympathy for Franco than the Communists in the Spanish Civil War and, worse still, having my wife increasingly sharing my views, there were frequent arguments. But they were kept within bounds usually, with each side steering clear of topics that would annoy the other. It must be said that otherwise life was quite idyllic, and my in-laws, Faggie and Moshe, could not have been more helpful, rushing over to take care of the children, who were between 1 and 5 in Joseph's case and 4 and 8 in the case of Hannah. Among us we had three cars, and each of us had the keys to them all.
* * *
In the dead of winter, Avi and Amos decided they wanted me to attend a conference of Jewish press in Jerusalem, as the Suburban was deemed to be a "Jewishly interested" newspaper. I went, and was thrilled to go, of course. What's more, the Sochaczevskis, being something of a noise in the Likud party, and Likud being in power, organised my trip so that I would be squired about in an official car with a police siren.
I had never taken an 11-hour flight before. Here, I noted another mark of Montreal's decline since the time I took my first flight to Ireland. I checked out the flying time to Ireland of that period when writing this memoir. I did the same when writing this section. I found that there were no longer non-stop flights to either destination from Montreal. Keep in mind that Montreal is the home of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), chosen because it was the global centre of aviation in World War II before the Americans got into the war. British aviation was top dog until later in the war.
Back in the 1990s, El Al flew non-stop to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. In Montreal, I was subjected to close interrogation by the Israeli airport security agents. My friend Peter Leney on another trip described the experience as "verbal frisking," which seemed apt enough. But to their questions about whether I knew what was in my bag, I had to answer No, because my wife had packed it and I could honestly say that I knew nothing of its contents. But they took it in their stride and moved on other questions to unearth whether I was the sort to bomb or hijack their plane. More likely, they knew who I was and were putting on a show of their thoroughness so I would pass it on.
I was then directed to an El Al VIP lounge. This turned out to be an interesting experience from a journalistic point of view. Along the walls in the cube-like room hung framed front pages of Canadian and American newspapers with news of those days in 1948 when the Arabs attacked Israel after partition. On the coffee table before us there were current copies of some of the same newspapers, the Montreal Gazette and the Toronto Globe and Mail.
It wasn't the war news on the wall or its absence that was so striking, but rather the vacuity of that day's newspapers, their focus on looking attractive with news arrayed in modular squares encased in boxes. Promotional blurbs ran across the top touting features inside of no particular importance. Occupying the rest of the front pages were four or five other stories. By contrast, the 1948 newspapers were choc-a-bloc with stories. With little thought to page design but following a rough format, the stories were crowded in wherever they fit, at least 10 of which had nothing to do with war.
It struck me then that newspapers were becoming magazines, that is, publications with a particular focus, rather than allowing news to arise helter-skelter from the street. That was acceptable in publications like the Canadian Grocer or Materials Handling in Canada, whose editors would legitimately turn down perfectly good stories that had nothing to do with groceries or warehousing. But it was not acceptable in a newspaper that was supposed to cover the news whether or not it was "good for you." Central to the trend, I tend to suspect, was not only the hiring of more women, but also the new focus on gaining born-to-shop readers to please retail advertisers. Girls don't like the clang of battle, so such battles that were in newspapers were covered from the hospital wards, stressing what harm they were doing to children. Or reduced to an item in a column of briefs. What's more, women are not interested in very much beyond topics that that touch their bodies. So daily newspaper editors were inclined to reject or downplay stories that would not interest women—which is pretty much everything beyond sex, recipes and disease.
Landing at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv I saw a US fighter jet with US markings on the tarmac. When deplaning, I noticed there was a swarm of fervent people making Aliyah, that is, immigrating to Israel at a special desk before a door with a large celebratory sign. It was a cool but sunny day outside with palm trees in sight. A young soldier topped by a green beret with a small automatic pistol on his belt, its holster discretely tucked into his trousers, was clearly off-duty, busy greeting what looked like family members who had just arrived.
I was then bundled into a minibus, managing to snag a front seat near the driver, my eye drinking in what I could see in the hour-long run along the coastal road to the Ramada Inn high up in the mountainous West Bank, where Jerusalem was hard by the hostile Jordanian border. On the way, I saw an expanse of lush green fields but noticed as I got closer that they only looked lush and green at a distance. Close up, the dry dirt between the blades of grass became more evident.
As we climbed into the mountains to the east, I appreciated immediately the importance of retaining the West Bank heights, without which Tel Aviv and all the towns along the coast would be exposed to 155mm and 105mm howitzer fire and vulnerable to a spirited armoured thrust downhill to the coast that could split the country in two.
The hotel was an ordinary Ramada Inn, much like the one in Montreal. The food was sparse and Spartan, rather British in that respect, but also subject to Jewish dietary restrictions, with meat and dairy combinations strictly forbidden.
Having registered at the conference and learning that nothing serious was to happen till the next day except for a plenary session welcoming the 100-odd delegates, I decided to look around on foot.
Seeing that Jerusalem's main Jaffa Gate was three miles distant, I decided to walk, first through what looked like a brambly, largely uphill quarter mile of undeveloped building site, to avoid navigating the circling roads and get to the straightish bit that would take me to the walls of Jerusalem directly. Without incident I traversed the broken ground up to what was called Yitshak Kariv Street, though in the British style, streets had a habit of changing names every so often. I also spotted old British pillar boxes with King George's swirling royal insignia. But these were subdued as much as possible by khaki paint, just as the Irish painted theirs green and Hong Kong did much the same in a lighter shade.
The traffic was heavy as I walked on through shabby streets. I reflected on what Mark Twain had said about his visit, that it was a letdown. I felt much the same. The tires of cars seemed to nearly touch sidewalk curbstones on the narrow streets, so there appeared to be little room for bicycles, and I saw none my whole time there. I saw an elderly be-robed, keffiyeh-topped old Arab squatting in a doorway. Otherwise, the civilian population looked no different than any crowd in Montreal.
I entered an enclosed open-air market, the sort of place I had seen in news footage after a bombing, with young Jewish men with kippah or yarmulke skull caps scurrying around retrieving body parts. Nothing like that, that day; only the usual bustle of a market as people milled about tables and displays of goods. But its yield as a soft target looked pretty good to me, with everyone packed in.
Of course, there were plenty of guns around. Not that that would do much good in an undetected market bombing. On leaving I saw two soldiers slinging Galil automatic rifles while carrying plastic bags filled with their purchases. They looked totally off duty.
Walking on, I saw two uniformed girls, both slinging Uzi submachine guns, stopping for a chat. One was laden with two or three bags of shopping, looking like any girl at home running into another leaving Ogilvy's. Here and there I saw more soldiers carrying weapons and surprised myself by soon becoming so accustomed to this that I began treating such sightings as no more remarkable than had they been carrying umbrellas. But I tensed up when I saw a truckload of soldiers leaving Jerusalem in full kit as they headed into Indian country with their berets on straight and looking very much on duty.
Looking at soldiers as I do, I was struck by how much they reminded me of the Ulster Defence Regiment in Belfast, the replacement unit of the B-Specials in Northern Ireland. In both cases their turnout was sloppy, their uniforms unkempt if not dirty. I wondered if this was a characteristic of fencibles, troops contracted only for home service rather than the go-anywhere-anytime spit-and-polished imperial troops.
Now in sight of the main Jaffa Gate, it was a puzzle how to get over to it even for an expert traffic-dodging Montreal matador like myself. At last I made my move, only to be cut off by a car I did not see coming and bumping into a guy my age who was nearly run down himself trying to do the same thing. When we got to the other side, now safely in reach of the Jaffa Gate, we introduced ourselves. I cannot remember his name, but he said he was a Palestinian.
After a time, we exchanged business cards. His identified him as a psychology lecturer at the University of Cairo. He said he was in Jerusalem to see his mother, having availed himself of the newly opened travel route from Israel to Egypt. I was carrying a borrowed 35mm camera attached to leather straps, which I now left dangling from my right hand, ready to brain the guy should anything untoward occur. There was a scary moment when we got into a narrow empty passageway in the walled city itself; I fell back a pace ready to fell him first before I took on any other assailants. But nothing occurred.
My new friend and I talked about the Mideast situation. He said that the Jews had discriminated against the Arabs in employment. I asked if the Arabs did the same with the Jews. He thought the comparison was outlandish, first because the Arabs had so few jobs to give, and what few they had went to their own. In any event, it was a situation that did not and would not arise.
I likened the situation to what was then occurring in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. Like the Arabs, Irish Catholics felt the Protestants had no right to be there at all, much less occupy a position as the most powerful in the land. So could you blame them for not hiring Catholics, given Catholic hostility towards Protestants. He realised where that train of logic was going and said he did not understand the Irish situation well enough to comment.
He also said that the Jews were "stealing our land with money," which turned out to mean they were buying land from willing sellers. Once he had explained that to me, he became angry when I failed to understand the criminality in such transactions. So many normal transactions became criminal in his mind if the wrong people did them. I saw that in some cases an Arab might be induced to sell his land cheaply if he found himself in the heart of a Jewish community, which did happen from time to time but was a rare occurrence. The Jews usually bought land in Arab-free isolated areas of the West Bank used periodically to run sheep and goats. The land was barren, very much like South Africa's.
Otherwise, the Jews bought Arab land contiguous to their own holdings. They had bought much in the Christian and Arab quarters of Jerusalem; it tended to be used in any way suitable to the neighbourhood. But from what I could see on the West Bank, the Jews tended to build three- or four-storey cluster complexes, sometimes with shops or near other mini-complexes, within 50 metres of each other. These were the settlements that were controversial and would remain so.
So what was to be done in the Mideast, I asked him. He returned to the phrase he often repeated. "The Zionist entity must be removed." And so, I said, this can only be resolved through war. He was none too pleased when I said that in my view the best guarantee of lasting peace was decisive victory. We soon tired of each other and went our separate ways.
I went to the Wailing Wall on my own and watched the serious hats, draped in prayer shawls, davening—that is, reciting from a book—while bobbing their heads up and down. There were more markets to see, of no interest to me. I paused by the Jaffa Gate and went through one rotation of the army's sentry drill. This was in memory of the Caledonian Legion on duty in the time of Pontius Pilate. My Black Watch of Canada was the result of an amalgamation with the Royal Scots in the 19th century, whose antecedents were linked to the Roman Caledonian Legion back in the day.
I then went to Mount Scopus, aka the Mount of Olives, where the "Temple police made the collar," as I used to say. After Judas fingered Jesus, the Jewish court, or Sanhedrin, could not execute him and turned him over to the Romans, who found no reason to do so but crucified him anyway to keep the peace with the Jews, who felt it was necessary to avoid a schism.
I was tangentially involved with another drama at the same place when I was dating Donna Flint nearly 20 years earlier. Her late father, Major George Flint, was working for the United Nations' Jerusalem Mixed Armistice Commission trying to sort out border disputes before they brewed up into a hot war in 1958. These were the first UN peacekeeping forces arising from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Flint, an officer in the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, had replaced a US Marine officer who blamed the Jordanians for all the border trouble. Seeing the score card, it certainly looked that way.
Flint noticed that the incidents he had to investigate could be said to have been the Jordanians' fault, but they were invariably provoked by the Israelis. Typically, Israeli armour and vehicles would charge the Jordanian lines without firing a shot. Frightened, the Jordanians would fire at this apparent onslaught. The Israelis would then turn and run, inducing the Jordanians to pursue them into Israeli territory, firing as they went.
Major Flint's scorekeeping became much different than his predecessor's, who looked at violations in purely technical terms—who fired first, who crossed the line first. Flint began to see these incidents in terms of which side caused the trouble. And he was backed up and encouraged by Dag Hammarskjold, the UN's secretary general. Israel became seriously aggrieved now that it could no longer score points in this way.
This was set against the situation on Mount Scopus itself, which was an Israeli enclave on which sat Hadassah University, a virtual fortress manned by regular troops. But the land around it was Jordanian territory. Now it is part of Jerusalem proper, since the 1967 Six Day War. But back then, it was patrolled by Jordan's spooky Arab Legion, who sometimes fired on the truck convoys that travelled the road every two weeks to supply the university and the troops defending it.
As the scorecard was being kept differently, the Israelis no longer engaged in that provocative behaviour. Instead they set up a checkpoint, first in front of the university itself and then farther along the road to Jewish West Jerusalem. Then they moved the roadblock down into Jordanian territory and started frisking Arab women who were using the road but not going to or from Israeli territory.
This drew Jordanian fire and set off an anti-personnel mine. Then Flint went out to the roadblock and told the Israelis to move it back to the university, at which point a sniper in the university killed Flint. The UN General Assembly stood for two minutes’ silence.
When Donna and I were dating, I met her father's old boss, Lieutenant General ELM Burns, once head of United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO). He recalled a lot of gamesmanship, with the Israelis wanting to score diplomatic points and the Arabs wanting to kill all the Jews they could. One was as murderous as the other was duplicitous, like Roman gladiators armed with different weapons, bent on destroying each other within the rules of the game.
General Burns grew up on Clandeboye Avenue not a block from where I grew up in Westmount. He was vastly amused by an Israeli trooper—also from Montreal, as were a goodly number of Israelis—when he tried to pass off a polio vaccination scar on his shoulder as a Jordanian bullet wound. Burns laughed at the memory and recalled rolling up his sleeve and saying he too was wounded by the Arab Legion.
The only thing I remember about the conference was a man who arrived from the West Bank settlements to ask a question. He opened his briefcase and among the papers was a 9mm Beretta, identical to mine.
I was then taken on a Likud tour with two government officials in a car with a police siren that was occasionally used in traffic jams as we rushed about. We went to Jericho and saw the River Jordan, which was surprisingly unimpressive. We then went to the barbed wire-encrusted Lebanese border, where that was all to see. Then off to the Golan Heights for a tramp about in damp snow, spotting vacant slit trenches here and there. A group of soldiers approached wanting to take the film I had shot, but after some argument in Hebrew, the soldiers were shooed away as my escorting officials flashed their warrant cards. As we descended from the snowy heights into a tropical valley, I was surprised how easily we moved from winter to summer.
As an example of how immigrants were transforming the country, my guides took us into a pottery works with potter’s wheels and kilns looking most picturesque. And who should loom into view but the owner or part owner of a downtown Montreal bar I frequented. We had a pleasant chat. I took his picture and a few quotes and then was hurried on by the official minders, who wanted to be on time for an appointment at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, back in Jerusalem.
I remember an ambulance outside the entrance proclaiming itself to be a gift from the Jewish community in Montreal. I was beginning to think that these coincidences were orchestrated not only for me but for the cable TV Jewish programme crew who were also delegates to the conference. They had arranged for a number of ministers to be interviewed, which did not interest me at all. I remember little of this other than being bored waiting for them to turn up to utter bromides of no importance. Interestingly, they would not give interviews in Hebrew, because Hebrew speakers should not be enjoying an easy life abroad but back in Israel with shoulder to the wheel.
I ended up waiting in this large white cinder block room lined with riotously coloured Marc Chagall abstracts, wondering if they were there because they reflected Jewish tastes or because Chagall was Jewish. I concluded that the Guinness-soaked school of Irish art would look better on that white wall.
The next two days were unsupervised time in northern Israel, visiting the new home of my mother-in-law's sister and her Australian husband in Safed near the Lebanese border. I had met them several times before at Tuesday falafel nights on Girouard.
They took me to a hilltop restaurant overlooking the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinnear, which seemed a more appropriate name as it was hardly a "sea" but a lake not much bigger than Lac Ouareau at our country place. The restaurant, a steak house, was done up like a western ranch, of which they were proud and hoped I would be too. I felt guilty having to lie about how wonderful I thought everything I saw. If anything, it was disappointing the way England was disappointing in the 1960s. Compared to Montreal everything was second rate. But at least there was the beer and the birds and things to laugh at in England. Israel seemed devoid of humour.
Then I felt guilty for another reason, thinking that people who had seen worse places than this, suffered worse privations than this, had indeed found this to be the Promised Land. And I, the spoiled rich kid from America, was turning up my nose at the quality of the accommodations in what was for them a life raft in a sea of hostility. I suddenly felt ashamed.