Talk is powerful. Through conversations, people make history. "The Jester and the Kings" is an engaging autobiographical account of Marek Halter's efforts to get Arabs and Israelis to talk to one another.
Halter, a Parisian artist, comes from a Jewish family who lived by the word--printers who trace their trade back to Gutenberg. He grew up with the idea that to be Jewish was to be just. His family escaped the Warsaw ghetto through the sewers due to the daring of a Catholic friend and fellow member of his father's printer's union. After the war, Halter, a young militant for socialist Zionism and a budding artist, made his way to Paris.
And in Paris he stayed. Halter felt that the existence of Israel had now made it possible for him to be a good Frenchman. "Now I was like others," he writes. But it wasn't so easy. Zionism's success did not end anti-Semitism. It only changed its forms.
Halter became part of the great reservoir of emigre Jewish intellectuals whom France would honor as great Frenchmen, but never as Jews. Unlike many, he is a proud and public Jew. In those early years after World War II, a Jew could support the fledgling state of Israel and belong to what the socialists understood as the great progressive march of history. The Soviet Union had been one of the first to support Israel. As he marched in Paris' May Day parade of 1949, Halter recounts that the crowd cheered for the Algerians and the Israelis.
The Six-Day War changed all that. The Israelis now occupied all the territory that was originally to be partitioned into a Jewish and an Arab state. Israel had proved herself a regional power. As Halter's account makes clear, it was a power the world simply could not accept. The world could respect Jews who lived by the word, but they were deeply uncomfortable when they showed themselves capable of wielding weapons of steel. In short, when the Jewish state began to act like all the others, the world turned its back in disappointment.
The denigration of Israel was most abrupt among the European left. Once a progressive light to the nations, Israel became a pariah pioneer state. Halter shows how much of the socialist community projected its image of struggle against the dark forces of Western imperialism onto the Arab jihad against little Israel.
And the country that made the most radical about-face was Halter's own. France, which had been Israel's major military supplier, now turned her back on her. While some French Jews were now proud to be Jewish, others squirmed in their very skins. Jewish students, Halter recounts, were afraid to admit that they had relatives in Israel. In the student revolution of 1968, Claude Lanzmann, the producer of "Shoah" who had fought the Nazis as a teen-ager, was called a "supporter of the fascist Zionists" by a French militant for being offended by Fatah's violent posturing against Israel.
Halter and his wife Clara's frantic efforts to achieve peace were premised on a simple proposition: that two nations in two states must share one land in peace. He became the tireless go-between, the court jester who believed that his naive dream of peace had power to persuade enemy kings that the time to talk was now. With the traces of a lost civilization still on his tongue, he was able to woo an initially mistrustful Prime Minister Golda Meir by breaking into Yiddish. There is high drama, indeed sexuality, in Halter's promise of conversation between enemies. Unfortunately, the promise is rarely consummated.
Halter's crusade took place between Israel's victory in the 1967 war and the "earthquake" that brought Menachem Begin to power in 1977. His repeated failures provide a cautionary tale for those who are now trying to succeed where he did not. Halter failed because what the Arabs would say in private they could not repeat in public. PLO members repeatedly denied having made statements that the Halters had on tape. The whispers of peace began early. In 1969, Yasser Arafat and his top aides were willing to accept a two-state solution in private, but not in public.
Halter failed because the Palestinians felt vulnerable when compared to the Israelis, lived daily the humiliation of dispossession and occupation, and demanded that Israel recognize their national right first before they recognized Israel's. The Palestinians understood their refusal to speak to Israel as their last and most potent weapon. He failed because Palestinian radicals interrupted the conversation with terror against Israeli civilians and Palestinian moderates. Thus Palestinian radicals massacred Israeli athletes in Munich to help prevent an imminent conversation between Egyptians and Israelis for which Halter had been the go-between. Because the conversation did not occur, the Egyptians launched the Yom Kippur War. Arafat was always afraid that Dr. George Habash and his Soviet-supported Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine would murder him for any moderation.