A hazy day in Jaffa. The Old City is full of blind turns and all turns are the right ones and no crooked street or alleyway disappoints. Galleries abound and every one repays our curiosity. The blaze of sun and the blue of sea have penetrated the local artists like an inoculum. Helpless, they turn out vivacious works bursting with colour. Over a number of hours we come across nothing that is dull or derivative or second rate.
Every so often we tumble from a narrow and twisting descent into an open space crammed with broken bric a brac. By one such space, a dusty shop manned by a torpid, pear-shaped man sells old art works of varying mediocrity and unvarying neglect. Here in this luminous place I come across a stark photograph. The image in black and white shows a cinematic scene that surely predates all cinema. In the picture a large man in a formal black suit stands at one side of a square like the Jaffa square at our shoulder. He faces a group of men who wear white suits. These men stand in a rank with rifles raised and trained at the man in black.
We are about to witness an execution. As witnesses we cannot escape the victim’s aloneness. As witnesses we become complicit in something awful, something we cannot comprehend. The photographer has caught the moment, snapping the scene from a vantage above and behind the riflemen. They wear hats that would previously have been white like their suits, but the white is soiled. On closer view the suits do not appear pristine. The faces of the riflemen cannot be seen.
Our simple sympathy for the one, who, unarmed faces the many, gives way to complexity. The soiled suits and grimy hats hint at long labour in the field. The raised guns of the executioners rest on slack, uneven shoulders; these weary men are not ready to fire. Do they identify with their victim? War-weary, do they wonder whether when the guns will be trained on them? Do they perhaps reverence the man in the black suit? The victim who stands uncowed, the man who stares at his killers, the human who was sufficiently free only that morning to dress himself with such sober dignity looks older than the riflemen. Is he the father of one of them who fights for an opposing force in some civil war? Is he a burgher, or perhaps (as he too is hatted) even their rabbi?
I gaze at the photograph that captures so much. It stands loosely affixed to its frail wooden frame, grimy with age, eloquent of truth. And, importantly to me, the truth here is not easy. Fertile with hints, arid of certainty, the photo invites enquiry. How long has the image waited for its interlocutor?
I know I want this photograph that has so much to say to me. Can I afford it? Where in our artcrowded house will my wife allow me to hang such a miserable scene? How will I safely bring that frail and awkward thing home to Australia?
My granddaughter dwells in sunshine. She wonders, ‘Why on earth would you want a picture like that?
‘Why not, darling?’
‘It’s cruel, Saba.’
‘What if the man had to be punished, darling?’
‘Saba, do you believe in capital punishment?’ – she shakes her blond head, shocked by her grandfather’s response.
‘No darling, I don’t. I don’t believe in easy answers. And war asks hard questions, this picture asks hard questions.’
Another shake: ’ What, Saba? You know they make mistakes!’
I look around. Here is the photo, here the dusty premises, open, apparently abandoned; where is the vendor? I race through the doorway into an adjacent shop with my breathless enquiry. ‘Next door’, says that vendor. Slingshot back to the first premises I collide with the cushioning belly of Homer Simpson. No it’s not Homer. The face above the torso is stubbled grey.
‘How much is this picture?’
The man looks at my shoes, running shoes, tourist shoes. He calculates for a while, silently measuring, calibrating opportunity and innocence. He names a sum of astonishing modesty. ‘Fifty?’ – I ask, incredulous.
‘Alright, forty shekels.’
I hand the man his forty pieces of silver.
Hours later my mind floats and thuds to earth. Another sunny outdoor scene, one I witnessed myself in 1995. The location of the latter scene from real life was unambiguous: in the grounds of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, I paused while ascending a slope to read the inscription beneath a cattle truck perched at an angle on a section of rail line.
I read a Hebrew text explaining it was in such trucks that millions were crammed during their journey of some days to the extermination camps. There they died, ‘al Kiddush Hashem’, in sanctification of the Name.
Labouring up the slope towards me an older couple, aged, I guessed, in their seventies, puffed and sweated. They took a breather at my side. The man, plump and snowy haired, read the inscription and scowled. He grunted angrily. Between breaths he managed to declare: ‘There was no sanctification. I was there. I know!’ In the face of that knowing I stood silent. The man’s wife, younger than he, tried to calm him. Turning to me she apologised; ‘He always gets upset here. He always comes here on the first morning in Jerusalem. Always here in the morning, then the Wall.’
By now the man had recovered breath. ‘Nothing holy there. Nothing…’ He looked up: ‘Except once. One time only I saw sanctification. I was in the camp, one of hundreds, all of us there, all hassidim, with our Rebbe. The SS officer ordered soldiers to strip the rabbi. Violently, they tore all his clothes off him, that holy, holy man. His hat they threw down. We looked away from the rabbi, we would not see his disgrace. The SS man screamed, ‘Any one who turns away will be shot!’
We knew they would shoot. We knew because they shot anyone who would not look while they hanged our people in the ghetto.
The officer screamed orders to the soldiers who raised their guns ready to shoot our Rebbe. The rabbi turned to the officer. We heard his voice: ‘Will you give me one minute to bless my people?’ The officer laughed. He mocked the Rebbe. ‘You want a minute? Have two minutes old man.’
The Rebbe turned away from the officer and the soldiers. He turned to us, his hassidim. He raised his arms and he called out, ‘’How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” Then the soldiers shot him while we watched.’
I remember the year of that visit precisely. Two days later an Israeli patriot shot dead his country’s prime minister.