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With Achad Ha’am on the Road to Ramallah

Lawrence Bush
June 1, 2008

An Encounter with the Father of Cultural Zionism

by Michael Cooper
Photo of Michael Cooper at Ramallah clinicI stand beneath the archway of the YMCA on King David Street in West Jerusalem, warm in the morning sun as I wait for the taxi that will take me to Ramallah. My transportation and lodging have been arranged by the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), a non-governmental organization that coordinates care for a wide range of medical needs of children under occupation.
My expertise is pediatric cardiology. I’m a heart doctor for kids — for the next four days, Palestinian kids. The PCRF staff told me to expect to see up to thirty children a day. I glance at my watch. It’s almost 9:00 a.m. If I’m going to examine that many children, it’s time I got started. I look down the street. No taxi.
I close my eyes and draw a deep breath, tasting the morning air of Jerusalem — air tinged with sunlight, stone, conifer, and dry brown earth, with a hint of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. The aroma was part of the fabric of my life here between 1966 and 1977, between the ages of 18 and 29. I love that smell, the memory of those years.
I look back down the street. Still no taxi. But I do see a slight man, out of place in his dark suit with high starched collar, wandering along the narrow sidewalk bordering the YMCA and peering through wire-rimmed glasses. He seems to be searching for something.
I think I know who he is: Asher Ginsberg, who wrote his Zionist tracts and Hebrew essays in the late 19th century under a pen-name, Achad Ha’am, “One of the People.” Actually, I’m sure it’s him. I raise my arm, waving at him to join me at the top of the steps.
He moves toward me up the cobblestone lane, but before mounting the first tier of steps, he pauses. I can tell that he’s reading the inscription on the tiles below the balustrade — a sentence taken from British Field Marshal Edmund Allenby’s dedication address for the YMCA building in 1933. I know that Ginsberg’s a sucker for the sentiment in Allenby’s words: “Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten, and international unity fostered and developed.” Sure enough, he takes out a small notepad and copies the inscription, gathering words and images to use in his next essay. He mounts the steps as he tucks the notepad into his jacket pocket. I can see that he’s smiling.
“You’re late,” I shout over the noise of the traffic on King David Street. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I got lost.” He shrugs as he mounts the final stone steps and looks up in disbelief at the YMCA tower. “All this wasn’t here before. It was hard for me to find the way. You should have met me at the railway station.” He sounds like a new immigrant from Russia with his thickly accented Hebrew. But his vocabulary and construction, though archaic, are flawless.
“When did you arrive?” I ask, knowing that the old railway station hasn’t seen a train in ten years, knowing that the tracks are hidden beneath weeds and spring flowers, knowing that he’s been dead for seventy years.
“Eight-thirty. The train was a half-hour late — goats on the tracks out-side Battir.” He turns to me and smiles, sunlight glinting off his glasses. “The station looked familiar enough, though, and the old Khan was where I remember it, right across the way — but everything else . . . ” His voice trails off and he shakes his head. “I could barely cross the street by the filling station with all the motorcars. I see that they’ve widened Julian Way and renamed it King David Street.” He takes in the view with a sweep of his hand. “I passed Jabotinsky Street on my way up the hill. Jabotinsky! I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
“You all have streets named after you now,” I reply. “All the giants of Zionism — Nordau, Herzl, Weizmann, Pinsker, Ushishkin . . . ”
“All the giants of Zionism!” He smiles and shakes his head. “What about my street? Can I see it?”
“If there’s time . . .” I think there’s a street named for his nom de plume, Achad Ha’am, somewhere in Jerusalem, but I’m not sure where it is. I glance at my watch. It’s already 9:10. Finally, the taxi is here.
I hand Ginsberg my computer bag, which also contains my stethoscope, calipers, pens, and colorful stickers for the children. I hoist my suitcase. Together, we go down the steps toward the taxi.
“Dr. Mike?” calls the driver as he steps toward us. “They sent me from PCRF to take you to Ramallah.” The driver doesn’t seem to notice Ginsberg as he takes my suitcase and stows it in the trunk. I open the rear door, letting Ginsberg enter before me. I follow him in and the cab pulls away.
Ginsberg is still trying to get his bearings, searching for familiarity. “Wasn’t this Mamillah Street?” he asks.
“Not anymore,” I reply as we pass a road leading off to the right with tall limestone buildings marching toward Jaffa Gate, “like endless Jehovahs,” I murmur.
“Endless Jehovahs,” he repeats. “Nice image.”
“It’s from another Ginsberg,” I reply without explanation.
I hate the over-building of Jerusalem. More lines from the other Ginsberg pop into my head, Moloch whose buildings are judgment. Moloch the vast stone of war. Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows. Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb . . .
Asher Ginsberg settles back, takes out his notepad, and scribbles for a few seconds as the cab sweeps up the hill, passing what used to be Barclay’s Bank on the left, the Old City wall on the right. Then, turning north, the cab picks up speed on a highway that knifes through East Jerusalem. After a few minutes, I, too, have no idea where we are.
“So, you’re a heart doctor for children?”
I nod.
“Do children have heart problems?”
“They’re usually born with them — leaky valves, walls with holes, that sort of thing.”
“Do you usually work in Ramallah?” he asks.
“No, this is my first time. I went to medical school in Tel Aviv, but that was thirty years ago. Now I live in the United States.”
The cab passes the Kalandia checkpoint and doesn’t slow down. I’m surprised. Leaning forward, I ask the driver, “Is it always so quick getting through?”
“In this direction, it usually is, but going the other way . . .” He nods toward the line of cars and trucks waiting to go into Israel from the territories. “They’ll be delayed for a few hours.”
A gray wall, at least twenty feet high and studded with guard towers, comes into view just past the checkpoint.
“What is that?” asks Ginsberg, pale, his mouth agape. I try to explain the separation wall. The slow death of the peace process. The terror of the suicide bombings. I try to explain how the wall has been promoted as serving, and indeed does serve, one purpose, protection, while also serving another, the creation of discontinuous cantons — ghettos, if you will — cutting Palestinians off from school, family, work, farmland, and healthcare — a slow strangulation in the unspoken pursuit of demographic change.
The taxi bumps along a cratered road next to the wall. Ginsberg isn’t writing now. The notepad lays open on his knee as he leans back and closes his eyes. He’s sweating heavily. He loosens his black tie, opens his high starched collar, and takes deep breaths. After a minute he opens his eyes and asks, “So that’s why you’re here — you come to heal the holes in the walls of little hearts.”
The metaphor doesn’t escape me. I nod. “Healthcare is difficult because of the wall and the other travel restrictions within the West Bank. Without doctors coming in and seeing these children, many would die waiting for care — waiting for permits, waiting at checkpoints, waiting to be seen.”
Ginsberg rubs a hand over his face and fixes me with his eyes. “But this looks like a war zone and you’re on the wrong side of the wall. You’re a Jew. Why are you here?”
“Because of you, Asher.”
“Your notion of Zionism with justice, with regard for the other; it’s in your pamphlet, ‘The Truth about Palestine.’ Don’t you remember?”
“Of course I remember,” Ginsberg whispers as he looks out the window at the wall. “I remember I wrote that Palestine was not a land without a people. Indeed, the land was populated and richly cultivated. I remember I wrote about what our brothers do here, though they should know better. Though they had been serfs in the lands of the diaspora, they suddenly find themselves free in Palestine, and instead of showing regard for the stranger, this change awakens in them an inclination to despotism. They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, offend them without cause.”
The wall outside the cab window continues to flick by, seeming to go on forever.
“But all my writing was for nothing. My words have been forgotten.”
“Not at all,” I say as the cab comes to a stop next to a three-story building of dressed stone. I look up at a sign that announces, in English and Arabic, “Medical Relief Prevention and Diagnostic Center of Cardiovascular Diseases.” This is the place. A woman in a head-scarf approaches the taxi.
“Welcome, Dr. Mike. I’m Suhad Samara with the PCRF. This is where you’ll be working. The children and their parents are waiting upstairs. Come. I’ll settle with the driver. We have many children for you to see today.”
I step out of the cab while Suhad pays the driver. I lean down for a final word with Ginsberg. “You haven’t been forgotten, Asher, not at all. It’s because of you that I’m here.”
I push the door closed and Ginsberg smiles, raising his pen in a kind of valediction. As the cab pulls away, I see that he’s writing in his notepad.
Over the next four days I saw about eighty children, from newborns to teenagers, from Ramallah and other areas ruled by the Palestinian Authority. Suhad, managerial assistant of the PCRF, and Randa, the agency’s social worker, set up the clinic and helped with translation and documentation of clinical findings.
The children had a wide range of congenital heart defects. I determined that about two-thirds of them weren’t particularly severe and would require only ongoing elective follow-up by doctors on subsequent missions. A third of the children had more severe defects and would require catheterization and/or surgical intervention. These children would be processed and directed for care either in East Jerusalem (Maqassad Hospital on the Mount of Olives) or in Israel (Tel Hashomer, Hadassah, or Wolfson Hospital).
A few children, however, had profound cardiac disease with either severe congestive heart failure or cyanosis (blueness). I determined that these children required immediate hospitalization at a cardiac center for evaluation and management. But I was informed that “immediate” would take at least five days — the time required to obtain the necessary papers for the family to leave the Palestinian Authority and travel to East Jerusalem or into Israel. When I expressed my concern over this delay, the PCRF staff assured me that there were no exceptions.
I’ll discuss this with Achad Ha’am the next time I see him. Maybe he can help. He knows people. He has streets named after him. He’s got connections.

Michael Cooper lived in Israel between 1966 and 1977. He graduated from Tel Aviv University Medical School and now works as a pediatric cardiologist in Northern California. He is currently negotiating the publication of The Rabbi’s Knight, the first in a series of historical novels tracing the conflict in Palestine from the Crusades to 1948.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.