This is Jerusalem in every Man,
A Tent & Tabernacle of Mutual Forgiveness, Male & Female Clothings.
And Jerusalem is called Liberty among the Children of Albion.
–William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion
Here in Jerusalem nothing is commonplace. Day by day the links that bind us to the twentieth century are snapping off. Soon there’ll be nothing left to connect us with the outside world.
–Walter Lever, diary entry from April 26, 1948 in Jerusalem is Called Liberty
In 1966, the English translation of S. Y. Agnon’s bewitchingly cryptic story “Edo and Enam,” which I recently wrote about, was published, along with Agnon’s equally seductive story “Betrothed,” under the title Two Tales. In a review in Commentary magazine in which he acknowledged regretfully that he could not access Agnon in the original Hebrew, the critic Edmund Wilson praised these “precise and limpid” translations, noting that they “provide, for anyone who wants to read Agnon, an excellent introduction to his work.” And for many English-language readers they have been the first encounter with the work of the great Hebrew writer.
The translator was Walter Lever, a British Jew who immigrated to Palestine in 1947. In his 1951 memoir, Jerusalem is Called Liberty, Lever chronicles his extraordinary first year in the land of Israel, during which he witnessed the final months of the British mandate and the first days of the new Jewish state.
In 1947, Lever was a 34-year-old instructor in English literature at the University of Manchester. While a student at Oxford, his incipient Zionism had been displaced by socialism, yet by the 1940s his utopian dreams had fallen casualty to the disillusionment produced by global catastrophe and world war. “I looked out at a wrecked civilization,” he writes, “inwards at the crumbled structure of my own ideas.”
The real Jerusalem, rather than a mere metaphor for social improvement in England, again began to beckon, and when Jerusalem’s Hebrew University unexpectedly invited him to give a lecture series in April 1947 he jumped at the chance. A French steamer with the promising name of Providence carried him, along with several hundred survivors of Buchenwald, to Haifa for his first experience of the Jewish state in the making. Despite the political tensions of the place, he was captivated by the society he encountered there, secured a university post, and a few months later moved permanently to Jerusalem with his wife Anita and their four- and six-year-old. That summer’s anti-Jewish riots in Manchester and other English cities were fresh in their memories.
Lever’s new academic post was like nothing he had trained for. His students were older, tested by the world war, in many cases liberated from concentration camps. Moreover, they were active in the illegal Jewish defense forces, into which Lever was soon initiated. He joined a nighttime watch charged with assisting the Haganah against the “Husseini gangs,” and which in his telling seems populated by academics: Lever’s English Department colleague, a prominent biologist, and an old Oxford chum are all comrades. Throughout the memoir, Lever finds his work as a literary scholar juxtaposed with the exigencies of war and survival, as when he attempts to teach Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde while Arab attacks on Jerusalem commence in the wake of the UN partition decision, or a favorite student comes to him for a last discussion of Donne and Herbert before heading off to battle.
The memoir provides a sorrowful record of Jewish-Arab coexistence and its loss as the Palestinian national movement and the surrounding Arab countries sought to crush the new Jewish state. When Lever arrives with his family, they first live in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Romema, where the mixed Jewish and Arab population lived on excellent terms, enabled to a great extent by the local mukhtar (Arab village leader), who was an opponent of the Husseini-led Arab nationalists. The snapping threads of coexistence and mutual sympathy are felt in episodes such as the following:
There was a young Egyptian Jew, newly married, who took a flat in the Mukhtar’s house at Romema shortly before we left. He had only just arrived in the country, spoke nothing but Arabic, and made close friends with his Arab neighbours. Working at the Lydda airport, he would stay there through the week and return on Friday afternoons in the staff omnibus. On the Friday of Chanukah week this bus was stopped on the road by Arab terrorists. Non-Jews were told to alight; the other passengers were driven off into a sidetrack and burned alive in the vehicle, their charred bodies being found in the wreckage some hours later. Our Romema acquaintances told us the story of how, when he failed to return, Jewish and Arab neighbors sat together in his flat comforting the young widow through long hours of the night, while the mukhtar again and again telephoned the airport for news.
Lever describes the descent of mandate Palestine into chaos and bloodshed as Arab attacks, often cooly countenanced by the British authorities, intensified following the United Nations partition vote in November 1947. As a British Jew, Lever is particularly sensitive to the behavior of the British governing authorities, their frequently callous, even fatal indifference toward the Jewish population of Palestine. Lever chronicles the mounting violence: the ambush of vehicles, isolation of Jewish towns, bombings in downtown Jerusalem, massacres (marked by a frequent Arab penchant for subsequently mutilating Jewish corpses), and tense, bullet-punctuated stand-offs between and within neighborhoods and villages. He also recounts the massacre of Arab civilians by Jewish members of the Irgun during the battle in Deir Yassin—not as an eyewitness, since Lever was then stationed at the beseiged Hebrew university campus on Mount Scopus, but rather relying in part on the reports of his wife, who watched the battle unfold from their home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem, which had been the target of ongoing gunfire from the Arab village.
The final third of the memoir is the most compelling, consisting of Lever’s diary entries written from April to June 1948, as troops from Transjordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria invaded the nascent Jewish state. Much of Jewish Jerusalem was cut off, the citizens enduring shelling and dire food shortages. Lever writes that he undertook the diary from “the desperate urge to record what was happening when it seemed that none of us might survive.”
Though it contains felicitous passages throughout, Lever’s book achieves permanent distinction neither as historiography nor as an impressionistic chronicle of the times, since he sacrificed some of the possibilities for the latter by attempting to focus more on the former, thus shortening the shelf-life, as it were, of his reportage. Six decades after its publication, one reads Jerusalem is Called Liberty for the gems that shine here and there, and also for the inspiration it provides as a portrait of a man deeply and thoughtfully moved by the opportunity to make a new life in the Jewish homeland.
The book’s Blakean title and epigraph reflect Lever’s questions about the relationship between the earthly Jerusalem and the celestial or Blakean one. In the awful forge of Israel’s War of Independence, he asks himself whether he is to understand the extraordinary events taking place around him as something providential, a supernatural process, or as something mundane, part of the ordinary human continuum of earthly history. He arrives at the conclusion that this is a false dichotomy:
Faith is the catalyst that turns biology into history, history into prophesy. With it, miracles are achieved; without it, even the calculable fails. Faith is not to be summoned up at will; nor does it appear by suppression of the critical faculty. Omnipresent and eternal, it operates in time and space. It is latent in the rocks, the air, the human spirit. At certain moments, certain places, it manifests itself in action, performing the miracle; and the men through whom it functions, who experience the miracle, are transformed: never again will they be the men they were.
Agnon’s “Edo and Enam” warns against attempts either to reduce the miraculous to the merely psychological, or to ignore the earthly within the divine. With his dialectical sensibility and gift for language, Lever was well-suited to translate Agnon’s tale.