Describing herself as a good mother who speaks with her two children at least once a day – even though both are university students who left home some time ago, one to study in England – Dr. Michal Arbel insists that she isn’t trying to make up for anything, because she herself had a good childhood. A scholar and professor of Hebrew literature, Arbel grew up in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem in a secular Zionist home where only Hebrew was spoken. When she was eight years old, she surprised her family by asking them to make Kiddush on Friday night. “Even then, I had an affinity for the old world of tradition,” she says.
When she was in ninth grade, at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school, she grew more distant from her father, Yehuda Arbel, an official in the Shin Bet security service. “I started getting involved in political activity in leftist groups like Moked and Tekhelet-Adom, and I cut myself off from my father’s world, a world I had never belonged to.” A year later there was another surprise. “The first person I fell in love with – with the way he thinks, the way he understands, the way he writes – was [11th-century biblical scholar] Rashi. It was in 10th grade. We had a class on Talmud and I fell in love with Rashi, though he wasn’t the only love in my life, of course.” Another great love she developed was for the writings of S.Y. Agnon. And now Arbel is publishing a book of her research on his work, entitled “Katuv ‘al oro shel kelev” (“Written on a Dog’s Skin”).
One particular incident overshadows Arbel’s uncomplicated childhood. She was a lively and curious girl, fascinated by tales of travel and adventure. These qualities, combined with the fact that she was of particularly slender build, were well-exploited by her father when in 1968, in a secret and irresponsible operation in the middle of the night, when the city of Hebron was under curfew, he had her slip through a narrow opening into the Tomb of the Patriarchs (or Ma’arat Hamachpelah, literally the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebrew) in order to study the structure of the holy place to which Jews had been denied entry for 700 years.
She was only 13 years old and her father’s action so stunned then defense minister Moshe Dayan that he asked to meet this unique young girl face to face. “You weren’t scared of snakes and scorpions?” he asked, and she just shrugged and replied, “No, I had a flashlight.”
“We were a family that did a lot of hiking and we’d been in a lot of caves, too,” Arbel says now. “As someone who could never get enough of adventure books, it seemed like an amazing adventure to me at the time.”
Yehuda Arbel was head of the Shin Bet’s Jerusalem District, which had been expanded after the occupation that followed the Six-Day War in June 1967 to include the West Bank as well. Arbel, who was beginning to establish an intelligence network in the territories, recruited a group of young people who came to be called “Arbel’s Boys” and included Yaakov Peri (later the head of the Shin Bet), as well as Reuven Hazak and Peleg Radai, who gained notoriety in the Bus 300 affair. “I never talked to him about his work,” recalls his daughter Michal. “I wanted to build my own life and not to dig into things that I couldn’t fix.”
Did you know what he did?
“There were no secrets in our house. My parents didn’t lie and my father never brought his work home. He told me many times that there was no way to control such a huge population of Arabs. In the early stages after the ’67 war, he predicted that there would be a civil revolt in the territories.”
In early October 1968, Dayan summoned Yehuda Arbel to his office and told him that he was concerned by the fact that settlers had set up a synagogue within the Tomb of the Patriarchs compound. “I don’t want a religious war,” he explained, and said he was looking for a solution that would separate the two sides: “The Tomb of the Patriarchs is located under the floor of the mosque, on a lower level. If we find an entrance from outside to the caves, then we’ve solved the problem. The Jews will enter the caves from below and pray there, and the Muslims will enter and pray on top.”
Arbel was excited by the mission, dubbed Mivtza Avot (Operation Forefathers), mostly because it would be a variation on “the daily routine”; after it was over, he authored an account of the affair. The first thing he and his colleagues had to do was learn “which direction the cave below faced in order to get an indication from which side to dig from outside.” He went out to survey the area and met with Sheikh Attaf, the Arab in charge of the place, who showed him a round opening on the western side of the mosque, through which it was possible to look down. The sheikh told Arbel that when he was a child, his father, who was also in charge of the mosque, used to lower him down “to clean out the papers.” The papers were requests for help that had been tossed in by believers, along with coins and bills.
Arbel immediately saw the possibility of entering the caves of the tomb from the mosque. All that was left to do, according to his written account, was to wait for the right moment. That moment arrived on October 10, 1968, during the intermediary days of the Sukkot holiday. Around noon that day, a grenade was tossed at Jewish visitors on the steps to the mosque’s main entrance; 40 people were wounded, Hebron was placed under curfew and the mosque was closed. “I knew that this could be a one-time opportunity to carry out the visit to the mosque,” Arbel wrote.
He went home, according to his account: “I asked my wife if she thought that our 12-year-old daughter Michal [she was actually 13 already] would agree to go down through a narrow hole, deep into a dark cave. She immediately replied that not only would Michal agree, she would also be glad to do it. I explained that the cave in question was the Tomb of the Patriarchs. We called Michal and presented the mission to her. My wife was right as usual. Michal was glad and showed great enthusiasm.”
The afternoon hours were used for training: The girl learned how to photograph and sketch a part of a building (“We made her sketch the house several times”), to determine directions using a compass and how to write a report. “After the tiring training, she went to sleep, and I promised to wake her up during the night.”
Arbel called Rehavam Ze’evi, head of the army’s regional command: “I told him that I had to carry out a secret mission in the cave and that I wanted special arrangements for it – moving the guard around it further away, and the assistance of the deputy governor.” He also asked for several “professionals” and for some equipment to be ready for 10 P.M. that night. In a chapter entitled “The Execution,” he describes how he woke his daughter, wrapped her in a blanket and drove with her to Hebron. After they brought the equipment into the mosque, “I sent my driver to bring ‘the package’ from the car. He carried the blanket on his back and when Michal emerged from it, the guys who were there instantly realized what I meant to do and thought I was out of my mind.”
Michal was attached to a rope. “We managed to squeeze her through the hole, which was just 28 centimeters in diameter. The only fear was that there wouldn’t be air below and that if she fainted we wouldn’t be able to come to her aid. Therefore I gave her matches and a candle with which to check the air.” Arbel writes that Michal’s descent went smoothly and that he stuck his head in the hole and listened to her descriptions: On the western wall she saw three tombstones – two blank and one decorated. On the eastern side there was an opening and a corridor beyond it. He instructed her to move toward the corridor and to measure the length and width of the space in steps.
“She entered the corridor and we didn’t hear her voice anymore, but based on the rope that was pulled along after her, I estimated that she’d gone about 20 meters. After a few minutes that seemed quite long, she returned and said that the corridor ended at some ascending stairs that came up to a small flat surface. Above her head she saw iron hooks that held a large stone.”
Michal was equipped with a camera, and paper and pencil, and was asked to photograph and draw the place in full detail. The entire mission lasted about three and a half hours, until 3 A.M. Arbel eagerly sent the film for development and printing so that in the morning, when Dayan came to tour the place, a surprise would be waiting for him.
When Dayan descended from his helicopter, Arbel handed him the photos and drawings his daughter had made. Dayan, taken aback, asked how they had done this. “I told him that I’d lowered my daughter through the hole. He stopped in his tracks and asked: ‘Have you gone mad?'”
Today, Michal Arbel recalls that she went down into the tomb just one more time. On October 18, she was sent through the hole again, in order to check where the incline beneath the floor of the room with the tombstones led. From the report her father wrote, it appears that there was also a third time. One day in November 1968, Yehuda Arbel wrote, an IDF post next to the cave was blown up. The post was unmanned at the time, but an Arab boy was killed and two adult Arabs were injured. “This was another opportunity to make a visit, again with Michal’s help.”
This time she was asked “to move the decorated tombstone from its place. This was because I surmised that this tombstone was blocking the rest of the way into the caves or into another little room. Michal tried very hard, but she couldn’t do it.” A Jordanian newspaper reported that the blowing up of the IDF post was an act of provocation by settlers, “who lately have been spotted in all kinds of hiding places around the Tomb of the Patriarchs.”
For her part in those risky missions, the young Michal earned a place of honor in the minds of the Hebron settlers. But today, Dr. Michal Arbel is still dealing with the anger that the whole affair has left her with. She hasn’t given any interviews about it until now, and even after her father’s death in 1984 from a severe illness, she turned down requests to talk about the operation in which she took part, about whose motives and aims she still has misgivings. From her point of view today, her parents also behaved very irresponsibly.
“I wouldn’t have done something like that to my child. My parents – well, they had a different type of parenthood. They slipped me down there with a rope, a flashlight and a candle to check if there was oxygen there. Would you put your child into a place from which he might not return? What would have happened if I’d lost consciousness? It was really crazy and irresponsible.”
What motivated them?
“My father thought that it would end the tension between the Jews and Arabs. They believed in such solutions. At an older age, both my sister and I understood that on certain issues, there could be no dialogue with them. When I asked my mother why she said yes to this, she replied, ‘You wanted to,’ as if I could have been the one to take responsibility. She didn’t think that it was dangerous. I remember that when they lowered me down there the first time, I was standing on a huge pile of pieces of paper and money. I felt that I was doing something wrong. After that I crawled through the corridor.”
You weren’t scared?
“No, I wasn’t scared.”
How were your parents different from the settlers, who take their children to the front while espousing Zionist rhetoric about the so-called pioneering times?
“My parents never spoke in terms of ‘for the sake of the homeland.’ It wasn’t something that needed to be preached, and there was no posturing or self-righteousness. It was just their truth. They weren’t faking anything. They were very Zionistic and it wasn’t a subject for educational lectures. But no one else had their daughter sneak down into the cave. When I went through all the moldy documents, as you asked me to, I saw that my father wrote in his report that his soldiers were in shock at what he’d done.”
In Arbel’s youth, this story was a source of embarrassment. “I didn’t think about it. I just kept on hiding it, and the few friends who knew thought it was very funny and called me Hasamba (after the children’s adventure series). I tried my hardest to keep it hidden because I had a feeling of guilt. I felt remorse and responsibility, even though I didn’t have mature judgment at the time and didn’t choose to do what I did. It was only after I had my daughter Na’ama, at a relatively advanced age, that I really comprehended what my parents had done. I can’t imagine that I would ever have been able to sneak my daughter into a cave not knowing what could happen to her there, and that if something did happen to her, not knowing how I would get her out of there.”
Not to mention that it was an illegal move done in an Arab city that was under curfew, and at a site that was holy for the local residents.
“Nothing that happens under occupation is legal, because the occupation itself is an illegal action. I feel a kind of guilt and remorse, above all because it’s an offense to the feelings of believers. I feel that I need to ask forgiveness from Muslims who believe in the holiness of that place. As for my parents, they and those of their generation had something of this feeling of being lords of the land.”
When Michal Arbel was five years old, in 1960, her family moved to Cologne, Germany, for two years. Her father, then a police officer, was attached to the Mossad espionage agency; her mother, Chana, did a post-doctorate in physics. In 1962, when Michal’s sister Ruth was born, the family returned to Israel.
In 1975, after her military service, in which she worked as a clerk, Michal began studying Hebrew literature and philosophy at university and graduated with outstanding marks. She married Roni Tor and they had two children – Na’ama, now 26 and a law student, and Shaul, 21, who is studying classics at Cambridge University. In 1982, writer Batya Gur invited her to teach literature at the Hebrew University Secondary School in Jerusalem, and in 1991 she returned to the university to complete her master’s degree in Hebrew literature. She received her doctorate in 2000, and taught for a year as a guest lecturer at Cambridge. Upon her return, she was hired by the Hebrew literature department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and was laid off five years later. As of this year she has been teaching as an external lecturer at Tel Aviv University.
Arbel is currently in the final stages of writing a book about the endings in works of fiction, and editing a series of detective books for the Hakibbutz Hameuchad publishing house. She also runs several times a week, seven kilometers each time, and does yoga twice a week “to release excess energy and maintain my equilibrium.”
Her book, “Written on a Dog’s Skin” (which was published as part of the Massa Kritit – Critical Mass – series by Ben-Gurion University and Keter Press), is meant for students and people in the literary world, and in general for admirers of Agnon’s writing. Prof. Dan Meron of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem calls it “a real achievement, an important and interesting book that is a significant addition to the literature on Agnon, which is the most serious of Hebrew scholarly literature.”
“The book was the biggest struggle of my life,” says Arbel. “I’ve had this interpretive energy from way back in high school – remember, I fell in love with Rashi.”
Why Agnon, in particular, and why now?
“There’s something about Agnon that apparently touches me deep in my soul. He’s a great writer, a genius, fascinating and exciting, and his conception – of the human soul, of society and the culture in which it lives, and of the history of his time – is profound and broad. The question really ought to be why everyone isn’t reading Agnon all the time. But when you ask me this question, I suddenly realize that I never seriously thought about it – about what there is about Agnon that calls to me, what made me cling to him for so many years of reading and studying and writing, what I’m searching for in works that were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“What occurs to me now as an answer is a scene from a movie, the scene that opens a mini-series called ‘Angels in America,’ which takes place at a funeral home in Manhattan, where an elderly rabbi is eulogizing an old woman who has passed away. He turns to the audience, to the children and grandchildren of this woman, and tells them that though he didn’t know the deceased personally, he does know her story, because this story is also his story. And he tells them the story of the woman he never met: How she was born and grew up in a shtetl in Eastern Europe; and how she left there and embarked on a great journey and arrived in America, coming to another world, another language, a different society and culture, a different world entirely. The rabbi tells the mourners that he, too, made the same great journey like the deceased, while they, the younger people, have not done so.
“And then he tells them something else, and this really caught my attention. He tells them that even though they themselves have never made this journey that their mother and grandmother did, they are still repeating it every day when they get up in the morning and go to work, and do their shopping and go out places and come home in the evening. This journey rests on their shoulders, or is right behind their head, and they take it with them everywhere.
“This story of the rabbi made an impression on me, maybe because, as I only realized much later, the one who played the rabbi so convincingly was Merly Streep, or maybe because of the words themselves, because I felt like this story somehow applied to me, too.”
“My parents knew seven or eight languages, but with me they only spoke Hebrew, and I’m someone who only knows one language. In the house of my grandparents, too, Zosha and Haim Henig, they spoke only Hebrew. My grandparents were both born to Gur Hasidic families in Krakow, but in their youth they followed their own path and became secular, Zionist and socialist. They wouldn’t have conceived of speaking Yiddish or Polish with me. Only Hebrew. And of course, neither they or my parents would ever have thought of performing any kind of religious ritual in their home.
“Once, when I was about eight and they sent me to my grandparents’ home in Tel Aviv that summer, I asked them to make Kiddush on Friday night. They ran around the house, as happy as little kids, and collected things and made Kiddush and sang Shabbat songs and it was very happy and joyful.”
Arbel continues: “There wasn’t much talk about the past in Europe, neither at my grandparents’ home or in my parents’ home. I was raised on the idea that our existence as Jews in the Diaspora was completely lacking, that it was without honor. That it was the consequence of a national catastrophe and led to a national catastrophe. Zionism remedied this situation, plain and simple. As a young girl, I totally accepted this certainty, because my parents were thoroughly convinced of it. But evidently the unspoken past, which supposedly had no positive meaning, and which I, too, shunned, even though I was born in Jerusalem, did interest me. The journey described by Rabbi Meryl Streep sat on my shoulders, and right behind my head, right next to the memory of my love for Rashi.”
In the book you also trace the way in which Agnon perceives the act of art.
“Writing about art is writing about writing – it’s the embodiment of Agnon’s observation of himself as a writer, as an artist. The title of the book, ‘Written on a Dog’s Skin,’ is taken from Agnon’s novel, ‘Tmol shilshom’ (‘Only Yesterday’) from a key moment when the protagonist, Yitzhak, a sign painter, writes with his paintbrush two words on the skin of a stray dog. These words alter the fate of the dog, which until the end of the novel runs about, seeking to know what has been written upon him, upon his body. Yitzhak, meanwhile, ought to know very well what he wrote on the dog. But he actually doesn’t know. He basically doesn’t know that what he wrote on the dog, he essentially wrote about himself.
“Agnon looks at this thing, at the act of writing, and sees it as focused on something external, in this case, on the stray dog, but also on yourself, on the writer. And he sees that it’s impossible not to try to understand what you’ve written about yourself, but it’s also truly impossible to attain this, since you cannot read what is written on you – on your skin. And this observation of Agnon’s is what I’m observing.
“Agnon, as a writer, is all kinds of things: He’s a person who remembers his childhood; he’s a man who has all kinds of relationships with women; he’s a man who reads and listens and thinks; he’s a body that takes pleasure in the coolness of the water when bathing at sea; he’s a Jew who migrated from the world of tradition to the new home in the Land of Israel, and so on. And all of these things are given expression in what he writes. But he is also a person who writes, a writer, and this also finds expression in what he writes.
“Agnon began writing and publishing his work at a very young age, and he wrote throughout his life, until his old age, and he describes this thing, the act of art, the act of creation, over and over again in these stories and novels. And, of course, the changing and developing thinking about writing also relates to all the other things we’ve mentioned. The writing does not take place in a vacuum. It emerges from life itself and touches on it.”