“We now show uncorrelated targets approaching from the north-northwest …”
–“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
In reality, it was more like the southwest from which the alien craft made its approach. But otherwise, the climactic scene in the Spielberg movie–the one where the UFOs make a series of passes over the lighted runway, before the giant chandelier-disk glides to a landing–felt exactly like what I’d watched on TV the year before. Not a late-night science-fiction movie. The live news from Israel.
This is what I remember of that dizzy, near-messianic time 35 years ago:
My girlfriend at the time had told me, maybe a week before the event: Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin had invited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to come to Israel and address the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. Sadat had said yes.
My reaction: “Impossible.”
I’d spent most of the years 1973-75 in Israel, writing my Ph.D. dissertation. Two months after I arrived, Sadat and Syria’s Hafez Assad (father of the current dictator) together threw the region into war, by attacking Israel on Yom Kippur 1973. In the traumatic years that followed, Sadat gave what I thought was convincing evidence that the Egyptians had no interest in peace, but only in destroying Israel.
Why, the Egyptians wouldn’t even make eye contact, figuratively and even literally, with Israelis! In those days, a televised debate between Israelis and Egyptians had to be filmed with separate cameras, to spare the Egyptians the indignity of sitting at the same table as their enemies. And she wanted me to believe that Anwar Sadat was coming to Israel to address the Knesset!??!!
But she was right. Sadat had announced something like: “Do the Israelis want to know what we [the Egyptians] want? I will go straight to their Knesset and tell them!” And Begin had said: Please do. And Sadat had said: All right, I will.
I still didn’t think it was going to happen. Surely the aim was to trick Israel, soften it up for a surprise attack as on that dreadful October day four years earlier.
Saturday afternoon, November 19, 1977. In the Middle East, already evening. We sat together before the TV, watching to see what would happen. A landing field in Ben-Gurion airport–empty, deserted. Only a red carpet stretched out, leading to a vacant runway.
The time scheduled for Sadat’s arrival came and went. Nothing.
Then–all this is my memory, but indulge me–a news correspondent excitedly reporting a light in the darkened sky, to the southwest. Maybe a star? No. It was moving. Approaching.
It felt like only a few minutes before the landing. The alien object glided onto the runway before the TV cameras, slowing, then stopping. (See photo above.) On its side it bore the writing, in Arabic and English: ARAB REPUBLIC OF EGYPT.
It might as well have announced its origin from Jupiter, or Zeta Reticuli.
The rear door of the plane hung over the end of the red carpet. Somebody must have wheeled an airport ramp up to the door–I don’t remember that detail. It opened. For a few moments I could see only blackness within.
I half-expected–though I knew by now this was crazy–that they’d come out with submachine guns, shooting. I must have been thinking of the opening of the Martian cylinder in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
Instead Sadat came out, smiling, waving. As much at ease as if he’d been in his living room.
A 21-gun salute went off. An Israeli military band struck up the Egyptian national anthem. (I read afterward that they’d had a rough time learning, in a few days, a tune they never thought they’d need to play.) Sadat walked up and down the ranks of the Israeli honor guard, inspecting the polish of their buttons. I assume he found it satisfactory.
A Close Encounter of the Fifth Kind, so far unknown to UFOlogy. This is a meeting, accompanied by verbal communication, between hostile aliens with a view to bridging their differences and understanding each other as fellow-citizens of the universe. It’s a category I just invented. (I call it “Fifth Kind” because the Fourth Kind is already used for UFO abductions. Which are a very different matter.)
The next day–Sunday, November 20–Sadat spoke to the Knesset in Jerusalem. Again, I watched it on TV. He began his address, Bismillahi ‘r-rahmani ‘r-raheem, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” the formula with which nearly every chapter of the Qur’an opens. (Sadat was a devout Muslim.) It was no problem that he spoke in Arabic. Arabic, like Hebrew, is an official language of Israel.
I watched as he spoke, as Begin delivered a speech in response. I remember one thing that each of them said.
Sadat: “You cannot be happy, while you are making others unhappy.” He was referring to the Palestinians. Israel wanted peace and recognition from the Arabs, and Sadat had come to offer it. Did not one group of Arabs under Israeli occupation, the Palestinians, deserve the same thing?
Begin: “History teaches that war is not inevitable, but peace is inevitable.”
Peace inevitable? Then tell me, please–what’s going on in Gaza, 35 years after the splendid hopefulness of that day? Why are the bombs falling? Why are children dying?
Why did the promise die?
Maybe let’s blame Begin and his government. They applauded Sadat but didn’t really hear him. They were too busy calculating to listen. They thought they could have their cake and eat it too–get a peace treaty with Egypt, and still keep control of the West Bank and the essentially rightless people for whom that was home. They were right. They could, and did. But it all turned to bitterness, choked on blood. And the hatred between Jews and Arabs is, if anything, worse than it was in 1977.
Maybe blame the Palestinian leaders. They could have responded to Sadat’s cue, delivered their own calls for peace and justice and freedom, appealed to the hearts and minds and consciences of the Israeli people. Instead they threw a prolonged hissy fit over Sadat’s “betrayal.” On Christmas Day 1977, as the Egyptian-Israeli peace conference in Ismailia, Egypt, was getting under way, a Palestinian spokesman delivered his own version of seasonal peace and goodwill. Jesus Christ, he said, “was the first Palestinian fighter killed by the Jews.” (New York Times, 12/26/77, p. 14.)
And maybe blame a little bit Sadat himself. It was the same Sadat who four years earlier had picked the holiest day of the Jewish calendar for a surprise attack on the Jewish state. When the first ecstatic rush of the Close Encounter had faded, people remembered that. Abusing what’s holy to other people is the worst kind of karma. It comes around sooner or later to bite you in the behind.
Sadat was gunned down on October 6, 1981, eight years to the day after his armies attacked on that terrible Yom Kippur. A few days after his death I saw a political cartoon in a US newspaper. People wander, baffled, through what appears to be a trackless, featureless desert landscape. They’re saying: “We want to follow in his footsteps–but where are they?”
The joke was that they’re in the middle of a gigantic footprint, so enormous they can’t even see it.
His successor, Hosni Mubarak, was–well, let’s be polite and say he wasn’t quite of Sadat’s stature.
But then who, in the Middle East, has been? Nobody I can think of. Not even Yitzhak Rabin (also assassinated), whom I respect for the same reason I respect Sadat. He looked the unwanted Other straight in the eye and was ready to talk.
And the Palestinians are still under military occupation, 45 years and with no end in sight. And Israeli parents have continued to recite the Kaddish–the Jewish prayer for the dead–over their soldier sons, and over those innocents blown to pieces by terrorist bombs.
“It’s the first day of school, fellas,” a scientist in “Close Encounters” tells his awestruck colleagues, as they struggle to understand the musical communications emitted by the UFO.
Too bad that’s where we seem to be permanently stuck.
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