Upon you who dwell on earth.
He who flees at the report of terror
Shall fall into the pit
And who climbs out of the pit
Shall be caught in the trap.
--Isaiah 24: 17-18
I was reminded of these dire words of warning a few weeks ago, when encountering Aharon Appelfeld's novel, Suddenly, Love. In this stunning book, Appelfeld's main character, a survivor and refugee living in Jerusalem, speaks of the return, again and again, to Leyb Rochman's diary of the Minsk ghetto, The Pit and the Trap. After savoring every word of Appelfeld, like visits late into the day with a beloved teacher, I moved seamlessly (ever the devoted reader of what the teacher assigns) to Rochman, whose description of the most impossible years imaginable in Belarus during the Second World War held me.
My great grandparents escaped Belarus in the late 1890s, fleeing the Czar and seeking economic opportunity in the prairie of Wisconsin. Over the years I'd always wanted to visit. Photographs brought over are the only tangible evidence of those whose fate remained unknown in my family: brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents--not well enough or daring enough to make the trip and who, in one way or another, were caught in the trap of the war.
Some may have made it but due to the vagaries of time, diminished family ties and distance, their connections to me remain a mystery. Their voices, disembodied from the tribal bonds that adhere, call out for reckoning. I one day hope to turn in full and in earnest to the project of recovering their names.
It was supposed to begin this summer, with a trip to Belarus and a visit to the town, Kopyl, where my great grandparents came from. All seemed to be moving just fine with my own visa but the Belarus Consul in New York denied a visa to a friend of mine, an immigrant from Minsk when it was the Soviet Union in 1980. In a classic twist of bureaucratic fate, the Consul demanded my friend's original exit visa. When he explained that it wasn't in his possession now more than thirty years later, that he was a refugee living under a regime that no longer exists, he was told it would take a year to gain permission. So with a laugh we postponed. Two guys from Minsk, trying to get back home. Thwarted again. No matter. It's a good introduction to a story I know I'll eventually write.
In Suddenly, Love, Appelfeld's main character Ernst writes, "He spoke about his failures in an orderly way, more or less saying, 'A person isn't an author just because he has a certain ability to write. If you're not connected with your parents and grandparents, and through them to the tribe, you're a hack, not an author.'"
I'm grateful that my father saved his mother's pictures. Scrimped at the edges are the names of the other Siegels who did or did not make it. Likely many died and are buried in the Jewish cemetery in Kopyl which you can now Google image. Others, doubtless, shared the horrifying fate authored by the Nazis who killed more than 2400 Jews in February 1943. Both Appelfeld and Rochman describe such disasters in the most intimate terms, that in their accumulation would total nearly six million dead Jews by the end of the war. A total annihilation of European Jewish life in the midst of a war that would kill more than 60 million people total. Dad was a soldier in the U.S. Army in the Second World War at that time. Nineteen years old, dying to fit in, to be sure. His process was not bound up in the remembrance of the Tribe but in what we might call the Great Becoming that America offers. He didn't save too many stories; and that lack, denial of the tribe, if you will, has been the engine that has powered much of my own Jewish life. It's the classic search for the missing piece of something, in my case, a story, a relative, a gravestone with a name.
I sat in a cafe in Tel Aviv this morning, digesting my observations of the left-wing peace rally in Rabin Square that I went to see, a gathering of a few thousand people calling for an end to war, while outside the square, under the careful and watchful eye of hundreds of police, several dozen right-wing Israelis chanted racist invective at those seeking a permanent cease-fire. Arabs and Leftists were "whores" and "sons of whores." Rightists were "Nazis" and "Fascists." Inside the square were the red flags of communism and the dual-nationalist flags of Israelis and Palestinians. Outside the square were Israeli flags worn like tallises or soccer banners, and one had a sense that without a strong police presence, the right was looking to do violence. Was one of those raging, spitting, invective spewing hoodlums my great-grandfather's great, great grand-nephew? Had they found their way here while my family found their way there? And were we now standing on opposite sides of a barricade, making sense of the dilemmas facing our people today?
I watched it all with dread and fascination. George Mosse used to teach us in Madison that all political rallies have a liturgy, a prescribed set of actions that are meant to evoke the ideals and the values of the movements expressing them. George did ground-breaking historical work understanding Nazism. He grew up watching his liberal German world implode and in personal stories as well as his autobiography, he spoke with fascination about watching Nazis come to power. About seeing the masses get in line, don the uniform, adopt the language, elide their individuality in favor of the nation.
That's not what's going on here. My left wing friends in Israel knock around those terms "Nazism" and "Fascism" as easily as the right wing hoodlums deploy racist terminology to deride and dehumanize leftists and Palestinians. It's not Nazism; it's not Fascism; but it's not purely hooliganism, either. After all, who can stand in Rabin Square and not grasp fully the bitter warning of its very name.
Not more than a few steps from the hatred of 2014, of Jew versus Jew, was the very spot upon which an Orthodox Jew murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for daring to make peace with Palestinians. And the soul searching then among the nations' leading thinkers--writers, rabbis, politicians, nearly each and every citizen--was and remains one of the watershed moments of Israeli democracy. A dangerous, unimaginable line had been crossed. A door had been opened. It seems that much more possible that it could happen again. And I must say that despite the disgusting use of the terms "Nazism" and "Fascism" along with "Zionist pigs" and "Jewish Nazis" or any other number of terms being deployed by the Left in America and across Europe (revealing the age-old anti-Semitism in these previously "huddled masses yearning to be free" of Jews) something much deeper and more dynamic is going on for Israelis.
The existentialist realities of the 1890s, 1948, and 1967 have again reared their heads. This time, it seems, is the peculiar reality of Israel's relative economic and military strength, it's dynamic and innovative daily life, combined with its hardened center--neither left nor right--that simply doesn't believe that on one hand recognizes that the Jewish nation cannot and must not occupy the Palestinian nation; but that simultaneously understands that one must not "flee from terror."
Out of the pit and into the trap.
Last night's rally for peace was small because everyone has someone or someone they know whose child is in Gaza or at the Gaza border. This is no fooling around. There won't be a massive rally for peace with troops fighting to destroy the tunnels that are built to kill Jews. On this most of the homefront is united. The empathic pain for the suffering of innocent Palestinian lives is felt deeply. It is on everyone's mind. But--yes, BUT--the obvious culpability of Hamas in its own people's suffering is deeply known. This is serious business. And like most serious things, it hardly fits into neat, rhetorical constructs.
There is both the inarguable truth that Hamas unequivocally calls for Israel's elimination. Total. And those calls are rooted in the most embittered and delusional historical anti-Semitism that it is nothing less than laughable that the rules of contemporary diplomatic engagement get Hamas a seat at the table. The pit and the trap, again. (Of course, there is today no greater fan of classic anti-Semitic demagoguery than that coming from Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, who, with world protestors bat around terms like "Zionist pig" and "Israeli Nazis" with greater frequency than the ball of the paddle in a beachside Israeli game of Matkot.)
And there is also the inarguable truth of a dangerous ugliness, a racist impulse, a violent, unbridled hatred among us Jews as well. We woke up today to read about two Palestinians again brutally beaten by a gang of Jews. Merciless, despicable evil perpetrated against purely innocent people. It would be nothing less than totally inexcusable to not find and prosecute these people to the fullest extent of the law. Not doing so debases the very arguments in favor of a Jewish democratic state rooted in Jewish historical values and traditions. When Cain kills Abel at the beginning of Genesis, God says, "Your brother's bloods cry out to me from the land." The Sages tell us we're to understand that one murder begets many more. And that when you kill one person, you kill those lives that would have emanated from the one whose life you took. It is a dangerously interminable termination. And therefore, evil.
There is also the inarguable truth for much of the population that the occupation of millions of Palestinians must end. But how? And when? And with what guarantees that rockets will not fly from areas even closer to the population centers? These questions I am hearing from my friends on the left. A fierce commitment to peace to be sure, to ending the occupation; but rooted in a jaded and hard-earned realism--a decade of suicide bombings; decades of rejections of peace; wars of survival in 1948, 1967 and 1973--realism about the existential realities Jews face alongside Palestinians who also seek a normal, free life.
It may well be that the pit and trap of twentieth century Jewry ends when we realize that the only ones who can rescue Jews and Palestinians from the pit and the trap of their own tortured and seemingly endless war with one another are Jews and Palestinians. That we need not see our own rescue from one pit as requiring that we fall into the trap of the other.
That may very well be.
But who will rescue from the trap of anti-Semitism those spewers of hate in the world's capitals, those profiteers of the oldest racism, who fan the flames of a question that burns with the bitter, rancid wood of their pyrrhic hatred: When will the Jew go away?
In the palpable loneliness and isolation that is keenly felt here in Israel these days, it is critically important to remember that there are deep friendships (with no shortage of disagreements) that Israel has with many nations, the United States being primary among them. As an American myself I am eternally grateful for that.
In the days and weeks ahead, all friendships will be tested and it will be critically important for each of us to be true. To what we know, to what we believe, and to what we realistically think can be.
Perhaps slowly then, ever so slowly, we may lift ourselves from the pit of terror, from the trap of hatred, and join forces to unite against those evil doers among us and at our borders who seem to always find new ways to do us wrong. People of every faith. Of every nation. Men and women. Gay and straight. People. Seeking goodness, justice and peace.