16 November 2012

From the Rockaways to Tel Aviv

Natan Sharansky at CBE: 11-16-12
I remember three things about the 1987 rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington, DC.  We drove all night from Madison to get there, sleeping on someone's floor in Philadelphia;  I lifted my friend Debbie up on my shoulders to help her get a better view of the stage; and I learned that if 250,000 people show up in the nation's capital and demand action, following through on that demand with more action, things can actually happen.

So today, when Natan Sharansky came to CBE to thank us for our efforts on behalf of Russian Jews living in Coney Island and the Rockaways, scarred, proud, scared, cold and hungry victims of Hurricane Sandy, I have to admit to feeling a certain disconnect.

After all, he had languished in a Soviet jail for the crime of being a Jew; he had determined that by refusing to cave in to totalitarian pressure, he could liberate a million people.  That we were feeding and clothing and sheltering a few thousand was a mere footnote to the enormity of the achievements he had wrought in his life.

But that's not how life works.  One Red Sea, as it were, is not enough.

It turns out that we are forever in someone's debt, forever humbled by the blessing or grace of life, by the gift of its manifest reality.  What someone did before brought us to this place, a brief resting place until the journey begins anew.  Another river to cross; another sea to part; another mouth to feed.

Sharansky's visit came against the brutal backdrop of another "war" between Israelis and Palestinians.   An intolerable year of Hamas rockets falling on sovereign Israeli territory was finally enough.  Palestinians feeling locked into Gaza was finally enough.  No negotiations or a sign of the smallest interest in discussions was finally enough.  And a new reality comes into play.  New limits--with new leadership in Egypt, a divided Syria, Jordan being tested--come into view.  By most estimates, this is how negotiations happen when you can no longer talk.  This is Hamas asserting its power and independence and new alliances with an Egyptian government led not by Mubarak but by the Muslim Brotherhood; this is Israel saying to Iran via Hamas, "We will cause suffering to those who deploy the rockets you smuggle into Gaza."  It's even about Israeli elections and shoring up support and dividing internal oppositions.

My friend N wrote just after coming out of his bomb shelter last night; and I woke up this morning to find out they were back in there again a few hours later.  Sharansky said this afternoon, "More than a million Israelis have been in bomb shelters the past twenty-four hours.  In Israel we claim we protect you but we're in shelters; but then in America we expect you to protect us, but a storm just destroyed your houses--so I guess we work together to protect each other."

He gestured, with a laugh, toward fifteen Scouts, young men and women of high school age who are staying in our community for the next two weeks, doing volunteer work in the Rockaways and Coney Island.  They were listening, and checking their phones for reports from family back home. While Hamas and the IDF tweeted threats and updates to one another.

Death is sometimes fast and death is sometimes slow.  But you can tweet it in an instant.

Sharansky is always shorter than I remember.  And when 250,000 Jews gathered in Washington to free Soviet Jewry, there was no internet, no Twitter, no Facebook.

But human will is not measured vertically; nor is it reckoned in horizontal technological grids.  It is measured in the capacity of a man or a woman to believe in a cause and to see that belief through to its necessary conclusion.   This man in a beige sweater, tired, with a runny nose, helped free millions in his lifetime while devoting this part of his life to the idea that a Jew ought to be safe wherever he or she lives.

This can yield a dangerous absolutism, of course.  Sharansky, for instance, opposed the pullout from Gaza, which, while imperfect, was an important Zionist sacrifice for the two-state solution.  And, the argument goes, a "similar" absolutism impairs the Palestinian ability for compromise.  Which regrettably leads to more bloodshed.

But for the past few days I have been haunted by the assassination of Ahmed Jabari--not so much by the calculating precision of it but by the worshipful reduction of his body into an object of devotion.  I found it an abhorrence that was stunningly lacking in the very humility that death ought to teach us.  Not regret over another life lost but a macabre celebration of another martyr to be worshipped.

As if the cause were no longer freedom, but something else.

I'm struggling to be honest here.

While not entirely in agreement with Sharansky's political agenda, I nevertheless am a man who prefers preserving lives in shelters to parading corpses through the streets.  One is a unification of the sacred; the other is sacralization of the one.

I pray for the peace of everyone.  I always have and always will.  But as a Jew I pray for the safety of my family, my big family:  contentious, argumentative, singularly creative and brilliant and generous and Jewish--from the Rockaways to Tel Aviv.

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