The War of October 2023: What is Reality- What is Lucidity
(In Memory of Ze’ev)
I saw him in my mind’s eye. I sat there, at my desk, thinking of Jerusalem, praying for its safety and agonizing over a discussion which I had with him, after having had the same discussion with others in 1967. I simply allowed myself to recall the conversation of the time in detail.
In what seemed a casual discussion with a friend of mine in 1967, in hushed tones, over lunch in a quiet restaurant, a very crucial dialogue developed, “Are the present–day leaders of Israel, the generation of Holocaust survivors, realistic? Are they lucid? Are they not overreacting? Should it be they who make the decisions for Israel? Are they capable of clear-headed, rational decision-making?” My friend asked rhetorically. “No. These men have been scarred, so deeply, it would be best for them not to lead the nation.”
My argument was just the opposite. Because they had suffered so much, had gone to hell and come back to tell the tale, they had witnessed a higher sense of reality, or perhaps a lower or baser one of inhuman proportions. Just as some have experienced the highest peak of humanity, which approaches sainthood, others have witnessed humanity merged with Satan. Would we exclude someone from decision-making for having been the object of a great kindness, a true grace? By the same token, how can we exclude someone who has encountered immeasurable evil from being a functioning member of society? Who is to decide, in our violent terrorized world, what normalcy is? According to my friend’s view, we would be obliged to create havens of peace, health and tranquility for future generations of leaders, where suffering would not be allowed, in order for clear rational decision-making to take place. Could this be done? And would it be desirable?
I am reminded of the famous legend told of Gautama (Buddha, who Founded Buddhism), whose aristocratic family was able to keep him isolated, secluded in their palace in India. Gautama’s parents even ordered the servants, never to speak of anguish, anxiety, physical suffering, ill health or death in front of their son. They were forbidden to cry or express any form of sadness before the young Prince. Gautama grew up, and until his late teens, had never observed the trials and tribulations of life. One day, he decided to run away from the palace and see the world outside its sheltered walls. Thereafter, he vowed never to return to the false tranquility in which he had been brought up, for he knew that he could never again feel serene, after having witnessed the tragedy and suffering of others.
Can tragedy be weighed? Can suffering be measured? At what point does trauma cause obsession? And is it obsessive, having seen one’s world on the verge of destruction, to wish to prevent the experience from happening again? It is here that the survivors see risks, realizing inherent dangers which perhaps others, who have not been in the abyss, find easy to deny.
My daughter, who was five at the time, asked me, “Papa, why is there always war on the news ? I hate the news”; but, later she said, “ I want to watch it, I want to know. Explain it to me, Papa”
My son, who was two and a half at the time, had showed me a storybook, entitled, Curious George. It is about a lovable, cuddly monkey and his adventures. He asked that I sit down and he would tell me the story. He pointed to a picture of the monkey, being carried into the air by an inflated balloon, which the monkey held in his paws. My child’s creative imagination then went into action. In all earnestness he said “the monkey will go up into the air, into a spaceship, fall down on the ground; there will be an accident, the monkey will hurt himself on the head; someone will run to him and kiss him on the boo boo and it will be all better.” A story which could have had a sad ending had a reassuring one for my son who, thank God, felt cared for at this early age.
Some of us are not very removed from the attitudes of children. Many of us, thank God, will remain as such. When it comes to tragedy, to calamity of the proportions of the Holocaust; yes, the minds of the survivors, their decision-making process, would have to have been affected. Had it not been so, there would not have been normalcy. The witnesses to the Holocaust would have had to undergo voluntary or involuntary amnesia, and escape from their world rather than involving themselves within it. Instead of functioning, choosing life after having been submerged in the depths of depression, sorrow, frustration and anger (anyone of these or all of them), they would have kept their feelings buried deeply without any benefit to others and with destructive consequences to themselves and others.
I recall something, I had witnessed fifty-two years ago on a pilgrimage to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia, where I went to pay homage to the 15,000 children who were brought there by the Nazis to be killed. Only 100 of the children escaped. The famous book, “ I Never saw Another Butterfly,” is a compilation of drawings and pictures by the children in the camp. During a guided tour of the children’s barracks, the guide who pointed out the original drawings to us, stated, “as you can see these children were not normal. They were mentally ill after all they had seen, and their works show this.”
I could not contain myself, I blurted out,” dear lady, if you had lived through those times, and if you had remained normal, then, you too would have been abnormal. These children show hope in spite of living in hell. They see a sunrise, a sunset, birds, butterflies and flowers. And beauty existed for these children, even though it has been exiled from the concentration camp. If they could see the marvels of nature and draw the pictures they did, in spite of having been so tormented, they were not only normal, they were as perfectly lucid as one can be, showing deep-rooted psychological strength in spite of their physical frailty.”
Golda Meir, who had not witnessed the Holocaust personally, but who had experienced pograms as a young child and subsequent wars in Israel since the creation of the State, told an American journalist …. I have the Holocaust complex and for that reason, I am intransigent. I must be honest with you. I do not only have the Holocaust complex, I have the destruction of the First Temple and Second Temple complex, I have a Crusades complex, an Inquisition complex. I have a pogram complex and yes, I have a Holocaust complex.
After the journalist left, she requested that he return because she had forgotten to tell him “something of great importance”… “ I also have the hope of Yavneh, that in spite of calamity, all can be rebuilt.” The children of Theresienstadt and Golda Meir met in their remembrance of Yavneh, (a town in Palestine, where Jewish learning and thus life, was able to continue after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans) a sign that although future dangers always lurked in their minds because of the experience of past dangers, serenity and hope would dwell there, too.
And this principle is not limited only to Jews. Are the Armenians who lived through Musa Dagh, the survivors of Bangladesh, the boat people of Vietnam, the escapees from Idi Amin’s Ugandan River Cemeteries, and the hunted of Cambodia, as well as the Tutsi survivors of the Hutus in Rawanda and for that matter, the majority of the peoples of the globe who have lived through told and untold tragedies, be barred from decision-making? If that is so, the world would have too few leaders. As a matter of fact, most states would have to be ruled by proxy by the handful of people who have experienced no trauma and where would such people be found, who are capable of ruling?
For those who have experienced hell and returned to tell the tale, who predict calamity and take essential steps to avert it because they see dire warnings, while others see only a basis to discuss their preoccupation with the devastation which they experienced, all that can be said is: can anyone truly say what is reality? What is lucidity?
Yes, those who have lived through harrowing experiences, as well as subsequent generations who have understood and imbibed the historical realities of their ancestors, are in position to take the decisions they do.