Notes to My Cousin (first part)
News as Autobiography
Hi cousin! You’ll recall that I moved to Israel when I was in my late twenties.
One of the first things I understood when I arrived in July 1977, was that “The News” was so much more ‘personal’ here than it was in the States. I used to say to people that when I lived in New York, reading the NYTimes in the morning over coffee, was a sort of entertainment: it caught one’s attention, was well written, usually had depth, positions were most often argued well and differing opinions were presented, and was far enough removed from one’s personal, immediate experience for it to be interesting, fascinating, troubling, but not really involving and certainly not existential.
In Israel, the news is autobiographical. There seems to be no more than ‘two-degrees of separation’, if that many! You went to school with or were in the Scouts with. You served in the army with or were in the same unit as. Your sister dated or your brother worked with, or your mother’s best friend arrived on the same boat as. You went to shul with and were members of a benevolent society with.
And while you lived in Jerusalem you vacationed in Eilat or Galilee or in Tel Aviv or Haifa. You trekked in the Negev or on the Gilboa; went to the beach at Palmachim or Herzlia; toured the fields of flowers near Sderot, the Immigrant Museum at Atlit; the artist colony of Safed. These places were only an hour or two away. You knew the nooks and crannies of the country and much of what you heard or read in the media resonated with familiarity. In the 2000 Palestinian uprising (2nd Intifada), when buses were being blown up, you felt fortunate not to have been on bus #18 when it exploded because thankfully you were on it an hour earlier (did I know anyone?!); or at the pizza shop, or the dance hall, or even just crossing the street, when the suicide bomber blew herself up.
My point is that by living in Israel, almost nothing was “far enough removed”. The news was, and remains, up close, personal: you know it, you feel it, you recognize it. You’re part of it and it’s a part of you. Here’s one example: One of the people kidnapped on what some are calling “Black Saturday” is Alex Dancyg of Kibbutz Nir Oz. Alex and I were part of a team of educators at Yad Vashem developing materials for teaching about Jewish life in Europe before the Shoah. Alex, born in Poland, was a guide who specialized in training guides who go with Israeli high school groups to Poland. Indeed, he was among those who pioneered the concept of that educational journey for Israeli high schools. Alex is a bit younger than I, 75! And another example: Late this week my oldest (14) grandson’s school was absorbed with formally memorializing, and informally digesting, the horrific murder of a recent graduate (19), whose dead body was abducted to Gaza and was then found by the IDF at the Shifa Hospital. There are some 240 faces and names of the kidnapped and some 1,200 of those who were slaughtered. You’ll understand that it’s impossible not to identify with many, as a grandparent, a parent, son, daughter, brother, sister cousin, fiancee, friend, even if you don’t directly know anyone.
The Sudden and Unfolding Terror
Here’s how the first news hit us: on Shabbat/Simchat Torah morning 7 Oct., ‘Booms’ woke me up at 6:45 AM. About a half-hour later I received a message from my son-in-law asking whether I’ve heard what’s going on down south. The news was that missiles were being fired from Gaza, and that some people in Otef Gaza, the Gaza Envelope, those settlements in Israel proper that surround the Gaza strip, had been killed. This was nothing radically out of the ordinary. This happened so often that politicians, security people, the media, took to calling it טיפטוף”“, drizzle or light rain. Perhaps it was meant to mark 50 years (+1 day!) after the opening attack of the Yom Kippur war. Perhaps also to disturb not only Shabbat but also Simchat Torah, that fell of the same day.
As the morning developed, we heard of dozens killed. The reporting was that there were many Hamas “militants” that had broken through the security barrier and were attacking in the settlements themselves. Of course, we were glued to the TV. In the afternoon the reports were of some hundreds (400) killed, then of very many hundreds (700. 900). We absorbed nothing. Even the commentators on TV were having problems understanding (or was it comprehending?) what was happening. How could terrorists break through the electronic barriers? The underground tunnels that burrowed into settlements from Gaza, had been destroyed years ago by the IDF. Were there no soldiers around? 1,100 killed. By the evening the reports were of intense fighting between soldiers, police, and special forces against the terrorists. This continued through the next day, and the fighting in Israel didn’t end for nearly four days.
A Pogrom in Israel
The picture that emerged was of an event from a different time, a time that 100 + years of history had utterly extinguished. It was mythical, a part of our heritage but no longer of reality: It was a pogrom. In fact, I would need to research the pogroms of the Pale of Settlement and during the Polish-Russian war to see whether any pogrom reached the numbers of 7 October: the first official summaries were of 1,400 murdered (and some of those were literally butchered), and some 240 taken captive.
Early depictions were that primarily civilians were targeted, in their homes, as they were waking or at their breakfast table or watching cartoons (kids, after all) on YouTube or Netflix. The first descriptions were that people of every age group were murdered, from those in their cribs to those in their wheelchairs and anyone in between! We understood that there also had been a dance party/festival nearby one of the kibbutzim and that hundreds of those youngsters were gunned down, raped, burned, kidnapped (and sometimes combinations thereof). One girl, 17 years old, and seriously physically and mentally challenged, came in her wheelchair brought by her father so she could experience the music and the joy of the party. He was killed. Some weeks later, her body was found.
I understand, I truly understand the nature of national conflict and surely the national conflict we have with the Arabs of this land. I’m confident enough in our own historical national rights to yet admit that we Zionists have some share of the responsibility that has brought the Palestinians to their current condition. Additionally, nations have gone to war and have killed pitilessly and without limit for generations. And, of course, we too kill our enemies.
The nature of the slaughter that day was different. It was of an altogether alternate order of magnitude. It was the product of a hatred I cannot grasp. The attackers, these so-called ‘militants’, were young men who slit the throats of infants and toddlers, cut off limbs, disemboweled pregnant women, burned families alive …. And between executions, some took the time to eat dates and other fruit that they found on breakfast tables or took from refrigerators. One (at least!) terrorist called his parents at home in Gaza to share the joy of the accomplishment (I’m not exaggerating). “Alahu Akhbar”. The parents were also ecstatic and repeated “Alahu Akhbar”. This isn’t national liberation. This isn’t ideology. Nor is it madness or insanity. Barbarism? Medieval? Biden called it “Evil”. Whatever it is, we’ve been reminded of its savage reality in our own lives.
Taking a Position
For decades many of the Israeli Right have been saying “I told you so” about “the Arabs”. “They just want to kill us.” “They’re all liars”. “They all hate us”. I haven’t bought it. The Jews in Israel, like the Christians in Lebanon, are anathema to Islam and to Muslim self-definition. I believe that it will yet take a significant period for the hard actuality of our presence – we ‘blasphemers’ – on Muslim historical land to be tolerated and then accepted, and it will be a long, long process of Arab modernization. There are many signs of this happening. I also know that this process needs leaders of Arab countries and society with greater courage, wisdom and honesty than have emerged … so far. More about this later.
My wife Irith and I have always supported – at least through the political parties we’ve voted for – the need for a state for Palestinians on the West Bank/Gaza and for Israeli policies that support such a development. My understanding of what this “state’ would be is probably closer to “broad autonomy”, rather than to complete sovereign statehood (I can’t conceive of artillery pieces aimed at Modi’in, the city in which we live, from hilltops that are but 7 – 8 kilometers from our home!). This has meant that we oppose the establishment and expansion of Jewish settlements in what are the Biblical areas called Judea and Samaria. At first, in the early 1970s, the settlements appealed to those who understood that they were “returning” to our sacred land, part of our core Jewish legacy. On a more mundane level it also appealed to those who were simply looking to better their lives by buying larger houses at cheaper prices, made so by governments that prioritized Jewish settlement expansion in Judea/Samaria/West Bank.
However, those I’ve called the “returnees” have among them people – including prominent religious and political leaders – who fully believe that by fulfilling God’s promise of the land to the Children of Israel, returning to it, and settling it, they are bringing the Messiah closer and more quickly. They maintain the images of the ancient Israelite tribes wiping out the idol-worshiping residents of the then Land of Canaan, as a model of what needs to be achieved today. And this activity will eventually lead to the building and consecration of the Third Temple. These are not the “Ultra-Orthodox. They are fundamentalist, ultra-religious nationalists. Inasmuch as I grew up Orthodox and in the world of Yeshivot , I’m familiar with its internal logic and power. I also suspect that the most extreme of these religious Jewish nationalists are capable of atrocities as horrid as those of religious Muslim nationalists. I hope that I’m wrong.
The Agony of the Position
So, we’re firmly in the liberal, progressive faction in the Israeli political and religious continuum. But I must tell you that it is fiendishly difficult for us to maintain our hopes – perhaps our naivete – separate from the human abominations of Black Saturday. There remain too many indications that very many Arabs (and not only Arabs!) continue to conceive of a Palestine “from the Jordan (river) to the Sea” and not from the Jordan to the so-called “green line” . That doesn’t really leave much room for us Jews, our children, and grandchildren. We are also familiar with the core ideology and public statements of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, that trumpet the removal of Jews from Palestine. The Hamas Charter, which was originally adopted in 1988, contains language that has been widely interpreted as calling for the removal of Jews. It includes passages that express the view that Palestine is an Islamic land and that the struggle against the “Zionist entity” and its Jews is a religious obligation . The very ideology is genocidal. Iran consistently calls for Israel’s destruction.
Moreover, how much of an imagination do we need to have when there are the contemporary examples of the Syrian civil war, of ISIS, of the Iraq-Iran war, to appreciate that should Arabs achieve a military breakthrough in any confrontation with us, that we will be similarly slaughtered. And may laws of warfare, Genocide and Crimes against Humanity be damned. A small fact: the Red Cross hasn’t yet visited any of our 240 kidnapped!
Anyone with the Slightest Historical Sensitivity …
Among our first reactions was also that the security failure of 7 October was a seminal, systemic failure. The civilian population, non-combatants, were not protected by our security forces, which is a fundamental responsibility of a functioning nation-state. More than that, it seemed that Israel, which was created in part to ensure that Jews would never again lack the ability the protect itself (and will never again be politically irrelevant, as it was during the Shoah era) “lost it”, albeit briefly.
This sense of history was one of the major reasons I came on Aliyah. It was a cardinal reason that I first came to Israel a few days before the 1967 Six-Day War. I volunteered to work on a farm many of whose members were on reserve duty and couldn’t work the farm themselves. At the time, I had said to my parents that I couldn’t conceive of a situation in which my people were under mortal threat again, and I remained 6,000 miles away. Therefore, on 1 June 1967, I arrived in Israel and remained for three months.
We were also shaken by the fact that the present crisis came as what seemed a culmination of 10 months of national crisis in Israel. This was triggered by a plan of a new Netanyahu government to weaken the existing legal system deliberately and systematically, and to change certain of our fundamental democratic laws. We were recognizably following a path ploughed by Turkey, Hungary, Poland. This is not what I signed on for when I moved here. More deeply, for millions there was a sense that the national “contract” was being ripped up before our eyes.
In addition, the new government included political parties that were unashamedly racist; that had a policy to annex the entire Judea and Samaria regions (with its Arab population? without its Arab population?); other parties refused to commit its young men to army service or other national service, arguing that Yeshiva study should be recognized as such ‘service’; parties that demanded increased public financing of their educational systems, in spite of the fact their schools did not abide by state regulation nor by the national curriculum. That is, the schools taught only the “sacred books” (ספרי קודש) but not maths, civics, English, sciences. Their schools may produce Talmudic scholars, but by and large they would remain an economic burden to themselves and to us.
(To be continued in a second and final part.)