Echo chambers 5771

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The coincidence was not intended to be commemorative or symbolic. I had houseguests from the Old Country, good friends who had never been to Israel before, and this is how they chose to spend their last afternoon in the Jewish state.     

The first exhibit in Yad Vashem’s historical museum offers a crash course in the history of European anti-Semitism. It is made clear that the Nazi brand of Jew-hatred was racial in nature, meaning that even conversion to Christianity did not cleanse the Jew of his genetic toxicity. Still, the visitor is given to understand that the long tradition of Christian anti-Semitism enabled or predisposed many Europeans to collaborate, actively or passively, with the Holocaust. A quote on the wall from the German Jewish political satirist Kurt Tucholsky encapsulates the message:  “A country is not just what it does … it is also what it tolerates.” 

There were, of course, some Europeans who saved and harbored Jews in the Holocaust. These people risked their own lives because they knew in their hearts that Jews were human, too, that we were their brothers and sisters. Yad Vashem gives great honor to these heroes, long known in Jewish parlance as Righteous Gentiles. All the same, Jews may be forgiven if we are a bit skittish, if we feel we can’t completely trust any of the Christian countries, not really, certainly not the Europeans. And yet, many Jews so desperately want Christians to love them that they embrace any of them who profess such love, including demagogic Tea Partyers or mega-pastors who joyfully predict Armageddon. In today’s perilous, topsy-turvy world, such folks are construable to some Jews as Righteous Gentiles.

You go to Yad Vashem on 9/11 and you enter an echo chamber of catastrophe. You are deafeningly reminded that there’s nothing so terrible it can’t happen. On 9/11, 10 years after, Yad Vashem slams you against its cruel concrete walls and compels you to analogize. Given today’s headlines — could the worst not happen again?

You see the demonic caricatures of Jews from the Middle Ages and Nazi Germany, and suddenly a tape plays in the mind’s eye: all those terrible cartoons from today’s Arab media that appear prominently, as evidence of clear and present danger, on Jewish advocacy Web sites. You’re not one for scare tactics, and wary, perhaps, of organizations and politicians who thrive on them. Nor do you justify the automatic, facile equation of anti-Israel rhetoric and anti-Semitism, which such cartoons easily encourage. But you are deeply unnerved nonetheless. How can you not be?

I watched the newsreel footage of Kristallnacht, the hysterical mobs, the fiery collapse of stately German synagogues, and could not fail to think of the World Trade Center, toppled by Muslim terrorists a decade ago — and of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, attacked by an angry mob as Egyptian police stood idly by, less than 48 hours before my visit to Yad Vashem. What struck my American friends on 9/11 at Yad Vashem was the omnipresence of Israeli soldiers, scores of them. They were not there to guard the premises, but as fellow visitors, on special guided tours. The Israel Defense Forces routinely arranges for its soldiers to tour the museum and learn about the Shoah, to better understand the tragic history of the Jewish people and internalize the solemn Israeli determination to never be caught defenseless again. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 66th United Nations General Assembly.  Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

Now let’s talk Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lately escalated his verbal attacks, claiming that Israel has killed “hundreds of thousands” of Palestinians while exploiting the Holocaust for political purposes. “The Israeli people are only resorting back to the issue of genocide in history,” he told Fareed Zakaria on CNN.  “And using that genocide, they are always acting as if they are the victims all the time. We said, for that, go ask Germany to pay its dues, and they have. … But neither Turkey nor the Muslims in the region have such a problem. They have never exerted such cruelty on Israel. But Israel is very cruel in that regard. It shows no mercy.”

Retorted Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman — also no slouch in the braggadocio department — at a festive pre-Rosh Hashanah gathering of his right-wing Knesset party, Yisrael Beiteinu: “If you ask what we can do PR-wise, I’d buy each and every media outlet and let Erdogan speak all day and all night. Every time he speaks on TV, he brings more support for the State of Israel.” 

As it happened, my wife and I went to Istanbul earlier in the summer — yes, we had thought twice, but went anyway — for a long and pleasant weekend. We marveled at the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and strolled the back streets of the Sultanahmet quarter, where the wooden quasi-Victorian houses reminded us of San Francisco. And, of course, we visited the Topkapi Palace, as every tourist must. The opulent home of Ottoman sultans and their harems is now a museum testifying to the former grandeur of an empire that ruled the region — the Land of Israel included — for hundreds of years. Indeed, a trip to the Topkapi helps one decipher Erdogan’s chauvinistic bluster, and maybe also take him more seriously.

One wing of the Topkapi contains some unusual trophies of empire — Muslim religious relics brought to Istanbul from Arab lands. Along with hairs from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad encased in jewel-crusted reliquaries, these sacred treasures include: the sword of David, rod of Moses, turban of Joseph, and — would you believe — the saucepan of Abraham.  Yes, our Jewish pantheon also figures in the Quran, but can anyone seriously think these artifacts are genuine? And yet, in the Land of Israel in our own day, the traditional West Bank burial sites of Joseph and Abraham have been flash points of Jewish-Muslim violence. They have their stories, we have ours, each echoing the others.

Now the Palestinians have gone to the lofty chambers of the United Nations, demanding a state of their own. That same week, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a Christian conservative who would be president, declared his indignation, at a Manhattan media event hosted by right-wing Jewish supporters, regarding the unilateral action of Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO. Reading from a prepared text, Perry added, for good measure: “We’re equally indignant of the Obama administration and their Middle East policy of appeasement that has encouraged such an ominous act of bad faith. Simply put, we would not be here today at this very precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous.”

Yes, well, except that Obama, the very next day, delivered a remarkable speech at the United Nations that was so supportive of Israel that Lieberman gushed he would “sign on this speech with both hands.” From where I sit in Jerusalem, the dangerous precipice of a misguided metaphor is Perry’s use of the word “appeasement,” which, alas, is bandied about all too often in Israel-advocacy discourse. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who handed the Sudetenland to the Nazis at Munich in 1938, sullied the word once and for all. It cannot be used, certainly not in a Jewish context, without summoning the specter of the Shoah. But the Palestinians are not Nazis, and the analogy, be it ever so seductive, is unwise, to say the least. 

No less unsettling, for all its eloquence and passion, was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the U.N. General Assembly. It may be true, as he insisted, that the United Nations is often a theater of the absurd, but he scored no points in the court of gentile opinion by invoking the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s poignant counsel that “even in the darkest place, the light of a single candle can be seen far and wide.” Netanyahu, as he put it, “came here to speak the truth. The truth is that Israel wants peace. The truth is that I want peace.”

President Barack Obama addresses the 66th United Nations General Assembly.  Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

Fine, but how to bring it about? Many Jews wring their hands in despair, as they heed Netanyahu’s message to the United Nations: “The Jewish State of Israel will always protect the rights of all its minorities, including the more than 1 million Arab citizens of Israel. I wish I could say the same thing about a future Palestinian state, for as Palestinian officials made clear the other day — in fact, I think they made it right here in New York — they said the Palestinian state won’t allow any Jews in it. They’ll be Jew-free — Judenrein. That’s ethnic cleansing. There are laws today in Ramallah that make the selling of land to Jews punishable by death. That’s racism. And you know which laws this evokes.”

Judenrein. We do know what unspeakable horror this word evokes. Indeed, it stops conversation. And here, dear friends and fellow Zionists, is the bottom line of my autumnal rumination. To suggest that our fixation on the Holocaust — emotionally, rhetorically, strategically and otherwise — may be counterproductive at this critical moment in Israel’s history is not to be an apologist for Erdogan, or a “useful idiot” aiding and abetting the delegitimizers of Jewish sovereignty and Israeli power.

For if it all comes down to staving off the next Holocaust, and the Palestinians are complicit in a grand Muslim design to eradicate Israel, then it becomes impossible to be “pro-Israel” and also supportive of the Palestinian desire for independence. Such a conclusion is demoralizing, indeed, as it consigns us to a perpetual reliance on force, and the continuing subjugation, in the name of self-protection, of our Palestinian neighbors. So here’s a reasonable question to ponder on Yom Kippur: Is this something that Israel, the state of the Jewish People, can tolerate indefinitely?

Stuart Schoffman is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.