Flee to Be Me

What is a friend? When I was a kid, the requirements were none too stringent. Is he in my class? Can I ride my bicycle to his house? Do his parents have any insane “not too much candy before dinner” rules?

As I got older, other factors became more important. Do we root for the same team? Are we willing to lie to our parents for each other? Does he have a bong?

Now that I’m one half of a couple (actually, 49 percent when it comes to decision making, 51 percent when it comes to heavy lifting) friendship is trickier. Are our children the same age? Do our families have comparable incomes? Do they have a bong?

I have come to realize that not everyone I hang around with is a friend. Some of them are acquaintances, sidekicks, chums and cronies. At this point in my life, there is only one criterion that determines if someone is a true friend: Would he hide me from Hitler?

I am, of course, referring to the metaphorical Hitler. The actual Hitler is dead. Or is he? (That was for the paranoid among you. You know who you are. And we know who you are. OK, I’ll stop now.)

It says a lot about Jewish history that I would even entertain this line of thought, but it’s hard to refute the fact that people are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth (unless you happen to belong to one of the many groups who are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth, in which case it’s easy to refute the fact that people are, with alarming regularity, trying to wipe Jews off the face of the earth). And, with anti-Semitism at its highest level since … minutes ago (let’s face it, hating Jews is kind of like chronic pain — even on days when it doesn’t seem so bad you know it’s still there) it’s a necessary way to think. Non-Jews don’t have to think this way. There is no Scandinavian word for “pogrom.”

That’s why, to me, the ideal friend is a non-Jew (in the event of another Hitler, Jews are no good to me — even the blonde ones) who likes baseball, has an 11-year-old boy who plays computer games the way fish swim, has a wife who loves to talk on the phone — and has built a large, hidden shelter under the floorboards of his living room.

I come by this way of thinking honestly. My grandparents fled Poland in the early 1930s. Before that, you can trace my family back to Spain, where we fled the Inquisition. And, although I have no proof, I’m pretty sure that we’ve also fled the Egyptians, Babylonians and Canaanites. My family has a long history of fleeing.

We’re also proof of Darwinism. At 5-foot-8-inches tall (if you can use the word “tall” following 5-foot-8), I would play center on the Nemetz Family basketball team, a relative giant among Nemetzes. We are an example of survival of the shortest. My family was bred for hiding — in a crawl space, behind a sofa, under an ottoman — we fit anywhere.

Unfortunately, it’s a skill that may come in handy sooner rather than later. When I see the passage of The Patriot Act, which broadens the scope of the government’s powers while limiting the rights of certain individuals; when I see people voting in record numbers, partly to implement a ban on gay marriage, it sets off alarm bells on my “flee-dar.” Because if history teaches us anything (and if you had some of my history teachers, it didn’t) it teaches us that whenever a group of people exhibits any kind of intolerance toward another group of people, the intolerant group will eventually turn on the Jews.

You may think this a touch paranoid. However, my family has outlasted both the Roman and Greek empires. You don’t run into a lot of Mesopotamians or Assyrians at the mall. But you may see some Nemetzes (most likely my wife, buying shoes). We’re still here because, when it comes to the “fight or flight” instinct, we’re not so good at fight but we’re Hall of Famers when it comes to flight.

So next Saturday while you’re in shul, I’ll be at The Home Depot. They’re giving a class on how to build a shelter, and I’m going to buddy up to the teacher.

Howard Nemetz is almost as good looking as his picture.

Barbaric Acts Kill Palestinian Sympathy

I know there are many Palestinians out there who are sickened and ashamed by what happened in Gaza to the remains of the six dead Israeli soldiers.

I don’t hold them responsible; I don’t associate them with those acts just because they are Palestinians or Arabs, not in any way.

In fact, I think it’s important now to remember Arabs like the Palestinian man who drowned in the Sea of Galilee a couple of years ago trying to save a drowning Israeli boy. I remember a Jaffa Arab who was killed in 1992, I think, trying to stop a wild man from Gaza who was slashing at Jewish children with a saber.

An old Iraqi Jewish woman in Ramat Gan once told me how her neighbor back in Baghdad, a rich Sunni Muslim, had sheltered her family and scores of other local Jews from a pogrom, and had told the rioters that if they wanted to kill the Jews in his house, they would have to kill him first. A lot of Jews who survived the 1929 pogrom in Hebron could have described the same kind of scenes.

There are some Arabs who have a humanity and courage that is rare to find in any society — including, by the way, among Jews. Then there are many Arabs, although I can’t guess what proportion, who are just ordinary decent people.

But there are some Arabs living in the Middle East who are, to say the least, indecent. They do things that Jews here or anywhere else don’t do, no matter the provocation — and Jews over the years have had their provocations, including some even worse than anything faced by the Palestinians.

There is no shortage of Israeli soldiers who have done despicable things to Palestinians — although less despicable, on the whole, than what soldiers in most, if not all, other armies have been known to do to their enemies.

The point is, we are living next to a society that is, for all its decent people and even its righteous gentiles, different from ours in a crucial way: some of its members are out and out monsters.

Their behavior is utterly demented, yet they’re perfectly sane. Worse, they’re not only tolerated, they’re cheered by many of their peers. And the decent members of Palestinian society seem powerless to stop them or prevent them from coming out again and again.

I’m an Israeli leftist who hates the occupation, and there are a lot of things the Palestinians do that I’m willing to put down to circumstances, to this long tragedy we’ve been living in. Zionists, after all, deliberately killed plenty of innocent Arab civilians in the ’30s and ’40s.

But there are no circumstances that mitigate this reveling in the body parts of the enemy, the grabbing and parading of Israeli bones and gore as trophies. That’s something that can’t be traced to politics, and there is no political solution for it.

Wherever this behavior comes from, it didn’t begin with the bone-snatching in Gaza’s Zeitoun neighborhood. In this intifada, it began with the crowd dancing on the blood of the two soldiers lynched in Ramallah. It resurfaced when two boys in Tekoa were bludgeoned literally to a pulp. It gets reprised every time a crowd of Palestinians gathers to celebrate another bus full of Israelis getting blown apart.

This prominent feature of the intifada has hollowed out any idealism I once had about “making up” with the Palestinians and becoming good neighbors. While there are so many I’ve met whom I would love to have as neighbors in my apartment building, and a great many more I haven’t met who are in no way monsters, as far as the Palestinian nation goes, I want a hard border between them and us, and separate national lives — because of what we were reminded of at Zeitoun, because Palestinian society allows that element to flourish.

I’m afraid that this deformed face of the intifada has withered the idealism of a lot of people on the Zionist left. I don’t think it’s made anybody a fan of the occupation, or changed their ideas about where the final borders should be, but it’s blighted the spirit of the peace movement. Speaking for myself, it’s deadened my heart toward the Palestinians.

As much as ever, I’m still filled with rage at Israelis who enjoy abusing and humiliating innocent people. I still have no tolerance for sadism. But my attitude has become sort of abstract, a matter of conscience alone, because while I still feel fury at the bullies, I no longer feel compassion for the victims.

If I knew that the civilians being treated viciously were not enthusiasts of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, that they did not root for the violent deaths of Israeli children, then my heart would go out to them as before.

But since the intifada began, I know there’s a very strong chance that a given Palestinian goes around hoping that the suicide bombers will get through. So unless I know otherwise, I’ll believe in his human rights, but I can’t feel any sympathy for him. Too much candy has passed between Palestinian hands for that.

Sympathy for the Palestinians and shame over their repression were the animating emotions of the Israeli peace movement, but the eager barbarity of the intifada has removed much of that shame and about all of the sympathy. What remains for peaceniks is a hatred of injustice and brutality, and a yearning for security, but a numbed heart.

To all the brave and humane or even just decent Palestinians out there, I’m sorry. In no way am I blaming you. I just hope you won’t blame me, either.

Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.

Israeli Novel of Ideas Overpowers Story

“Foiglman” by Aharon Megged. Translated by Marganit
Weinberger-Rotman. (Toby Press, $19.95).

Can a work of fiction be important without being successful?
If so, it would look pretty much like “Foiglman,” by the distinguished Israeli
author, Aharon Megged.

“Foiglman” was originally published in Israel in 1988 and is
being issued here for the first time in English by Toby Press, a
Connecticut-based firm with an active editorial office in Jerusalem that has
been busily acquiring backlists of leading Israeli writers.

Megged’s book is a novel of ideas in which ideas completely
overpower the novel itself. True, they are ideas of the utmost gravity, and
they are given unusually thoughtful and provocative treatment here. If the
fictional framework of Megged’s book were handled as magnificently, in fact,
this would have been a staggering work of art.

At the center of the novel is Zvi Arbel, a 60-ish professor
of European history and the author of “The Great Betrayal,” a study of a 1648 massacre
of Polish Jews that many historians view as analogous to the Nazi genocide. Zvi
lives comfortably in his hometown of Tel Aviv and teaches at the university,
while his wife, Nora, works as a biologist. Their grown son, Yoav, is employed
by the army and lives nearby with his wife and young daughter.

Trouble arrives one day in the form of a fawning fan letter.
Out of the blue, an obscure Yiddish poet named Shmuel Foiglman sends Zvi a
volume of his poems that contains a lavish dedication “to the very important
author of ‘The Great Betrayal,’ who … penetrated to the crux of the awesome
tragedy of the murdered Jewish people, the ashes of whose 6 million are
scattered over the earth of Europe.”

With little interest in poetry and only a spotty command of
Yiddish, Zvi is perplexed by this gift from a total stranger. Yet something
about the book — which contains mostly lamentations by a man who clearly lived
through the Holocaust — elicits sympathy from Zvi.

The two men strike up a correspondence, followed by a series
of meetings in both Tel Aviv and Paris. Against the wishes of Zvi’s
increasingly irritated wife, he offers to arrange for a translation of
Foiglman’s book into Hebrew and, eventually, for Foiglman to move to Israel for

Over time, Zvi learns pieces of Foiglman’s past, from his
childhood in Zamosc, Poland, to the 1942 deportation of the town’s Jews,
whereupon Foiglman and his twin brother fled to the barn of a Polish peasant,
who agreed to hide them for a high ransom, then turned them over to the Germans
two weeks later.

“Thus Shmuel Foiglman,” Megged writes, “witnessed first hand
‘The Great Betrayal.'”

Later, the brothers were sent to Majdanek and from there to
various labor camps, surviving somehow until the end of the war, when they wandered,
barely alive, through a shattered Europe.

Though he now expects that here in Israel both he and his
poetry will at last find a nurturing home, Foiglman is doomed to
disappointment. There is little interest in Yiddish in Israel at all, where
Hebrew reigns supreme. Foiglman’s hopes that the Yiddish language might rise
again out of the European destruction, that something might be preserved from
that savage annihilation, are dashed.

After Zvi himself puts up the money to translate Foiglman’s
book, it is all but ignored by the Israeli literati.

“Sometimes at night,” Foiglman confesses to Zvi, “I wake up
from a terrible nightmare in which I’m shouting, ‘Gevald!’ and nobody
understands my language.”

Meanwhile, as Zvi’s friendship with the poet blooms, his
marriage withers. At first merely irritated by Foiglman, Nora becomes jealous,
then angry and finally, after Zvi refuses to cut off his association, she
begins a tumultuous affair with a younger man.

Finally, after months of unbearable agitation, she commits
suicide. Four months later, Foiglman becomes ill and dies, leaving Zvi doubly
haunted by sorrow and guilt.

If these domestic betrayals seem trifling when compared to
the massive betrayals of history and language that are the themes of Megged’s
book, their failure to move the reader lies at the bottom of the perhaps
unavoidable pitfall the author has set for himself. The truth is that the
author has succeeded so well in outlining his big ideas — the impossibility of
translating the horror of the Holocaust, the failure of art and faith in the
face of mass murder — that his own novel has become a disappointed testament to
the truths of those ideas.

His characters are simply too flimsy to bear the symbolic
weight he has heaped on them, and it’s difficult to care about Zvi and Nora’s
marital squabbles in the face of Foiglman’s devastating history.

In the end, the reader is left with awe and certainly
compassion for the victims of genocide, but with little in the way of aesthetic
satisfaction . Â

Democratic Races Poses Hard Choices

Jewish voters are an important constituency in national elections, concentrated in such electoral vote-rich states as California, New York, Florida and Illinois. However, they are even more important in the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination, comprising an important share of the vote in key Democratic primaries. For Jewish Democrats, the 2004 nomination race is providing some very difficult choices.

While a majority of Jewish voters are Democrats, they are not always pleased with the most liberal choice on the menu. That dynamic is multiplied when Jewish voters question the commitment of the candidate to core Jewish concerns: opposition to anti-Semitism and support for Israel.

If the Democrats nominate a presidential candidate who is a strong supporter of core Jewish issues, the Democrats should be able to count on Jewish voters against President Bush, a very conservative Republican incumbent. On most issues, Bush offers almost nothing to Jewish voters. He is pro-life on abortion and extremely conservative on just about everything else.

But Bush has worked hard to woo the most pro-Israel elements in the Jewish community with his largely uncritical support of the Likud Party’s approach to diplomacy and with his vision of remaking the map of the Middle East. For that reason alone, Democrats cannot take Jewish voters for granted in 2004.

Jewish voters view national security issues through a special lens. To Jews, an America strong in world affairs is a critical element in Israel’s survival. A guilty, cautious America is not good for Israel.

While Jews are unlikely to be impressed by Bush’s swaggering, unilateralist foreign policy, Jewish voters will not be comfortable with a weak United States that equivocates in its support of Israel. If America as bully is the only strong America being offered, it may be a reluctant but appealing choice.

In both 1972 and 1980, Jewish voters strayed from their historic loyalty to Democratic presidential candidates. In 1972, George McGovern was seen as weak on foreign policy. By contrast, Richard Nixon’s strong support of Israel pulled some Jewish voters away from the Democrats.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter, despite his great success in the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, was seen by many Jewish voters as trying too hard for "balance" in the Middle East. He lost a bloc of Jewish voters to a more pro-Israel candidate, Ronald Reagan.

With Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992 and 1996, the Democrats restored Jewish support to nearly FDR levels. Both were centrists, with strong records of support for Israel.

President George H.W. Bush had unnerved Jews by portraying himself as the victim of a pro-Israel lobby, and anti-Jewish comments attributed to presidential adviser James Baker added to the negative impression.

Unlike his father, the current president will leave no daylight between himself and Israel’s government. Therefore, Democrats have to be particularly sure to hew to the Clinton-Gore approach that begins with strong support for Israel but a more nuanced, diplomatic approach to Middle East politics than Bush offers. Let Bush have the far right on Israel, and let the Democrats hold the center and the left.

For this reason, the surge of Howard Dean to the leadership of the Democratic field is disturbing to some Democratic activists. Dean is a genuine phenomenon, born of the reluctance of Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., to aggressively challenge Bush after he took power in 2001.

A steaming, boiling well of grass-roots rage at Bush has been left to stew for three years, without a voice in the nation’s capitol. Dean was the only candidate to grab hold of that feeling, and he is riding its power into a nearly commanding position in the nominating race.

Dean’s comment that the United States "ought not to take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have been meant as a contrast with Bush’s hard-line approach, but to many Jewish voters, it will smack of McGovern and Carter. Dean’s comments earned him an unusual rebuke from 34 members of Congress. If he is going to avoid taking the party to another landslide defeat, Dean will have to more fully develop these early views and to understand how words like "balanced" resonate with Jewish voters.

The rest of the field has plenty of choices with whom Jewish voters will be comfortable: Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. John Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. It seems quite trendy this year to have Jewish relatives: Kerry’s grandfather, Clark’s father, Dean’s wife and of course Lieberman’s whole family.

But right now there are too many candidates to effectively block Dean. If one alternative to Dean emerges once the primaries are under way, then Jewish voters may become pivotal in determining the nomination.

In Florida, Clinton dispatched Paul Tsongas in 1992 by letting elderly Jewish voters know about his opponent’s views on Social Security and Medicare. The Medicare issue may also hurt Dean, but he is much stronger than Tsongas, and there is no Clinton in the race.

Any alternative to Dean, however, must be able to energize the Democratic grass roots as powerfully as Dean has, by a scathing attack on the Bush administration, while maintaining the Clinton-Gore center-left stance on foreign policy and the Mideast. Electability, alone. will not be enough and has surely been insufficient for Lieberman.

Even if Dean wins the nomination, it is not too late for him to avoid being tarred with the brush of McGovernism. He can work hard to reassure Jewish voters — and, in fact, all voters — of his stance on foreign policy and the Mideast. A strong America, but not a bullying unilateralist America, is still an appealing vision that a Democrat can run on.

While Jewish votes are not enough to hand the presidency to a Democrat, no Democrat will even be competitive if Jewish voters are lukewarm or worse. How the Democratic candidates deal with the Jewish community will tell us a lot about whether they are ready to take power from the Republicans in 2004.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton.