Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Why doesn’t Israel work for peace? By Silvia Tennenbaum

Holocaust victims would decry the slaughter of innocent children during attacks on Hezbollah

Newsday 4 Aug 2006

As a Jew who escaped the Holocaust by moving with my family to America in 1938, I turn on the BBC at night. And what I see are clouds of black smoke, explosions; the dead and the dying – children crying bitterly, cities in ruins. Only yesterday, these piles of rubble in Lebanon were home to thousands. Now, the cars roll out onto the highways, white flags attached to the windshields and doors. More than half a million are homeless.

The Israelis told them to leave, but then strafed one convoy from a helicopter. The military people exert their force without pity. They win their wars proudly. They are the masters of force.

Using the most modern weapons the United States can supply to search out the Hezbollah guerrillas, the Israeli soldiers destroy Lebanon. They wreck all of Gaza, seeking to murder the leaders of Hamas.

Many American Jews gather proudly to cheer them on. The face of the American president remains blank. A patter of platitudes issues from his lips. He is not interested in peace. He is happy to see Israel do the dirty war for him. Diplomacy is a word not in his dictionary.

But lo and behold – even as the destruction builds and the war continues through its third week – it seems suddenly no longer such a lark. Success is hard to come by; Israel is no longer the perennial victor. But will it know what to do when faced with the need to talk with the enemy? It has always felt so invincible that discussion seemed the weapon of fools and weaklings, much like the way the earnest work of its principled and dedicated peace camp – Jewish to the core, in an “old-fashioned” way – seemed pathetic and misguided.

But the peace camp knew that each and every Israeli atrocity nurtured another enemy, a potential terrorist, while every Palestinian home that the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions helped to rebuild, every olive tree it planted tenderly in occupied soil, brought another possible friend, another partner in dialogue.

Meanwhile, back at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, deep in the heart of the Jewish Lobby, the call to action is, as always, a call for solidarity, for good public relations. Denounce terrorism, suicide bombers and anti-Semitism in all its endless variations, which includes the “self-hatred” of the misguided Jew who asks us to give some thought to where we – obsessed with brutal retaliation – may have gone wrong.

And, it goes without saying, loyal Jews must talk about the Holocaust. Ignore the images of today’s dead and dying, and focus on the grainy black-and-white pictures showing the death of Jews in the villages of Poland, at Auschwitz and Sobibor and Bergen-Belsen. We are the first, the only true victims, the champions of helplessness for all eternity.

No matter what great accomplishments were ours in the diaspora, no matter that we produced Maimonides and Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn and hundreds of others of mankind’s benefactors – not a warrior among them! – look at the world of our long exile always in the dark light of the Shoah. But this, in itself, is an obscene distortion: Would the author of “Survival in Auschwitz,” Primo Levi, or the poet Paul Celan demand that we slaughter the innocents in a land far from the snow-clad forests of Poland? Is it a heroic act to murder a child, even the child of an enemy? Are my brethren glad of it and proud?

I am heartsick, and still I see a glimmer of hope (there must be that glimmer, to go on at 78 years).

The American peace camp reports a sudden massive increase in membership. All over the country, Jews whose consciences have not been crippled are writing in, speaking up, gathering, to raise their voices. Is this not what we have always done? What we were brought up to do? What – since the days of the Bible and the prophets – our forefathers taught us? If Israel had worked for peace as hard as it has worked for war, might it not all be settled now?

Three hundred British Jews took out an ad in the Times of London to ask the question, “What is Israel doing?” This question has now been taken up by Jewish Voice for Peace, and by Alan Sokal and Bruce Robbins who, some years back, placed an ad in The New York Times, that read, “Not in Our Name.”

The time is long overdue for Jews to return to their role as the world’s conscience, who come to the aid of the dispossessed, the wretched of the earth. Once again, we must join those who demand the end to unjust wars – in Iraq as well as Lebanon – and an unjust occupation in Gaza. We must honor the example of American civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, not that of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein or Yigal Amir, killer of Yitzhak Rabin.

And perhaps the day will come that we will be counted – by Jew and Arab alike – as among the Just, perhaps even given a place at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, for the lives we helped to save in a lawless, savage time.

[Silvia Tennenbaum, a writer in East Hampton, is author of the novels “Yesterday’s Streets” and “Rachel, the Rabbi’s Wife.”]

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"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

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-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

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to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"