Barcelona is crowded. La zona turística is filled with people, constantly. Many come to walk along Las Ramblas (a famous tree-lined path with souvenir and ice cream kiosks), to visit the Picasso Museum, or to rollerblade near the coast. But few come to visit the ancient synagogue, La Sinagoga Major, small and inconspicuous.
I was about three months into my semester in Spain when I first visited the synagogue. My cousins were in town, a newly married couple honeymooning in Europe. After visiting a few typical tourist sites together, we began our search for the synagogue. We turned the paper map torn out of their Barcelona guidebook upside down and sideways. Google Maps kept directing us in circles near and past our destination, Carrer de Call. We asked several locals for directions but only a handful were able to give us the general indication that we were on the right track. Finally, rounding a tight corner boasting high-widowed apartments and a tattoo shop, we spotted, on the seemingly ordinary wall of a narrow passageway, several Hebrew characters etched into the stone.
A few paces past that corner was a small, white fabric sign, embroidered with the word “Shalom,” the most common Hebrew greeting and the word for “peace,” a warm welcome. Inside was a small (only about 60 square meters), cavelike enclosure of crumbling bricks. One can see the original, sixth century brick floor supporting subsequent layers of thin stones, marking the passage of time. Half of the synagogue is laid out like a museum. Several informational panels help guide visitors through the building’s history and a host of liturgical objects, donated by collectors from all over the Mediterranean, donned the main room in glass display cases. No standing congregation holds services there, but the room is a potential prayer space. A Torah can be brought in and housed in a wooden ark and there are several rows of seats.
The guide, Natalia, was friendly. She spoke Spanish, English, Hebrew, and Catalán, and with her children, spoke all four. The tour she gave my group was conducted in English. It told of the specific history of the place, tracing events that mirrored the Jewish people’s complex historical relationship to Spain. The building underwent multiple restorations. Originally constructed in the sixth century, its floor has been raised, its width doubled, its doors and windows sealed shut, and its interior converted into a storeroom for grain. Now, it functions as a museum, charging a modest 2.5€ admission. It had once been a flourishing prayer place for Barcelona’s Jewish population, celebrating, partying and socializing all in Catalán.
I fell in love with the little synagogue. After more than a thousand years and several rounds of expulsions, the small stone building remains standing. Seated inside, one can feel the struggle and persistence of the structure and of the culture who one worshiped within it.
Charlottesville, North Carolina. August 12, 2017. Tiki torches hoisted in the air, proud neo-Nazis march the streets, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” It was in this moment where I realized that the people who I had assumed were living underground, out of sight, emerged into the forefront of American culture and my own Jewish life. I had assumed for so long that the legacy of the Holocaust haunted most Americans. With discourse seemingly revolving around guilt and disgust associated with stories from Holocaust survivors about the treatment of European Jews in the 1930s and 40s, I believed most Americans were pained and repulsed by the history of state-sponsored execution of Jews and other marginalized groups. I also assumed that the neo-Nazi’s main aspiration was to destroy or distort the memory of the Holocaust because I thought that the Holocaust is what made Nazism taboo and reprehensible. I believed that the main obstacle for neo-Nazis rising to prominence in American culture was the legacy of the Holocaust. I was wrong – their goal was not as subtle and devious. It was worse.
Forgetting the Holocaust was not on the agenda of these anti-semites responsible for the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. The goal was to preserve the Nazi legacy – to outrightly announce that Jews will not replace ‘truly white’ individuals (whatever that means, as whiteness is not definite but socially constructed). The question for me becomes this: in the midst of such atrocious, disgusting, evil behavior, what do we do? How are we meant to respond?
The common responses I see to this event are as follows: extreme anger, fear, utter disgust, and desire for vengeance. At the risk of sounding radical, and at the risk of disgusting myself in the process, I am going to argue the case that these neo-Nazis in Charlottesville deserve our empathy. For those feeling the impulse to curse me out and slam the journal closed, I hope that you hear me out.
Here’s a little thought experiment: there are five people in a field of strawberries. Four of them share the strawberries equally. One, however, eats more than their fair share. Suddenly, the whole group suffers from a shortage of strawberries. So what to do? There are a few options.
You can expel the thief of the strawberries.
You can, in response, collect all the strawberries for yourself and hide them from the greedy bastard.
You can confront the person and ask them why they stole the strawberries and hope to reach a resolution to the issue.
So how does this relate to neo-Nazis marching the streets? How dare I use such a petty analogy to discuss the very real and dangerous reality of neo-Nazis? Firstly, because the same basic dilemma lies behind each scenario: we either drive neo-Nazis out of society, through direct exclusion or deprivation of resources, or confront them and seek to understand why this problem persists. And secondly, when it comes to a field of strawberries, there are fewer emotions that interfere with rational thought — and rational thought is crucial as a first step in confronting any serious issue. Inevitably, emotions will become a significant factor. By beginning with rational thought, one assesses the situation and can logically think of what the realistic consequences of any particular decision will be, rather than how it will feel to make a particular decision. By beginning with emotions, we focus our attention toward making cursory decisions that will feel great (such as taking revenge), but ultimately may not solve the problem.
Still, neo-Nazis will likely have much stronger and more personal reasons for being publicly anti-semitic and white supremacist than an eater of strawberries would for stealing fruit from a group. It will be difficult for a neo-Nazi to change. It will be even more challenging for a Jew to confront a neo-Nazi rationally, when we are obligated to remember the history of our people that has manifested in millions and millions of state-sponsored executions in the previous centuries. But in this dilemma lies my point: anti-semitism has persisted for centuries, sometimes publicly and sometimes privately. It seems to me that the solution is to confront the issue systemically — we must confront the people and their personal histories behind these horrible actions. How else are we supposed to resolve the issue? I argue that resolution is key, not avoidance and not revenge — which will only persist the problem indefinitely.
So, how do we confront this predicament systemically? Some believe we should drive the neo-Nazis underground. This, I admit, is incredibly attractive. On the surface, this plan appears perfect: scare these atrocious humans enough to get them out of the public sphere so we can live our damn lives in peace. After all, these are the reprehensible individuals who would have wished us dead and shipped us off to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Birkenau, or Bergen-Belsen. These are the people who if we attempted to speak to them might scorch us with their tiki torches and laugh as we burned alive.
However appealing and personally satisfying it would be to resort to exclusion of these individuals, there is still a key issue with this tactic: it does not actually address the issue. What happens when a leader who does not actively and explicitly condemn neo-Nazism rises to power? The neo-Nazis crawl out from their hibernation with unaltered opinions — ready to march the streets proudly. Perhaps they even have more desire for revenge in their blood given the fact that they have been forced into hibernation. This is what is happening today in our country. After decades of seemingly living underground following the Holocaust and Nuremberg Trials, the Nazis have reemerged ready to take the world by storm, with the state-sponsored support of the President of the United States, affirmed by his lack of condemnation of the neo-Nazi activity in Charlottesville.
Driving them underground won’t work. They will re-emerge eventually, for our kids and grandkids to have to deal with more than we have to now.
So what about this solution: let’s do what our animalistic desires tell us to do. Let’s just kill them all. Let’s go all out Inglourious Basterds and collect their Nazi scalps. Perhaps not quite so violently in reality, but you get the point. And while I love Basterds as a piece of cathartic entertainment, I would never abide to that logic in my everyday life. I stand adamantly behind the idea that we should not kill in order to fix our problems. Perhaps these are my Jewish values speaking, but I believe that unless there is a direct threat to your life or the lives of your loved ones that is unavoidable unless you kill, we should not kill to fix our problems.
The question that drives me is this: why should we ask oppressors to understand our suffering if we are not going to understand theirs? I admit, it troubles me to write that statement. How dare I say that oppressors struggle? How dare I say that neo-Nazis who are determined to preserve a murderous legacy and subjugate all who are not considered a part of them are sufferers? Here is why I dare: they are suffering. They suffer from a lack of education. They suffer as a product of their upbringing that taught them that it was okay and even admirable to torture and potentially kill in the name of white racial purity. And mostly, they suffer because they do not see the miracle behind life itself. Why would we attempt to kill anyone who is a product of billions of years of evolution on a planet that is placed at the precisely correct distance from a huge ball of fire that permits a comfortable existence for creatures with the ability to think. That sounds like a miracle to me. And it also reminds me that neo-Nazis are not mindless creatures: they have brains — they can be reached.
The point is: neo-Nazis aren’t going anywhere unless we attempt to change this ideology. We should not be fighting fire with fire, we should be fighting fire with education, with the ability to confront certain ideologies we disagree with and learn about why it is happening and then educating in order to change the issue. How are we going to educate these individuals to see who they perceive as non-white groups of people as people. What is at the root of their evil?
Why is it important to empathize with the people in our society who we most hate and oppose? The people who are to blame for so much suffering? Because I believe that it is important for us to understand why this is still happening. And it’s important for us to understand that these people have been corrupted. To an extent, we all have. No one is irredeemable in my view. There is a positive role in this world for everyone. Avoiding the oppressors will not amount to any progress. Killing the oppressors, I believe, will result in a prevailing tendency for murder. Violence and anger are addictive — once you unlock the valve, it’s difficult to change course. In order for true progress to exist, we must confront the people behind this evil and understand why — then we must find a new role for them in this world. A role that is not fueled by hate and violence.
And while this may seem too ambitious and idealistic, I choose to live my life as an idealist. Because even if my plans and wishes do not amount to as much as I want them to, I believe it will make at least a small difference and things will change, for the better. If my plan does not work, and we cannot rid the world of this ideology through conversation with openly proud neo-Nazis (which, admittedly, I am skeptical about), I believe that even the worst of the worst can have a positive role in this world. We should not police those who we only suspect to be neo-Nazis, as it is not our role in a civilized society to police one’s mind (even though it seems we may be participating in this sort of activity presently). But for those with this ideology that are committing acts of violence despite our efforts to confront and change their minds, their positive role can still be something as simple as committing their lives to community service in chains. At least then, nobody is dying.
For now, though, we must change our thought-process. I’m not suggesting any one blueprint for a confrontation that would practically solve this issue: as each confrontation will manifest in different ways. What I am urging for is a necessary change in perspective and to grapple with this idea of empathy.
On October 9th, many of the buildings at the site of URJ Camp Newman burned down due to the Tubbs Fires that tore through Santa Rosa, California. Although the site of Camp Newman was only 20 years old, camp had just celebrated their 70th anniversary, which started out as UAHC Camp Saratoga in Saratoga, then UAHC Camp Swig also in Saratoga, and then finally URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa.
Most of the buildings were completely destroyed. The dining hall, most of the cabins, the infirmary and welcome center, the vineyard, and the main programming buildings on camp were gone in just a few hours. Along with the buildings that were cherished for the memories made inside their walls, memorabilia that was brought to camp for the 70th anniversary celebration that happened on camp this past summer were also lost, including old murals painted on planks, photos, and art made throughout the years at Camp Saratoga, Swig, and Newman.
For many, Camp Newman was more than just a place; it was home. It was a place where so many kids laughed, played, sang, and prayed surrounded by a community of close friends. It was the place where you learned how to throw a frisbee. It was where you ate tater tots until you couldn’t move. It was where you faced your fears and climbed to the top of the tower with your friends cheering you on. It was where you learned to stay hydrated and put on enough sunscreen. It was where kids clad in white sang and danced on the basketball courts to bring in Shabbat. It was where you put your arms around your friends and sang Sh’ma and Hashkiveinu to close out every exhilarating day before dreaming about the next one.
The loss of the buildings of a place that so many people called home for the summer was heartbreaking to many that were affiliated with camp, whether as children or adults working there. A glimmer of hope comes from what did survive the blaze, which includes the sign at the entrance of camp, some old cabins, the pool area and water slide, a shed full of prayer books and shawls, and the white, wooden Star of David that overlooks camp.
Camp Newman was an amazing place that inspired so many kids to connect with and grow to love Judaism, but it is not meant to be written or spoken about in the past tense. The 70-year legacy camp has built was not and will never be lost to the flames. It is important to remember that while the site of Camp Newman will never be or look like what it used to be, it was never fully about the physical places that camp has been that has made it so special. It was always about the community of people that made it a second home. The cabins, the dining hall, and the programming buildings were not what kept kids begging their parents to sign them up for next summer, it was the friends and memories they made there, the new experiences they had, and the lessons they learned not just about Judaism, but about life.
Memories, friendships, song lyrics, dance steps, jokes, bonds, and life lessons cannot and will never burn. Camp Newman as the place it was will be sorely missed, but Camp Newman as a community is not going anywhere and never will.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War: a war whose events transformed Israel, Palestine, the Middle East, and the Jewish world forever. In just six short days – June 5th, 1967 through June 10, 1967 – Israel defeated the full military force of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, tripled its landmass, and brought the entire city of Jerusalem – including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall – under Jewish sovereignty for first time in nearly two thousand years. Israel’s victory also triggered the Palestinian Naksa, as an estimated three hundred thousand Palestinians fled the West Bank, and marked the beginning of a military occupation with no seeming end in sight. Israel’s swift and definitive military victory solidified the country as a new geographical titan, and all but diminished some Arab’s hopes that Israel could simply be wiped off the map and out of existence. The Six Day War is undoubtedly one of the most seismic events in the Middle East in the last century, and when the opportunity came for us to interview someone who was in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 in what was then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan we seized it.
Gildas Hamel is a Senior lecturer, emeritus in the UCSC History department who teaches the histories of ancient Israel, Hellenistic and Roman Judea, and Early Christianity. He was born in France and French is his first language. Hamel lived in the Old City of Jerusalem from 1966 to 1968 while working at the Collège des Frères while studying to become a Catholic Priest. He witnessed the Six Day War, including the fighting in the Old City, firsthand from what was then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He wishes to communicate that because these events took place fifty years ago, his memories have almost certainly been distorted by the passage of time and may not be objectively accurate.
AW: Let’s just start by laying the groundwork. Before the interview I’ll do a little write up on the Six Day War – what it is and why it’s so important – but Bruce [Bruce Thompson, Leviathan’s faculty advisor] told us that you were living in East Jerusalem at the time, and I just want to know what brought you to East Jerusalem?
GH: I came to was called at the time the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Jerusalem being part of it because I was in a grand seminary to be a Catholic Priest in France – in Brittany. In the curriculum that you followed of six years of studies, the first two years had been done by [the time] I was 20, and you were supposed then to do your military service in France – [I was] an old man by that time but I had to do fourteen months, but instead of doing that you could do what they called coopératcion – which is cooperation, same word – from the point of view of the Ministry of the Army and the Ministry of Education was a – what’s the word – Peace Corps. It’s essentially something like that. So you could go anywhere in the world. A friend of mine he had connections, he wrote to people in Lebanon – a Catholic order, so this is a Catholic story at the time [laughs] – and they answered and said “No, we have no room for you as assistant teachers for kids in Lebanon,” which was very peaceful at the time, this was way before the events [in Lebanon], but they said we have two places in Jerusalem, in the Old City of Jerusalem. At a place called Frère’s College, which educates people all over the world. They’re not missionaries, but they teach kids. They often teach poor kids, but sometimes they also happen to teach the elites: kids in different situations. So there they were right in the Old City. Do you have a sense of the Old City of Jerusalem?
AW: I have some sense of the Old City, yeah.
GH: Ok so it [Frere’s College] was in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, and its by the New Gate. When you come from the Israeli side, to what is now all Israeli, you get through either David’s Gate on the Western Side or the New Gate. The New Gate is not used as often, but it was the New Gate by the College – I can actually show you pictures of it. And I lived there, I had a room there. And so what brought me was a seminary program where we got to choose where to go, that was entirely our own. And there I taught, I was meant to teach kids for two years; that was really the contract. And that’s where I was. It happened to be right near the No Man’s Land. You could hear the Arabic Jewish families speaking in Arabic from the other side of the No Man’s Land daily.
AW: So if you’re living in East Jerusalem, you weren’t actually living in Israel then at the time before the war?
GH: No. That’s an interesting question too. It had different names. So we called it the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan because it was part of this unit created by the British mandate in the twenties. And then after the war in 1948, they had taken this very strange map, shape, which meant there was kind of like a hall going up from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that gave access, for some Israelis, access to the Mendelbaum Gate north of the Old City, but no direct access to the Old City. In fact, I came out of the Old City through the various paths to go to the Biblical school where I also studied at the same time – a very famous Biblical school on Nablus Road [Ecole Biblique]. And as I came out of the Damascus Gate, which is a super busy gate now, right there you came out. To your left was a wall, a cement wall about – I would say – 50 meters, 20 to 30 feet high. Badly made cement, but it was cement nonetheless, and you knew Israel was the other side. The No Man’s Land kind of serpented all around the Old City.
AW: Did you arrive in Hashemite Jordan in 1967? Or had you already been there?
GH: ‘66 i was there
AW: So you had already been there for a year before the war
GH: So I was there, I would have to check the exact date, but it was the end of August. I took a very pleasant cruise through the Mediterranean on a boat, and I went through Egypt and I went through Lebanon, through Syria. No pictures could be taken. It was really dictatorship (in Jordan at that time), [led by] the father of the present dictator. You had the sense immediately, in the first hours you were there, that you were in a new political situation that was very different. And then we went through the Kingdom of Jordan – Irbid, which is a northern city between Syria and Jordan. And then from there you took the road across the Jordan [river], through Jericho, and you went up to Jerusalem. The famous road that still exists today, a better road now. I still remember arriving at night in this very old city, all made of stones, and it was eerie. And you knew that Israel was there, but it was never discussed. We did not, for two years I never mentioned the name Israel in a conversation. I myself accepted that. At the time I did not know Jews [from Israel] at all. In my own educational make-up I was not anti-Semitic of course, well I don’t think so, but I came from a Catholic-Christian background, very interested in changing the world, but still completely ignorant of either Israel or the Jordanian side, and certainly the Palestinians. But we never pronounced the name Israel. We actually had code in our conversations because we were warned never to draw attention to that.
AW: So you would say you had almost no contact with Israelis when you were living in the Old City even though they were right over this wall.
GH: They are fifty meters away on the other side
AW: You could literally hear them talking, but you didn’t know them
GH: The Jordanian soldiers – there was a squad of Bedouin, perhaps Christian actually, strangely enough, from south of Al-Karak of the Jordanian Plateau. Because that’s all the people who were used by King Hussein as kind of his defense guard and as his army. He trusted only Bedouin type people, he was of Bedouin origin himself. And he did not trust Palestinians. His own grandfather was killed in the Old City of Jerusalem in front of his own eyes when he was five. So it’s an extremely complicated type situation right from the get-go. So the squad of soldiers was right near, not far from my room and you could sometimes see them, but we never talked to them. They spoke, not perhaps daily, but they actually communicated with Arabic speaking Jews on the other side [of No Man’s Land]. It was the strangest thing. This is the most expensive part of real estate in all of Jerusalem now because it’s right at the center. You have the King David Hotel a bit south. The whole place, that’s where I was.
AW: I had a lot of questions prepared about Israeli society, but now I’m guessing you weren’t actually there
GH: No, but I got to know it later. I can answer questions like that too.
AW: Ok I’ll go ahead and try and ask my same questions, but we’ll amend them to fit more of your situation. Preparing for this interview I did a lot more research about the Six Day War. And I’m a History Major and I study Jewish History so I should know it…
GH: Oh good I feel more comfortable [laughs]
AW: But I did some refreshing to get back up to speed. And what I gathered from all of my reading is that the general feeling in Israel right before the Six Day War is that Israelis really thought that this was the end of the road.
AW: They really thought that the Third Arab-Israeli War was going to mean total annihilation of all the Jews living in Israel. I pulled a quote from a book that I read – Daniel Gordis wrote a really good book called Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn which is really a brief introduction to understanding the modern history of Israel – he wrote, “Rabbis across the country cordoned off areas to be used as mass graves. The Ramat Gan stadium [in Tel Aviv] was consecrated as a burial ground for up to forty thousand people. Hotels were cleared of guests so the facilities could be used as massive emergency first aid stations… Israeli intelligence reported to [then Prime Minister of Israel Levi Eshkol] that poison gas equipment had been detected in the Sinai but that Israel had no stockpiles of gas masks. Eshkol muttered in Yiddish, the language of his youth from Europe, ‘Blood is going to spill like water.’” Would you say that these statements – I guess in your contact with Israelis after the war – mirrored the kind of fear that they had felt leading up to the Six Day War?
GH: A little bit overdone, I think. But the general feeling I got from talking to Israelis, and from also studying myself and then from reading, particularly, analysis fifty years later the basis of modern history and for events like that, at the time you have no access to real information. That was the basic rule I learned very quickly. That you could not trust anything you heard. It took me a while, but I learned that it was actually manufactured. Well, manufactured is to say too much…
AW: Over exaggerated?
GH: Over exaggerated, imagination takes over, emotion and things like that. But, the general take of what you just quoted is that, I think, many Israelis – and not all, but many, and certainly many Jews, perhaps the American Jewry, I’m not sure about the European were very sympathetic to Israel of course, but back then it was kind of an either or – they felt that it was as if the whole Arab world was turned against them and there was an apocalyptic dimension that could be stitched to it. Of course, on the other side, 50 meters from there [Israel], I myself had a completely different reading of this thing. We actually expected Israel to come any time, any hour, any day. We were absolutely sure – this is Europeans – we were absolutely sure Israel was coming and was the most powerful military in the area. And there was no doubt that it was happening, we just wondered what day, what hour. So it was a disconnect; any European I knew on our side, on the Palestinian side thought it’s going to happen very quickly and it’s going to happen. This is due to the events in a few days or weeks before. Mainly the closure of the Strait of Tiran by Egypt. Another one was King Hussein of Jordan, strangely to us back then, now it has an explanation, but strangely to us, came to visit Shukeiri who was the head at the time of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was not Arafat yet, Arafat replaced him after the war. Anyway, King Hussein came to essentially embrace – there’s the famous kissing on the cheek, Bedouin kissing on the cheek – a mortal enemy. And we thought, that’s the end. We thought that Hussein had absolutely no interest in going to war, he was forced into it.
AW: My understanding was that King Hussein himself was not so eager to go to war with Israel, but that it was really Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser – who was by far the most magnetic political figure in the Arab world at the time – who really wanted to make a showing of Arab force against Israel. I pulled a quote from an address he gave through Cairo Radio on May 26, 1967 – after Egypt had solidified that it had a mutual defense treaty with Syria, so that Egypt and Syria would go in together, and after he had talked to King Hussein of Jordan to get him on the same page – Nasser spoke through Cairo Radio and said, “Our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”
GH: Right, yeah exactly. So, Israelis felt, rightly so in the general population, that it actually was a tenor of the thinking. That it was an Israel war. This I’ve read since. In every war they had had after ‘48, in ‘56 it was a very peculiar thing it was only eleven years before where a kind of very strange colonial enterprise mixed with an Israeli thing, with the British mandate, and also with the French troops participated in kind of keeping the old world together and the US was completely distant and eventually ordered everybody back to their quarters…
AW: Well you’re talking about the ‘56 War which is to me a very bizarre war because it’s almost like a fixed outcome war
GH: But it’s very much in the background for people like Nasser
AW: Yeah that’s his defining moment – nationalizing the Suez Canal.
GH: So in ‘66 and ‘67, what you mentioned exactly about it, the UAR – the United Arab Republic meaning Egypt and so on – that’s part of response to that, and it’s part of the pressure of the Cold War. The USSR are heavily… and that’s a strange thing and I haven’t checked that… the Soviet Union clearly defended, in public, the UAR and their position about Israel even though it had been one of the only powers to recognize Israel very early, so it’s a complicated thing. But the USSR clearly did not want them to go to war – they could see the risks. That’s my feeling.
AW: I wrote down also that Israel had, I guess you could say issues but issues isn’t really the right word, but when it becomes clear that the Six Day War is going to happen, that Nasser is mobilizing all these forces on the Sinai. I guess you could say that Israel had really fomented diplomatic ties through the Suez War in that a reason that they entered it was to strengthen diplomatic relationships with England and France who they had not really had good relationships to before, which was a major reason to go to the Sinai Campaign as they called it in Israel.
GH: There is a very difficult issue because then once you enter operations, major military operations particularly when it comes to air force, the power that you have in your air force. It just happened that that Monday morning the 5th of June by eight o’clock AM, most of the Egyptian Air Force was destroyed on the ground. They didn’t even take off. And so it was a preemptive act, and it made sense because of course Egypt had closed the Strait of Tiran. That had been made clear by everybody that this was a case of war. As soon as that happened, we knew, us Europeans in the little corner there, we knew the game was up. But we differed from the Israeli population’s feeling in that we thought that there was not a chance that the Arab armies could do anything about Israel – not a chance. The Europeans I talked to had lived in the Middle East since the twenties usually or all of their lives some times were very used to everything. They remembered ‘48 and things like that, and they knew what the strengths of the armies were. The political parties [in the Arab world], they were dictatorships. They had no power but to protect their own interests, they could not protect, even Egypt could not, or at least not like that. So it was dangerous, it was a dangerous moment in that sense. I don’t know how you can present that, or if it can be presented actually, one position regarding Israel’s decision to respond is that Israel was really responding to a situation that was really unbearable for them.
AW: My understanding is that they essentially viewed Nasser’s extreme mass mobilization machinations as an almost sure guarantee that there would be a war in the future,
AW: And that the decision to strike the Egyptian air fields first, and to essentially win the war before it had even started by destroying the Egyptian Air Force was their safeguard against the potential for total annihilation.
GH: Right, so then you can see that immediately and think well how much of that was a calculation? You can take advantage of the tensions and actually resolve things that you did not resolve in 1948. Indeed for some people, other people were in disagreement I am sure. I would love to see the memo notes of the ministry meetings. They must have been very different. I know there were hesitations on the part of people like Rabin – the Chief of Staff at the time.
AW: Rabin, at the time, they’ve said Rabin actually had self induced nicotine poisoning. Rabin was a general at the time and was so stressed out…
GH: Yeah he was a heavy smoker.
AW: He was a heavy smoker and he was so stressed out about the possibilities of the war that he gave himself nicotine poisoning
GH: The generals have to do the right thing. So this is very difficult. And so I feel that, my view at the time, and this changes over time, but my view at the time is that Israel had an interest in pursuing the war. But I don’t know how to put it precisely. I don’t know, I don’t say… because Israel also had good cause to feel threatened, and threatened in its being. Yet at the same time, when you realize that their army, their organization, their capacity of projections for what could be measured at the time – and they certainly measured it and compared – the decisions they made, it’s really more about logistics than you think. The political decisions really following the logistics, and then their political calculations that are not just about surviving. That’s a key question because it leads to the question about Palestine. Were Palestinians in some way victims of calculations made that were much bigger in terms of USSR-US? And in terms of Israel locally mapping things and defending itself, and then having victims who really, that the King of Jordan could not protect? And that’s still my view, and it’s a catastrophe in my view. On the other hand, and I have to be careful in that. This is a thing that we must discuss and you can find it in Google now actually, in November 1966 (the Samu Incident), so a few months before the war, I saw the first demonstration inside the Old City, on a Friday. It must have been after the prayers.
AW: And this is a Palestinian demonstration?
GH: Yes, this is a Palestinian demonstration. Young men, mostly men, going through the shuk – there are three parallel shuks in the Old City – and they’re coming through the main shuk, and I am entering the Old City from the Biblical school through the Damascus Gate and I saw them there. And I still remember, most vivid in my memory is white, absolutely blanched faces. I mean, so angry. And you thought, no capacity for destruction, for doing any evil or anything, but you felt an enormous wave of anger. And I thought oh.
AW: Kind of a precursor of things to come?
GH: And you’ve made me think about King Hussein of Jordan. You think, oh my God, when he took the sides of the Palestinians then – he was forced into it. He had no choice. And so I remember those moments and this must have happened on a Friday I’m sure: a Friday in ‘66. And this was two weeks after an attack, an infiltration by Palestinian soldiers or guerrillas who came from perhaps, I’m not sure where they came from, perhaps from Syria. Because Syria was already its own complicated situation then. Instead of infiltrating the normal way which was from the Golan – going south, shooting at kibbutzim on the eastern coast on the Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee – they infiltrated south near Hebron. A village called Samu, and they killed three IDF soldiers I think. And the response of the Israeli Army was out of this world. They sent not only a squad, but they sent an armored brigade, I forgot which number, but it was a large, heavily militarized operation that destroyed most of the city and killed [sixteen people] or something like that, and that’s what brought on the anger. I was told, I don’t know if this is true, but I was told there were very few infiltrations on the Palestinian border because King Hussein had no interest in having any infiltration. So he made sure that the mayors, the mukhtars, the heads of the towns – everything was clamped down in terms of relations with Israel. But that’s what triggered the demonstration clearly, and it was clearly one of the opening things on the Palestinian side. It led to the belief, and that’s completely different than the European belief, the belief among Palestinians that they could win. They believed all the rubbish coming from Egypt, of course Egypt has a lot of media presence. I don’t know that side, because I didn’t speak Arabic, and even if I had it would have probably been very difficult to get truth, but I had a sense that very early on Palestinians were very angry at Israel and had those dreams about conquering the whole thing. People ended up paying for constructed history and ideological views that they could not manage, that they did not dare to be critical about. On the Israeli side, yes they could. You always had critics even through the ‘67 war, but among Palestinians there was no criticism.
AW: So you would say a more firm control then on the flow of ideas
GH: An ideological view partly, partly Islam, but this view that is propagated by the dictators who were trying to step away from Islam but could not really. That’s a very long part of this thing, and that led to then, for the first time, the weekend before the war, because the war started on Monday the 5th. On our front it started at like 10 am if I remember correctly. In Egypt it was a couple of hours before. I was studying at the Biblical school, but the weekend before we were waiting because our kids were not in school anymore. I’m not sure why. I think perhaps the end of the year already, very early because the heat comes in June and it gets hard to teach kids, but the college had 900 kids. 300 kids were actually from poorer backgrounds, others were from all kinds of backgrounds: there were nine religions, who knew how many nations. Arab nations, Armenian kids, the Christian-Arab municipality was much larger then – about ten percent of the population in the Palestinian territory. Now it’s like two percent, another catastrophe that happened. But anyway, we were waiting, and then for the first time according to the people I was with, they saw the incursion of these small airplanes – from Israel – flying over the Old City. Between Bethlehem and Jerusalem there’s something that used to be the headquarters of the British Mandate called the Governor’s Villa or the Governor’s Palace or something like that. Just a couple airplanes, but it was unheard of, we had never seen anything like that. I didn’t take any pictures. Anyway, it was taken to be surveillance. Never seen before, but also a provocation, it could be read that way too. We were very surprised, and then for the first time from the college where I was, over the wall, the old Ottoman wall, over No Man’s Land, we could see the Notre Dame, which is a very large building, Christian. To this day it actually exists because all these properties were protected by Israel when they came in. They made sure not to bomb anything. They didn’t touch anything. They made sure of that. But there, we could see soldiers for the first time, probably even officers, on the top clearly looking at maps. And we thought oh my god. We assumed there were soldiers in that building before but we never saw them. We thought, that’s part of intelligence gathering, you don’t show yourself and things like that, and we had no idea. Our interpretation at the time was that this was another provocation, we read it as just another provocation.
AW: So you had no idea that this was the start of the war?
GH: No idea. When we saw little things like that, and the fact that Hussein had kissed Shukairi, that Egypt had closed the Strait of Tiran very shortly before, we assumed that it’s coming any minute now. The way it happened, that Monday morning I went, because I didn’t have to teach anymore, I decided to go and study. We had planned to travel to Iraq and Iran to see ancient history to see ancient history, and to go to the Persian Gulf, but all those things were shelved for the moment. Better to wait and see what happens. And so I went to study, and the director of the school, a Dominican Father – a very well known, very famous intellectual, an amazing figure – came to the library where I may have been alone or with two or three people. He said you better go back to your college where you reside if you have a bedroom there because the attack has been done in Egypt and it’s presumably going to start here at any time. So we rushed back to the Old City. It’s not very far, it’s like 400 meters or 500 meters to a half a kilometer away, and the gates were already closed. We had to take a taxi, go super fast, to the southern side, around towards where you go now to see the Temple and the Mosque. We took a taxi through there and the gate was still open there, but the doors were closing already. We would have been outside. We would have had to stay at the Biblical school I guess. Anyway, we made it. And then we waited. I decided to go and type my notes from a course I had taken over the year with this intellectual exegete and I began typing. I was in a hall with a glass separation and on the other side was St. Anne, across the No Man’s Land. And I had no idea. I began typing and writing, and after a couple hours a little around ten I thought wow nobody’s around, even on Saturday. I was alone. And then I looked, and I thought, there had been sporadic fire like small arms, and I had heard that before and I didn’t pay much attention. I was completely unconscious of the danger, completely. But then I got scared. It was like a psychological state, right? And I remember thinking, one minute you are absolutely unconscious of things, the next minute you’re in overdrive. They could see me, they could shoot at me from the other side there, I’m a perfect target! They could think I’m a soldier. I began to imagine all these things. So I just walked, and I knew how to go, and discovered that everybody was downstairs in a large underground vault-like thing with huge stones just like you have everywhere in all of Jerusalem, everything has an under-basement. So that’s how it started, and the fire started to get very heavy, very loud.
AW: So when it starts, the fighting in the Old City itself is probably some of the most direct in the war. That the IDF forces, the paratroopers, and the Jordanian forces who are there in the Old City, fight longest and hardest compared to a lot of other regions in the Six Day War.
GH: Two things, well many things to say. Two things I remember. They may not be historical. Some of them are historical because I can vouch for the truth of it, but others I think they are true, but I have no proof. I heard by noon, in the early afternoon on Monday, from Arabic speaking brothers who were connected to Jordan and listened to the radio in all kinds of languages – I was listening to the BBC – and that’s another thing you learn. You cannot rely on almost any newspaper, any TV, and radio, any media: it’s all propaganda. I learned that, not the hard way, but fairly quickly. Anyway, I heard from friends of mine who were brothers that all the officers of the Jordanian Army were requested by the King to fall back, at noon. And apparently some took civilian cars or taxis and they went back to Jordan. The problem is, is that historical? I heard that was done very early. We wondered if that was historical because it was in the interest of the King not to lose his officers because of the way his society was built on Bedouin trust, and on not wasting your forces on fights you cannot win. So we thought, wow, King Hussein was doing it for show. On the other hand, I knew five or six soldiers – according to people I knew, again my friends who spoke Arabic so I can’t vouch for it – they were told by the people, by a police team in the Old City told the soldiers on the wall y’know forget it, take civilian clothes, don’t bother, it’s over. This was hours after it began. In this particular case I was told that this sergeant was humanist, and said no: we are fighting for the King, for Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. And my interpretation of it was that they were actually Christian Bedouin from south of Karak, and as minorities in a society that is massively Muslim, they have to show, it’s a bit like Jews in Germany wearing Iron Crosses in the First World War. They showed more courage, more dedication, but also got killed. They were killed by Napalm in the little hotel right south of the college. I still remember I saw just two bodies, but I didn’t go near them. I could not do anything anyway. We were under military government immediately and under complete curfew from Monday ten AM. By noon, Israeli troops must have entered the outside, the perimeter, very quickly. There were victims on both sides, but the people who resisted like this squad I mentioned may have had some effect. The ground outside the college, when we were authorized to leave for three hours on Thursday afternoon, was littered with bullets like that [held up hands to indicate roughly three inch bullet casings]. I mean, littered. I was struck by that. I still remember that image. I didn’t look to see how far it went or anything. And there you realize that wars are actually fought with maximum power, and it’s actually technical, it’s like a machine. And that just spills out metal, that’s how it looked to me. If you’re on the passage of this thing, you’ll get killed. And if you’re not, you’re lucky. Inside our college we were not directly attacked, but we went upstairs on Thursday, or perhaps Wednesday even, and we could see weapons that were completely military stuff like grenades that are shot by, I’ve forgotten what they are called, but they have a parabolic curve and they fly and they drill themselves through walls and then they explode. And you don’t want to be in the hall when that happens. And all this weaponry, and then we saw Napalm. That’s not said, but the Israeli Army, like any army, used phosphor or a version of it because you could see the yellow color. I didn’t see it, but then you could imagine how they could use a flamethrower so you could not enter a building like a hotel you could essentially fire the building. But again, I can vouch for me seeing the bullets, I can vouch for seeing the two bodies – I don’t know what happened to the others but there used to be six of them, I have no idea what happened to them. I know they were Bedouins, I’m not sure they were Christians even, but I could make a very elaborate, emotional story about their faith, and yet as a historian I am very reluctant to do that. So that’s a message I want to give. How you reconstruct an event like that, that had such powerful importance for Israelis, as I realized immediately afterwards because immediately after the war it was interesting to see the relationship between even Palestinians and Israelis who had lived together before ‘48, for a few weeks and months, they were like old friends. It was like, why this war? Why any war? And then it just disappeared, dissipated very quickly. And that’s part of what I lived and what I reflected upon afterwards.
AW: So we can move this into a little bit of the aftermath of the war. We’ll say that probably the most iconic image from the Six Day War is David Rubinger’s really famous photograph of the three young Israeli paratroopers looking up at the Western Wall. And for me, being Jewish, this moment transcends the entire war. This was a bigger moment than that. When I think that the Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren approaching the Western Wall, which had not been held in Jewish sovereignty for nearly two thousand years and where Jews hadn’t been able to visit since the drawing of the Armistice Lines in 1948, with the Torah and a shofar in his hands, surrounded by young Jewish men, many of whom are among the first generation of Israeli Jews to have been born in the state, it makes me believe that miracles are possible. The story goes that Goren himself was too overcome to sound the shofar, and so he handed it to a soldier beside him who sounded it for the first time that the Jews had been back to the Temple in full force since the Romans.
GH: To me, as a historian again, I didn’t see that of course, my immediate question is when did this event happen really? So, it could not have happened on Monday.
AW: The way that it’s recorded this happens on the 7th, so that would have been two days after the start of the war. It would have been on Wednesday.
GH: Possible. Pretty certain. I will not dispute that, that makes sense to me. I say this for a mundane reason, and then I’ll go back to importance of that moment even though it’s in some way framed ideologically.
AW: Oh, definitely. In the Israeli history, in the metanarrative, and in the Jewish metanarrative as well it’s this huge moment.
GH: It’s a huge moment, and it’s also connected to something very important. So it’s both – it’s a historical moment in all kinds of dimensions, and it has reverberations. But, on Thursday, we were entitled to go out for three hours as residents. Under military governorship you certainly had to be very careful where you went, so I decided to walk as quick as I could around the Old City because I wanted to see what had happened. Nothing seemed destroyed. There were little corners here and there where you can see there had been use of flamethrowers, but the Christian side had obviously been protected and the Islamic side too. There was no heavy bombing. It was small. There were some machine guns, but very limited. But we know that 163 soldiers of the IDF got killed in the whole area. I don’t remember exactly which region, but there were fights. And we didn’t know that then, but we learned that fairly quickly. Statistics were compiled fairly quickly. On the Jordanian side we didn’t know how many people had died. Very few civilians, almost none I think. And I’m not sure even what the real number for the soldiers are. Anyway, I went out, and I went to St. Stevens Gate, which is on the eastern side over the Kidron Valley in a kind of cemetery like quarter, where now there is a very big hotel, and you have the Zion hill further down which was always Israeli and an enclave. So I am at St. Stephen’s Gate, and here you have a street wide enough for tanks and vehicles going into what is really north of the Temple esplanade and then going into the Muslim quarter. And there are Israeli tanks, that are huge. Old tanks are big and their engines are like 600 horsepower or 1000 horsepower and they are rumbling, monstrous things to see in operation. And they’re going there – a few of them, I don’t remember how many – fully armed, into the Old City. Thursday afternoon, there’s no need of course. And, on the side, are all television channels from all over the world, dozens of them, and I remember thinking, that’s what people are going to see of the Six Day War. They’re going to picture reconstruct, cut footage because the day it happened on Monday there were no journalists there except those authorized by the army. Which is true of Vietnam, which is true of the French in Algeria. It was a realization, that actually an enormous number of things like Okinawa, the flag being raised, is made up. I mean not made up, it also reflects something historical, but it is also ideological. The image is actually composed, and the army doesn’t leave that to chance. So that was interesting to see. But back then to the seriousness of that [the Western Wall reunification], that to me too was important. I remember going to the Wailing Wall before, and it was this very claustrophobic place where you could still see the wall, and I visited Jerusalem every Thursday for three or four hours with an archeologist. One of the courses I took was actually the level strata of history in ancient Jerusalem, so I was very interested and it was an amazing thing to see that. Of course for Israelis it meant, it was not simply fixing something from their point of view that in 1948 had not gone very well on the Jerusalem side because they had pushed there.
AW: Menachem Begin and the Irgun forces had fought really, really hard to stay in Jerusalem in 1948 but had to retreat.
GH: Right, they had to pull back. And so it was kind of a, in the sense of memory… I do feel that the government of Israel in June ‘67 preparations… they were suddenly in a situation that was totally against them, but that they could also use actually. How much the political, tactical views featured into the macrohistory – they had to respond anyway – I don’t know. Eventually historians gave a better answer to that, but as I said of course that led to the Palestinian thing because, in fact, they [Israel] rolled out to Jordan. It was not only Jerusalem. There was no resistance whatsoever once you’ve taken Jerusalem. And the northern side of the city was always very troublesome for King Hussein – near Nablus. Nablus is still troublesome today for Israel too because that’s where you are going to have actions of people who get educated as Islamic fighters.
AW: So then, you said before the war you didn’t have that much contact, or really any contact at all with Israelis
GH: No, none whatsoever that I know of
AW: And so then after the war ends, and the Old City is now technically in Israeli hands, did you have more contact with Israelis then?
GH: Very few at the time, and very immediately afterwards. During the summer that followed, I’m not sure how it happened but probably through the French Consulate, we could not leave our position [in Cooperation] because we were all under the French military and the Ministry of Defense. I remember going to the consulate and saying y’know I cannot go to Iraq and Iran, we’re under military governorship [in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan], I am not teaching, can I go back to France? And I remember being lectured by the guy at the consulate saying no you can’t; you are like a soldier, you are obeying commands, who do you think you are? You could not decide anything at that time. And so I thought ok, fine. But eventually they let us go back to France, I went back to France for a short trip. My parents did not know if I was alive or not. There was no communication whatsoever because under a military governorship it means that everything has to be cleared. And so I was very low on the chain of things that can be cleared, but it happened eventually and I was able to go back. But before that, we were approached – my friend and I – we were approached by people who were connected to the French Consulate. He was an Israeli and she was an Israeli too, but of French background and she was not Jewish but she had converted perhaps – I’m not sure. But they spoke French, and we didn’t speak Hebrew, and they invited us to the Golan. I was probably one of the first civilians to see the Golan. We saw the Druze villages. Right along the border we saw Syria, and we saw all of the old positions that the Syrian Army had. It looked to me, when I think about it, as some people who were working with the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Tourism. And the Tourism Ministry is partly intelligence and partly PR. That’s what I took it to be, but I didn’t realize at the time. But they were very fine people. So I began to think of Israel through their eyes, but then I realized very quickly that she was in a picture taken on top of a tank going into the Sinai. And of course I knew by that time that this could be made up in post. I became very critical in accepting what really happened and how exactly it happened. Before that I had been UNRRA officers. I had traveled in Jordan and in occupied territories as they would eventually be called. We called it Cisjordan at the time. The whole of what would be called Palestine sometimes, or what would be called occupied territories now. There’s no right way to describe it really. Cisjordan – I visited that with officers of the UN, top officers. And that was a very different experience. They never… they offer you a political view on things. It was very interesting, because they were on both sides. It was very different then to go have initial contact with Israelis. But then I went to films in Israel! It was a very short walk. I would walk directly to the cinema, and I would see films because they had a much better choice of films than in the Arab area [laughs]. And I love film. Ans I would walk back. No contact [with Israelis]. The reason for that was that – we didn’t talk about it but there was some message coming from the brothers [the two Arab brothers Hamel mentioned earlier] and from superiors and others – telling that oh you went to the New City. They never mentioned Israel again – still. It took a while. That’s an interesting, very negative aspect of things.
AW: That it took a while – even after – for the people above you at your school…
GH: History is not over. That was a lesson to learn too. I learned it very slowly, it did not penetrate very quickly. So I realized, oh, I have to be careful now because all the kids, anybody can see me, and I represent the Christian Institution. No matter what I wanted or what I thought. I had to think – no contact with Israelis because it’s fraught.
AW: So even after the war, even after the land has technically changed hands…
GH: At the beginning we did it [talked to Israelis]. I still remember one of the people who worked for the college – I mean the high school, it was Frere’s College but we all just called it the college. One of the people who worked for them, I remember him coming back one day and saying oh I went to the other side. And he loved it. It was exciting. Of course its full of lights, full of life, cafes, very different from the Old City which was still very highly religious. You had to behave in a certain way quarter by quarter. The Christians were divided into groups, by dress. There was a mental map of the Old City of Jerusalem by dress, by mayor – a complicated map. It took you months, and months, and years to learn and to realize. And you went certain ways, you couldn’t talk to certain people, you didn’t look at certain things. You were very careful about not expressing any desire of any kind. Of not being invited by the wrong person. And yet we did not even know the language. So in Israel it was like that too. Even though I told you that for the first few weeks there was a distinct feeling of excitement because Israelis from pre ‘48 – what I took to be older men at the time, in their fifties – came. And you could see them seeing – in the Christian Quarter more likely – embracing or sitting in the cafe. There was a cafe right near us called Abu Attas where I could never manage to pay for a coffee because I was a guest. And guests, for Arab traditional people, cannot pay for anything. And I could not reciprocate. You’re supposed to reciprocate in another value about the same. But I did not know how to do it. Anyway, I was at that cafe and I still remember Israelis talking, in Arabic, with Palestinian guys, sometimes Armenians, at the beginning. It did not last very long. That’s an interesting topic. I would like to know more actually, about exactly what happened, the memories of people were there, who did that…
AW: So these are families who before the Independence War, the First Arab-Israeli War, had been living in the Old City. And then after the war there’s a whole big exodus…
GH: Twenty years. Twenty year hiatus [for Jews being able to go to the Old City]. They went to the same schools sometimes!
AW: People who had been neighbors.
GH: And they liked each other! That was very moving to see. And that leads to a much larger issue that was disputed within Jewish circles abroad, and even in Israel, the position of, for instance the World Jewish Congress. Regarding being outside of Israel in the Diaspora, the logic that Israel always proposes – you must be here. There’s no place for you outside in the Diaspora. What was his name, not Weizmann… one of the founders of the World Jewish Congress…
AW: Not Herzl? After Herzl?
GH: No not Herzl, after Herzl. And then there was Johannes Prince – a German Jew who came in the 40s. In ‘46 they created the World Jewish Congress initially. And then in the sixties there was this Austrian Jew… his name escapes me. It’ll come back. [It was later clarified that Nahum Goldman was the man we were talking about]. He argued very early on – the war was in ‘67 – by September ‘67 he was arguing in the world press in a very long article – his name is on my mind – that now was a moment when Israel had to propose a full deal. Return the whole occupied territories in return for peace.
AW: One of my next questions will be about the many, many shifts that the Six Day War causes, but there is, which is I’m guessing what you’re talking about, the United Nations switch to a kind of “land for peace” doctrine.
GH: Right. Resolution 248.
AW: The idea was that Israel had gained so much land – they actually tripled their landmass I think – that they had so much land that they could use it to try and create diplomatic peace with these countries whose land they technically now held. In some cases this was successful. With Egypt it was successful. They return the Sinai to them which lays the groundwork for Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to do the Camp David Accords. In other cases, it leads to the occupation.
GH: Yeah it took many turns. It took many turns and the voices, like the person who’s name I’m fighting to recover, his voice, a very powerful voice, was not accepted. It was immediately read as interesting – not by Ben Gurion, but by his successors, Golda Meir and so forth – but eventually it became clear that it was not going to go that way. It became very clear to us – people from France – that Israel actually had partly responded to the real danger as we said before, but partly also taken advantage of the danger with their political views over the territory.
AW: I think you can definitely say – it was clear on the first day, when the Egyptian Air Force was no more, that the control of the skies essentially meant that Israel controlled the war.
GH: Absolutely. Of course.
AW: So I know Moshe Dayan, who I think was Defense Minister at the time…
GH: When he was called in as Minister of Defense…
AW: I think he maintained to his death that the only reason they entered the Old City was because there were security threats.
GH: No. This is absolutely not true. Absolutely not true. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. Well Dayan is another piece of cake. One can admire some aspects of his life, but I knew a lot of things about Dayan and his archaeology corps and expeditions. He was essentially stealing things in my view, and in the Israeli view. Israeli critics eventually got really mad at him, but that’s ok. But Rabin was a very different thing. Rabin was not an adventurer. Not a kind of romantic type like Dayan was and cultivated. And Dayan in some way understood Arabs and Bedouins. He spoke Arabic and had a long history – we knew he met the King Hussein and his ministers. But Rabin was a different type of person. More analytic. Engineer type.
AW: We should also mention that yesterday (November 4th) is the 22nd anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Which is an entirely different topic, but his assassination has left very deep scars on Israel.
GH: I can tell you in one sentence. A highly successful political murder. The Two-State Solution is over after him. I knew that in ‘95. I was there actually in ‘95-’96. We spent one year with my family there on a kibbutz in the northern area. And I still remember that night when he was killed. My feeling was everything was working towards negotiating peace. You could tell in the weeks before. You could hear on the radio that the insistence to have the PLO charter translated into Arabic and not only left in English happened. And tit-for-tat, on the official radio – you know like the official radio like radio 7 channel from the army. You could see there was a tit-for-tat day by day. It was moving. And was clear that Rabin had decided that the policy of repression, of breaking arms and so forth…
AW: Yitzhak Rabin famously said “break their arms and legs” [during the First Intifada].
GH: Right. He moved back, and he said that is not going to work. He was a man of practicality. I am not going to defend him politically – I feel for both sides – but at the same time I highly respected him. He had a moral credit of course because he was a Chief of Staff. And that’s how things work in Israel. If you are in a position either in intelligence or in the army in having things done, you have credit. It’s an unspoken rule that you have the most credit. And he was murdered, and it worked. And then it continued [the Two State Solution] because the US kept the thing up, but…
AW: It was never the same.
GH: It was never the same and even the Single-State Solution doesn’t know… we do not know where it leads in terms of do you maintain the Palestinians in an open-air prison like Gaza? Or do you give them voting rights? If you give them voting rights are you prepared for the demographic influx?
AW: I’ve heard it described – and I’m not exactly sure which intellectual first said this – but essentially the One-State Solution is going to have to be a choice between, Israel is going to have to choose between being a Jewish state or being a democratic state.
AW: And at this point it’s really unclear which way the One State Solution will go, and also it doesn’t look to me like there’s really even any plans in the immediate future to do that.
GH: And I would say – and this is a bit daring to say – that our work as intellectuals, or people who reflect upon these questions, is to turn democratic as the revolutionary story that it has been or is still believed to be in the Western world and is expanding all over the world, as really revolutionary and actually fundamentally something that you can already find in Exodus. The notion of not having kings and believing that the law can come – well you can believe in God or not, and I personally don’t – but I believe that the notion of making laws as kind of a transcendental voice. That then you can live and adapt without kings, and without people profiting from their proximity to the sacredness and holiness, to make a better life – a more expansive life for everybody – that’s my hope.
AW: I took a class with Professor Selden on sacred texts, and what we really concluded was that the radical of Judaism is that states definitively that men are not gods. That everyone is equal before the Law. So in theory the democratic dream is the same dream that Judaism gives which is that all people are equal.
AW: Whether or not that will happen in terms of states…
GH: It’s going to be a struggle. And it doesn’t look good, but at the same time that is exactly what I’m thinking about the position we are in as historians where we have to be practical at the same time. We are not going to be going towards the Two-State Solution. Kelly and Obama were the last ones to try and it was very clear that the right wing government were laughing at them.
AW: The last real possible Two-State Solution is what Ehud Olmert proposed in 2008, and even that couldn’t become a reality. I have very low expectations that a Two-State Solution could ever be possible.
GH: Correct. But that’s another story.
AW: So we’ll go in this direction to wrap up even though this has been great and I’ve learned a lot.
GH: You have been patient.
AW: It’s pretty much impossible to overstate just how many seismic shifts the Six Day War does set off. So I thought off of the top of my head and I tallied down a laundry list of just some of the changes that the Six Day War caused around the world and in Israel and Palestine. Anti-Jewish expulsions in neighboring Arab countries and violence, increased anti-Semitism in Communist states and in the USSR – having to do kind of with the relationship between Nasser…
GH: Right, a turn.
AW: A turn to them embracing a more anti-Israel stance…
GH: And then more Russian Jews… in the sixties it accelerated the movement in reaction to the dictatorship.
AW: The Six Day War, definitely among Soviet Jews, spreads a renaissance of Zionism and leads the way for the whole refusenik movement in the 1980s.
GH: That is an important aspect.
AW: Obviously [the Six Day War] leads to the Palestinian Naksa – not the Nakba but the second one.
GH: Right. And that took time. We did not call – at the time I didn’t hear that.
AW: That word didn’t exist back immediately after the war.
GH: And it’s an imitation of the Shoah. Well imitation is not the right word, I shouldn’t say that. But it’s a response. It’s saying we’re victims too. The victimization aspect – terrible things that were done by most European countries in the 40s to Jews – essentially the whole eradication of the whole Jewish people if they could have. If the Third Reich had really conquered the world, it was really clear that it would have meant eradication. There’s not doubt about that. But the Palestinians felt, and I heard many, many stories afterwards particularly in the ‘90s when I was there again, by people who would show me with their arms – that’s where my village was, and now my whole family is in Germany. And you could tell, you got the same impression talking to Israeli Jews who told you yeah I was in Hungary at the end of the war and I lost everything – family, language, culture, children, brothers, sisters – and now I’m here. So it’s a story of survival, but of losing everything. And I thought wow – same destiny, same outcome. How come we cannot start from there? But that’s not how we do. Most politicians take advantage – not take advantage – but they thing they can make things better by responding to the larger number. But the larger number is never the way real history works with leaders or thinkers or people who invest their whole lives and choose to live according to their beliefs and don’t weigh the costs. Because politics is about costs and benefits; it’s always a calculation.
AW: I also wrote, and we just mentioned a little bit about the Naksa, there’s also the Syrian displacement from the Golan Heights. Even though that’s a little bit more of a military, strategic region…
GH: And with a lot of components to it too. Declared Israel though it may go back to Syria some day. It’s always possible.
AW: Also the Six Day War led to the Arab-Israeli Conflict shifting from a military to a more diplomatic process. Even though the Yom Kippur War comes in the next coming years. There’s an extreme swell of support for Israel throughout the Diaspora [after the Six Day War]. The beginning of the modern settler movement that we have now. Not the original settler movement, but what comes after the war.
GH: Right. The switch from a purely national, Zionist, often non-religious…
AW: More socialist leaning…
GH: More socialist leaning… to a Zionism led by religious beliefs. But I don’t want to be negative about them (laughs).
AW: Yeah, these are people who want to go back to Jericho, people who want to go back to Hebron. People who want to go back to… people who see this as the land promised to Abraham as their right.
GH: And are willing to spend enormous energy on it, and are willing to sacrifice for it.
AW: And who are enormously powerful and popular in Israel today as a political group.
GH: Probably a wave, but a long wave.
AW: And probably most notably [in terms of effects of the Six Day War] is the occupation. So my last question is, did people have any idea – either in Israel or in Jordan – just how many things the Six Day War would cause? Did they have any idea that this would be the start of a fifty year occupation? Or was it just a moment of thinking, wow this was a huge war, but really at that moment just another war, just the Third Arab-Israeli War? As opposed to what we know now about this war having insane reverberations throughout the years?
GH: I can answer for myself, I think that it was another war – though I could see the significance of getting to be in control of the mosques in Jerusalem. I immediately thought about the dynamite that it meant because Islam is not going to retreat. That I knew instantly. It was another war, but it was not the same war as in ‘56. The other aspect of it is that it was not simply the war… but as a student of archaeology and of the history of ancient Israel and Judah and so forth, and the gospels and the New Testament, I was very aware of the occupied territories, the so-called occupied territories – the West Bank as we call it, and Cisjordan and so forth – was actually full of sights in their Arabic names that went back to the Biblical sights. And so to me it was immediately a very complicated psychological, religious situation. I was very aware of that. So it was not the same war as any other war. It was an event also where immediately I thought we cannot go back to a kingship, there’s no Davidic-Messianic kingship that’s doable. On the other hand, the only great argument for maintaining the presence of Israel in the hills of Israel and Judah, the only argument is really textual. It’s a continuation. So I was aware of all of that. It was a return. You know I was thinking of Bar Kokhba. At the time I did not yet study that a lot, but I was thinking of Flavius Josephus and others. Christian writing, the Gospels particularly. And so you had the sense that the war, in some ways, completed a cycle, but at the same time did not complete anything because it opened up history. That we were going to march towards decisions made on the nature of history and the nature of human progress. Were we going to stick with the Biblical text, and read it narrowly? Or were we going to read it more humanly? At the time I was very religious still – Catholic of course. So everything was running, all those fires were running at the same time. So to me, it was not a regular, usual war because it was fulfilling text. And yet at the same time I shouldn’t say that because my view is that fulfilling is of course going on the Israeli side. On the Palestinian side, it was destroying who they were and any chance of their being a people. And that’s a difficult question that I still struggle with. And so when I make an interview like that… I am very aware at the same time that I am not representing the Palestinian side. But it’s there, massively. For me, a life is a life. Meaning a life is actually an extraordinary mystery – and the Palestinian lives are indistinguishable from the Israeli lives or the Jewish lives or the non-Jewish lives whether one believes in God or not. I don’t believe in gods, but I believe in things that may look like it.
AW: Well thank you so much.
GH: You’re welcome. Sorry if that was a little bit of a non-answer in some ways.
On my way to the library in Copenhagen, Denmark I spontaneously stopped to look at a reflective plate in front of a synagogue. On a gold plate, there was an engraved Jewish star. I watched an elegant older woman wearing a fur coat and jewels walk into the synagogue through the glass doors. As the glass door behind her closed, I said, “Excuse me, excuse me!” She looked at me, unsure of what to do. A policeman appeared out of nowhere, but I assumed he came from one of the two the police cars guarding the street. He said with urgency, “How can I help you?” Perhaps my large backpack scared him. I looked at both the woman and the policeman and I asked if there were any events for the holidays. He said, “Not anymore, but check Chabad.” I replied, “Wow, the security is….” unsure of what to say. He replied, “Well, welcome to Europe,” in a tone as if the danger was obvious and just old news. I found myself surprisingly upset after this encounter. I was upset that they thought I would threaten this building. I was upset that a type of place that I once called home was so heavily guarded and surrounded with fear.
I walked into the library and right away, I called the synagogue to ask about how I could see it. I was determined to get in and to gain a more positive experience of the Jewish community that I deeply cared about. I called because I was scared of the procedure that I might have to go through if I approached the building again. From the phone call, I learned that either I needed an appointment or I was allowed to come in for services (today or tomorrow), and I could only enter with my passport. That day was Shabbat, a weekly Jewish holiday, and it was also Chanukah, a yearly Jewish holiday. That day was special and I would go to seek out a familiar community in Copenhagen.
The fact that I needed a passport was not only for safety reasons, but also so that security could make an assumption based on my religion and origin. When I arrived again, I was asked questions like “Where you from?”, “Why are you in Copenhagen?”, and “Why have you not been here before?” Perhaps, subconsciously, I knew the synagogue would be heavily guarded, and maybe this was why I didn’t seek out the Jewish community in Copenhagen earlier (as this event was in the 5th month of my stay). I imagine that this is how stereotyped “dangerous” groups feel: alienated and feared. Was this why I was so upset? From this situation I learned two things: First, my attempt to call the synagogue made me conscious of the importance of Judaism to me. Second, I understood that communities who feel alienated and feared may become fearful or resentful. I believe this experience serves as a sign or marker that reflects a change in me and my filter of the world.
Being a junior in college has its advantages. As I’m sure you can imagine, when I recently turned 21, everyone and their mother told me that I should get completely wasted as a form of celebration. It seemed fitting, as, like most new 21-year-olds, I felt obligated to abuse my newly acquired legal status to drink.
Having recently reached this milestone, I realized some things. For one, the birthdays I have had in the past were a lot more meaningful. Additionally, my future birthdays will be completely and totally lame for the rest of my life.
Let’s review my past major birthdays:
At 13 – Had a Bar Mitzvah, a special party to celebrate the coming of age in Judaism. Perks: epic party, lots of gifts and expendable cash.
At 18 – Became an adult in America. Perks: get to smoke, buy lottery tickets, buy a gun, have sex, vote, join the army, go to strip clubs. Righteous.
At 21 – Went through a right of passage of sorts in America. Perks: get to drink, gamble and go to bars.
After that, birthdays seem pointless. What do you have to look forward to next?
At 25 – You can rent a car, and run for Congress… Boring.
In response to my sad realization that we need more fun birthdays, I have thought of some interesting legalizations people should be entitled to as they pass certain milestones. I’m sure you’ll agree, they are extremely necessary measures.
25 yrs – Going to a bowling alley should be illegal until the age of 25. Think about it, bowling balls are dangerous. They lead to more deaths per year than sharks and vending machines combined. Who here hasn’t lost a friend or loved one to the ball return machine? If there are only 25-year-olds bowling, you can truly appreciate how worthless your life must be if you spend your precious free time bowling. This encourages you to succeed more in life.
30 yrs – At the age of 30, everyone should be legally allowed (and perhaps mandated?) to play a rousing game of Flaming Tennis. Flaming Tennis, for those of you with no imagination, is just like regular tennis, except that the tennis balls are dipped in gasoline and lit before you play with them. At the age of 30, as you begrudgingly depart the prime of their life, you should be allowed to play a sport that will truly push you to your physical best. I see absolutely no reason why this sport is illegal, and let’s not pretend it wouldn’t be the highest viewed sport if it was in the Olympics.
40 yrs – 4 words: Government Subsidized Pony Program. Does this one need to be explained? At the age of 40, everyone should be entitled to receive their very own pony. Who wouldn’t want their own pony? The government subsidizes a stable and food for a year. It creates jobs for the economy and I will finally be able to own my very own Buttercup.
50 yrs – Everyone should legally be allowed to own anti-tank weaponry. Can you imagine going hunting with that kind of gear? Knocking trees down left and right, deers just exploding on impact. Let me tell you, no thief would take their chances with your house if there was a sign on your lawn that said “Warning: anti-tank gear present.” And it would sure take care of those damn squirrels on your lawn.
60 yrs – Pizza Party. You earned it.
70 yrs – What better way to celebrate retirement than being eligible for a Jetpack license? Fly to the store, visit family, get stuck in an airplane engine, do anything.
80 yrs – The house you live in will promptly be replaced with a MANSION made out of sugar-free jello (only Lime or Strawberry). Any reason? Not really.
90 yrs – Feeling old and tired? SCREW THAT, time to kick it up a notch with an UPGRADE! You will undergo a surgery that will turn you into a cyborg. Your new powers will make Iron Man look like a trash can, as you use your built in ketchup and mustard dispensers to create delicious meals (NOTE: Thousand Island dressing upgrade is available). Also, energy cannons. You will receive environmentally friendly energy cannons. More powerful than your anti-tank weaponry, but not by much. This may come at the cost of your pony, because the idea of a cyborg riding a pony is ridiculous.
100 yrs – Strap in baby, because we’re going to Mars! As a cyborg with 100 years of knowledge and experience on Earth, it is time for you to go to Mars in order to colonize it for the good of the human race. You will, of course, be trained to fight the Glorxons (the evil inhabitants of the planet OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb), who are also preparing to colonize Mars in an strategic attempt to fortify it for a future strike on Earth. We cannot allow Mars to fall into their hands, and you must use your knowledge and strength to defend Earth on Mars before it’s too late.
Wasn’t I talking about drinking alcohol earlier in this article? Anyway, I’m sure if the United States enacted these laws, more people would look forward to their birthdays and, as we all know, that is what’s important. Now is the time to get our priorities straightened out.
Published on page 6o of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.
The sunny 101 highway shoots your car like an arrow straight north through the verdant farmlands. A green sign flashes “Petaluma, Population: 60,000.” This is your queue to direct your beat-up station wagon to the off-ramp and roll into your home town. New developments have begun to crop up, creeping closer to the freeway. The shiny billboards in front of the construction site show a beaming family of four centered in a comfortably generic living room. The people on the billboard are immortalized in a cookie-cutter vision of Anywhere, USA. This is Petaluma: a perfect snow globe of suburbia.
Now the off-ramp has faded away, and you are avoiding Main Street. It is a Tuesday afternoon, and the SUVs stack up in identical congested lines at 3pm, ready to drive the children to their after-school soccer practice. You skirt the high school by a distance of a few streets, and in five minutes you have arrived at your destination: the Phoenix Theater. You can feel the polarity between the suburban block and the theater’s boundary as your wheels roll from smooth pavement to the crunching, dusty rocks of the Phoenix’s parking lot. You lock your car and turn the corner to the main entrance.
The gray, art deco theater meets the cracked sidewalk right where the dirty stains fall through the cracks. You sit on the tiled breezeway in front of the locked glass doors, on the cracked ground next to the cigarette butts, and you count the number of cars that go straight across the avenue even though the sign says “right-turn only.” You get to nine before Tom Gaffey comes around the corner to unlock the door for you. He smiles wide, happy to see you, but his eyes are sad and distant as he reaches for his impressively jangling key ring.
“Hey kid, what’s happening? You just get back into town?”
“Hey Tom, uh yeah, I was looking at some apartments in San Francisco. Tryin’ to move out of my mom’s place before summer starts, get myself a job down there.” Gaffey undoes the padlock and opens the door for you. He follows you inside, offering attentive grunts and rubbing his balding head.
“Right on. Well, hey, kid, don’t forget about us here, we’ll miss you when you leave.”
“Oh Tom, don’t be dramatic. I’ll keep visiting when I’m living in the city. It’s not that bad of a drive.” Tom grunts in assent, but has nothing to say, so you continue, “How’re things around here? Did you get that grant proposal approved for the summer music classes?”
Tom heaves up a powerful sigh. He’s got a big manilla folder in his hands, stuffed haphazardly with papers.
“Shit, I gotta tell ya, kid, it’s been real tough around here with the bad publicity. The Downtown Association is up my ass with complaints. Know what happened last weekend?”
You shake your head, but Tom is beginning to heat up and needs no prompting, “Sophomore at Petaluma High decides she wants to get shit-faced and come down to the show here last Friday, she’s too fuckin’ drunk to walk up to the box office, ends up passed out in the parking lot… Vomit! Everywhere! I had Gabe working security in the lot, he called the ambulance, got her outta here. Close fucking call of alcohol poisoning. Fifteen fucking years old! Now I got the parents trying to rip me a new one. They’ve got the whole Downtown Association lobbying to get rid of our concerts. They don’t care that those shows are the only source of funding we got. They know that if the shows go, the whole theater is fuckin’ done for, and that’s what they want.”
“Don’t worry about those assholes, Gaffey. It’s not the theater’s fault that kids get bored in this lame little town and drink themselves stupid. That’ll happen no matter what. If the theater can survive burning down to the ground twice, it can survive this. Just tell that Downtown Shit-Committee that I, for one, am so much better off because of this place.”
Gaffey shrugs and waves his hand indifferently, but before he turns away you glimpse proud satisfaction leak from his eyes. Grunting and clearing his throat, he makes his way down the side hallway to his cave of an office. You are left alone inside the cold theater.
You know that the Phoenix Theater, like its namesake, was born again from its own ashes after being engulfed by fire. It was reborn thirty years ago to become a home: a home for the youth and run by the youth. Now that Gaffey has disappeared to his office, you make your way down the main floor to the piano room and sink down on your favorite couch. You immediately spot some fresh graffiti that was certainly not present yesterday. The lines are clean and even; they are the work of a hand with the muscle memory of a million practiced strokes. Even something as small as a new tag makes you smile. The Phoenix is always changing, and when you are here you find it possible to forget about the suburban snow globe of a town outside the theater walls where everything is kept pristine and predictable.
Slowly, the after-school crowd trickles into the building. You hear the clank of skateboard trucks on the quarter pipes as someone else begins to pick on a guitar. These kids flock to the building for the freedom to skate and to make music. These kids are here for the same reason that you are: to be yourselves. This place is void of city noise ordinances, “No Skateboarding” signs, and strict vandalism laws.
After several moments of reclining on the couch, you rise and imagine that you are transcending your own ashes. At home, at school, and at work you are expected to live up to others’ presumptions of your identity. The theater holds no expectations for you. It is a fluid place of artistic sanctuary begging you to take control of your own identity. Not far from the couch is the grand piano. The keys have been graffitied with a silver paint pen, but the sound is pure and enduring. You let your fingers play on the ivory and soon the room is full to bursting with your song. The melody is fast and catchy, and your fingers prance from key to key effortlessly. You are doing your part in perpetuating the theater’s tendency towards change. You played a different song yesterday, and tomorrow you will play a new one.
After winding down your fingers to the conclusion, you allow another kid to take over the piano. You venture outside again for a breath of fresh air. The suburbs surround the Phoenix on all sides. The manicured lawns, the painted fences, the permit-only parking: it all reeks of a glittering snow globe. It paints a pretty picture so that the suburbanites might feel comfortable with their lives here. You see a jogger, a dog-walker, a mother pushing a stroller; none of them heard your song. It makes you feel special to have a clandestine practice room that most people never discover. Most people in this town are stuck in ruts; they do the same things every day. They burn themselves down, wallow in their ashes, and are ignorant as to how they might lift themselves into something new.
You feel bad for the suburbanites. Although you were raised amongst them, you feel as if you are of a different breed. They see the theater as an ugly blemish that poisons their tiny uniform world, but you feel differently. The theater has taught you to transcend the familiar, to welcome change, and to have the strength to cultivate your own identity above and beyond others’ expectations.
Had the theater never risen from its ashes, you might have found yourself loading into a cookie-cutter SUV and heading to soccer practice with the other children. Had the theater never risen from its ashes, you might believe that your only identity is the one defined for you by teachers, parents, and bosses. Had the theater never risen from its ashes, you might find that you had never risen from yours, either.
Published on page 54 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.
If you’ve ever considered Jewishness a part of your identity, you’ve probably faced the question, “what is Jewish?” For centuries, this question simply was not asked. Jewishness took place in the domestic realm, transferred from parents to children through mimetic pedagogy. A mother would teach her daughters to bake challah and a father would teach his sons to read Torah. But in the modern era, the time spent in the home has become increasingly shortened, as the period between childhood and marriage has grown. So, as family becomes less and less central to the life cycle, where does Jewishness happen?
One place where Jewishness flourishes is in literature. Historically, the phrase “people of the book” refers to the Jewish relationship with religious texts. Yet words have also held a special place in less traditional forms of Jewish writing; recently the number of Jewish novels, magazines, and newspapers has skyrocketed. For instance, just before Passover, the Jewish media (and even The Colbert Report) gushed over The New American Haggadah, an artsy version of the user’s guide for the Passover seder. Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the much-loved Everything is Illuminated, and re-translated by Nathan Englander, this version of the Haggadah is laced with commentaries from the cherished authors Rebecca Goldstein, Jeffery Goldberg, Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snickett), and the co-director of UC Santa Cruz’s own Jewish Studies Program, Professor Nathaniel Deutsch.
It turns out that Deutsch is a major player in what seems to be a nation-wide project to revitalize Jewish culture through literature. In his recently published book, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Deutsch dusts off the pages of The Jewish Ethnographic Program, a survey of the rituals and traditions of the Pale of Settlement. Renowned historian Simon Dubnow called this territory of land, the only place the Russian Empire permitted Jews to live, a Jewish “Dark Continent,” inspiring the title of Deutsch’s book. The survey was part of a larger project called “The Jewish Ethnographic Expedition” and was led by An-sky, a Jewish-Russian revolutionary who was born in the Pale, but lived the majority of his life illegally in St. Petersburg. Afraid of Jewish culture being wiped out as a result of the dramatic rise in anti-Semitism and assimilation during the turn of the twentieth century, An-sky conducted his expedition in order to document the cultural patterns of the shtetls (Jewish villages) before they were destroyed. The Jewish Dark Continent is the impressive product of Deutsch’s eight-year multidisciplinary enterprise to offer the first English translation of An-sky’s survey from its original Yiddish version.
Partly as a result of heightened anti-Semitism, but also in response to the elite status of Jewish intellectualism, An-sky’s goal was to make Judaism accessible to all Jews, regardless of social status or class. In order to facilitate this process, he had to draw upon traditional Jewish scholarship and simultaneously push against it, redefining Torah so that it would include the folk culture of the shtetl. In the introduction of his survey, An-sky argues that songs, dances, rituals, jokes, and myths should form the basis of the Torah Sheba’al Peh (Oral Torah), and what was formerly part of the Torah Sheba’al Peh, the Talmud, Midrash, and Mishnah, should be placed into the category of the Torah Shebichtav (Written Torah), along with the Tanakh. This new Oral Torah would “…[reflect] the same beauty and purity of the Jewish soul, the tenderness and nobility of the Jewish heart, and the height and depth of Jewish thought.” By elevating folk culture to the status of Torah, An-sky both broke from and continued religious Jewish scholarship. While he remained consistent with categorizing something as Torah in order to legitimize it in the eyes of rabbis and Jewish religious scholars, he also made a radical move by redefining Torah itself. In doing so, he brought Jewishness to the common Jew, so that no matter what his or her background—tailor or rabbi, matchmaker or rebbetzin—they too could, as Deutsch says, “become amateur ethnographers, or zamelers (literally, ‘collectors’).”
The Jewish Dark Continent is a metaphorical resurrection of An-sky’s project. Deutsch’s annotations in the survey read like a conversation with An-sky. Just as An-sky hoped that his ethnographic work would inspire common Jews to become ethnographers of Jewish culture themselves, so too does Deutsch extend “… an invitation to those interested in doing their own research, whether by asking the questions of someone they know or by examining the many books, articles, and Internet resources that are available.” As an atheist, An-sky’s project to revitalize Jewish culture was an attempt to divorce culture from religion, opening up culture to individuals who don’t identify as religious, but wish to remain connected to Jewishness. Using An-sky’s ethnographic study as a launching-pad, Deutsch calls upon today’s Jews to take a deep look at their cultural roots.
In many ways, the anxieties of today’s Jewish communities echo the anxieties felt by the Jewish communities in the Pale. Today, just as then, Jews face assimilation. Thus, the question what is Jewish becomes an especially heated debate. Ultimately, Judaism is based on practice, the activities that fill up the hours in a day. During the destruction of the Russian Empire, anti-Semitism directly threatened the Jewish community, so that the daily activities documented in An-sky’s survey became a danger to Jewish existence. An-sky’s project to revitalize Jewish culture was a way of legitimizing, and thereby safeguarding, the Jewish people. Similarly, now in the United States it is difficult to integrate Jewishness into a daily routine without turning to religion or Zionism; the amount of synagogues and Israel advocacy groups far outweigh the number of non-religious or non-Zionist Jewish organizations. Yet now more than ever, Jewish communities have the luxury of being able to practice Jewishness without risking persecution. The Jewish Dark Continent serves as a reminder that Jewishness has a rich and vibrant history, one that can serve as a basis for rethinking our current experiences. Unlike the Jews of the Pale, Jewish communities now have the opportunity to explore our cultural ancestry, to wrestle with its contemporary significance, and meditate on what makes us Jewish.
1. Nathaniel Deutch, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, (Cambrige: Harvard University Press, 2011), 103.
2. Deutch, Jewish Dark Continent, 35.
3. Deutch, Jewish Dark Continent, 101.
Published on page 49 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.
Srugim may seem like a strange name for a television show. However, those of us lucky enough to be familiar with the program know that it’s more than the Hebrew word for “knitted.” It’s an Israeli television series about the dating scene in Jerusalem in the Katamon “swamp,” an area full of Orthodox singles seemingly left out from the family-centric culture of observant Judaism. The cast of characters include archetypal women: the hopeless romantic Yifat, the almost-reformist Hodaya, and the feminist Reut. The men are Nati, the roguish bachelor, and Amir, the responsible divorcee. As they’re all pushing thirty, these characters go on an endless number of dates either arranged online, planned by friends, or or through speed dating sessions all with the goal of finding “The One.” Think the Jewish version of Friends, with more existential quandaries. The show documents the difficulties of being single and Orthodox, supplemented with humorous pop culture references that are relevant even in America. Srugim episodes parody the drama of reality television shows, such as The Bachelorette, and bring common phrases like “Soup Nazi” into their conversations in Hebrew. The core connection between men and women occurs during Shabbat, a time when both sexes can come together and celebrate another week’s day of rest.
The series’ focus on Orthodox Jewish culture isn’t its only engaging aspect. Its emphasis on the individual connection and respect between two people in any relationship—long or short-term—is very refreshing. The show emphasizes an alternative lifestyle. Nowadays, especially in college, there is more leeway with the terms of commitment in the dating scene. Many relationships are founded more on mutual convenience than mutual connection. The real issue, however, is not the institution or the people themselves, but rather the influence of the hook-up culture. Our cavalier attitudes toward intimate relationships permeate into many aspects of our lives. They can be traced into our dances, popular song lyrics, even our insults. The key problem with hook-up culture is not the sexual freedom it encourages, but instead the demeaning image of women and men as sexual objects that it promotes. Despite the fact that the cast may seem foreign to us, the show speaks to a secular American audience because of its modern and realistic portrayals of men and women struggling with the same desires for individual affection.
True, the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is a little extreme for our secular sensibilities. After all, the practice of shomer negiya, which many of the characters live by, doesn’t allow men and women to touch each other at all. However, respect of one’s partner is essential to a relationship, considering the ultimate goal is marriage. As college students, not all of us immediately aspire to such a commitment, but we can still value the series for striving to show relationships based on personal rather than physical connections. This series portrays the battles between physical desire and religious peace of mind in different ways, primarily through the difficulty of defining one’s personal identity within Orthodox Judaism.
Hodaya, a rabbi’s daughter rebelling against her religious upbringing, embodies this internal struggle. In one episode, she pretends to be married and goes to the mikveh, or ritual bath, to purify herself before sleeping with her boyfriend. However, after her purification, she can’t bring herself to follow through with her decision. The conflict between her feelings of responsibility to G-d and her own desire for sexual freedom impede her. Yifat, Hodaya’s roommate, has to determine how far she wants to go with the no-touching barrier, as it limits her dating options to only Orthodox men who follow similar practices. Nati, Amir’s friend, has a shocking realization when one of his Orthodox friends passes away, as it makes him aware of the possibility of dying a virgin. Even Amir, the responsible character, feels guilty because he sleeps with his ex-wife to make up for the lack of affection in his life as a bachelor. The show emphasizes the subjectivity of boundaries in this struggle, both in religion and in dating. Individual choice counteracts the pressure to conform to strictly religious lifestyles. On the other end of the spectrum, the power derived from resiting hook-up culture’s influence comes not only from a refusal to participate in it, but from a recognition of the way it features in our lives.
Although we may not be able to relate to the characters of Srugim on a religious level, they are similarly torn between cultural pressure and what they determine to be right. In both secular American and Orthodox Jewish contexts, the need for human affection is key. The cast of characters are knitted together with ties that are stronger than their Orthodox Jewish and single lifestyles: their common need for the most fundamental of our five senses, the sense of touch. The show acknowledges this desire by centering on the struggle between faith and sexuality. Srugim portrays neither aspect as exclusively “right.” Instead, it advocates the method of combining both in order to find personal happiness. The people with the most mature personalities on the show, Amir, Hodaya, and Yifat, are conscious of the influences of others in relation to their religion. Nati and Reut, on the other hand, still struggle to realize their own feelings and differentiate their opinions from the people around them.
Srugim’s characters’ honest perseverance in their struggles with their cultural norms can also teach us about defining norms in our own lives. Isn’t it time we allowed ourselves some more leeway in our definition of the “right” relationship? Before the countercultural revolution of the sixties, people were condemned for being too free in their sexuality. In our supposedly open-minded generation, we still have the same prejudices against those with opposing beliefs, but now they are directed towards those with more conservative dating practices. Let’s truly realize the power of our tolerance and accept those we disagree with. Forgo the Top 20 songs for one night, and break out the soup crackers and gefilte fish to see if we can really change the world with a hilarious Israeli television show. It’s definitely worth a shot.
Published on page 44 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.
I have two sets of names. The first set consists of my federally recognized first, middle, and last name: Shelby Alexandra Backman. The second set I rarely use or even with my closest friends: Shira Yael Hertzliya. These are my three Hebrew names. It is Jewish custom to be named after ancestors; my names are the female version of my two great-grandfathers and a great uncle: Asher, Yoel, and Hertzl. Two of them were supposedly rebbes and all three of them had escaped from Russia to the United States at the turn of the century. “All of them,” my mother would say, “were great men and leaders in the Jewish community.”
I do appreciate that I am named after these men. But I never associated my names with theirs, nor my life with theirs. I’m not ashamed of my Hebrew names; they just don’t have a place in my everyday life. Still, despite the fact that I rarely use these names, they define a part of me. My relationship with them mirrors my relationship with Judaism and how it has developed and been redefined throughout my life. In fact, when I lost my faith in God, my Hebrew names returned to me a Jewish identity that I thought I would never regain.
For most of my early life, my mother raised me as an Orthodox Jew. I was a part of a Chabad congregation in San Diego and attended the same Jewish summer camp as the children in my synagogue. My mother and I weren’t as strictly observant as the other members of Chabad. We still drove and turned on lights during the Sabbath, and only used one set of plates even though we kept the laws of kashrut. Even still, she and I would study the Midrash (rabbinic commentary of the Torah) on a weekly basis. I even joined and actively contributed to an adult Midrash group while I was still in elementary school. I loved knowing that I was Jewish. I was one of the chosen people, and the world was my oyster.
My names reflected this feeling. In the Orthodox community I preferred being addressed as Shira, or sometimes Herzliya. Shira means “[holy] song,” and Hertzliya is both related to the word for “deer” as well as a city in the Tel Aviv district of Israel. A search on Google will give “mountain goat” as the common translation for Yael. In comparison to a song or deer, a mountain goat did not feel particularly flattering. Later, during my Midrash studies with my mother, I learned that Yael is also the name of the heroine who saved the Jews by stabbing an enemy general with a wooden pin. In comparison to my other names, Yael’s relationship to Jewish history seemed relatively unimportant. Firstly, her tale is recorded in the book of Judges, Jewish scripture not included in the five books of the Torah. Secondly, only two parshas (chapters) are dedicated to her story. Thirdly, Yael isn’t even a Jew. As a child, I only wanted to be known by the two names that explicitly portrayed my Jewish identity. Yael wasn’t a part of that agenda, so I shunted the name and dismissed it as “just another name I have.”
As I got older, I felt less and less connected to the Orthodox community. This disconnect was partly exacerbated by the problems that developed between my mother and me. More importantly, it was difficult for me to relate to the Orthodox customs or beliefs any longer. I hated having to wear long skirts and long-sleeved shirts, even during the summer, as mandated by Orthodox Jewish law. I could never commit prayers beyond the Shema and the Aleinu to memory and never felt the desire to. I wanted to be like my non-Jewish friends who didn’t have to go to temple on Saturdays and didn’t have to read the Midrash every night. Bit by bit, I began to cut away pieces of my Jewish upbringing.
Once I came to UCSC, I stopped attending temple altogether. I didn’t want to return to the Orthodox way of life, but I still recognized myself as Jewish. However, because I’d grown up extremely religious, I felt like I couldn’t connect with any Reform or Conservative Jewish group. Essentially, I felt like I wasn’t a part of the Jewish community, regardless of my steadfast Jewish identity. So I kept my relationship with Judaism private and personal.
Then, earlier this year, I became an atheist. I fell into a depression. I had lost God. I knew that I could count on my friends to celebrate my successes and to sympathize with my struggles. However, I felt that only God could experience my life as I experienced it. Losing him meant I lost my closest confidant. His existence also reaffirmed my Jewish identity. The belief that my relationship with him had a different meaning in this life because I was Jewish allowed me to be comfortable with my Jewishness,
regardless of which prayers I said or which customs I chose to keep. By losing God, I felt like I’d not only lost the ability to be a part of any Jewish community, but I’d also lost an integral part of my being, a part that shaped so much of my childhood.
Once I became an atheist, even my favored Hebrew names seemed foreign to me. All three belonged to ancestors who, unlike me, were proud of their Jewish heritage. At that point, it was much easier to shun my Jewish identity because I felt like I didn’t deserve to call myself Jewish. I was the stereotypical “wandering Jew.”
Soon after I became an atheist, I began dating a fellow atheist-Jew who, unlike me, embraced his Judaism. In my relationship with him, I saw that it was possible to be Jewish without believing in God, but I still didn’t understand my place in the community. I thought I would never reconcile with my Jewish identity, let alone my Hebrew names (which I had long since stopped using).
During my last quarter at UCSC, I enrolled in Rabbi Chein’s “Women of the Hebrew Bible” class in order to understand what it means to be a Jewish woman, especially one without faith. Weeks went by and I felt no more connected with Judaism than I had at the beginning of the quarter. Then, as I was starting to accept my fate as an outsider, I revisited the story of Yael.
The story takes place in Israel, where the evil King Jabin had sent his general Sisera to wage war against the Jews. In response, Deborah, the reigning prophetess, appoints a Jewish man, Barak, to lead his army into a war against Sisera’s forces. Meanwhile, the story introduces Yael’s character. She is married to Herber the Kenite, a man who has separated himself and his tent from the Jews and has befriended King Jabin. Because of her association with Herber, Yael is considered an outsider in respect to the Jewish people. Barak and Deborah ride into battle against Sisera’s army and the Jews come out the victor. Unfortunately, General Sisera survives the defeat and runs to the safety of Herber’s tent. When Sisera arrives, Yael greets him and serves him a glass of milk. After Sisera lies down to rest, Yael takes a wooden tent pin in one hand and a hammer in the other. She then drives the pin through Sisera’s temple. When Barak rides up later in pursuit of Sisera, Yael shows him the general, lying dead on the tent’s floor. She, the wife of Herber the Kenite, friend to King Jabin, had killed the enemy of the Jews despite her husband’s allegiances. Even as an outsider, she came to the aid of the Jewish people when she was handed the opportunity, betraying her expected loyalties.
After rereading the story of Yael, my names were no longer a painful reminder of the Jewish identity I had discarded. In fact, the name that I had once regarded as the least Jewish of the three now gave me a sense of identity within Judaism. Deborah and Yael represent two extremes within the Jewish community: Deborah is completely involved and immersed in Jewish life, whereas Yael is essentially detached from it. During my childhood, I was a Deborah in my Jewish community. As an adult, I have become a Yael. The story of Yael demonstrates the important role that both women play in the survival of the Jewish people. By chronicling the heroism displayed by these two extreme Jewish identities, the story of Deborah and Yael showed me that my lack of faith didn’t have to dictate my place in the Jewish community. It didn’t matter which path I chose to express my connection with Judaism;
Judaism could manifest itself in many forms. From religious practices to cultural observances to recounted histories, I could be a part of all of it, or none of it, or somewhere in between and still identify as Jewish. My ability to relate to other Jews through my experiences and our shared history is what matters. This is what makes me a Jew.
Although I still don’t use my Hebrew names in everyday interactions, they are just as much a part of my identity as my secular names. Regardless of my feelings about God or Jewish customs, Judaism’s history and culture shaped my childhood and connected me to my ancestors. As an atheist, I’m no longer a part of the religious community I’d once identified with. But I also know that to be part of the Jewish community, I don’t have be a Deborah. I’m proud to be a Yael.
Published on page 37 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.