Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reading Goldstone

I don’t know if anyone can stand reading much more about the Goldstone Report regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza last winter commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, but as we approach Yom Kippur and prepare to look deep into the mirror to see ourselves as we truly are it surely behooves us to investigate carefully when someone appears to see something wholly different reflected back than what we ourselves see. Or what we think we see. Or what we wish were there for all to see. Nor does it behoove us to reject something as unreasonable merely because it is associated with the United Nations, an organization so little ashamed of its systemic bias against Israel for so long that most of us can barely remember when things were otherwise.

The basic facts are not in dispute. Between 2005 and 2007, Hamas terrorists fired almost 3000 rockets into Israel more or less all of them aimed at civilian targets. In June of 2008, a ceasefire brokered by the Egyptians went into effect and was more or less effective: the number of rockets sent into Israel decreased during the following months to about 225. Things began to go south in November when Israel entered Gaza to destroy a tunnel built near the border that they believed was intended to assist in the capture of Israeli soldiers and Hamas responded with renewed rocket and mortar fire. By the middle of December, Hamas had announced its intention not to renew the ceasefire and then, on December 27, 2008, Israel undertook a massive campaign against Hamas called Operation Cast Lead. By January 15, Israel had undertaken more than 2350 air strikes against Hamas and claimed to have destroyed more than five hundred enemy targets. Hamas, assisted by Fatah on the West Bank, responded with more rockets. Israel responded with more air strikes, with a naval blockade, and with a limited ground invasion. Then, on January 17, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire. For a while, the rocket attacks against Israel continued. Eventually, however, that too ended and a wary peace returned to Gaza.

The question on which the world has focused is whether Israel did all it could to limit civilian casualties during the operation. Clearly, the Palestinians took the bigger hit during the days of the operation itself and by far. The IDF, for example, published the finding that 1,166 Palestinians died during Operation Cast Lead, of whom just under 300 were civilians. (Other groups have published other numbers in the same ballpark.) Israel suffered thirteen casualties, including three civilians. The obvious imbalance between the losses suffered on both sides, however, is not as meaningful a statistic as it might sound at first: saying that more Palestinians died during an operation directed against Hamas in Gaza and then supposing that to mean that the Israeli used excessive force to achieve such lopsided results is a bit like observing that more Japanese citizens died in Hiroshima than Americans and then using that statistic to judge whether President Truman was justified in his decision to use an atomic bomb to end the Second World War.

Still, there is no denying that the civilian population of Gaza suffered mightily as a result of the violence: when the fighting stopped, more than 4000 homes had been destroyed, more than 400,000 residents were left without running water, and large sections of Gaza City were in ruins.

Shortly after the ceasefire went into effect, the United Nations passed one of its famously one-sided resolutions calling for an international fact-finding mission to investigate Israeli misconduct during the way. (In uncovering instances of Palestinian misconduct, the United Nations as usual showed no interest at all.) Indeed, the first individual asked to chair the proposed commission, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, turned the offer down specifically on the grounds that the initial resolution itself was unfairly and unjustly one-sided. But then South African prosecutor Richard Goldstone stepped forward and found himself able to accept the commission. He did his job and produced his report, which was released a few weeks ago on September 15. And that is where everything stops being clear at all.

Richard Goldstone is an unlikely person to be biased against Israel. He himself is Jewish. He once won the International Human Rights Award given annually by the American Bar Association. He holds an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University. He was the chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda from 1994 to 1996. His own daughter described him in the pages of the Jerusalem Post a few days ago as a Zionist who loves Israel. And yet his report, for all it finds evidence of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity on both sides of the conflict, reserves its harshest criticism for Israel.

The report is well over 500 pages long. It’s a long read. It’s detailed and it’s complicated. I haven’t read the report from cover to cover, but I’ve been through a lot of it. (You can see it for yourself in full at Because the initial resolution singled out only Israel for scrutiny, Israel declined to participate in the process. But Judge Goldstone claims to have done his best and, indeed, refused to accept the limited mandate imposed on him by the U.N. and so focused his report on Hamas and the Palestinians as well as on Israel.

As far as I can tell, the high number of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side derived directly from Hamas’ regular practice of hiding its fighters in civilian centers such as mosques, homes, schools and even United Nations installations, thus actually increasing the likelihood of civilian deaths in the event of a strong Israeli response to the endless rockets they themselves spent months firing against civilian targets within Israel. None of this, however, appears in the Goldstone report, which also ignores Israeli efforts to warn the civilian population to flee before an imminent attack by dropping leaflets, attempting physically to direct civilians away from target areas, and using telephone calls and text messages in an effort to save civilian lives. Nor is any credence given to the Israeli claim that it planned its military operation carefully in an effort precisely to conform to the standards of international law and not specifically to flout its norms.

The reaction of the world has been predictable. Israel’s enemies loved it. Israel’s friends hated it. Gary Ackerman, who represents me and most of my congregants in the House of Representatives, issued a statement in which he said that, "In the self-righteous fantasyland inhabited by the authors [of the report], there is no such thing as terrorism, no such thing as Hamas, there's no such thing as legitimate self-defense." An editorial in The Economist last week evaluated the Goldstone Commission’s interest in singling out Israel for blame as an example of “willful blindness to other evidence (that) makes (the report itself) look like a dash for political cover.” Even more eloquent was the essay on the topic by Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Attorney-General and well-known human rights activist, that was published in two parts in the Jerusalem Post last week. But the award for brevity and clarity goes to the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who qualified the report as “unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable.” That more or less sums up my reaction as well.

From what I’ve read, including in the Goldstone report, I am convinced that Israel did what it could—and, I suspect, more than most nations would have done—to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza. But there can be no justification for Israel failing to safeguard the lives of Jewish children by placing a higher value on the lives of the enemy than on the lives of our own people. It’s an unpalatable truth to contemplate, but that’s how it works in wartime. And it’s how every other country behaves, including our own. Civilians die in the context of reputable, justifiable military operations all the time. Only an insane person would fail to find that upsetting, but the question isn’t whether this is a good or a bad thing, but whether Israel did all it reasonably could have done to minimize civilian casualties. I have not seen any real evidence that Israel failed correctly to balance the need to be solicitous of the welfare of civilians with the need to be victorious in war.

Speaking personally, it seems to me that the real issue has to do with the nature of the larger conflict. In the end, the Palestinians of Gaza chose to be governed by a terror organization that has no difficulty opening espousing the murder of Jews as a reasonable means to a political end. To refer to a decision like that as regrettable is to say the very least, but to imagine that a people can make a national decision along those lines and then be immune from the consequences that flow directly from it is more than naïve.

To those who view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a regional one between unfriendly neighbors, it will always be upsetting that violent confrontation should play any sort of role at all in its resolution. But to those of us steeped in the study of Jewish history whose worldview is focused through and framed by the events of the Shoah, it is not possible to view the effort of a terrorist government to make political hay through the intentional murder of Jewish civilians (and particularly Jewish children) as just another example of contiguous peoples not getting along. This is not about sharing our toys or our cookies: it is a kind of cosmic battle between those who would destroy Israel—and who have traditionally known no moral bottom line in terms of what they will do to achieve their ends—and those pledged to defend the safety of Jews wherever they live. Richard Goldstone, himself a veteran of the effort to bring after-the-fact justice to Kosovo, to the former Yugoslavia, and to Rwanda, appears to fall in the first category. The specific reason he and I do not and possibly even cannot see eye to eye on the matters discussed in his report is because I myself do not. Could things really be that simple? It strikes me that at least in this one case they really could be!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

At the Dawn of a New Year

I rarely give much thought to gematriya, the art of discerning hidden "truths" lurking within the words of the Hebrew language by interpreting words and phrases not in terms of their real meanings but in terms of numerical values derived by taking their constituent letters as numbers and then adding them together. But as the new year dawns, I find myself recalling some gematriya-based comment I learned about years ago that I hadn’t even realized had stayed with me all this time.

Years ago, while I was in the final stages of preparing my dissertation at JTS, I worked as assistant to Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, now professor emeritus of medieval Jewish literature but then Seminary’s librarian, and I recall him telling me about an incident he recalled from Rosh Hashanah in 1941 when he was still a young man living in Budapest. Things were not going well. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had already fallen to the Germans, as, of course, also had Poland. America had yet to enter the war. Even England had been unable to prevent the Germans from occupying the Channel Islands and from building on the island of Alderney the only concentration camps that would exist on British soil. And yet in Budapest these events were considered—at least by some—as distant details unrelated to the future of the Jews of Hungary.

Indeed, as the year 5702 dawned, the rabbi in Dr. Schmelzer’s shul seized on the fact that letters denoting the year 5702, tav-shin-bet, can be creatively rearranged to spell out the Hebrew word shabbat, the Hebrew original of which the English word “Sabbath” is a kind of transliterated approximation. And so, demonstrating a level of naiveté beyond painful to contemplate in retrospect, the rabbi announced hopefully that the coming year would be a year of sabbatical rest from the travails of the world, from the political uncertainty that surely must have been terrifying the more savvy members of the Hungarian public, from the dread of the Nazis that surely hung over the country during the first years of the Second World War as a impenetrable blanket of lethal smog only not yet descended to smother the freedom of the nations over which it ominously hovered. The fact that almost 34,000 Jews would be murdered at Babi Yar almost before the week was out was, of course, unknown to all but the murderers themselves.

It’s a detail. It’s hardly even a story, just a remark by an anonymous rabbi made almost seventy years ago. But it stuck in Dr. Schmelzer’s mind and, since he told me of it, it’s stuck too in mine. The fantasy—my fantasy—is being able somehow to go back in time and magically to appear in that rabbi’s study on the day before Rosh Hashanah as he was preparing the comments he would make in synagogue in the course of the coming holidays and tell him the truth. That the most unimaginable horrors were just around the corner. That tranquil, restorative Shabbos rest was precisely the opposite of what was awaiting the Jews of Hungary within the next few years. That there was still time to run, to escape, maybe slightly to alter the course of what has long since acquired the aura of inevitability in most of our minds….but which may not have been unavoidably unalterable then.

So much for fantasy. But there is also a paradox to consider: that the rabbi’s comments, for all they were completely wrong in terms of what was to come, still have a profound message to offer us today. And that message is the one I wish to offer my readers as we approach the holiday season this year.

About to begin is the year 5770 according to the traditional Jewish reckoning. And, just like 5702, 5770 has its own gematriya value. Only it is not a soothing one, not something in the contemplation of which to find solace. Just the opposite: the year that dawns suggests a level of challenge to which we would all do well to rise. The letters are tav-shin-ayin. In that order, they spell out teisha, the Hebrew word for the numeral nine. In a different order, they spell out eshet, a word that appears in the Song of Songs to denote, of all things, the exquisite smoothness of the youthful King Solomon’s muscular loins of living ivory. But spelled in a third way, they spell out the beckoning, but indecisive, shaat, a word that by itself hangs in the air and demands a response.

The word shaat means “hour of…” or “time of…” something. You may recognize it from Avinu Malkeinu, the most famous of all holiday prayers, when we prayer as a community that the hours we spend in prayer this year constitute an auspicious hour of divine compassion for us all. But the word shaat itself is without real content: shaat rachamim is an hour of compassion, but just shaat is a word that needs to be followed by…something.

And so here we are on the edge of a new year, on the threshold of a new year that by its very number suggests uncertainty…and the possibility of speaking a single word that changes everything, that finishes the phrase, that seals the deal. But what will that word be? That, I submit, is the question that should be haunting us as we gather in shul this weekend to begin the most sacred season of the year by ushering in a year the very name of which, so to speak, denotes uncertainty.

What kind of year will soon be upon us? It’s a good question—in some ways, it’s the only question—but perhaps I would do better to ask it instead by filtering it through Dr. Schmelzer’s recollection of the remarks that rabbi from Budapest made all those many years ago. In sixty-eight years, as the year 5838 dawns in the fall of 2077 and some rabbi somewhere—perhaps one of the toddlers in our Nursery School then to be on the verge of retirement—as some rabbi in some congregation somewhere sits down to write to a congregation of people just like ourselves and chooses to express himself just as I have today by wishing he had a time machine—this is supposing they don’t actually have time machines available for purchase in the 2070’s—by wishing that he could travel back to the study in which I am seated at this very moment as I write these words to you and reveal details akin to the ones I fantasize about somehow being able to share with that rabbi in Budapest seventy years ago, what exactly would he say to us?

Would he shake us by the shoulders and tell us that Little Hitler in Teheran wasn’t kidding, that his oft-proclaimed wish to destroy Israel had everything to do with his country’s apparently unstoppable quest for nuclear weaponry, not nothing at all to do with it (as so many wish were the case, just so many wished to find sabbatical greetings sent to them by heaven as the year 5702 dawned in the fall of 1941)? Would he tell us to take seriously the ways in which the special relationship between our great country and the State of Israel appear to be fraying at the edges, to take that not as an example of the normal wear-and-tear any friendship must occasionally weather but as something ominously portentous, something for us to address forcefully rather than ignore? Would he ask how we could possibly have failed to connect the dots as the tide of anti-Semitic incidents in major Jewish centers like France, the U.K., Russia, and Argentina continues to rise? Or would he say none of the above…and focus instead on issues that none of us has even identified, let alone effectively responded to?

I wish I knew! In the unlikely event that these letters I write weekly survive long enough for anyone to read them in seven decades, I suppose those readers will know, and all too well. But we, who must exist without crystal balls into which to peer and see the future, can only embrace the year almost upon us with humility born of self-admitted ignorance…and with a renewed sense of passionate resolve to act, as we always should, in our own best interests. But knowing where precisely those interests live and what they are exactly...that is the challenge we all face on the threshold of a new year.

I have the sense that 5770 will be a momentous year in many different ways. May God grant that it bring security and safety to Jewish people everywhere, and especially peace to Israel and its neighbors. May we all look back on this new year one day and recall it as one of personal transformation too…and also one suffused with the twin blessings of creativity and productivity. I wish you all a very happy and healthy New Year, a shanah tovah umetukah.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thinking about Health Care

There’s context and then again there’s real context. And so there I was at my desk in my study shortly after the president’s health care address to Congress and the nation Wednesday evening reading the transcript of his remarks at the same time Joan was sitting at her desk listening to the Moscow Men’s Jewish Cappella’s marvelous recording of Avinu Malkeinu and making the notes she plans to share with our choir at their next rehearsal.

So that’s the tableau to have in mind: Joan and I seated at our respective desks, the issues surrounding health care reform swirling around and filling the space inside my head as the hoary strophes of one of our most ancient hymns fill the room outside my head, the air in the study thick with words that have outlived every generation that recited them but (at least so far) our own. Divine Progenitor, holy Sovereign, we have no God but You. Avinu Malkeinu, rid us of tyrants. Rid us of pestilence. Pardon our sins. Send complete healing to the sick. Avinu Malkeinu, remember that we are dust. Have pity on us and our children. Show us mercy. Act for Your own sake if not for ours! And while those hoary lines are making thick and heavy the air outside my head, a different set of words sent into the world not an hour earlier (and already available for download) are filling up the interstitial spaces inside. Not to clean up a crisis but to build a future. Thirty million who live without health care coverage. Fourteen thousand who lose their coverage every single day. Washington at its best and at its worst. Scare tactics instead of honest debate. Security and stability. Broad consensus. Choice and competition. Waste and abuse. Waste and fraud. Waste and inefficiency. Affordable. Nine hundred billion dollars over ten years. A moral issue. The character of our country. Nine hundred billion! Affordable!

In the course of my life, I have lived in five countries: our own great country (where I was born, grew up, and now live) plus France, Israel, Germany, and Canada. All but the United States have national health programs. All also have dramatically higher tax rates than we do. But the care in all those places is first rate, and I personally only experienced excellence in the care I received or my family did. Of those countries, we lived the longest—thirteen years—in Canada and while it is true that none of us needed intensive medical care during our years in British Columbia—and that is what they say, after all, isn’t it: that all these systems work fine as long as you don’t really need them?—we did have two children while living there and those two plus their older brother and the two of us underwent countless medical tests and examinations and procedures over all those many years.

As far as I can see, the system there works no less efficiently than ours. We felt well looked after. We had confidence in the doctors and specialists we needed to see. When we looked around, we saw our friends and neighbors receiving the same first-world treatment we were getting and complaining about the occasional glitch in the system at about the same rate (and with the same level of righteous indignation) that I hear people here complaining about this or that detail connected with the care they have received. So it seems to me wrong when I hear people talk about a national health system as though it were the first step on a nation-wide journey to socialist perdition. And what the president proposed Wednesday night stops a long ways short of dismantling our current medical system and replacing it with anything like what they have in Canada or the U.K. Okay, so some fairly crucial details remain missing from the picture the president was attempting to outline for our co-citizens. But whatever shape the proposal eventually takes, the bottom line has to be that we simply cannot go on with a system in which scores of millions have no coverage and almost a hundred thousand people lose their coverage every month just when they are finally sick enough actually to need it. That much even the Republican congressman from Louisiana, Dr. Charles Boustany, conceded in his formal response to the president’s remarks. So the question isn’t so much where we need to go, but how exactly to get there. And how to pay for it.

Or maybe that’s not quite right either. The problems the president outlined in his remarks are more or less indisputable. But for me the larger issue is neither who pays for what nor how the system the president wants to invent will actually work as much as it is the simpler moral question that underlies, or that should underlie, the whole discussion: can there be any moral justification for selling health to the public the way Best Buy sells televisions or Dunkin’ Donuts sells coffee? You don’t have to own a television. You don’t really need another cup of coffee. (I personally almost never need another cup of anything with caffeine in it.) So why should you need a preventative colonoscopy or an annual or biennial mammogram?

Of course, no one really thinks that. The notion that people who can’t afford adequate health care should just go without appeals to no one at all…and yet we have allowed our country to behave as though just the opposite were to be the case. And the proof of that pudding is truly in the eating: as a nation, we have blithely allowed ourselves just not to care all that much that there are literally armies of people in our midst whose access to health care is minimal, who only receive treatment in times of disaster (and then at an outlandish price either to themselves or society) and no preventative care at all, or who (supposing they do have insurance) have no idea when or if whatever coverage they have might be terminated upon moving to a different state or leaving a job or discovering some previously unknown, thus also previously undisclosed, medical ailment.

For me personally, the words at the center of the matter come directly from the Torah, where, in its account of Israel’s first days in the wilderness on their way from the miracle at the Sea of Reeds to Mount Sinai, Scripture offers the words ki ani Hashem rofekha (“For I, God, am your source of healing”) as part of its explanation of how Moses, a mere mortal, was able to sweeten the waters of desert oasis so well known for the rancid taste of its spring waters that its very name was Marah, the Hebrew word for “bitter.”

How exactly Moses managed to transform the bitter springs of Bitter Springs into potable drinking water for a nation, the Torah reveals without going into too much detail. But the point is clearly not to teach us how to sweeten acrid water but to remind us that all wellbeing, physical and otherwise, comes from God. The health care professionals in our midst are therefore doing God’s work on earth as they serve as the agents of therapeutic healing in our midst. And that concept has to balance our sense of health care as a commodity. After all, we sell bread in our supermarkets yet do not expect those who cannot afford even a loaf of bread to go hungry, much less to die of starvation. We sell clothing in all sorts of stores for all sorts of prices, yet we do not expect people who cannot afford clean work clothes to stay home rather than trying to earn a living as best they can. And so should it be with healthcare, I believe. There is no reason not to expect people who can afford to pay for decent health care to pay their fair share of the bill. But that does not mean that we should expect people who cannot afford adequate health insurance to go without. The right to decent, affordable health care is in the same category, or should be in the same category, as the right to drink clean water or breathe fresh air or send one’s children to school. At different moments in history, each of these has been perceived as something reasonably to be purchased by those who could and regretfully done without by those who couldn’t. As a society, we have moved far past thinking of clean drinking water as perk of wealth. Adequate and affordable health care should be considered in the same category.

As our nation wades ever deeper into this debate, my prediction is that the level of vituperative discourse will also increase. My suggestion is that we adopt the four Hebrew words ki ani Hashem rofekha as our mantra, then repeat them softly to ourselves a few times before entering the discussion. To know God the Healer, we can do no better than to become agents of healing in the world by working towards a world in which health care is denied to no one because of prior illness, age, or wealth.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hans and the Basterds

It doesn’t happen that often, but occasionally you see a movie while you are in the middle of precisely the right book! That happened to me last week and the effect was so interesting to me—both in terms of how each affected my impression of the other and how the experience itself gave me the courage to pose a question to myself I generally prefer to avoid asking—that I resolved to write about it this week to share the experience with all of you.

The book, Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone, has its own interesting back story. Fallada, born Rudolph Ditzen, was a reasonably successful novelist in Germany before the Second World War. When the Nazis came to power, however, they took note of the fact that his most successful book (which was published here and in the U.K. under the title Little Man, What Now?) had been made into a Hollywood movie by Jewish producers and thus began Fallada’s problems. Joseph Goebbels himself took an interest in the author’s work, however, and suggested that he redeem himself by writing a novel with a profoundly anti-Semitic theme, a project that Fallada formally agreed to undertake but then spent the rest of the war years not actually accomplishing. This act of passive resistance, combined with a life-long problem with alcohol and drug usage and an unfortunate incident in which he attempted to win an argument with his wife by shooting a gun at her, landed the man in a Nazi insane asylum. There he survived by pretending to write the great Nazi novel Goebbels had commissioned but secretly writing another book entirely, one he somehow managed covertly to encode in the book on which he only appeared to be working. The book, eventually published in English as The Drinker, was deeply critical of the Nazi regime and has come to be considered his masterwork. And then the war ended and Fallada was released back into the world.

For a short while, Fallada seemed poised to regain his stature in the world of German letters. But the hardship of life in a Nazi asylum plus his ongoing morphine addiction made it impossible for him to survive and he died just a little more than a year after his release. And that brings me to the book I want to tell you about. In a state that his wife described as one of “white heat,” Fallada wrote one final novel in a period of just twenty-four days shortly before he died. It is a huge work, but a magnificent one…and it has finally been published in English by Brooklyn publishers Melville House under the title Every Man Dies Alone. That’s the book I just finished the other day and it is truly extraordinary.

The story itself is relatively simple and all the more chilling for being based on a true incident. A German couple, called the Quangels in the book, have a single son who is drafted into the German army, then killed in action. Unable to come to terms with their loss and allowing their grief to galvanize their hatred of the Nazis, the Quangels feel at first completely powerless. But then they determine that no human being need feel totally impotent in the face of evil, that there is always something to do, always some gesture worth making. And so, impoverished and wholly without influence or power, they conceive of the simplest of ideas: they will write anti-Nazi slogans on postcards and then leave the cards in public places for people to see. In this way, they hope, “regular” German citizens horrified by Nazism will be reminded that they are not alone, that others share their feelings. From this, they further hope, might come the seeds of real opposition, perhaps even open rebellion. It is the most quixotic of undertakings. Even the Quangels know that. And yet they persevere, eventually leaving hundreds of cards for others to find. The book itself introduces a wide range of very rich secondary characters to create a sense of what day-to-day life was like in Nazi Berlin, but the author always comes back to the Quangels—to their seditious behavior, to the Gestapo’s relentless efforts to identify them, to their arrest, their incarceration, their trial, and, eventually, their execution. As I said, it is an exceptional book—and the chapters describing the conditions in jail under which the Quangels await their trial are exceeded in shock value only by the account of their trial, which is itself exceeded only by the account of their experiences in jail after they are found guilty of treason as they await the guillotine.

But more than it is horrifying, Fallada’s novel is incredibly moving. Here are two people who are uneducated, almost illiterate, untrained in philosophy or political science, not especially religious…and yet who cannot bear to do nothing in the face of evil. They make all sorts of mistakes. Their written German is filled with spelling errors. They more or less know that they will eventually be caught. And yet they simply cannot stand to remain passive in the face of injustice, in the face of evil, in the face of a regime wholly devoted to the degradation of its victims.

I found that kind of simple determination not to do nothing breathtaking…both in terms of the general way in which it forces me to re-evaluate the power of human beings to take charge of their lives and in the more specific way that it forces me to ask whether I would have had the courage or the strength of character to behave similarly. As we enter into our national season of self-analysis and introspection, this is not the most pleasant of questions to ponder, let alone to ask out loud. And yet I find that I cannot keep from thinking about it, from thinking about how the book would read if it was about me and not based on the story of a German couple eventually beheaded at the Plötzensee Prison in March of 1943. (The real couple were Elise and Otto Hampel. I’ve called them the Quangels because that was Fallada’s name for them in his book, but my real admiration of course is for the real people he was memorializing in his book.)

And it was while I was still in the middle of Every Man Dies Alone that I went to see Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s hit movie starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, and Mélanie Laurent. It’s an interesting movie from a dozen different vantage points and, I think, one worth seeing. But the reason it had the impact on me that it did was precisely because I saw it while I was in the middle of Fallada’s last novel. Inglourious Basterds (the misspelled words in the title are never really explained) is about revenge. And not just revenge in general, but the kind of fantasy revenge against the Nazis that I imagine every one of us has harbored at one time or another. This is not another tale of Jewish impotence against a foe so menacing and so brutal as to be basically undefeatable. Nor is this a tale of scheming brainiacs figuring out how to build even bigger and more effective bombs that other people can drop on invisible targets from high up in the sky. This is a tale of revenge featuring a band of Jewish soldiers led (for some reason) by a hillbilly with Apache blood in him who totally gets it, who perfectly understands the mindset of the Jews under his command.

It sounds implausible. But implausible is what this movie is all about. No one seems to mind that Brad Pitt’s soldiers are, as far as the viewer can tell, totally free to do as they please behind enemy lines. The easy brutality with which they kill any German soldiers they come across combined with the way the lone survivor is invariably marked permanently with a symbol of his service in the Nazi army appears to be no one’s business but their own. They have friends in high places, including Winston Churchill. And when their effort to destroy the Wehrmacht soldier by soldier amazingly happens to coincide with a concurrent plot being pursued by a French Jewish woman who is herself the sole survivor of the brutal massacre of her family with which the movie opens, the opportunity presents itself to end the war almost instantly by destroying the entire Nazi leadership at once. I won’t say how the movie ends—it’s both a huge surprise and not that much of one somehow at the same time—but the basic concept is easy to seize: vengeance is theirs and once the Nazis seize that point and truly internalize it, it can really only be a matter of time until the thousand-year-Reich crumbles away and hostilities cease.

It’s incredibly satisfying to watch Inglourious Basterds because the movie conforms to so many of our favorite fantasies. But, of course, that isn’t how it really works. Soldiers aren’t free to conduct their own campaigns of terror against enemy troops. Killing a few score Nazi soldiers, or a few hundred, would not have ended the war no matter how brutally they were executed or by whom. The German leadership would likely not have convened in a single room in an occupied country without posting at least some armed guards around the perimeter. And great would it have been for this to have been true! That’s how you leave the theater, after all: knowing it didn’t happen but wishing fervently that it had!

And then there are the Quangel/Hampels to consider. They didn’t have unlimited fire power. They didn’t have guns or jeeps or machetes at their disposal. They were facing certain death if they were caught, not the possibility of becoming prisoners of war...and they knew that they would certainly be caught eventually. The brave boys under Brad Pitt’s command are thrilling to watch, but they’re not real. Nor could they have been. But the people in Fallada’s novel were real. They had no weapons at their disposal other than their simple will to do something, not to be totally passive, not to give in to tyranny without resisting at least symbolically. And so the people in the movie are destined to be remembed as fictitous players in the world of fantasy revenge, while the Hampels will be remembered by anyone who reads Fallada’s book as true heroes in spirit and in deed.

I felt chastened by my reading of Every Man Dies Alone. I was shocked by a lot of what I read—some of the details concerning the way the Nazis treated regular German citizens are almost beyond belief, as is Fallada’s account of the way the German justice system functioned under the Nazis—but I also felt ennobled. The Quangel/Hampels were real people. In every measurable way, they were unlike me: Germans not Americans, Gentiles not Jews, quasi-illiterate not university educated, etc. But all of that fades into the background as I find myself asking the one question that I want the least to ask, let alone to answer: are they also unlike me in that they were not merely unwilling but actually unable to do nothing in the face of injustice, in the face of evil? I ask that question aloud not because I wish to answer it in public with respect to myself, but merely to show that it can be asked and to assure you that it can also be answered. By me personally, of course, with respect to myself but also by each of us. But what that answer will be...that is something we will all have to say for ourselves.