Thursday, April 28, 2011

Watching Eichmann

Somehow Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, always catches me by surprise. Maybe it’s because it comes so soon on the heels of Pesach. Or maybe it just seems strange to focus on the Shoah, which I for some reason invariably image in my mind in black-and-white, just when color is returning to the world. Or maybe it is just in the nature of the unfathomable things also to be unpredictable and a bit random in terms of when it imposes itself unexpectedly in anyone’s consciousness. But for whatever reason I am always slightly unprepared when the Men’s Club delivers the yellow candle and the calendar suddenly notes that Yom Hashoah is around the corner.

It is a strange day. Neither a fast day nor a day on which even the most pious refrain from work, Yom Hashoah also has no specific liturgy—no additions to or subtractions from our daily prayers, no special Torah reading, nothing of the before-the-fast and after-the-fast feel of Yom Kippur or Tisha Be’av. Nor was there even universal agreement at first about when Yom Hashoah should fall or even whether there should be a specific day given over to remembering the victims of the Nazis during the Second World War in the first place. But whatever arguments were adduced in the 1950s against having this one day devoted to this one thing, they have been more or less universally set aside in favor of this day of nothingness with which we have finally ended up—a day of no special prayers, no special ceremonies, no special Torah reading, no special customs, and no specific rituals that has somehow come to represent by its emptiness the inability of any of us reasonably, let alone eloquently, to articulate our feelings about a tragedy of the magnitude of the Shoah. Perhaps there simply are times when the deepest response to disaster can only be to say nothing at all and to find in silence the sole appropriate medium for coming to terms with unspeakable things! And, indeed, as the years have passed I have come to like the concept of a Yom Hashoah devoted to remembering that is specifically not weighed down with ritual. To feel paralyzed by sadness is usually a non-productive response to personal tragedy; to respond to tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust, on the other hand, by staring into the whirlwind and saying nothing at all does not seem to me illogical or pathetic. Just the opposite, actually.

I was born in 1953, more than eight years after V-E Day, but although I had friends in elementary school whose parents were survivors, I don’t recall ever understanding that about them until years later. If they spoke about their wartime experiences, they didn’t speak to children like myself about them. But I sense that they didn’t much speak to anyone else either—the sense in those days was that the “healthy” thing for those who had survived was somehow to move on, to put the past behind them, to begin anew in a new place, to find the inner strength to live in the present, not the past. As a result, I learned about the Shoah almost exclusively from books and movies, mostly from books. I’ve written in many places about the profound effect Andre Schwarz Bart’s book, The Last of the Just, had on me as a young man. The same is true about many other works I’ve read over the years, especially including Anatoly Rybakov’s Heavy Sand, Anatoly Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and more or less all the novels of Aharon Appelfeld. And the movies that have affected me, although fewer in number—I should mention Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg in this regard—have been equally important in terms of my development as a Jew living his life in the shadow of the Shoah.

I am not by nature an especially brave person, I don’t think. I don’t like being terrified. I don’t like roller coasters. I am not even a big fan of horror movies. Yet I find myself able to watch these movies (again and again, I should add) and to read these and uncountable other books, especially including first-person non-fiction accounts like Anne Frank’s, Emanuel Ringelblum’s or Moshe Zev Flinker’s, without turning away. Or at least without turning away much. (Mind you, I don’t read them at bedtime.) But just lately I’ve been watching something that I had barely even known existed until it was brought to my attention just the week before Pesach: the endless videotapes of the trial of Adolph Eichmann. I suppose I vaguely knew the trial, which lasted off and on from April of 1961 to May of 1962, was videotaped. I had even see clips here and there, mostly of the witnesses giving testimony about their personal experiences during the war. And I definitely remember once seeing a clip from an Israeli news program reporting on Eichmann’s execution. (His was hanged the day before my ninth birthday and his ashes scattered over the Mediterranean the following day. I vaguely remember my father telling me that the entire Jewish people was having a party that day not just myself and my friends. I’m not sure I knew what he meant. Maybe I did. Probably not.) As the years passed, I read all the big books and re-read several times Gideon Hausner’s Justice in Jerusalem and Isser Harel’s The House on Garibaldi Street. But I never actually watched the videotape of the trial itself.

This was long before youtube, long before anything even remotely like youtube or any of the other on-line libraries of video clips. In those days to watch something like videotape of a trial, you had to start by figuring out where to find the tapes, then get permission to view them, then take yourself to wherever they were stored and watch them wherever that was. Now, of course, endless numbers of video clips stream almost automatically into everybody’s lives at such a pace that it feels impossible even slightly to keep up with what’s out there. But when I got an e-mail telling me that the entire Eichmann trial had been uploaded to youtube by Yad Vashem and was now available on-line I was drawn to the link almost like a moth to flame. It’s a lot of tape, four hundred hours’ worth. It’s available in two versions, one in the original Hebrew, German, and Yiddish (available at, and one with an English voice superimposed on the voices of the original speakers (available at It’s easier to find than to watch, however.

You need a lot of things even to start watching, in fact, but most of all the nerve to encounter evil unadorned and unapologetic. Contrary to Hannah Arendt’s assertion, there is in my opinion nothing even remotely banal about the footage. It is slow going. There’s no way to race through to the more interesting parts, just as there would not have been any way to do so in real life if you were attending the actual trial. As is the case in all courtrooms (other than on Law & Order), there’s a lot of endless sitting around and waiting. People speak slowly and deliberately. Translators spoke slowly and took their time, including the time to revise their own work while the cameras were still rolling. Through it all, though, is Eichmann himself, seated in the bullet-proof glass booth the court had ordered fashioned specifically to thwart any attempts on his life during the trial and apparently not only unrepentant but clearly contemptuous of the whole proceeding. Over and over he says plainly that he was simply following his orders, doing what government officials do, behaving with respect to his government in precisely the same way that government employees the world over, including in Israel, behave when they receive orders from their superiors. The disconnect between the icy calm demeanor Eichmann displays as he speaks dispassionately about his work annihilating the Jews of Europe and the reality of what was actually happening on the ground when others carried out the orders he issued is so immense as to be almost unfathomable. Just last night, for example, I was watching Eichmann talking about the deportations from Bialystok, a city in which about one hundred of an pre-war Jewish population of 56,000 survived. Of the deportations to Treblinka and Auschwitz, including a final deportation of one thousand children, of the efforts of the Einsatzgruppen to round up thousands of Jews in the first days of the occupation and murder them, of the famous uprising in the last days of the ghetto when truly there was nothing left to lose—of none of this does Eichmann seem even vaguely aware. There was a job to do, he says plainly—apparently meaning the annihilation of the Jews of that specific place—and there was a time frame to do it in, and he did his job and saw to it that others did theirs. He speaks clearly and without bombast, rather in the manner of a university science professor calmly describing some experiment he conducted successfully a few years earlier. He exudes neither confidence nor pride. His voice is almost completely without emotion. He simply describes his work, then allows others to think what they will. His German is clear and precise without being at all pedantic.

You can’t watch the whole thing through, obviously, just longer and shorter snippets. Nor is there any clear program available detaining what precisely is in which film clip (and there are hundreds and hundreds of separate clips to watch). I see what Hannah Arendt was getting at, but, as noted above, it doesn’t seem that way to me at all. Here is evil itself, the embodiment of the demonic in a clerk with a clerk’s glasses, a clerk’s demeanor and a good clerk’s pride in the accuracy of his workmanship. If this be a man, then we need to revise our sense of what it truly means to be human…and of where the bottom line of depravity might lie, the one beneath which no true human being even could, let alone consciously would, ever allow him or herself to fall. There is something fascinating about these clips, these simple black-and-white films of a man describing suffering of such unimaginable magnitude without remorse, without emotion, without any visible sense that the children he sent to their deaths were actual boys and girls and not mere figures in a ledger. If you start watching, I think you’ll stay for a long while just as I did. And then, also like me, you’ll come back and watch more, almost unable to imagine that this little man with his receding hairline and his thick glasses was not only a criminal in the normal sense of the world, but the embodiment of evil itself.

If you are looking for a way to observe Yom Hashoah, let me invite you to spend some time in front of your screen watching a trial we have all read about actually unfold, at least slightly, before your eyes. You won’t enjoy the experience. But I doubt you’ll be able to look away. In this man’s eyes are reflected the ghosts of his uncountable victims…and also nothing at all. And that is the paradox I wish to leave you with as we approach Yom Hashoah this year: that the Nazis’ victims are dead yet also alive in us, whereas their murderers, as embodied by Eichmann on youtube, were left alive at war’s end but also truly and unutterably dead.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Bigger Picture

Towards the end of his life, my father became a vegetarian. This was not an expected development, at least not by myself. My father never displayed, at least not to me, any inclination towards vegetarianism, never expressed (also at least not to me) any specific disinclination to eat meat. But yet, somehow, there he was in his eighties frying up tofu and peppers for lunch and explaining himself with reference neither to his various digestive woes or to the price of kosher meat, but to the cruelty of the world. This, if anything, I expected even less. My father was a kind person. In some ways I would even say he was a gentle one. Certainly, he was goodhearted and good-natured. But he was the kind of person who generally accepted things as he found them in the world and never seemed especially perturbed by the way the world worked or by the way things were in the world as he was born into it. Once years earlier when I reported to him some horrific story I had read in the paper about the way veal calves are raised, he responded by observing that some people raise veal calves because other people eat veal and will pay for the privilege. If there weren’t purchasers, there wouldn’t be sellers. And if you have the misfortune actually to be such a calf whose future is bringing you directly to the abattoir, then ver-zhe heist dich zein a kalb? Who told you to be a calf?

But that attitude did not live on as long in my father as he lived on in the world and, as noted, towards the end of his life my father gave up not only veal but all meat. He seemed neither proud nor embarrassed by his decision, neither eager to spread the gospel of vegetarianism nor interested in defending his diet to others and least of all to me. He had, he said, grown weary of the misery of the world, did not want to be part of the machine that killed living creatures for profit. Mostly, he said, he did not want to be among the purchasers who justify the sellers. My father clearly did not expect his decision to alter the world and its ways. He barely told anyone. He only told me myself after I noted aloud that there didn’t seem to be anything to eat in the fridge that wasn’t made out of soybeans. But his conversion, for all it was private, was also heartfelt. And he never went back either, not from the day he made his decision to the day he died. My father, whose first job as a young man was as counterman in a deli on Church Avenue in Brooklyn, died years after he ingested his last piece of corned beef.

I’ve been thinking about that specific detail of my dad’s later years both while eating my way through Pesach and also while reading James Carroll’s exceedingly interesting and provocative book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. The Pesach angle is easy to explain because, interwoven throughout our yontif observance, is this effort to justify the misery of the world. As a way of nodding to the unimaginable suffering the plagues must have brought on innocent Egyptians, almost none of whom bore any direct (or, for that matter, any indirect) responsibility for the enslavement of the Israelites, for example, we diminish the wine in our cups by ten drops, one for each of the ten plagues. And then, as if that weren’t dramatic enough, we decline on the actual anniversary of the day on which Pharaoh’s minions drowned in the sea to recite the full version of Hallel and instead use the shorter version that is otherwise only recited on lesser festival days such as Rosh Chodesh.

It isn’t much. It’s actually hardly anything at all. But at least the notion that there should be no pleasure taken in the suffering of the innocent is in the mix, inspiring us to remember that there is nothing for us to celebrate in the death of the firstborn son of the indigent servant girl slaving away in her master’s mill whom the Torah goes out of its way specifically to mention in the context of the tenth plague. Could the Almighty not have wrought salvation for Israel other than at the cost of that innocent little boy’s life? The Torah doesn’t go there, but that does not mean we shouldn’t. Just the opposite is true, actually: why would that little boy, dead and gone from the world for more than three millennia, still be on our minds if the Torah did not wish us to contemplate his wretched lot and his untimely death…and to think of something to say. But what is there to say? Would any of us look at that doomed child, then steal a glance at our slightly diminished cups of wine, then respond by asking who told him to be a calf?

I wish to express myself in much more detail about James Carroll’s book in another letter to you later in the year, but what has been making the most profound impression on me as I have been reading his work this holiday are the staggering numbers the author tosses out to his readers effortlessly, numbers I seem endlessly capable of not remembering or even of feeling that I could not possibly ever have known, numbers suggestive of the capacity we human beings have to behave not merely violently but with almost indescribable violence towards each other. Normally, we voice this thought with reference to the apparently willingness of the world to forget the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah. And yet we ourselves also forget…and not just on the rare, atypical occasion but so regularly as to suggest that what is truly human is not to recall at all but to repress. Carroll writes at some length about the World War I campaign called “the Somme offensive,” an ultimately pointless operation that took place over five months in the year my father was born. The campaign, which accomplished nothing at all other than obliging the Germans to regroup some forty miles to the east of their earlier positions, cost over 500,000 British and French soldiers’ lives alone, not to mention another half million enemy losses. How could I possibly not have forgotten learning about a battle in my the century of my birth in which more than a million young men died accomplishing…nothing of consequence at all? I must have learned about it somewhere…but my ability to forget death even on the unimaginable scale of our own losses during the Shoah is staggering to me now that I face it head-on. I certainly know that more than 1.2 million soldiers died at Stalingrad between August, 1942 and February, 1943, but did I forget or never know that the population of Mexico fell from 25 million in 1517, the year the Spanish arrived, to 1.5 million a century later because 94% of the indigenes were murdered by their European conquerors?

And then there are wars I cannot even remember having heard of. Do you remember ever reading about the French Wars of Religion? I don’t…which is something, since by some estimates 4 million people died in those wars (which also accomplished nothing of lasting consequence) between 1562 and 1598. We expect the world never to forget the Shoah, but four million people is a lot of people and not only haven’t I remembered to remember, but I can’t even remember forgetting that they lived or died. The list goes on. Carroll mentions, almost just in passing, that it is possible that a full one hundred thousand women were executed between 1560 and 1670 for the “crime” of being suspected of witchcraft. Did I know that? How could I not have? I think I wrote to you in this space last year that I was astounded when I read in James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise that by some estimates that a full million and a half civilian Filipinos died in the so-called Philippine-American War (which name I’m sure I also hadn’t ever heard spoken aloud) that followed on the heels of the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Other names are less unfamiliar, but still jumbled together in my memory. Surely, I must have learned in high school—this actually does ring a bell—that 24,000 American soldiers died in the first twelve hours of the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862. But who ever thinks of these people as individuals—and, for that matter, how many of us even know where exactly Antietam is or who actually won the battle? (The Union sort of won, at least strategically, but more realistically the battle was a draw. Antietam Creek is near Sharpsburg, Maryland.) Mind you, all the Civil War numbers are staggering. 24,000 soldiers died at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in April of 1862. 20,000 died at the Second Battle of Bull Run in July of that year. 50,000 died at Gettysburg, which at least constituted a huge victory for the Union forces and a major turning point in the war. But who can fathom numbers like that? Each soldier—each individual dead young man—was someone’s son, someone’s husband, someone’s brother or friend. Each one was an entire universe, an idea we find natural to develop with respect to our own dead…but which we find it more than possible hardly to consider at all when we think of the almost indescribable losses we don’t ever think about, don’t know much about, don’t insist our children learn about, don’t erect monuments to prevent others from forgetting about, and frankly find it just a bit irritating to be reminded by others about when all we want to do is to focus on how easily the world looks past Jewish suffering.

Mind you, we’ve also forgotten most of own history. More than 100,000 Jews were murdered during the Cossack Rebellion in the Ukraine during 1648 and 1649, but who bothers remembering those people, each individual one of whom was also a universe, these days? Once we steer into Jewish waters, I’m on firmer ground…but even then the point is really how easily we forgot, how little human life—Jewish and not Jewish—really means to us, how simple it is for us to nod to that little boy whose mother worked as a slave in one of Pharaoh’s mills without accepting his monitory presence in our holy Torah as a spur to opening our hearts to the suffering of the world and its peoples.

Monday is the Seventh Day of Pesach, the day on which Pharaoh’s army drowned in the sea. When the angels on high noted their deaths, they began to sing hymns of praise to God. The Talmud imagines God, displeased in the extreme, turning to them with a damning rhetorical question. “Creatures that I myself created are drowning,” the text imagines God asking acidulously, “and your response is to sing songs?” To celebrate the deliverance of our ancestors from bondage in Egypt and their subsequent deliverance at the Sea of Reeds, after all, is one thing. But to ruin that celebration by looking past the suffering of the innocent that it occasioned, no matter how successful we might be at justifying that suffering with reference to our own yearning to be free is, to say the very least, indecorous and unworthy behavior on our part. To be part of the world, we have to be part of the world…and that means, at least when the death of other people’s children is involved, to consider the history of Israel in its larger context and in terms of its impact beyond the borders of our own narrative.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Selling Chametz

As most of you probably know, I’m not much given to subterfuge or to the kind of fancy legal, footwork that makes licit behavior that any outside observer would recognize easily as, at best, a clever way of avoiding the implications of having to obey the simple meaning of the law. I am, in that vein, not much of a fan of the eiruv, a way of erecting phony, non-existent walls around a neighborhood so as technically to create the kind of private domain in which one may carry things around on Shabbat. (If the law forbids carrying things around in the street on Shabbat, then how can it be noble or pious to figure out a technical end-run around the simple meaning of the law?) Nor am I especially enamored of the various techniques our tradition has developed to assist us in finding clever, formally legal ways to avoiding obeying the Torah’s instructions regarding the posthumous disposition of our estates. I’m not even wild about using a shamash when I light the Chanukah menorah so as to be permitted to use light that the law specifically forbids us to use. What can you do? Who ever saw a menorah without a shamash?

A surprising amount of these legal subterfuges seem to me to be centered around Pesach and in that regard I can also reveal that I am also only a theoretical proponent of the siyyum system of fast-evasion—the one we all, including myself (who actually am a firstborn son), participate on Erev Pesach to create the context in which we are encouraged to feel good about skipping the fast that our own tradition makes incumbent upon us merely because we “happened” to have been present at morning minyan when someone (or, in this year’s case at Shelter Rock, a group of people) formally celebrated the completion of one of the tractates of the Talmud. And then there’s the whole magic declaration we recite Erev Pesach somehow turning whatever chametz is still hiding undetected in our homes into dust. Surely that only makes us feel better about not having cleaned as well as we should have without actually making the elusive breadcrumbs turn into actual dust! But the single example that feels the most weird to me has to do with the sale of chametz.

I do it. I facilitate lots of people doing it. I accept the legality of it all. That part, actually, is easy to explain. The law forbids us to have any chametz at all visible in our homes throughout the eight days of Pesach, but only forbids us to maintain hidden away in our homes chametz that actually belongs to us. And upon that slender thread hangs the whole concept of selling chametz—since the chametz hidden away now belongs to someone else, it can be present in a Jewish home throughout Passover as long as it is not actually visible. For all these years that I’ve not only sold our own chametz but also facilitated hundreds, by now probably thousands, of others in selling theirs, I’ve found the whole concept peculiar. We sell our chametz legally, but not quite emotionally. If the non-Jew to whom I sell all the chametz of all the people who have charged me with selling theirs were actually to show up during the holiday to pick up his property from wherever we have it squirreled away, we’d all faint dead away. Nor has anyone ever actually bothered to ask me if the sale went through or if, as happens far more regularly, the purchaser failed to make the second payment, in consequence of which the sale fell through and the chametz as a consequence reverts to its sellers. (The first payment is one dollar. The second payment is one billion dollars less one dollar. The chances of the second installment being paid in full and on time are admittedly remote. But you’re not supposed to know that until after the purchaser fails to make his payment, not before. And if you know he is going to fail to make that payment, then have you really sold him the goods in question in any meaningful way other than the one that suits the precise letter of the law?) In a sense, it makes no sense. It’s the kind of legalistic sleight-of-hand anti-Semites can’t get enough of. It seems, at least at first blush, to make a mockery of the concept it purports to support: we are supposed to rid our homes of chametz, so we sell it specifically so as not to have to get rid of it.

And yet, as the years pass, I find myself more and more kindly disposed to the whole concept. As I said, I’ve always done it for myself and my family. But I’m feeling better about it now than I once did. In a sense, it’s part of the whole asymptotic thing that underlies even the finest spiritual endeavors. Do you remember what asymptotes are? (You knew in tenth grade, assuming you went to a school where they made tenth graders take geometry.) How it all works in the greater world of higher mathematics (if tenth grade geometry qualifies as high mathematics, that is), who can remember? But the simple answer, the one I’ve retained over these many years since tenth grade—and, just to put things into perspective, I began tenth grade the fall following the Six Day War—is that asymptotes are the possible/impossible combination of line and curve that meet only at infinity, at the infinitely distant end (that does not and cannot actually exist, but which also must exist) of the x- or the y-axis on a geometric grid. Outside the world of math, then, the word has come to denote the possible/impossible task, the doable/undoable, the possible/impossible, the finite/infinite. We are commanded to rid our homes of chametz, just as we are commanded to use the mitzvah as a spur to inspire us to rid our hearts of sin and the desire to sin.

Both are possible in theory. Why can’t a house simply have no chametz crumbs at all in it? Surely, it can. But, equally surely, it also can’t. Our homes are big, complicated things. Even modest homes have uncountable corners and crannies and nooks, endless numbers of movable/unmovable bookcases and breakfronts and dishwashers. You can wash a dish and satisfy yourself that it is spotless…but which of us could ever feel that certain about our homes, that there is not a crumb lurking somewhere behind something, that we have investigated every conceivable hiding place in which such an elusive crumb even could secrete itself. Who could feel that way? I’ll tell you who—the same people who can feel with absolute certainty that they have conquered the yetzer hara completely, that the propensity to sin has been totally eradicated from even the inmost chambers of their human hearts, that even in the most obscure of the labyrinthine byways of their intellects there lies in wait no unnoticed yearning to behave poorly, to turn away from God’s law, or to embrace vulgarity or depravity.

Which of us could ever say that and mean it? I’ll tell you who—the same people who feel completely certain that they have found every last crumb of chametz. Such people naturally have no need to bother selling their chametz to a non-Jew! Indeed, it would be slightly fraudulent to do so since the sale would involve receiving theoretical payment for something we are completely certain does not actually exist! But, needless to say, there are no such people, not in the Pesach category and not in the human soul category either. We are all works in progress, all of us curved lines heading towards a distant goal at the existent/non-existent end of a trajectory that itself exists, or appears to exist, for as long as we have the koyach to shlep ourselves forward through another year, through another yontif, through another couple of seders. And that, I have come to realize, is why we should all feel entirely reasonable about selling our chametz. Not because the whole thing isn’t a bit absurd—which it surely is—but because, in the end, it is far more noble than not doing it would be. It is, or should be, an act suffused with humility, with acceptance of our human frailty and endemic inability to clean our houses or to cleanse our hearts. It is the semi-desperate act, that sale, of people who want to be chametz-free for the holiday, but who know that it is no more possible to be certain than it is to be certain about what is (or isn’t) hiding within the matrices of our human intelligence or the darkest corners of our all too human hearts.

All you can do is all you can do. You can try. You can strive. You can work diligently on the house, cleaning it as best you can, hoping you found all those crumbs. But there will always be some you missed. How could it be otherwise? And while we’re selling chametz anyway, which of us doesn’t pack away a few things that we know perfectly well are still there in the basement but that it seems a shame to discard or give away. We’re selling the stuff anyway! I do it too. We all do. But the key is not to fall prey to the absurdity of the gesture, but to allow the underlying concept to instill a kind of humility in us that is crucial to taking Pesach seriously. Rabbi Tarfon, you may remember, said (in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers) that you should not feel free to desist from jobs just because you know you will not be able to complete them. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself. Maybe someone else will come along and finish the work for you. And—this is the Pesach edition of that thought—maybe you’ll realize all along that the point of the doing wasn’t the finishing, but the doing itself. Maybe!

Friday, April 8, 2011

The One State Solution

The murder a few days ago of the well-known Palestinian actor Juliano Mer-Khamis seems ominous to me in ways that are only tangentially related to the victim’s life and work. He was, to say the least, a strange mix of things. Although his father was a Palestinian Christian, he was, technically speaking, a Jewish man, the son also of an Israeli Jewish mother. He had an Israeli passport. He maintained two homes, one in the Palestinian city of Jenin and one in Haifa. Since no one knew quite what to make of him, he was almost a professional outsider: most Israelis thought of him as an Arab, while his murderers, presumed to be Palestinian militants, clearly thought of him as a Jew (or at least as a kind of a Jew). He was fifty-two years old when he died, shot to death in a car nearby the Freedom Theater where he worked. He was buried by his mother’s side in her kibbutz’s cemetery. Yet even as his body was being brought to a Jewish cemetery for burial, he was already being acclaimed by Palestinians (presumably not including his murderers) as a martyr for their cause. Miri Aloni, a Jewish Israeli, sang at his funeral in Hebrew and in Arabic.

Juliano Mer-Khamis was clearly and openly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. He appeared in movies that are openly hostile to Israel. He specifically claimed not to be interested in the two-state solution, insisting that the path to a secure future for the region lies in there being one state for Jews and Palestinians in which each citizen has his or her own vote and the majority rules. Clearly, the state thus envisioned is not a Jewish state at all, merely a Middle Eastern country with a significant Jewish population. He was thus unwilling to imagine Israel as a state that self-defines as Jewish and that labors to preserve its Jewish identity. It is that specific approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I would like to write to you about today.

For Americans, the notion of a democratic state in which every citizen has a vote that carries the same weight has a natural feel to it. And, of course, the one-citizen-one-vote principle is at the core of our American democracy as well. But our country was designed as a melting pot from the very beginning when our country’s founders imagined people from all over the world coming together in this place to forge something new. (Our founders were broad-minded in that regard, but even they were not quite broad-minded enough to notice the degree to which they were excluding native Americans and slaves, not to mention women, from participating in the effort to create that more perfect union they were laboring so intensely to will into existence.) Yet many people, myself very much included, who feel completely certain that the ideal democracy is one in which each citizen is invited to cast his or her vote according to the dictates of his or her own conscience, also feel that nations have the right to secure their own character and to exclude from the mix people who are openly hostile to the establishment, maintenance, and furtherance of that character.

Another way to frame that same question is to ask if there is, or could be, a place in the forum of nations for the political equivalent of the phenomenon we know from the world of business as the hostile takeover. In public companies, the direction the enterprise takes is a direct function of the wishes of the shareholders. If someone acquires a majority interest in any specific company, then that individual simultaneously acquires the right to dictate the company’s future direction regardless of how its employees, including even its senior employees, feel about the matter. The consequences may be brutal for some, but the process itself couldn’t be easier to describe or even to justify because, in the end, a public company’s publicly traded shares constitute tiny pieces of the company itself. All of them taken together are the company. When someone owns enough of them to outvote the people who own the rest of them even if all of those other shareholders vote together as a block featuring no dissenters at all, then that individual could effectively be said to own that company and thus to have the right to chart its course into the future as he or she sees fit.

That possibility—that the people who currently own a company could lose control if someone else seizes a majority of shares in the business—is the big drawback to going public. Yet companies do it all the time, presumably after having calculated that the odds of that happening are sufficiently remote for the potential profit to be worth the presumed risk. As a result, it seems almost natural for those of us who live in mercantile societies to apply the lessons we learn from the world of business to the governance of nations as well and to suppose that when the majority of a nation’s citizens votes for a sea change the government should have no choice but to comply with the voters’ wishes. Yet even the right to self-govern through majority rule is not absolute. No one thinks the rogue regimes of recent history can justify their crimes with reference to the popular support they garnered in some election! Would anyone, for example, argue that the Nazi regime in pre-war and wartime Germany had the right to perpetrate their unimaginable bestiality simply because they were duly elected if not by a majority than at least by a plurality of voters in 1932? And in our own country too we have established a complex system of checks and balances specifically designed to prevent legislators representing a majority of citizens from enacting legislation intended to curtail or cancel the rights of citizens who belong to recognizable minority groups. And at the core of this notion that it is reasonable to place restraints on the application of the pure democratic principle is the idea that nations have an inalienable right to self-define.

Nations, like people, have national characters. And, as such, they have the right to do what it takes to preserve that character. The French have a right to insist that France remain French. We Americans have the right to insist that immigrants to our shores embrace the values we as a nation have determined to be basic to our way of life. Yet Israel’s most potentially harmful enemies are precisely those who come in sheep’s clothing espousing ideas which sound entirely reasonable. Why shouldn’t all the citizens of the land vote on what kind of country to have? Why shouldn’t the Jewishness of the state be on the line, or at least be negotiable, if a large majority of voters want nothing of it? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to create a unified nation founded on the one-citizen-one-vote principle and then let the electorate decide what culture it wishes to promote?

All of that sounds right, sort of. But what of the inalienable right of the Jewish people to live within a sovereign Jewish state in their ancestral homeland, in the Land of Israel? What of the right that Israelis share with the citizens of every other nation in the world specifically not to be honor- or duty-bound to admit to the electorate huge numbers of people with zero interest in preserving the national character of their country? The whole impetus behind Zionism was to provide a homeland for Jewish people in which they would always be safe from persecution, and in which Judaism and Jewishness would be permitted to flourish naturally as the dominant culture. The whole point of declaring Israeli independence in the first place was to create such a haven for Jews in which Jewish culture would not have to compete with a dominant culture. So to say that somehow the Israelis have less of a right to wish to determine the character of their state than the Norwegians or the Laotians or the Bolivians enjoy with respect to their own countries—that is not a denial of the democratic principle as much as it is an affirmation of the inalienable right of nations to self-define.

And so we return to the late Juliano Mer-Khamis. In life, he stood for the fantasy that he could somehow transcend the givens of the situation and personally exist as an Israeli and as a Palestinian, as a Christian and as a Jew, as a citizen of Israel and as an enemy of Israel, as a resident of Jenin and as a resident of Haifa. For his effort to promote the idea that such a one-state solution would be the ideal for Jews and Arabs in the Land of Israel, an idea that mirrored his own sense of himself as one person with dual identities, he was murdered last week and buried just yesterday. I didn’t know him personally, obviously. I have no reason to suppose that he was a terrorist or that he condoned terrorism. By all accounts, he was a talented actor. But his death only makes it clearer to me that the proponents of the so-called “one state solution” are enemies of Israel whose idea, whether they understand its implications or not, will lead first to civil unrest, then to civil war, then to unimaginable unhappiness for all concerned. The right of the Jewish people to live securely and safely as Jewish citizens of a Jewish state seems to me to be at the core of the matter and, that being the case, people fall in on either side of the dispute based on the degree to which they accept or reject that specific notion.

Majority rule is a sacred principle that correctly governs day-to-day life in republics such as our own. But there have to be exceptions to that general principle, and the right of nations to self-determination—and to pursue futures framed by their own sense of themselves and their national culture—that seems equally basic to my sense of how the world should work and how its nations should learn to live together in peace.