Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Valley of the Shadow

One of the great things about fantasies that you only hold on for a very long time is that they eventually become so much a part of how you view the world that you become able, at least for most of the time, to forget that they are fantasies at all and instead to imagine them as reasonable things to hope for, almost even to expect. We all have specific pipe dreams that we could add to the list, some noble, some silly, some simply there for so long that we eventually upgrade them to dreams (a far more dignified label for things that don’t exist but that we wish did) or, if we are truly good at this kind of self-delusion, to the level of hopes, which almost makes it sound like a virtue to possess them in the first place!

Yizkor—the great ceremony of remembrance that is a central feature of worship on Yom Kippur—this year reminded me of one of mine, and prompted me to write to you about it this week in light of two remarkable books I finished reading just before the great Day of Atonement just past.

One of my most cherished fantasies—unlikely in the extreme, but still something I wish for to the point almost of being able actually to see the tableau in my mind’s eye—is that, somehow, when my time comes and the sand in the hourglass is waning to the point of being almost (but not quite) gone, I will still have it in me to gather my people around—Joan and my children, obviously, but also others who have been alongside me for a significant portion of my life’s journey, including friends who actually live all over the world and who I could never actually reasonably expect to find gathered around the same hospital bed—and to share with them the wisdom that I have accrued over what I hope by then will be many, many scores of years of living life to its fullest. Hah! Later on, my disciples (I told you this was a fantasy) will compare notes and eventually produce a document of some sort, perhaps even a full-length yet pithy book, that will become a kind of after-the-fact classic, something like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching that, although brief, will somehow nonetheless manage clearly and eloquently to articulate the philosophy of a lifetime.

Even I understand how ridiculously unlikely that scenario is. It doesn’t never never happen, I suppose, but it almost never does. And it almost surely won’t happen to me! But what does happen, and more frequently than you might think, is that people respond to very bad news—I here formally abandon the “me” in this fantasy by spitting three times on the ground and muttering something incomprehensible in Yiddish—not by sinking into self-pity or silence born of emotional paralysis, but by finding a clarion voice in which to speak to the world about precisely the things that matter the most. Supposing that what people will really want to remember about them is not how sick they were but how wise, they set themselves to gathering their thoughts, then writing about the most important lessons that they have learned the course of their long or short lifetimes, about who they are and what they understand themselves to have become, and also, perhaps even more profoundly, about what they have learned in the course of their years among the living that seems worth passing along to future generations.

The authors I wish to write about today are similar in some ways and dissimilar in others.  Forrest Church, the son of US senator Frank Church, was born in 1948.  James L. Kugel was born in 1945.  Church went to Stanford and then, after receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1978, went on eventually to become the senior minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on upper Lexington Avenue and a leading liberal Christian theologian, widely read and widely published.  Kugel went to Yale and then received his Ph.D. from CUNY, but went on to join the faculty at Harvard in 1978 and then to become a distinguished scholar of the Bible, also widely published and widely read. When he was sixty years of age, Church was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. When he was fifty-four, Kugel too was diagnosed with terminal cancer and told that, with the right treatment, he could possibly live another two years or so without devastating symptoms and that, with any luck and if he responded reasonably well to treatment, he might live for another few years after that. The stories thus began reasonably similarly, but they didn’t end up in the same way at all: the Reverend Church died in 2009, while Professor Kugel went into remission where he apparently remains. He left the faculty of Harvard in 2003 and moved to Israel where he lives in Jerusalem and serves as chairman of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. I’ve enjoyed all his books, particularly In Potiphar’s House, The God of Old, and How to Read the Bible, but I learned a lot from all of them and I recommend all Kugel’s books to my own readers. May God grant him many more years of teaching and writing!

Suddenly finding themselves staring down the Angel of Death, these two similar and dissimilar men wrote two dissimilar and similar books. Church’s book, which I read first and which was published by Beacon Press in 2009, is called Love and Death: My Journal Through the Valley of the Shadow.  Although there is a certain weirdness in knowing what the future eventually brought to the author who, while writing, was still hoping—at least on some level—of regaining his good health, the book struck me as profound and moving to the point of being truly stirring. Being a Christian minister, the man writes from the vantage point of his own faith, although neither heavy-handedly or dogmatically. (He was, after all, a Universalist Unitarian minister, probably the most dogma-free version of liberal Christianity imaginable.) But what he lacks in dogmatic orthodoxy, he makes up in the gracefulness of his prose and the depth of the ideas that he wishes to express to his readers as he writes, literally, from the edge of his life.  He writes about the difference between unhappiness and despair. He writes about the almost overpowering need he has to shield his family from the seriousness of his situation. He writes about the specific way he found to find solace in faith specifically without making “faith” into a catch-all category that includes all sorts of things that he doesn’t actually believe to be true. He writes about the differences between men and women in the specific context of dealing with potentially terminal disease, and of the different way different cultures grapple with mortality. And, in some ways most movingly of all, he writes about the whole concept of good health itself (and its evil twin, poor health), and about his conviction, repeated several times, that “To be free to accept death is to be free, period.”  In a particularly memorable passage, he writes about the etymological progression that leads from human to humane to humanitarian to humility to humble to humus. (That’s humus as in soil, not falafel.) You float along with the author, internalizing his optimism, hoping with him for the best…and then you come to the end of the book. Suddenly ill at ease, you check on Wikipedia to see what actually happened to him. And then, once you know that he died, the whole book takes on a different feel, an almost ennobling sense that you have, finally, come into (at least literary) contact with someone who did what we all say we want to do and will do, but which Forrest Church actually did do as he faced down death and became not weaker but stronger as he grew not stronger but weaker. It’s an exceptional book and I recommend it to you all warmly.

Kugel’s book is entirely different and not specifically because he ended up in remission. (He wrote his book seven years after his initial, very depressing diagnosis.)  Oddly bearing a title very similar to Church’s, Kugel’s book, published by the Free Press in 2011 and called In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief, isn’t as much about the process of coming to terms with mortality as it is with the insight into the nature of religion, and particularly biblical religion, that facing his own mortality head-on inspired the author finally to seize.  Kugel’s is a rich book, different in tenor and tone than Church’s but in its own way just as inspiring. Speaking in a distinctly Jewish key, Kugel’s book should have been easier for me to understand than Church’s. But that isn’t actually how it worked out: I didn’t need to ready any passages in Church’s book twice to make sure I knew what the author was getting at, whereas I had to reread several passages in Kugel’s book before I was certain I got the author’s point. Readers—my readers, I mean—should not allow that to put them off from reading In the Valley of the Shadow, however. It is a rich book, one filled with poetry (biblical and otherwise) and with lessons learned from a dozen disciplines other than the author’s own field of expertise. And, although in a very different way from Church’s, Kugel’s book too is inspiring and encouraging. Here, one gets the sense, is a man who actually did pass through the valley of the shadow of death (although he pauses long enough along the way to discredit that famous translation as, at best, misleading) and came through the experience possessed of serious, interesting answers to questions that most people, including especially most “religious” people, prefer not to ask at all, questions about the nature of God, about the nature of belief in God, about the relationship between the religions of the world, about the reasonableness of considering the religions of the world as different flavors of the same basic “thing,” and about the logic of seeking solace in religious faith. He writes about the Dinka people of the Sudan and about the aborigines of Tasmania. He quote Rilke, Whitman, and Flannery O’Connor alongside familiar passages from the Psalms and the prophets. He seems to speak all languages. But although the author is clearly a very smart fellow, it is not his massive erudition that impresses as much as his ability to synthesize and analyze the information he has gathered together in his quest to find meaning in his original diagnosis and its dour implications for his future.

As you all know, I spend a lot of time in hospitals, some of it with very sick people. There hardly passes a day of my professional life when I am not called upon, one way or the other, to respond to the reality of life-threatening illness. I do my best to provide some sort of solace for the people I visit, to suggest some sort of meaningful framework in which to consider the reality of mortality, to propose that from faith can come the strength necessary to face down the Angel of Death. I believe what I say too, or I think that I do. But then there come along two books like the ones I’ve been writing about and I feel myself not just professionally buttressed, but in a real way comforted by the experience of wandering, even if just briefly, along the twin path these similar/dissimilar authors have trod.

I recommend both books very highly. Everybody’s natural inclination is to avoid thinking about death. No one wants to embrace the thought that none of us lives forever, preferring merely to know it to be true without pointlessly or depressingly dwelling on it. But then, occasionally, the opportunity to look beyond our own anxieties presents itself, as it does in the form of these two worthy volumes. And when that happens, we would be very short-sighted not to take advantage of the opportunity to look at the world—the same one in which we all live—through the eyes of two intelligent, thoughtful, articulate men who actually did dance with the Angel for as long as one of them could and other one had to.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fasting for Gedaliah

This last Wednesday marked what must be the least known, least observed, and least esteemed fast day of the Jewish year, the Fast of Gedaliah. Falling, as it does, on the day after Rosh Hashanah and thus exactly one week before Yom Kippur (the fast day that everybody actually has heard of), poor Gedaliah gets lost in the shuffle so routinely that it occasionally seems surprising to me that anyone takes note of him or his fast at all. It’s actually a shame, because, in its unobtrusive, almost pathologically understated way, Tzom Gedaliah actually has a powerful, interesting message for contemporary Jewry.

Gedaliah is more formally Gedaliah ben Achikam. He lived a long time ago. And he lived in a terrible time. Judah, the only remaining Jewish state after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel almost a century and a half earlier, was a province of the Babylonian empire in the sixth century BCE, but not a docile one. People were unhappy. Sedition was in the air. And then, as they do, things came to a head when the king of Judah, an otherwise undistinguished ruler named Zedekiah, revolted against his foreign masters. It was an ill-considered move, one the king was specifically, forcefully, and repeatedly warned against taking by the prophet Jeremiah. Nor was it even briefly successful. The Babylonian response was, at least in ancient terms, instant. And it was also incredibly brutal. Jerusalem was captured. The Temple was razed. The city’s finest building were destroyed. And, for good measure, the city’s walls torn down, thus leaving it basically defenseless . King Zedekiah was forced to look on as his sons were executed before his eyes…and then his own eyes were put out so that the death of his boys would be the last thing he ever saw on this earth. And then they dragged him off to exile in Babylon along with thousands of his countrymen.

It was a terrible time, one made worse by the fact that the prophet had provided clear instructions regarding the specific way to avert the debacle. But who knew to listen? There were other so-called “prophets” out there as well, men who were offering the king and the people precisely the sunny message they wanted desperately to hear. In retrospect, it feels like child’s play to damn those phony purveyors of false optimism as charlatans (“Thus says the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon”)…but how exactly the people were supposed to know before the fact that Jeremiah’s message was legitimately to be taken as the word of the living God, but that, say, Chananiah ben Azur’s was made-up nonsense—that, Scripture regretfully omits clearly to say. So it was a kind of horse race. The king bet on the wrong horse. And he paid the big price for doing so. Apparently, you’re supposed just to know when you hear God’s word being preached to you.

Not everyone went into exile. Most, to be sure, were shlepped off to the east. The numbers are not known exactly. Still, it seems clear from what we can glean from the biblical accounts that even though a very large number of citizens were killed and thousands more were taken off into exile, there were nevertheless some who remained in the land. These, the Bible relates, were mostly poor, uneducated types whom the Babylonians simply didn’t bother to deport. And over these few survivors the Babylonians, slightly amazingly, placed a Jewish governor. That would be our Gedaliah, a former government official now doing his best to do his best, and to make the best of a wretched situation. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, describes Gedaliah encouraging the people left in the land simply to make peace with how things were, to gather in whatever might be left of the summer harvest, to set up housekeeping in the ruined cities of Judah and to carry on as best they can. Even after all these many centuries, it sounds like sound advice.

Probably, even, it was sound advice. But not everybody was on board. Jeremiah tells the story of a certain Yochanan coming to tell Gedaliah that an assassin named Ishmael had been hired by the king of a neighboring country to murder him and offering, apparently on his own, to save Gedaliah’s life by killing Ishmael before he could act on his commission. The king’s name was Baalis. He ruled over a small kingdom on the east side of the Jordan and no doubt had his reasons to want Gedaliah gone. What those reasons precisely were, the Bible omits to say. But it hardly matters because Jeremiah reports that Gedaliah refused to believe the report and forbade Yochanan from taking matters into his own hand.

He should have listened. On the day after Rosh Hashanah in that very year—or perhaps even on Rosh Hashanah itself—Ishmael ben Netaniah murdered Gedaliah just as Yochanan had predicted he would. And he also slew a number of Jewish people who were with Gedaliah as well as a number of Babylonian citizens who had become part of his entourage. And, with that, it was all over. The fat lady sang. Home rule was ended. Whatever good might have come from a Jewish governor ruling over the remnants of a decimated population was not to be. When King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians a few decades later, Judah simply passed from one alien empire into another. Whatever good Gedaliah might have done died with him. 

So who was this Gedaliah? To his opponents, no doubt, he was a collaborator, a patsy of his people’s ruthless foes who, by agreeing to serve as governor of defeated Judah, was simply granting legitimacy to their brutal overthrow of the House of David. (There is a personal side to the story as well in that Ishmael, Gedaliah’s murderer, was a member of the now deposed royal family.) But was Gedaliah a traitor? Or would it be more reasonable to think of him simply as a man thrown by happenstance into an untenable situation in which he was nonetheless willing to try to do some good? Even today moderns seem unable definitively to decide how they feel about those Jews who served on the Judenräte that the Nazis set up to rule briefly over the ghettos of Eastern Europe before their inhabitants could be deported to their deaths. Were they doing what they could to ameliorate unbearable suffering in a situation so extreme as truly, and entirely reasonably, to resist after-the-fact judgment by armchair ethicists? Or were they simply doing the devil’s work by helping to keep things calm and orderly while the pits were being dug and the crematoria readied for use? I’ve had Steve Sem-Sandberg’s novel, The Emperor of Lies, about Chaim Rumkowski and his role in bringing order—and in its wake orderly annihilation—to the Lodz ghetto on my night table for a year or so now, but I—I who read this stuff endlessly and mostly fearlessly—I can’t quite bring myself to pick it up and start reading. I’m not sure why I feel so unnerved by the topic, but I do. I’ll read it. But not quite yet.

Ishmael, Gedaliah’s assassin, ended up fleeing to Baalis’ kingdom. The day on which Gedaliah died—or, if he was killed on Rosh Hashanah, then the first non-festival day after his death—became a fast day so universally observed that a mere half century later, a different prophet, Zechariah ben Berechia, could refer vaguely to the “fast of the seventh month” as though it were completely obvious to what he was making reference. (It’s true Yom Kippur also falls during the seventh month, but the context makes it obvious that he is referring to the four days that, even by his early day, had come to commemorate the series of debacles that led to the destruction of Jerusalem: the fast of the tenth of Tevet commemorating the beginning of the siege, the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz commemorating the breach of the city’s walls, the fast of the ninth of Av commemorating the fall of Jerusalem, and the fast of the seventh month of Tishrei commemorating the death of Gedaliah ben Achikam and with him whatever possibility might otherwise have existed for the surviving Jews of Judah to have ruled over at least some of their own affairs.) And we are still observing it, at least formally rededicating ourselves each year to the proposition that Gedaliah was more of a good man who paid an unwarranted price for his efforts on behalf of his people than he was a fool or a flunky.

I’ve been thinking about Gedaliah all week. His issue, after all, is still on our table…and in a dozen different ways. Finding the precise boundary between compromise and self-defeating acquiescence is as hard now as it was then. When the enemy speaks the language only of brutality and terror, are attempts at compromise wise or foolish? Does it make sense to work towards finding a middle ground with people who show no signs of wishing to negotiate at all? Or is picking up your own big stick the only reasonable response to someone brandishing a big stick and threatening to hit you with it? As we move into the new year, these questions will be front and center as we consider how to deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran, how Israel can or should be expected to deal with enemies as implacable and as little given to compromise as Hizbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza, or how our government should respond to attacks on our troops by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Do we fast on the anniversary of Gedaliah’s murder specifically to remind us always to seek accommodation with our enemies, thus to create the framework for shared endeavor that could possibly lead to a lessening of hostility? Or do we fast on the anniversary of his assassination to remind us that accommodation is reasonable in defeat—the Babylonians had already completely devastated Judah when Gedaliah was appointed governor over the surviving few—but that victory is always preferable to compromise in the absence of defeat? These are the questions that tradition lays at our feet as a new year dawns and, as we at least nod in passing to Gedaliah’s death, that it invites us to ponder thoughtfully and carefully as we move forward into it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Iran Redux

Like many of you, I’m sure, I read Bill Keller’s op-ed piece in the Times last Sunday, “Nuclear Mullahs,” with the greatest interest. He’s a smart guy, that Keller. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. For eight years, he was the Times’ executive editor. He has a very good vocabulary. And he is clearly an intellectual force in American journalism to be reckoned with, and far more than a merely astute observer of the American scene. So why, I find myself asking slightly nervously, do I disagree so strongly with him about almost everything he wrote regarding the reasonability of settling back and just accepting the inevitability of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons?

The basic argument, the one around which the rest of everything Keller wrote revolves, has to do with the notion that the doctrine of mutual deterrence is a reasonable one to promote in this context. I’ll let Keller speak for himself: “If the U.S. arsenal deterred the Soviet Union for decades of cold war and now keeps North Korea’s nukes in their silos, if India and Pakistan have kept each other in a nuclear stalemate, why would Iran not be similarly deterred by the certainty that using nuclear weapons would bring a hellish reprisal?” That sounds so reassuring! Surely, even vile, anti-Semitic crackpots like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wouldn’t want to be responsible for their own people suffering the inevitable reprisals that a nuclear attack on Israel (or any other country, including especially our own) would trigger. It sounds so reasonable, so thoughtful…and, ultimately, so much what all of us want to think. I almost bought it.

And then Keller made the mistake, at least as far as I myself personally am concerned, by bringing the Shoah into the equation. “Despite the incendiary rhetoric,” Keller wrote with reference to the way Iran’s leaders know no bottom line when it comes to insulting the Jewish people and particularly Israelis, “it is hard to believe the aim of an Iranian nuclear program is the extermination of Israel. The regime in Iran is brutal, mendacious and meddlesome, and given to spraying gobbets of Hitleresque bile at the Jewish state. But Israel is a nuclear power, backed by a bigger nuclear power. Before an Iranian mushroom cloud had bloomed to its full height over Tel Aviv, a flock of reciprocal nukes would be on the way to incinerate Iran. Iran may encourage fanatic chumps to carry out suicide missions, but there is not the slightest reason to believe the mullahs themselves are suicidal.” And that is precisely where we part company, Bill Keller and I.

As I read him, Keller wants Ahmadinejad to be Khrushchev, not Hitler. I would also like that. Who wouldn’t? Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union from the year of my birth until my eleventh year, was an erratic leader prone to megalomania, swagger, and bombast. (I was only in second grade when this happened, but I’m sure many older readers remember clearly when Khrushchev removed his shoe and started banging it on the podium at which he was speaking at the United Nations, presumably to make a point he would have had to make less forcefully with his shoes still on his feet.) But, in the end, he wasn’t crazy enough to start a nuclear war with the United States and its allies, and our leaders knew it.

The Cold War was at its most intense during his years in power. Khrushchev was, among other things, the Soviet leader who presided over the U-2 crisis in 1960 when pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down while on a routine reconnaissance flight over the Soviet Union. He was the Soviet leader who supported, and possibly who ordered, the construction of the Berlin Wall. And he was the Soviet leader who brought nuclear missiles into Cuba and then blinked when President Kennedy stared him down during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. But, in the end, and for all of his endless anti-American and anti-Western posturing, Khrushchev was also the leader of a country that had lost 25,000,000 citizens during the Second World War, a number that translates into an almost unimaginable 14% of its entire population, which figure in turn needs to be compared with the less than one-third of one percent of the population of our country that died in World War II or the nine-tenths of one percent of the population of the United Kingdom that perished during the war. (For what it’s worth, the only countries who lost a larger percentage of their populations than the Soviet Union during the Second War were Poland and Lithuania. Even Germany only lost 10% of its population, about 7,000,000 people. Japan lost even less than that, about 4% of the total pre-war figure equaling about 3,000,000 people.)

It was a gamble. It was, actually, a big gamble. But the so-called Doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, known by its acronym as MAD, worked…because, in the end, none of the key players was truly crazy. And also because the whole concept rested on certain principles that were more or less universally accepted: that no one could actually win an all-out nuclear war because the only way to do so would be for an attacked nation not to be able to respond but that this, practically speaking, was an impossibility; that no political leader would gamble the actual existence of his or her country on the theoretical chance successfully of eliminating the possibility of a so-called “second strike” by an aggressed-against nation following a nuclear attack against it; and that the fantasy-possibility of winning a nuclear war before the other side even realizes that it has been attacked and can respond in kind is nil. All those points are debatable, and all were debated intensely. Some were even mocked. Stanley Kubrick’s great 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove, viciously and very effectively savages almost all of the above suppositions. But, in the end, Kubrick was wrong and MAD worked effectively for the entire length of the Cold War.

This is the doctrine that Bill Keller wants to invoke in explaining why a nuclear Iran would not constitute a true existential danger to Israel and should therefore be deemed something perhaps undesirable but ultimately tolerable. Of other arguments against tolerating the reality of an Iranian bomb—that the possession of such a bomb would surely encourage Iran to meddle even more aggressively in the affairs of neighboring states; that Iran’s success in acquiring nuclear weapons would almost certainly encourage other states and organizations in the religion, and particularly Saudi Arabia and terror groups like Hezbollah or Hamas, to want to have nuclear bombs of their own; and that a nuclear Iran would by its very nature destabilize a region that is already more than unstable enough by encouraging radicals to imagine they can bully Israel and other Western states into making concessions that they would otherwise never dream of making—Keller makes short shrift, choosing (if I am reading him correctly) to address himself principally to the proposition that, as he said and as I quoted him above, that there is no reason to suppose that the Iranian leadership is suicidal.

But is that actually the case? The longest war of the twentieth century was the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. It began with Iraq invading Iran, but Iran pushed back and regained all lost territory within the first two years of the war. Iran then went on the offensive for a subsequent six years, eventually costing the lives of up to three–quarters of a million of their own soldiers and another hundred thousand civilians’ lives, and costing the economy of Iran half a trillion dollars. It’s true that the Iraqis also paid a horrific price, but the key here is that the Iranians had basically won the war by 1982. Yet they kept fighting, sending in human waves of unarmed civilians to clear the way for armed troops. These were not people who seemed to care even slightly about the fact that there were no further military objectives to be won after 1982. Nor did they care that they were sacrificing their own people for the sole purpose, apparently, of teaching the Iraqis a lesson. That, they surely did—the number of Iraqi military and civilian dead is thought to have been just shy of half a million souls—and that was a war undertaken against fellow Muslims. (The apparently ineradicable tension between Sunni Muslims and Shias is part of this too, obviously. But, in the end, it was a Muslim against Muslim war.) Are we really supposed to imagine that a nation that would sacrifice hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of its young men to punish a neighboring Muslim state, not for weeks or months but for years and years, that such a state would not accept the death of a few million citizens for the sake of murdering another six million of the world’s Jews, the Jews of the State of Israel, a country it routinely labels as satanic, as a stain on the escutcheon of humanity, as so much human garbage, and as filth? I wish I didn’t think so.

And then, if that weren’t enough food for thought, there is the possibility of the finger on the button not belonging to an Iranian hand at all, but to one attached to the body of a member of Hezbollah or of Hamas. Are we to assume that the Iranians, who routinely share their weaponry with their clients, would for some reason never share this specific variety of weaponry? These are people who cultivate a cult of martyrdom, who celebrate suicide bombers as heroes, who proudly send in their own people to die for the sake of murdering children dancing in a discotheque or eating lunch in a pizzeria. Even if Bill Keller is right about the Iranian leadership not being insane enough to risk an out-and-out nuclear war for the sake of destroying Israel, can he say the same about the leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Remembering Munich

The murder of the Israeli athletes in Munich, the fortieth anniversary of which horror was yesterday, was one of the threshold moments in my life, one of those transformational events that somehow came to separate all that came before from all that followed. To compare my personal relationship to the event to the relationships of others far more intimately tied to it—the relatives of the athletes, or their friends or colleagues in the world of competitive athletics—seems absurd. And yet I know that I emerged from those few days in September of 1972 different from the way I went into them. I could say the same only of several other events not directly connected to me or to my family. But the massacre of the Israelis at the Munich Olympics—and a “massacre” is precisely what it was—was the first such event in my adult life. I’ve never written about it. But I’d like to now.

In 1972, I turned nineteen years old. It was a confusing time. I had already begun to toy with the idea of possibly wanting to study for the rabbinate. But I hadn’t quite gotten to the point at which I was comfortable sharing that secret with the world at large. (My mother cried when I eventually did tell her that I wanted to be a rabbi. But that was still more than a year in the future.) I had previously been imagining myself pursuing a career working for the State Department in the diplomatic corps, to which end I had been specializing in college in French and German but also taking courses in Russian and Chinese. But although I had moved on from that specific fantasy—which I’m not sure that I was all that serious about in the first place, although it did provide something semi-exotic to tell people when they asked about my future plans—to the one I actually did end up pursuing , these were all still entirely internal developments. To the world out there—to my parents and to my professors at school, and also to my friends—I was still on my way to serving my country at our embassy in Paris. (As long as you’re living in fantasy land, why not choose a good neighborhood?)

The Vietnam War was winding down, but the draft only ended in the middle of my junior year of college. I was classified I-A and fit for service, having been denied a student deferment because I was too young to get one when I entered college and they were no longer giving them out once I finally was old enough to register with the Selective Service. My number in the draft lottery was 15. (My mother cried when she heard that too.) It was, as I said, a confusing time. Somehow, though, I managed to get permission to leave the country to study abroad. And so, in the summer of 1972, I headed out…not to Israel, where I wrote to a friend the night before my departure I wished I was going, but to, of all places, France. It was the path of least resistance. I had a million years of French under my belt. My spoken French was terrible, but I could read well…and I imagined that would be what mattered in university-level courses in French literature. I never actually found out, however, because once I arrived in Nancy, after attending a six-week French-language ulpan of sorts in Reims, I discovered that the university, in addition to all those advertised courses in French lit, also housed an institute for the study of Semitic languages which offered a wide range of courses in Hebrew language and literature. Seeing the finger of God in the whole thing, I dropped all my courses in French and signed up for a full load of Hebrew courses, including ones in biblical, mishnaic, and modern Hebrew. Albeit along the most circuitous route imaginable, I was on my way.

It was a year of firsts for me. I was away from home for the first time. (Sleep-away camp doesn’t count.) After living in an almost totally Jewish neighborhood my whole life, I was for the first time living in a totally non-Jewish environment. (Why that sounded like a good idea when I signed up, I can’t even begin to imagine. But I suppose it felt grown-up and sophisticated to imagine myself living in Europe among, well, Europeans.) But even that turned out differently than advertised: the actual French students all lived either at home or on their own in local apartments downtown and the dormitory I was assigned to live in was filled with foreigners like myself, only of the far more exotic type: students from French-speaking West Africa, from the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, from Madagascar, from Cambodia, from Laos, and from a dozen other French-speaking countries. There were some people like myself who had come without perfect French—the fellow across the hall was Greek and there was a Turk down the hall who was friendly to me—but most of my new neighbors were fluent. And so I wandered out of my previous life into what felt to me like the real world.

I moved in on the second of September, my parents’ twenty-first wedding anniversary. The Israeli athletes were taken hostage on September 4. By a few minutes after midnight on September 6, they were all dead. I could barely understand the news on the radio. (This was obviously long before you could access radio from anywhere on the internet.) There were no televisions in the dorm. I heard that something was happening, but could only really develop a clear sense of what was unfolding in Munich by buying the International Herald Tribune every day, which required a forty-minute walk downtown to find. I did it. Each day. People, obviously, were talking about the incident. But it was as though I was listening through a thick curtain as I tried to understand what everybody around me was saying. My inner connection to Israel was, obviously, unknown. Nor was it widely understood that I was Jewish. (I suppose “Cohen” doesn’t sound like a Jewish name to your average Cambodian.) So there I was, vitally interested in each detail yet unable really to understand much, but also unexpectedly shy about letting the extent of my emotional involvement become entirely clear. Where did that reticence come from? I had no idea…but I kept my peace.

What struck me—this will sound beyond naïve in the retelling—was the degree to which everybody was irritated with the terrorists for "ruining" the games, for introducing politics into what was supposed to be an event devoted totally to sports. Plus, this being the Olympics, all those international types in the dorm had co-citizens they were routing for…and whose chances to go for the gold were being sidetracked by this unimaginable interference into their plans. I knew that everybody back home in Forest Hills, and my parents surely among them, was glued to the radio. I could see them in my mind’s eye hanging on each detail, praying for a reasonable outcome that did not involve the death of the hostages. But all anyone where I was cared about was the way the games were being affected. They were furious with the Arabs for potentially ruining the games. (There were some Arabs in my dorm, including one or two Palestinians, but they lay pretty low. I wasn’t even aware they were there until weeks later.) They were irritated with the Israelis, apparently for existing. They were enraged with the Germans for clearly having no idea how to handle a situation like this. And they were filled with scorn for the Olympics organization itself, then headed by Avery Brundage, for failing to have understood in advance that the notion that the games were above politics was just a fantasy they themselves had made up and sold to the world, and that they should have been expecting an incident like this for years.

Once the Israelis were dead, all anyone was interested in was that the games continue. The Israelis themselves, it seemed to me, were on no one’s radar. No one cared. No one’s interest in the games but mine seemed derailed even slightly, let alone entirely. For the very first time in my life, I realized just how alone we are out there…and how true it is that Israel will stand on its own or not at all. It wasn’t my dorm mates’ hostility to the Israelis that unnerved me, it was their apathy. I felt alone and intensely ill at ease. But it was that specific incident that led me to find the synagogue in Nancy, and it was there that I found myself—wholly unexpectedly—in the bosom of a warm, very traditional Jewish community, the first of its kind that I had ever experienced. One thing led to another. After a year, I came home a very different kind of Jewish young man than I was when I left, my plans to enter the diplomatic service permanently shelved. With only two semesters left, I abandoned my other studies and declared a major in modern Hebrew. And I made contact with JTS and asked how exactly one went about applying to rabbinical school.
That lesson—that, in the ultimate sense, Israel can look nowhere than to itself when it comes to defending its own interests—has come back to me over and over in the course the four decades that separate us from Munich. Israel has allies, to be sure, and our country foremost among them. And when our interests coincide—as, for example, in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry—that alliance can work very well for all concerned. But when interests diverge, things change. And that, even all these years later, is something I still never permit myself to forget. Nor should any of us.

The International Olympic Committee refused to honor the slain Israelis on this, the fortieth anniversary of their senseless, brutal deaths, at the London games this summer. Given the way that same Committee has cravenly kowtowed to anti-Israel participants over the years—this year even going so far as to agree to the demand of the Lebanese wrestling team that a curtain be set up so that they would not be forced even to see any Israelis during practice matches—I was hardly surprised. (These were the same people who bowed to the demands of ten Arab states in 1972 that their flags be permitted to fly at full-mast when the flags of every other participating country were lowered to half-mast during the memorial service—at the personal request of German Chancellor Willy Brandt—in memory of the slain Israelis.) In my heart, the Israelis who died there were martyrs whose membership in the Jewish people and whose citizenship in the Jewish state cost them their lives. Their names were David Berger, Ze’ev Friedman, Yossef Gutfreund, Eliezer Halfin, Yossef Romano, Kehat Schorr, Amitzur Shapira, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer, Yakov Springer, and Moshe Weinberg. May they rest in peace, and may their memory be a blessing for their families and for their friends, and also for us all.