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.

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