Thursday, January 28, 2016

Remembering the Struma

It’s a truism, I suppose, that sensory perception—the general rubric for the various ways we experience the world through our senses—functions in the world outside ourselves more like a straw convention that makes us feel linked to each other without there being any actual proof for real commonality of experience.  So you and I agree that roses are red because “red” is the word we English-speakers use to denote things that appear to us to be of that specific color. But knowing—not just asserting, but actually knowing—what you see when you look at a red rose and being certain that it’s exactly, or even inexactly, what I myself see—that is an entirely different proposition. We could probably also agree that potato chips taste salty, but what that means is that our taste buds, when they come into contact with salt, somehow encode that experience in the kind of electronic impulses that our brains can decipher and prompt us to label with that specific word, a word that bears meaning only because the toddler-versions of ourselves were told by our parents to use that word to describe that thing. But to know with any actual certainty that your brain interprets that signal exactly as mine does and that we actually are sharing not only the word but the actual experience of having exactly the same taste experience—who could ever say that with any certainty?

As a result, we live in a world that feels linked by common experiences expressed in common language…but it’s only the language that can truly be verified as shared: the experience just feels that way but without any empirical data proving that we actually are seeing or tasting (or hearing, etc.) the same thing. And what’s true for people is also true for nations, I believe. Or perhaps I should speak only of what I truly do know: that there is a certain false commonality of experience that makes the world able to contextualize specific events in Jewish history so as to make them feel like the Jewish equivalents of other events in other people’s histories…but which, from the inner vantage point of the actual members of the House of Israel, feel totally unrelated to those events in any but the least profound way possible. We use the same words to describe these things because words are all we have to describe anything. But that hardly means that we experience them in the same way.

These thoughts came to mind as I read the other day of the death of David Stoliar, the sole survivor of the Struma. His name was unfamiliar to me. But the back story that makes his story simultaneously miraculous and horrific was well known to me…and serves in my own mind as one of those examples of experiences that feel shared because we use the same words to tell other people’s vaguely similar stories but that also feel entirely unique and unrelated to those other stories. 

The Struma itself has mostly been forgotten. Once it was a luxury yacht, a 150-foot steamer built in the mid-nineteenth century, but by the 1930’s it had been relegated to carrying cattle up and down the Danube under the Panamanian flag. And that what it was doing when several Zionist organizations, desperate to find a way to help Jews escape the Nazis, hired it with the idea of using it to bring hundreds of Jewish refugees from fascist Rumania to British Palestine, all of them men, women, and children who were almost surely going to be killed if they found no way to flee. Eventually, there were 781 passengers aboard along with ten crew members. The ship left the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanza, but the engines failed repeatedly. At one point, the passengers—who were mostly robbed of their cash and valuables when attempting to board the ship—were obliged to give up their wedding bands to pay the captain of a passing tugboat to repair their engines. Sanitary conditions were abysmal: there were eight toilets for almost eight hundred people. Eventually, the engines failed decisively. For a while, the ship just sat there…and then, eventually, the Struma was towed to Istanbul. And that is where the tragedy began in earnest.

The British refused to grant the passengers visas to enter British Palestine. The Turks refused to allow the passengers to disembark at all. When the British—under enormous pressure—finally agreed that children between the ages of eleven and sixteen—a tiny percentage of the people on board—would be given visas for Palestine, it meant nothing because they refused to provide a ship to transport them further and the Turks refused to allow them to leave the ship to find land transportation. Finally, the Turks, eager to be rid of the whole messy incident, forcibly towed the boat through the Bosphorus and out into the Black Sea. Since the engines were completely dead, the Turks simply abandoned the ship in the middle of the sea and returned home. There were two lifeboats on board and no life preservers at all. What the Turks thought would happen next is not recorded, but doesn’t seem that hard to guess.

That guess would have been wrong, however, because there was a huge explosion aboard the ship on the morning of February 24, 1942, that caused it almost immediately to sink. Most passengers and crew went down with the ship. Some clung to pieces of wreckage only to die in the sea when no rescue vessels of any sort came to help. Of the 791 aboard (including about 100 children) in fact, only two survived in the water for more than a day: Lazar Dikof, the ship’s First Officer, and a teenaged boy. By morning, Dikof was dead. The boy, now the sole survivor of the Struma, was eventually rescued by some civilian Turks who passed by in a rowboat. And that boy was David Stoliar, the man who died twenty months ago at age ninety-one in the little town of Bend, Oregon, where he had lived for many years. His death went unnoticed, reported only in local Oregonian newspapers and in Haaretz. 

Who sank the Struma? For many years, it was an open question. But eventually it was determined unequivocally that the ship was attacked by a Soviet submarine acting in accordance with standing instructions to sink any neutral ships that entered the Black Sea to prevent them from bringing supplies that could eventually have reached Germany. Whether the commander of the sub, D. M. Denezhko, knew he was essentially murdering almost eight hundred civilians is unknown. And so the Struma began its final journey, the one from the front pages of the world’s newspapers into oblivion, its very name unfamiliar to all but scholars of the Shoah. 

For almost sixty years, Stoliar said nothing, preferring to live his life out in peace without reference to the horror he experienced as a young man. But then, in 2001, the Canadian film director Simcha Jacobovici (who in a different lifetime was once one of my younger brother-in-law’s Hebrew School teachers at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto) found him and coaxed him into appearing in his documentary about the disaster called The Struma. There was, briefly, an awakening of interest in the story…and then it too disappeared beneath the waves of history forgotten and that, until the other week when David Stoliar’s death was reported on at length in the New York Times, was that. (To see Robert D. McFadden’s lengthy story about Stoliar’s life and death, click here.)

I write today not merely to recall the Struma, however, lamentable though it may be that it’s been so largely forgotten. Nor do I write publicly to regret the fact that the Struma somehow never got the Hollywood-style treatment that the S.S. St. Louis and its doomed passengers got in the 1976 movie The Voyage of the Damned with its all-star cast and huge P.R. budget. But more than taking note, yet again, that Emily Dickinson was entirely right about fame being “a fickle food upon a shifting plate,” I think of the Struma as one of those examples of events that sound similar to others because we use the same language to describe them but which feel entirely different to the people whose legacy those events actually constitute.

There have been other terrible disasters at sea, obviously. Everybody knows about the Titanic and the Lusitania. (There’s a shifting plate here too, however: how many New Yorkers have heard of the General Slocam, the passenger steamboat that caught on fire and sank in the East River on June 15, 1904? 1,021 of the ship’s passengers died that day, more than in any New York disaster other than 9/11. But I can’t recall ever hearing anything about it until I started my research for this letter.) The vocabulary used to describe these events—including the sinking of the Struma—is all more or less the same. But the feelings the story of the Struma awaken in me are wholly unrelated to the other famous shipwrecks of our time. The Titanic was a true disaster, one that could and should have been averted. But the Struma is about something else entirely:  the utter, absolute powerlessness of Jewish people in the face of an uncaring world that considers their very existence a problem and their annihilation the solution to that problem. The British could easily have saved every single one of those people, but they chose to do nothing. (And that, despite the fact that they were at war with those people’s would-be murderers.) The Turks certainly could have saved them too, and even more easily—merely by allowing them to leave their barely sea-worthy boat and find shelter in Turkey from their would-be murderers—but that too was not something the Turks saw as being contrary to their own best interests. The Soviets, possessed of a mighty army and world-class intelligence services, could surely have ascertained that the cargo aboard the Struma was constituted solely of doomed souls facing death in Rumania or life anywhere at all not under Nazi domination (including the unoccupied part of the Soviet Union itself), but they chose instead to sink the boat and let all aboard drown. Problem solved!

So when people talk about the Struma using the language of shipwrecks and at-sea disasters, it sounds vaguely right. But that is not at all how it feels, at least not to me personally.

The Struma is resting at the bottom of the Black Sea, its passengers long since gone to their eternal reward and its sole survivor now too gone from the world. So is the wreckage of the MV Mefküre, a Turkish ship carrying more than 300 Jewish refugees from Romania to Istanbul that the Soviet Navy also sank in the Black Sea on August 5, 1944, murdering in the process all but five of its passengers. The same world that forgot about the Struma has also forgotten—even more entirely, if that were only possible—about the Mefküre. But I remember them both. And when I say, as I so often do, that there is no possibility of the IDF being too powerful or well-armed, that there is no rational argument in favor of Israel seeking peace by making itself less strong or less able to defend itself successfully, or that the nations of the world are being untrue to their own history by pretending not to have any idea what they can ever have done to make Israel mistrustful of their real intentions, I am remembering the Struma in my heart and responding to the image thus conjured up of military powerlessness, diplomatic impotence, and utter and absolute helplessness. It is not a picture I wish to see replicated in the future…which is why I feel so unambiguously in favor of a strong Israel possessed of a mighty army, navy, and air force. And why I feel so little inclined to join the hand-wringers and nay-sayers for whom the Struma was just a boat and its passengers just victims of a world gone mad. Surely, the sinking of the Struma and the Mefküre were tragedies, but they are also potent symbols, their stories not only worth remembering as examples of terrible things that once occurred, but also worth taking to heart as a lesson about the world and the place of Israel among the nations. It is a sobering lesson, the one inspired by those sunken symbols. But that only makes the lesson unnerving and anxiety-provoking, not untrue. And that is what the Times’ belated obituary of David Stoliar inspired in me and moved me to want to write to you all about this week.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Plus Ça Change, Baby….

Everybody knows Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous line regarding the illusory nature of change and what it means: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose is almost always used correctly as a literary way to observe that the more things appear to change, the less they really change. That change itself is illusory, generally denoting a shift in the cosmetic while leaving the essential untouched. That when someone tells you society has changed and adds the words “and we have to change along with it,” that person is more often than not trying to justify some wished-for innovation in the way we live by presenting it as an inevitability rather than attempting to demonstrate why it actually is a good idea. Why the French is so often misattributed to Proust, I have no idea. But the idea itself fascinates me and is what I’d like to write about this week.

The specific kind of change that Americans love the most is progress. But unlike         “change,” the word “progress” is a loaded term, carrying along with its basic meaning the intimation of approval, the suggestion that the development in question is not just change for its own sake, but change for the better as society attempts to allow its reach to exceed its grasp and thus to self-improve through the sheer force of its own will to morph into a finer iteration of its earlier versions. That the way we live now is dramatically different now than the way people lived a century ago in the year of my father’s birth, let alone in 1816 or 1716, hardly seems worth bothering to demonstrate with examples. But whether things have really changed other than in terms of the specific way we wash our clothes or send each other letters—and if those changes can be labelled as true progress (that is, as the kind that results in a profoundly better society, not merely a different-looking one)—that is the question that engages me. Email is obviously a huge advance over snail mail, just as airplanes are incredibly more efficient than stagecoaches…but is efficiency a subcategory of true progress or is it just another example of the kind of change that, to go back to Karr’s epigram, doesn’t really change anything at all?

I’ve been reading and listening lately to an interesting debate between two professors at Northwestern University. On the one side, we have Professor Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, published just this month by Princeton University Press. (To listen to a TED talk by the author summarizing the book’s findings, click here. To read more about the book itself, click here.) Professor Gordon’s argument, quickly summarized in the lecture and meticulously laid out in the book, is that the dramatic changes in American life that characterized the hundred-year stretch between 1870 and 1970 were real and profound, but that they will not be replicated in the years to come. And, that being the case, that it would be foolish for our nation to develop policies that blithely assume that the future will replicate the past merely because everyone wishes the rate of progress we have experienced in the relatively recent past would continue unabated into the future.

There are, according to the professor, several different reasons for this, but the one that interests me the most has to do with the concept of innovation, a subcategory of change related to, but not quite synonymous with, progress. The inventions that totally altered life in the one hundred years between 1870 and 1970, the professor argues, have truly changed society through and through and not just with respect to its outer appearance. But this kind of progress cannot be endlessly replicated with ever-newer gadgets because those machines addressed needs that, although they could conceivably be addressed even more efficiently (i.e., by having washing machines that do the laundry even faster than current models can manage), still cannot—or at least will not—be addressed with revolutionary technologies that require the population completely to re-conceptualize the tasks at hand and the way in which those tasks are performed. (In other words, the goal of doing the laundry will always be to take dirty clothing and make it clean. But now that the process is automated and efficient enough, the likelihood of anyone inventing and marketing an entirely new, dramatically better, way to accomplish that same goal is minimal.) Other kinds of changes could have been dismissed as mere upswings in efficiency, but taken as an aggregate have altered so much of how we live to warrant describing the century in question as a true boundary between what came before and what has and will come after.

Within the hundred years under consideration, for example, people stopped having to shop daily because of the introduction of electric refrigerators and this dramatically affected the nature of commerce in this country. The invention of the electric elevator made it possible to build buildings with many, many more floors than would have been possible if people had to walk up to their apartments, which innovation dramatically and permanently altered the nature of urban living. The invention of the internal combustion engine allowed America to divest itself of most of its horses, who in the nineteenth century stayed alive by eating produce grown on a full quarter of American farmland, and this in turn permanently changed the pricing of foodstuffs in the marketplace in a way that had profound implications for family life. The invention and installation of underground pipes allowed people no longer to have to walk to public wells to draw or pump their water, which changed the nature of neighborhoods and the level of hygiene that characterized urban, suburban, and even rural living. None of these things will be redone, let alone undone, because they all work well enough as is…and simply making them work better or more efficiently will not change society in anything like the way their initial introduction did.  So, to sum up, the concept is that there surely is such a thing as progress…but it is something that alters society when a perfect storm of factors materializes, not an inevitable feature of societal life that we should expect to characterize the future merely because it characterized the past.

On the other side of the argument is Joel Mokyr, a professor of economics at Northwestern, who argues that innovation is an endlessly replicating thing, that the flaw in Professor Gordon’s thinking is that he imagines the future in terms of the past. (For a summary of his thinking in this regard, click here.) But is that reasonable? The truth is that the large majority of the most interesting innovations, including ones that changed entire industries, derived not from needs long felt and otherwise satisfied, but by needs never previously perceived at all that would have seemed unimaginable to earlier generations. The internet itself, for example, is not something someone invented to speak more efficiently to a need that generations past all dealt with, only less well and far less efficiently, but rather something entirely new, something that developed out of emerging technologies that suddenly came together to create something unprecedented that truly has changed the face of society as we know it.  Are cell phones really just more efficient models of the huge plastic telephone attached to the wall of my parents’ kitchen? You could argue that, I suppose…but my parents’ phone didn’t take pictures or play music. You couldn’t read books on it, let alone daily newspapers and magazines. You certainly couldn’t speak to it and expect the telephone itself to answer you clearly and correctly when you asked it when the next train to Penn Station will leave Mineola or what some stock is trading at or what the weather is like in Auckland.  So it’s only slightly correct to refer to my phone as a direct descendant of my parents’ wall unit, reasonable only in the same way you could refer to the space shuttle as a descendant of a birch canoe.  All that being the case, it seems pointless to imagine that progress will slow when what we mean is merely that we have no idea what form it will take or in what direction it will take us. I suppose we probably have come about as far as we can with washing machines and dishwashers: new versions will just do the same thing faster and better not really differently. But what has that to do with the kind of progress that builds on itself to create not improvement of past things but entirely new things of which previous generations could not possibly have conceived?

I’d like to suggest a different way to think about the issue. To me, what impresses me about the past is how similar, not how different, it is from the present. The computer on which I am writing this would surely have seemed unfathomable to my great-grandparents, but when I read the books that were published in their lifetimes—the great novels, say, of Henry James or Leo Tolstoy—I’m struck not by the enormous differences between the world depicted in those works and our world today, but by the similarities. Yes, the people they write about don’t have telephones at all, let alone cell phones. They don’t have indoor plumbing, most of them…and their homes are illuminated by gas lamps or even by candles. But the issues they face—and the people they are—are not really all that different from the ones we ourselves face and who we ourselves are. The issues that form the narrative core of these books—the relationship between husbands and wives or between parents and children, the delicate nature of friendship, the misery of betrayal, the consequences of judging character poorly, the yearning for adventure, the deep need to feel anchored and safe in one’s own home, the complicatedness of sibling rivalry, the complexity of adolescence, the excitement of sexual awakening (and its attendant woes and insecurities), the yearning for love, the need for friendship, the  mixture of satisfaction and terror that results from self-knowledge—these are the same issues we face today, all of us. Nor are they faced, encountered, or dealt with differently because my iPhone 6S is a million times more sophisticated than the phone in my parents’ kitchen, let alone anything in a Henry James novel.

I suppose it all comes down to what we mean by progress. If we mean the introduction of ever more sophisticated items into the world of things, then there has been immeasurable progress since my great-grandparents’ day and the debate about whether this will now be a permanent feature of society or not is one worth having. But if we focus instead on the landscape of the human heart…then it’s hard to see in what profound way the world my great-parents inhabited differs too profoundly from this one in which we live. I can’t even begin to imagine what gimcracks and geegaws my own great-grandchildren (please God) will have in their pockets, but my guess is that on every truly profound level they will be just like us, struggling to find a place in the world, to invent themselves, to learn how to love. Karr was wrong and right: wrong because things really do change…and right because, for all things change profoundly and meaningfully, they also remain just as they were as we make our way from cradle to grave along the landscape of human life itself and try to negotiate the journey successfully and well.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Living in History and Paying the Price

Like most of my readers, I suspect, I found myself somewhere between surprised and unnerved by the sudden crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations, but mostly I felt confused. Both regimes are, after all, run by radical Islamicists who would appear—at least from this distance—to be each other’s natural allies. Both nations, each in its own way, are police states that feature as part of their national culture what the vast majority of Americans would consider to be a severely deficient understanding of the basic human rights that animate our own culture. Both are surely united in their hostility towards Israel—despite the occasional rumors that the Saudis might be softening their stance—and even if their relationship towards our own country is not at all the same, that hardly seems to constitute a good enough reason for them to dislike each other so intensely. Must the friends of our enemies also be our enemies? Is this somehow all about us? Or is it primarily about them?

Obviously, and leaving out for the moment what this possibly could have to with our own nation, the whole thing has to do—at least in large part—with the apparently unbridgeable chasm between Sunnis and Shiites, the Saudis belonging to the former group and the Iranians to the latter. But that too is confusing to me because the basic distinction between the two groups is rooted in a dispute anchored in distant times that, even if never truly resolved, by all rights ought to have vanished long ago into the swirling mists of forgotten history.

The story itself is somehow complicated and simple at the same time. The prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E. without formally passing along the mantle of spiritual leadership to a worthy successor and thus leaving Islam—then a small but growing sect made up primarily of the Prophet’s personal followers—without a leader who could claim the ultimate authority to lead Muslims in his stead. In retrospect, this was a huge error. At first, one of Muhammad’s aides, one Abu Bakr, succeeded him as leader, but others felt the Prophet had indeed designated a successor in his own son-in-law, a man named Ali. Eventually, Ali did become caliph (which means “replacement” and specifically denotes the individual replacing Muhammad) and, after he was assassinated (he was stabbed to death in a mosque in present-day Iraq), his sons, Hussein and Hasan, stepped up to take their father’s position in the Muslim world. Both were eventually murdered as well, however, and so their supporters became known as Shiites, the anglicized version of the Arabic words that mean “followers of Ali.” And their position was relatively clear: the earliest Shiites promulgated the opinion that the Muslim world should only be led by someone physically descended from Muhammad. The rest of the Muslim world, devoted to the Sunnah (which is the Arabic word for “tradition,” in this case denoting specifically the Prophet’s tradition) adopted the alternate opinion that their leader should be someone characterized by piety and learning, i.e., by devotion to the Sunnah, but not necessarily a blood relation of the Prophet or one of such a relation’s descendants.

And so began the schism that continues to fuel the fires of the Middle East. Nor do the sides stack up evenly: more than eighty-five percent of the world’s billion and a half Muslims are Sunni, as is the leadership and royal house of Saudi Arabia. The Iranians are Shiites, as are their leaders and client groups across the Middle East. The only Shiite-majority countries in the Muslim world, in fact, are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrein. All the other major Muslim countries have Sunni majorities, including Turkey, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia. (The numbers for our own country are slightly confusing because, although a large majority of American Muslims are Sunni, most Arab Americans are Christians, not Muslims at all.)

That whole story hardly seems enough to warrant the level of intense vituperation we have been witnessing over the last week—the Sunni Saudis beheading a Shiite sheikh who militated for the rights of Shiites in the Eastern Province of the kingdom and the Shiite Iranians launching a violent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.  Nor do Shiites and Sunni Muslims differ too dramatically in terms of their beliefs—they both revere Muhammed, consider the Quran to be a book of divine revelation, and they both follow the five tenets of Islam: prayer, charity, faith, fasting during Ramadan, and the obligation to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca in the course of one’s lifetime. From outside the tent, they don’t seem particularly different at all! And yet the animus is so real as to be in the process of altering the whole tableau of Middle Eastern politics almost before our eyes.

Maybe the whole issue of succession seems so odd to become so angry about precisely because, in our American meritocracy, it goes without saying that leaders are correctly chosen because of their moral worth and because of the positions they espouse. Indeed, in our American republic, only two sons of presidents have gone on themselves to become president, and neither inherited the position from his father. Even in the modern monarchies of Western Europe, in fact, the notion that the crown passes from the sitting monarch to that monarch’s heirs is only tolerated because the monarchs in question have no real political power.

It all sounds so foreign and odd. But that’s only because we forgotten to remember much of our own history—and thus to know that the course of Jewish history too was altered by a violent war of succession…and it too was characterized by multiple assassinations, ferocious street demonstrations, and civil unrest so violent that it set in motion the events that eventually cost the Jewish people their sovereignty. It’s a story worth telling!

We think of the Maccabees as heroes, as the guerilla warriors that defeated the far more powerful armies of Antiochus IV to create an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel, as worthy role models for the kind of principled opposition to tyranny that we all consider not merely praiseworthy but supremely so.  All of the above is true, more or less, but there’s another part of the story, a never-told part that we’ve chosen to ignore and to forget.

The Maccabees entered history, as noted, in the context of the famous Chanukah story. But history didn’t stop when the miracle had run its course and a new cruse of oil was finally prepared. Nor did the war against the Seleucid Empire end.  The fighting continued for years. Judah the Maccabee was killed in battle in the year 160 B.C.E., in fact, four years after the rededication of the Temple. He was succeeded by his brother Jonathan, but Jonathan was murdered (along with a full 1,000 of his soldiers) in 142 B.C.E. by a pretender to the Seleucid throne who had lured him to a meeting at which they were supposed to discuss an alliance. He was succeeded by another one of the brothers, Simon.  Simon did a lot of good—it was during his years of leadership that the Roman Republic formally recognized the Jewish State in 139 B.C.E.  But in the winter of 135 B.C.E., Simon and two of his three sons were murdered by his own son-in-law, an ambitious churl who hoped personally to succeed his father-in-law as national leader.

In fact, Simon was succeeded by his remaining son, John Hyrcanus, who ruled from 134 to 104 B.C.E. and who was the first (and almost only) Maccabean leader to die in bed. He was followed by his son, Judah Aristobulus, who took the title of king and who is remembered, among other things, for murdering his own mother by imprisoning her until she starved to death and for conspiring with his wife to murder his brother, whom he suspected of conspiring to murder him and seize the throne.

One thing led to another. Judah Aristobulus was succeeded on the throne by his brother, Alexander Yannai, who died in battle and was succeeded by his own wife, Queen Salome Alexandra. (Alexander Yannai is remembered, among other things, for crucifying eight hundred of his enemies in Jerusalem.) And then things got really bad. King Yannai and Queen Salome had two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. No clear heir was apparent…and so the sons went to war with each other. Eventually, the entire country erupted into a civil war as bloody as they come and became so weakened by the fighting that the door opened to the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known to history as Pompey and already acclaimed as “Conqueror of Asia” by his countrymen. He came onto the scene, promised to restore order and bring peace to a war-ravaged land. The people were thrilled. And so, in 63 B.C.E., the independent Jewish kingdom established by the Maccabees a century earlier became a Roman protectorate. And so ended Jewish independence in the Land of Israel for more than two thousand years.

Who ever heard of any of these people? Historians of antiquity, obviously, know their names. But how many “regular” Jewish people, all of whom could retell the story of the Chanukah miracle easily, could move forward into the rest of the second century BCE and the first third of the first to see how the question of succession led to violence and eventual disaster?

So the question asks itself: are we the wise ones to have moved on and no longer to consider any of these live issues…or are the Muslims right to struggle with unresolved issues even after all this time? I suppose it would depend whom you ask! There is surely something to be said for moving on, for leaving the past behind, for allowing the past to morph into the present without constantly undermining it with unresolved issues from centuries (let alone millennia) ago.  And yet…it hardly sounds like a good idea to consider history a kind of burden to be set down as quickly as possible, as a prison from which escape is only possible by those who choose to leave their cells behind and move into the future unencumbered by ancient instances of friction, violence, and bloodshed. I suppose that the correct answer is neither of the above: to feel unable to step away from an ancient dispute and to risk the lives of countless civilians as it is adjudicated not in the courtroom or the study hall but on the battle field and in the street—that surely sounds like a loser’s proposition. But to have gone to the extreme that we ourselves have gone in making our own history unfamiliar even to the relatively well educated among us—that also seems like a poor plan if we wish to live in a present that authentically replicates the best of the past.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting an ancient battle. There are, obviously, a thousand side issues (some of which directly concern our own country) that are fueling this particular fire. But the basic principle is that both sides of the dispute are unwilling to step away from the past to create a finer, better present. In our Jewish world, we have solved our version of that problem by making our own history a closed book to most…and that too cannot be a rational way to move forward into future if we wish the future to be a meaningful extension of the past that replicates its finest accomplishments and makes of the world we will bequeath to our children a satisfying, intelligently constructed midrash on the world our ancestors bequeathed to us. Living in history without being enslaved to it—that would be the great goal. But neither Muslims nor Jews have attained it, the former still fighting ancient battles they seem unable to step away from and the latter achieving freedom from the past by make it something they know almost nothing of.