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  • Zachary Suri

Lessons from the Seventies: “An Encounter with Those Supposedly Dead”

Israel never escaped history. For millions of Israelis, the return to Zion is but a new exile: from the shtetls of Galicia, from the melting pot of Salonica, or even, in a political sense, from the (imperfect) coexistence which thrived in Palestine under Ottoman rule. Israel is the endpoint of many a long and circuitous journey through the diaspora, but it is not an end to diaspora itself nor to the politics and pathologies of exile.


Shosha, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s great novel of interwar literary Warsaw, does not end at Treblinka, or in New York, where the future Nobel prize winning Yiddish novelist himself fled. It ends in Tel Aviv.


Thirteen years after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Aaron Greidinger (“Tstusik”), now a Yiddish writer in New York, takes a trip around the world. In London, he finds “craters and ruins.” [1] In Paris, he finds a thriving black market. And on the boat to Haifa, “the singing of the young passengers [rings] through the nights—the old familiar songs” and “new songs” from Israel’s War of Independence. [2]


In 1974, Singer first published Shosha in the Jewish Daily Forward. In 1973, Egypt and Syria had invaded Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The Israeli project, it seemed, was teetering on the brink of disaster just six years after Israel’s surprise victory in the Six Day War, which marked the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In Tel Aviv, Greidinger sees “a new city,” but one which remains “old and dingy”—filled with young soldiers and the new national language, but haunted by the same ghosts

he seems to be trying to escape. [3] In the dining room of his hotel, an old friend from Warsaw, Haiml Chentshiner, whom Greidinger believes to have been killed in the Ghetto, calls his name, not in Hebrew, but in Yiddish. [4] “Ghosts love Yiddish,” Singer insisted at the Nobel banquet in his honor, “and as far as I know, they all speak it.” [5]


The story Haiml tells is one of survival: “A hundred times I virtually looked the Angel of Death in the eye, but when you’re fated to stay alive miracles occur. So long as a breath of life remains in the body, it crawls like a worm, and I crawled and avoided the feet that squash worms till I came to the Jewish land. Here again, we suffered war, hunger, steady danger. Bullets flew over my head. Bombs exploded a few steps away. But here no one went like a sheep to the slaughter.” [6]


The State of Israel, in Haiml’s telling, is not a respite from the violence of exile or the precarity of a constant battle for survival, but a long-overdue act of Jewish resistance. Israel is a refusal to go “like a sheep to the slaughter.” [7] “Here,” Haiml mutters, “maybe we’ll have the privilege of dying if we’re not driven into the sea.” Beholden to the past for an explanation of the Jewish future, it seems inevitable that Israel must sacrifice its sons and daughters to that past. And yet in the voice of Greidinger, Singer seems subtly to undermine this teleological explanation for the creation of Israel. The novel ends with the two old friends sitting in a dark back room at Haiml’s house in a Tel Aviv suburb. Under the “pale glow” of twilight, the two finally begin to wrestle with the trauma of a new exile, the exile from the literary salons of prewar Europe. [8]


“‘What need was there for all this?’ Haiml asks, “What do you think, Tsutsik, is there an answer somewhere or not?” “There can’t be any answer for suffering,” Greidinger responds, “not for the sufferer.” [9] There cannot be any answer. Even the sweeping promises of nationhood cannot explain away the suffering of the Jews of Europe or make sense of the cacophony of ghosts.


The Israel Greidinger finds, for all its aspirations to nationhood and a national language, is very much like Yiddish, the domain of ghosts. The Yiddish language, Singer proclaimed in his Nobel Lecture, is a “language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics.” [10]


Israel represents the hope that next time (for a next time is presumed) the Jews will not go to the slaughter like sheep, but for most Israelis, Israel is in truth another exile—from Warsaw, or New York, or Salonica. And the hopes of young Israelis are defined by this third exile. The 364 people murdered at a peace festival in the desert—they too dreamed of a world which knows no frontiers and longed to forget their words for weapons of war.


True, Israel is no longer a land of ghosts. Generations of young Jews have only known a modern Jewish state. They have never set foot in the Warsaw Writers’ Club. They have never known what it means to have one’s whole community liquidated. Today, the majority of Israelis are the descendants of Mizrahi Jews who have lived in the Middle East and North Africa since the destruction of the temples or the expulsion from Iberia. [11] Still others trace their roots in the region back to the early Ottoman Empire, Byzantine Empire, and beyond. But the ghosts of the Shoah haunt a new generation.


In 1975, Saul Bellow, another future Nobel prize winner and chronicler of the Jewish-American experience, traveled to Israel, collecting his reflections in the eclectic To Jerusalem and Back (1976). He too found a land of ghosts, “a suffering country” where “a troubled people has come to rest” only to find that “rest is impossible” and brings the “nightmare of annihilation.” [12] The Israel Bellow describes is defined by the politics of exile, the politics of a land “accustomed to strange arrivals.” [13]


Amos Oz, Bellow writes, reminded him that “everyone who came over brought his own dream of Paradise with him.” [14] Israel is a land torn-apart and sewn together by “more different visions of Heaven than any outsider can imagine.” [15] These are visions born of exile and empire, but not necessarily visions of an exclusively Jewish land. The Kibbutzim brutally attacked on October 7th are products of a utopian movement which often embraced coexistence. Their founders embodied Israel’s social democratic and essentially Central European aspirations. But one would be hard-pressed to find many Israelis today who would like to build a socialist utopia. The land may be the “Promised Land,” but everyone has a different memory of what exactly that promise entails.

These contradictions define Israeli policy. “The Palestinian question,” writes Bellow, is “the biggest and most persistent” of these “headaches.” [16] Every Israeli must ask themselves the critical question: “‘We came here to build a just society. And what happened immediately?’” [17] Bellow’s interlocutor, Israeli writer David Shahar, gives a very unsatisfying answer: “‘Where there is no paradox there is no life.’” [18]


Those on the left “denounce” Israel and its mistreatment of Palestinians, Bellow argues, but they fail to comprehend the immediacy of death in the Israeli psyche. [19] “As an American,” he insists, “I can decide on any given day whether or not I wish to think of these abominations. I need not consider them. I can simply refuse to open the the morning paper. In Israel, one has no such choice.” [20] In Israel, “‘the struggle for existence’” is meant “literally.” [21] And this “existence” is for some worse than the “nightmares.” [22] Horrific acts of violence which we dismiss as “fictions” or too far away to matter are, for Israelis, “frightful historical realities—‘historical events,’ instantaneous history.” [23] Before October 7th, 2023, we believed that this threat of death was no longer immediate. The crimes of that day show we were wrong.


Centuries of Jewish suffering cannot become mere weapons of war. It is a dangerous fantasy, Bellow argues, to believe with “quasi-religious” fervor that Israel can rationalize “such injustices as have been committed against the Arabs…by the whole of Jewish history.” [24] “Zionism alone” seems inadequate because, as an Israeli novelist confessed to Bellow, “Israel has sinned too much…that it has lost its moral capital and has nothing to fight with.” [25] Wars cannot be explained by the messy project of nationhood. They are more easily justified by the oppressions of “four thousand years of Jewish history.” [26]


It is likewise a fantasy, Bellow insists, to expect American Jews, as Ben-Gurion did, “to give up their illusions about goyish democracy and emigrate full speed to Israel.” [27] To do so would make meaningless “America’s two-hundred-year record of liberal democracy.” [28] It would negate the possibility that the values of liberal democracy, on which Israel was also founded, might make the twenty–first century a century safe for Jews. “If Israel were governed as Egypt is, or Syria,” Bellow asks, “would I have come here at all?” [29] Egypt and Syria may now be governed by a different breed of tyrants than in 1975, but the question remains poignant: can Israel be both a Jewish state and a democracy?


Today, it is tempting for many American Jews who have this month experienced anti-Semitism firsthand for the first or for the hundredth time to see our Jewish communities as Singer describes Warsaw in August 1939—a beautiful city on the verge of destruction. Like Greidinger, American Jews once proud not to have accepted another exile in Israel might now feel they have “thrown away four thousand years of Jewishness” and rejected a great national project to remain in their homes among neighbors with little regard for their lives. [30] Many Israelis must feel once again that “any day the destruction might begin.” [31] But the Nazi armies are not at our doorstep. Even if antisemitism is surging, we are the ones with the guns. No army will march through Tel Aviv anytime soon and certainly none through New York.


We are driven apart and driven to war by too many versions of paradise and too few visions of peace. I do not want to live in the paradise of the West Bank settler. I do not want to live in the paradise of the masked protester outside my window shouting, “From the river to the sea!” But more than anything, I do not want to live in a paradise which is somebody else’s nightmare. Gaza cannot be left, like Herman Melville’s description of the Judean desert (quoted by Bellow), to “the unleavened nakedness of desolation—whitish ashes—lime kilns”—and neither can the Israeli project. [32]


In 1975, an Israeli friend of Bellow’s recounted an Oklahoman with “a clean young soul” who “had heard of Israel, but only just,” who “knew nothing about holocausts or tanks in the desert or terrorist bombs.” [33] I am not so confident that any such person remains, but this image of a young pesron untethered from a century of grievances is the promise of reconciliation. A new generation which outlives the resentments of their parents and does not remember the crimes of the past could bring peace.


Or maybe all we need is some good old-fashioned “goyish democracy.” Most Israelis are deeply unhappy with Netanyahu’s response, [34] and if the July 2023 protests in Gaza against Hamas are any indication, there is hope that a majority of Gazans might recognize Hamas does not represent their interests. [35] Israel has not become the great social democratic homeland its founders envisioned; the Israeli project has not put to rest the dangers and dilemmas of diaspora which drove them. Jewish commitment to liberal democracy, though subject to the same contradictions, seems to be the only way forward. Democracy is not an escape from the politics and psychology of exile. It is rather an embrace of them, a self-reflective recognition that Jewish communities can only be secure when everyone’s rights are guaranteed.


At the very least, we need to abandon the idea that one can fight with “moral capital,” that wars are fought by historical grievances and not with human lives. We can no longer afford to govern on grievance or negotiate without nuance. Both sides are losing their sons and daughters, not just for somebody else’s paradise, but they feel, for their very existence.

The dialogue with the Holocaust has not died, even as its witnesses have. There is sometimes a certain spectacle, or even perversity, in this memory—the Israeli ambassador with the yellow star at the UN—but the horrors were and remain real. Beneath the trappings of a modern tech-savvy Jewish oasis, Israel is still just trying to survive, stumbling along with more opinions than people, agreeing only that next time we will not go like sheep to the slaughter. The Israel of today—a nation which mourns its dead and prays for those held hostage or missing—remains, in Greidinger’s words, an “[encounter] with those supposedly dead.” [36] May they all return soon.



 

Notes:

1. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shosha, 1st ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), 263.

2. Singer, Shosha, 263.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 264.

5. Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Banquet speech” (Stockholm, 1978), Nobel Prize, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1978/singer/speech/

6. Singer, 265.

7. Ibid., 275.

8. Ibid., 277.

9. Ibid.

10. Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Nobel Lecture” (Stockholm, 1978), Nobel Prize, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1978/singer/lecture/

11. Hen Mazzig, “Op-Ed: No, Israel isn't a country of privileged and powerful white Europeans,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2019. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mazzig-mizrahi-jews-israel-20190520-story.html.

12. Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back, 1st ed. (New York: The Viking Press, 1976), 57.

13. Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back, 5.

14. Ibid., 30.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., 15.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 46.

21. Ibid., 70.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 54.

25. Ibid., 54 & 60.

26. Ibid., 46.

27. Ibid., 14.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Singer, 256.

31. Ibid.

32. Bellow, 16-17.

33. Ibid., 24.

34. Ellen Ioanes, “Israel-Hamas war: Israelis feel abandoned by Netanyahu after October 7,” Vox, https://www.vox.com/world-politics/2023/10/21/23926304/israeli-hamas-war-netanyahu-opinion.

35. “Thousands take to streets in Gaza in rare public display of discontent with Hamas,” AP News, https://apnews.com/article/gaza-hamas-demonstration-israel-blockade-palestinians-306b19228f9dd21f1036386ce3709672.

36. Singer, 264.


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