|By A.D. Freudenheim||
30 September 2001
Typically, I use the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as an opportunity to read (or re-read) books that I might not otherwise; since I tend to read fiction before everything else, I use this time to catch-up on books about Judaism, morality, ethics, spirituality, etc. More importantly, I find that it aids me in the process of reflecting on the year's events, if only by provoking thoughts about how the world could be at precisely the moment when I may be most focused on my own place in it.
This year, however, I chose the short stories from Philip Roth's "Goodbye, Columbus" as my entry point for holiday reading; I had in mind a desire to re-read "The Conversion of the Jews" in particular. Though I had not opened this book in many years, Roth has always been one of the most powerful and appealing writers to me, and that is in no small part because of the strength of the stories contained there. "Goodbye, Columbus" was the first volume of Roth's that I read, when I was roughly thirteen, and this story called out to me again. It clearly seemed to have some insight to offer me at this troubled moment.
Last fall, I started a journey that has slowly made me feel like I was on a collision course with most of the American Jewish community. The issue was a tricky one: how to support - or not support - Israel as it handled relations with Palestinians and the broader Arab community in light of the new Intifada. I do not question the fundamental existence of the state of Israel, as it might be defined by its 1948, Green Line borders; nor do I condone the violence of the Palestinians as they fight for a state of their own. But I do not feel that I can take a position that is blindly pro-Israel based on a series of American Jewish fantasies about the situation in the Middle East: that Israel is the only free, fair, democratic country in the region; that having established its right to exist in the war of 1948, all actions taken subsequently have been justified in the name of national (and Jewish) security; that because they, and we, are Jews, we should fundamentally and inextricably unite in support of the Jewish state.
Israel may be essentially democratic, but there is a hierarchy among its citizens; beyond a history of marginalizing Jews of distinctly Middle Eastern origin, Israel has also slotted Arab citizens into second-class positions in society. Nor has Israeli democracy prevented the state from committing numerous human rights violations against populations in neighboring countries, whether during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, or over the course of more than 30 years as the occupying force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to name two examples. Though it may readily offer a home to any person who can legitimately claim Jewish parentage - and in doing so, fulfills its original, political-religious-nationalist goal - Israel cannot justly claim that this either necessitates or validates the often-brutal oppression of other people.
"So what!," comes the cry from the believers around me. "Whatever its faults, it is a better, more open, and more prosperous society than every other in the Middle East." I acknowledge that. What bothers me is the moral certitude, the religious devotion, that comes with these pro-Israel statements. In a situation where people are dying daily, how can anyone relativize the violence? Why is the American Jewish community so frighteningly comfortable with the amount of Palestinian blood that has been shed, and so much more uncomfortable with the Jewish blood? Isn't all blood the same? According to the Judaism I was taught, humans should be seen as equal, and the death of a non-Jew is as unfortunate as the death of a Jew.
But, they say, "Besides, the land was promised to us, and where else would we go. Israel is necessary for the survival of the Jews." Historical promises of this type do not much matter in a world where two of the three most prevalent religions - Islam and Christianity - are based in large part on the understanding that the covenant between the Jewish people and God has been superceded; unless one's view of the world is fundamentally messianic, a better argument is needed, in lieu of the imminent arrival of the Messiah. While the suggestion that the state of Israel is required in order to maintain the health and welfare of the Jewish people is indeed debatable, I do accept the fundamental premise of political Zionism, which argues that the Jews, no less than anyone else, should be granted the right of self-determination.
Yet, again, recognizing the validity of Jewish nationalism does not necessarily provide a kind of moral "cover" for fundamentally immoral acts of war and brutality. In Wilsonian terms, self-determination was seen as a positive moral value, not a negative one; in more recent times, the United States and some allies have (selectively) even gone to war to defend such values, such as in Kuwait and Kosovo. As for where else the Jews might go, I have no answer other than to point out that one of Theodore Herzl's original (if admittedly fanciful) ideas was to purchase land in Uganda.
So why Roth and "The Conversion of the Jews"? At the climax of the story, a young Jewish boy, Ozzie, stands at the edge of his synagogue roof; he has, down below, the attention of his rabbi and his mother, along with the rest of his classmates and an elderly, doddy Jewish caretaker. Ozzie and the rabbi had been arguing about whether God could have impregnated Mary, allowing for Jesus' half-divine birth. Ozzie has taken issue with the rabbi's insistence that although God is all-powerful and all-knowing, God could not possibly have done this, and Ozzie finds himself - unintentionally, but almost happily - fleeing to the roof of the building after the rabbi slaps him. Is it me?, Ozzie asks; why am I the only one questioning things?
What Ozzie wants, he realizes, is for the group gathered below him to admit, to say out loud and accept, that they cannot truly know God's will and God's power: that there is no certitude to be found that should allow them to fully reject the beliefs of another faith. Ozzie holds the cards; he is willing to trade his life for this belief. Right now, I feel like I am Ozzie, running to the roof; that I am being chased up there because I refuse to bow to the collective belief about the importance of Israel above all other nations and all other peoples. Like Ozzie, I certainly hadn't intended to wind up there. But maybe if I do get there, I will be able to get someone's attention long enough to make my point understood: when you take another human's life carelessly you reduce your own humanity to questionable levels. What is Jewish about that?
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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