During the summer my husband and
I had a conversion ceremony for our adopted daughter,
Jess. We took her to the mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath
where she was totally submerged in a pool of living
water -- living because it is fed in part by heavenly
rain -- and momentarily suspended as we are in the womb,
emerging the same yet transformed. This ritual of
purification, transformation and rebirth is central to
Judaism and it signifies renewal and possibility.
The day of Jess's conversion was also the day that
Israel began its pitiless bombing of Lebanon and nearly
three weeks into Israel's violent assault on Gaza, a
place that has been my second home for the last two
decades. This painful juxtaposition of rebirth and
destruction remains with me, weighing heavily, without
respite. Yet, the link deeply forged in our construction
of self as Jews, between my daughter's acceptance into
Judaism and Israel's actions-between Judaism and Zionism
-- a link that I never accepted uncritically but
understood as historically inevitable and
understandable, is one that for me, at least, has now
For unlike past conflicts involving Israel and the
Palestinian and Arab peoples this one feels
qualitatively different -- a turning point -- not only
with regard to the nature of Israel's horrific response
-- its willingness to destroy and to do so utterly --
but also with regard to the virtually unqualified
support of organized American Jewry for Israel's brutal
actions, something that is not new but now no longer
tolerable to me.
I grew up in a home where Judaism was defined and
practiced not so much as a religion but as a system of
ethics and culture. God was present but not central.
Israel and the notion of a Jewish homeland were very
important to my parents, who survived Auschwitz, Chelmno
and Buchenwald. But unlike many of their friends, my
parents were not uncritical of Israel. Obedience to a
state was not a primary Jewish value, especially after
the Holocaust. Judaism provided the context for Jewish
life, for values and beliefs that were not dependent
upon national or territorial boundaries, but transcended
them to include the other, always the other. For my
mother and father Judaism meant bearing witness, raging
against injustice and refusing silence. It meant
compassion, tolerance, and rescue. In the absence of
these imperatives, they taught me, we cease to be Jews.
Many of the people, both Jewish and others, who write
about Palestinians and Arabs fail to accept the
fundamental humanity of the people they are writing
about, a failing born of ignorance, fear and racism.
Within the organized Jewish community especially, it has
always been unacceptable to claim that Arabs,
Palestinians especially, are like us, that they, too,
possess an essential humanity and must be included
within our moral boundaries, ceasing to be "a kind of
solution," a useful, hostile "other" to borrow from
Edward Said. That any attempt at separation is
artificial, an abstraction.
By refusing to seek proximity over distance, we calmly,
even gratefully refuse to see what is right before our
eyes. We are no longer compelled, if we ever were, to
understand our behavior from positions outside our own,
to enter, as Jacqueline Rose has written, into each
other's predicaments and make what is one of the hardest
journeys of the mind. Hence, there is no need to
maintain a living connection with the people we are
oppressing, to humanize them, taking into account the
experience of subordination itself, as Said would say.
We are not preoccupied by our cruelty nor are we haunted
by it. The task, ultimately, is to tribalize pain,
narrowing the scope of human suffering to ourselves
alone. Such willful blindness leads to the destruction
of principle and the destruction of people, eliminating
all possibility of embrace, but it gives us solace.
Why is it so difficult, even impossible to incorporate
Palestinians and other Arab peoples into the Jewish
understanding of history? Why is there so little
perceived need to question our own narrative (for want
of a better word) and the one we have given others,
preferring instead to cherish beliefs and sentiments
that remain impenetrable? Why is it virtually mandatory
among Jewish intellectuals to oppose racism, repression
and injustice almost anywhere in the world and
unacceptable -- indeed, for some, an act of heresy -- to
oppose it when Israel is the oppressor, choosing
concealment over exposure? For many among us history and
memory adhere to preclude reflection and tolerance,
where, in the words of Northrop Frye, "the enemy become,
not people to be defeated, but embodiments of an idea to
What happens to the other as we, a broken and weary
people, continually abuse him, turning him into the
enemy we now want and need, secure in a prophecy that is
What happens to a people when renewal and injustice are
A new discourse of the unconscious
We speak without mercy, numb to the pain of others,
incapable of being reached-unconscious. Our words are
* " . . . [W]e must not forget,' wrote Ze'ev Schiff, the
senior political and military analyst for the Israeli
newspaper Ha'aretz, "the most important aspect of this
war: Hezbollah and what this terrorist organization
symbolizes must be destroyed at any price. . . .What
matters is not the future of the Shiite town of Bint
Jbail or the Hezbollah positions in Maroun Ras, but the
future and safety of the State of Israel." "If Israel
doesn't improve its military cards in the fighting, we
will feel the results in the political solution."
* "We must reduce to dust the villages of the south . .
." stated Haim Ramon, long known as a political dove and
Israel's Minister of Justice. "I don't understand why
there is still electricity there." "Everyone in southern
Lebanon is a terrorist and is connected to Hizbollah. .
. What we should do in southern Lebanon is employ huge
firepower before a ground force goes in." Israel's
largest selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth put it this
way: "A village from which rockets are fired at Israel
will simply be destroyed by fire. This decision should
have been made and executed after the first Katyusha.
But better late than never."
* "[F]or every katyusha barrage on Haifa, 10 Dahiya
buildings will be bombed," said the IDF Chief of Staff,
Dan Halutz. Eli Yishai, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister,
proposed turning south Lebanon into a "sandbox", while
Knesset member Moshe Sharoni called for the obliteration
of Gaza, and Yoav Limor, a Channel 1 military
correspondent, suggested an exhibition of Hezbollah
corpses followed by a parade of prisoners in their
underwear in order "to strengthen the home front's
* "Remember: distorted philosophical sensitivity [sic]
to human lives will make us pay the real price of the
lives of many, and the blood of our sons," read an
advertisement in Ha'aretz.
* "[A]ccording to Jewish law," announced the Yesha
Rabbinical Council, "during a time of battle and war,
there is no such term as 'innocents of the enemy'."
* "But speaking from our own Judaic faith and legal
legacy," argued the Rabbinical Council of America, "we
believe that Judaism would neither require nor permit a
Jewish soldier to sacrifice himself in order to save
deliberately endangered enemy civilians. This is
especially true when confronting a barbaric enemy who
would by such illicit, consistent, and systematic means
seek to destroy not only the Jewish soldier, but defeat
and destroy the Jewish homeland. New realities do indeed
require new responses."
* The Israeli author, Naomi Ragan, after learning that
many of the war dead in Lebanon were children, wrote
"Save your sympathy for the mothers and sisters and
girlfriends of our young soldiers who would rather be
sitting in study halls learning Torah, but have no
choice but to risk their precious lives full of hope,
goodness and endless potential, to wipe out the
cancerous terrorist cells that threaten their people and
all mankind. Make your choice, and save your tears."
Many of us, perhaps most, have declared that all
Palestinians and Lebanese are the enemy, threatening our
-- Israel and the Jewish people's -- existence. Everyone
we kill and every house we demolish is therefore a
military target, legitimate and deserving. Terrorism is
part of their culture and we must strengthen our ability
to deter. Negotiation, to paraphrase the Israeli
scholar, Yehoshua Porat, writing during the 1982 Lebanon
war, is a "veritable catastrophe for Israel." The
battlefield will preserve us.
The French critic and historian, Hippolyte Taine,
"Imagine a man who sets out on a voyage equipped with a
pair of spectacles that magnify things to an
extraordinary degree. A hair on his hand, a spot on the
tablecloth, the shifting fold of a coat, all will
attract his attention; at this rate, he will not go far,
he will spend his day taking six steps and will never
get out of his room."
We are content in our room and seek no exit
In our room, compassion and conscience are dismissed
as weakness, where pinpoint surgical strikes constitute
restraint and civility and momentary ceasefires, acts of
humanity and kindness. "Leave your home, we are going to
destroy it." Several minutes later another home in Gaza,
another history, is taken, crushed. The warning, though,
is not for them but for us-it makes us good and clean.
What better illustration of our morality: when a call to
leave one's home minutes before it is bombed is
considered a humane gesture.
Our warnings have another purpose: they make our actions
legitimate and our desire for legitimacy is unbounded,
voracious. This is perhaps the only thing Palestinians
(and now the Lebanese) have withheld from us, this
object of our desire. If legitimacy will not be bestowed
then it must be created. This explains Israel's
obsession with laws and legalities to insure in our own
eyes that we do not transgress, making evil allowable by
widening the parameters of license and transgression. In
this way we insure our goodness and morality, through a
piece of paper, which is enough for us.
What are Jews now capable of resisting: tyranny?
Oppression? Occupation? Injustice? We resist none of
these things, no more. For too many among us they are no
longer evil but necessary and good-we cannot live,
survive without them. What does that make us? We look at
ourselves and what do we see: a non-Jew, a child, whose
pain we inflict effortlessly, whose death is demanded
and unquestioned, bearing validity and purpose.
What do we see: a people who now take pleasure in hating
others. Hatred is familiar to us if nothing else. We
understand it and it is safe. It is what we know. We do
not fear our own distortion -- do we even see it? -- but
the loss of our power to deter, and we shake with a
violent palsy at a solution that shuns the suffering of
others. Our pathology is this: it lies in our struggle
to embrace a morality we no longer possess and in our
need for persecution of a kind we can no longer claim
but can only inflict.
We are remote from the conscious world -- brilliantly
ignorant, blindly visionary, unable to resist from
within. We live in an unchanging place, absent of season
and reflection, devoid of normality and growth, and most
important of all, emptied-or so we aim -- of the other.
A ghetto still but now, unlike before, a ghetto of our
What is our narrative of victory and defeat? What does
it mean to win? Bombed cars with white civilian flags
still attached to their windows? More dead and
dismembered bodies of old people and children littered
throughout villages that have been ravaged? An entire
country disabled and broken? Non-ending war? This is our
victory, our achievement, something we seek and applaud.
And how do we measure defeat? Losing the will to
continue the devastation? Admitting to our persecution
of others, something we have never done?
We can easily ignore their suffering, cut them from
their food, water, electricity, and medicine, confiscate
their land, demolish their crops and deny them egress --
suffocate them, our voices stilled. Racism does not
allow us to see Arabs as we see ourselves; that is why
we rage when they do not fail from weakness but instead
we find ourselves failing from strength. Yet, in our
view it is we who are the only victims, vulnerable and
scarred. All we have is the unnaturalness of our
As an unconscious people, we have perhaps reached our
nadir with many among us now calling for a redefinition
of our ethics-the core of who we are -- to incorporate
the need to kill women and children if Jewish security
required it. "New realities do indeed require new
responses," says the Rabbinical Council of America. Now,
for us, violence is creation and peace is destruction.
Ending the process of creation and rebirth after the
Can we be ordinary, an essential part of our rebirth
after the Holocaust? Is it possible to be normal when we
seek refuge in the margin, and remedy in the
dispossession and destruction of another people? How can
we create when we acquiesce so willingly to the
demolition of homes, construction of barriers, denial of
sustenance, and ruin of innocents? How can we be
merciful when, to use Rose's words, we seek "omnipotence
as the answer to historical pain?" We refuse to hear
their pleading, to see those chased from their homes,
children incinerated in their mother's arms. Instead we
tell our children to inscribe the bombs that will burn
We argue that we must eliminate terrorism. What do we
really know of their terrorism, and of ours? What do we
care? Rather, with language that is denuded and
infested-give them more time to bomb so that Israel's
borders can be natural-we engage repeatedly in a war of
desire, a war not thrust upon us but of our own
choosing, ingratiating ourselves with the power to
destroy others and insensate to the death of our own
children. What happens to a nation, asks the Israeli
writer David Grossman, that cannot save its own child,
words written before his own son was killed in Lebanon?
There are among Israelis real feelings of vulnerability
and fear, never resolved but used, intensified. Seeing
one's child injured or killed is the most horrible
vision -- Israelis are vulnerable, far more than other
Jews. Yet, we as a people have become a force of
extremism, of chaos and disorder, trying to plow an
unruly sea-addicted to death and cruelty, intoxicated,
with one ambition: to mock the pauper.
Judaism has always prided itself on reflection, critical
examination, and philosophical inquiry. The Talmudic
mind examines a sentence, a word, in a multitude of
ways, seeking all possible interpretations and searching
constantly for the one left unsaid. Through such
scrutiny it is believed comes the awareness needed to
protect the innocent, prevent injury or harm, and be
closer to God.
Now, these are abhorred, eviscerated from our ethical
system. Rather the imperative is to see through eyes
that are closed, unfettered by investigation. We conceal
our guilt by remaining the abused, despite our power,
creating situations where our victimization is assured
and our innocence affirmed. We prefer this abyss to
peace, which would hurl us unacceptably inward toward
awareness and acknowledgement.
Jews do not feel shame over what they have created: an
inventory of inhumanity. Rather we remain oddly
appeased, even calmed by the desolation. Our detachment
allows us to bear such excess (and commit it), to sit in
Jewish cafes while Palestinian mothers are murdered in
front of their children in Gaza. I can now better
understand how horror occurs-how people, not evil
themselves, can allow evil to happen. We salve our
wounds with our incapacity for remorse, which will be
Instead the Jewish community demands unity and
conformity: "Stand with Israel" read the banners on
synagogues throughout Boston last summer. Unity around
what? There is enormous pressure -- indeed coercion --
within organized American Jewry to present an image of
"wall to wall unity" as a local Jewish leader put it.
But this unity is an illusion -- at its edges a
smoldering flame rapidly engulfing its core -- for
mainstream Jewry does not speak for me or for many other
Jews. And where such unity exists, it is hollow built
around fear not humanity, on the need to understand
reality as it has long been constructed for us -- with
the Jew as the righteous victim, the innocent incapable
of harm. It is as if our unbending support for Israel's
militarism "requires putting our minds as it were into
Auschwitz where being a Jew puts your existence on the
line. To be Jewish means to be threatened, nothing more.
Hence, the only morality we can acknowledge is saving
Israel and by extension, ourselves." Within this
paradigm, it is dissent not conformity that will
diminish and destroy us. We hoard our victimization as
we hoard our identity -- they are one -- incapable of
change, a failing that will one day result in our own
eviction. Is this what Zionism has done to Judaism?
Israel's actions not only demonstrate the limits of
Israeli power but our own limitations as a people: our
inability to live a life without barriers, to free
ourselves from an ethnic loyalty that binds and
contorts, to emerge, finally, from our spectral chamber.
Ending the (filial) link between Israel and the
How can the children of the Holocaust do such things,
they ask? But are we really their rightful offspring?
As the Holocaust survivor dies, the horror of that
period and its attendant lessons withdraw further into
abstraction and for some Jews, many of them in Israel,
alienation. The Holocaust stands not as a lesson but as
an internal act of purification where tribal attachment
rather than ethical responsibility is demanded and used
to define collective action. Perhaps this was an
inevitable outcome of Jewish nationalism, of applying
holiness to politics, but whatever its source, it has
weakened us terribly and cost us greatly.
Silvia Tennenbaum, a survivor and activist writes: "No
matter what great accomplishments were ours in the
diaspora, no matter that we produced Maimonides and
Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn and hundreds of others of
mankind's benefactors -- not a warrior among them! -- we
look at the world of our long exile always in the dark
light of the Shoah. But this, in itself, is an obscene
distortion: would the author . . . Primo Levi, or the
poet Paul Celan demand that we slaughter the innocents
in a land far from the snow-clad forests of Poland? Is
it a heroic act to murder a child, even the child of an
enemy? Are my brethren glad and proud? . . . And, it
goes without saying, loyal Jews must talk about the
Holocaust. Ignore the images of today's dead and dying
and focus on the grainy black and white pictures showing
the death of Jews in the villages of Poland, at
Auschwitz and Sobibor and Bergen-Belsen. We are the
first, the only true victims, the champions of
helplessness for all eternity."
What did my family perish for in the ghettos and
concentration camps of Poland? Is their role to be
exploited and in the momentary absence of violence, to
be forgotten and abandoned?
Holocaust survivors stood between the past and the
present, bearing witness, sometimes silently, and even
in word, often unheard. Yet, they stood as a moral
challenge among us and also as living embodiments of a
history, way of life and culture that long predated the
Holocaust and Zionism (and that Zionism has long
denigrated), refusing, in their own way, to let us look
past them. Yet, this generation is nearing its end and
as they leave us, I wonder what is truly left to take
their place, to fill the moral void created by their
Is it, in the words of a friend, himself a Jew, a
"memory manufactory, with statues, museums and platoons
of 'scholars' designed to preserve, indeed ratchet up
Jewish feelings of persecution and victimhood, a Hitler
behind every Katyusha or border skirmish, which must be
met with some of the same crude slaughterhouse tools the
Nazis employed against the Jews six decades ago:
ghettos, mass arrests and the denigration of their
enemy's humanity?" Do we now measure success in human
bodies and in carnage, arguing that our dead bodies are
worth more than theirs, our children more vulnerable and
holy, more in need of protection and love, their corpses
more deserving of shrouds and burial? Is meaning for us
to be derived from martyrdom or from children born with
a knife in their hearts? Is this how my grandmother and
grandfather are to be remembered?
Our tortured past and its images trespass upon our
present not only in Israel but in Gaza and Lebanon as
well. "They were temporarily buried in an empty lot with
dozens of others," writes a New York Times reporter in
Lebanon. "They were assigned numbers, his wife and
daughter. Alia is No. 35 and Sally is No. 67. 'They are
numbers now,' said the father. There are no names
"They were shrunken figures, dehydrated and hungry,"
observes the Washington Post. "Some had lived on candy
bars, others on pieces of dry bread. Some were
shell-shocked, their faces blank . . . One never made
it. He was carried out on a stretcher, flies landing on
lifeless eyes that were still open."
As the rightful claimants to our past we should ask, How
much damage can be done to a soul? But we do not ask. We
do not question the destruction but only our inability
to complete it, to create more slaughter sites.
Can we ever emerge from our torpor, able to mourn the
Our ultimate eviction?
Where do Jews belong? Where is our place? Is it in
the ghetto of a Jewish state whose shrinking boundaries
threaten, one day, to evict us? We are powerful but not
strong. Our power is our weakness, not our strength,
because it is used to instill fear rather than trust,
and because of that, it will one day destroy us if we do
not change. More and more we find ourselves detached
from our past, suspended and abandoned, alone, without
anchor, aching-if not now, eventually-for connection and
succor. Grossman has written that as a dream fades it
does not become a weaker force but a more potent one,
desperately clung to, even as it ravages and devours.
We consume the land and the water behind walls and steel
gates forcing out all others. What kind of place are we
creating? Are we fated to be an intruder in the dust to
borrow from Faulkner, whose presence shall evaporate
with the shifting sands? Are these the boundaries of our
rebirth after the Holocaust?
I have come to accept that Jewish power and sovereignty
and Jewish ethics and spiritual integrity are, in the
absence of reform, incompatible, unable to coexist or be
reconciled. For if speaking out against the wanton
murder of children is considered an act of disloyalty
and betrayal rather than a legitimate act of dissent,
and where dissent is so ineffective and reviled, a
choice is ultimately forced upon us between Zionism and
Rabbi Hillel the Elder long ago emphasized ethics as the
center of Jewish life. Ethical principles or their
absence will contribute to the survival or destruction
of our people. Yet, today what we face is something
different and possibly more perverse: it is not the
disappearance of our ethical system but its rewriting
into something disfigured and execrable.
As Jews in a post-Holocaust world empowered by a Jewish
state, how do we as a people emerge from atrocity and
abjection, empowered and also humane, something that
still eludes us? How do we move beyond fear and
omnipotence, beyond innocence and militarism, to
envision something different, even if uncertain? "How,"
asks Ahad Haam, the founding father of cultural Zionism,
"do you make a nation pause for thought?"
For many Jews (and Christians), the answer lies in a
strong and militarized Jewish state. For others, it is
found in the very act of survival. For my
parents-defeating Hitler meant living a moral life. They
sought a world where "affirmation is possible and . . .
dissent is mandatory," where our capacity to witness is
restored and sanctioned, where we as a people refuse to
be overcome by the darkness.
Can we ever turn away from our power to destroy?
It is here that I want to share a story from my family,
to describe a moment that has inspired all of my work
My mother and her sister had just been liberated from
concentration camp by the Russian army. After having
captured all the Nazi officials and guards who ran the
camp, the Russian soldiers told the Jewish survivors
that they could do whatever they wanted to their German
persecutors. Many survivors, themselves emaciated and
barely alive, immediately fell on the Germans, ravaging
them. My mother and my aunt, standing just yards from
the terrible scene unfolding in front of them, fell into
each other's arms weeping. My mother, who was the
physically stronger of the two, embraced my aunt,
holding her close and my aunt, who had difficulty
standing, grabbed my mother as if she would never let
go. She said to my mother, "We cannot do this. Our
father and mother would say this is wrong. Even now,
even after everything we have endured, we must seek
justice, not revenge. There is no other way." My mother,
still crying, kissed her sister and the two of them,
still one, turned and walked away.
What then is the source of our redemption, our
salvation? It lies ultimately in our willingness to
acknowledge the other-the victims we have
created-Palestinian, Lebanese and also Jewish-and the
injustice we have perpetrated as a grieving people.
Perhaps then we can pursue a more just solution in which
we seek to be ordinary rather then absolute, where we
finally come to understand that our only hope is not to
die peacefully in our homes as one Zionist official put
it long ago but to live peacefully in those homes.
When my daughter Jess was submerged under the waters of
the mikvah for the third and final time, she told me she
saw rainbows under the water. I shall take this
beautiful image as a sign of her rebirth and plead
desperately for ours.
Roy is Senior Research Scholar, Center for Middle
Eastern Studies, Harvard University. "A Jewish Plea"
will be published in The War on Lebanon: A Reader . Nubar Hovsepian (ed), Interlink Publishing, Spring 2007.
Sara Roy can be reached at email@example.com.