Added together, my father (now deceased) and I cover 96 years of American history. Born in 1927 – Charles Leven came into this world in the run-up to the Great Depression. Being Jewish, he lived on the periphery of American society, where he was subjected to all its degrading stereotypes (Jews were too poor, too rich, too powerful, too weak, too aggressive, too greedy, too cheap, too insular, and trying too hard to assimilate). In addition to being Christ killers.
Not everyone felt that way. But you don’t remember the people who said nothing. You remember those who spoke. And enough of them routinely did – including national figures like Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, and Henry Ford – to put Charles on the outside of society looking in, where he depended on the vagaries of others for his own sense of self.
I don’t have PTSD and neither do many of you. We all have something, though, in that same genus; emotions and experiences that we carry within ourselves, which inform how we view the world and respond to it.
For Jews, that experience is the Holocaust. Some of you may now be thinking – “here we go again.” But I am going to a different place. One more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis. Because the intersection of the Holocaust, resurgent anti-Semitism and Israel’s military power has literally set the table for Armageddon.
When a person is methodically stripped of his dignity, hunted like an animal, shunned by his neighbors, and – ultimately – murdered he is incrementally and inexorably destroyed. That same progression was experienced by the entire Jewish people, searing the souls not only of those destined to die but also those fated to live. Some chose suicide – born out of survivor guilt. Others, having seen what human beings actually do to each other, vowed “never again.” Most – stunned by the world’s indifference to and complicity in their extermination – went on with their lives. All were scarred.
What does that actually mean? There is a picture of Elie Wiesel as a boy in a fetid wooden bunk at Buchenwald – too weak to move when that concentration camp was liberated by the Allies. Many years later, he described “the place I came from” as having “three simple categories: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders.” Who were those bystanders? Virtually every country. Literally. In 1939, after the first Nazi pogroms, after thousands had been put in concentration camps, after 100s of synagogues had been burned to the ground – publicly – the SS St. Louis began its lonely journey from Germany to the shores of Cuba and the United States. And then back again. Carrying about 900 German Jews, who were denied entry by this country and every single other country that they beseeched. Eventually, these scorned souls were not returned to Germany because a Jewish organization paid a handful of Western European governments $500,000 (in 1930s dollars) to take them in. For that reason, only 40% of those 900 passengers were murdered during the war. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27373131. Instead of 100%.
Protests around the world then, when it would have mattered? No. Indignant students led by their progressive faculty marching for justice? No again. Instead, a deafening silence. There is a difference between wounds and scars. Wounds heal. Scars remain.
Charles did not see any death camps. He was a soldier during WWII who killed Germans and sustained a near mortal combat wound while still a teenager. Only to hear people laugh aloud in movie theaters when Jews were shown training to fight in what was then Palestine and is now Israel.
Though born after these events I could not help being touched by them. Because we all try to make sense of the world. Even children.
As a child, I accepted that – unlike most Americans – we did not celebrate Christmas. I knew that some of my classmates picked fights with me for being a Jew. I heard televangelists (and some of my neighbors) express the belief that neither I nor the parents I so deeply loved could ever go to Heaven. I realized that an entire generation of my people (and many of my family members then living in Europe) had walked into death trains that led them to death camps. But I took solace in the fact that after a 2,000 year journey a place called Israel existed to safeguard me if my own country wouldn’t.
These thoughts bounced around my adolescent mind often enough that I clearly remember having them. They bounce around it still. For me, and for many other Jews.
The world my Dad grew up in presented a stark choice. Fight or die. He fought. The world I grew up in posed a metaphysical question. If anything like that ever happens again, what will I do?
I do not believe that human nature has really changed in the last 80 or 800 years. Neither did my Dad. In that sense – and many others – I am my father’s son. But I am not my father.
He grew up as in an America (and a world) that blithely diminished him in a hundred ways, large and small, with all that suggests. I grew up expecting equality. My father understood antisemitism as being his problem. I understand it as being the anti-Semite’s problem. This difference – at its core – rests on a rejection of the mantle of victimhood, which I feel so profoundly that there are very few things I will not hazard to validate it. That is how I, and many other Jews, have squared this circle.
What else has changed? For one, you may have noticed the multitude of diverse (and often adverse) groups in many countries that deny a complex real world in favor of a bubble-brained, simplistic one. Need I catalog those groups? Here is America’s short list: cancel culture progressives, Trumpholes, far too many college students and academics, social justice warriors who can’t name our three branches of government, insurrectionists “saving” democracy from democracy, the idiot Democratic Left and the idiotic Republican Right.
None of whom will ultimately matter. Because, eventually, reality always triumphs. You can deny that 2 plus 2 is 4 till the cows come home. Now embed that denial into the construction of a bridge and see what happens. The numbing stupidity of segments of American society and our world is not new. Its ubiquity is.
Newer still is the largest pogrom since WWII, which has caused a paradigm shift. In every other pogrom over the centuries, the strong massacred the helpless. This time, Israel has decided that it will no longer allow those who hate Jews to kill them with impunity. And Israel is a nuclear power, commanding up to four hundred nuclear warheads and the systems to deliver them. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapons_and_Israel. That capability represents more than 1,200 Hiroshimas, which can be launched in a matter of minutes. https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/non-proliferation/hiroshima,-nagasaki,-and-subsequent-weapons-testin.aspx#:~:text=The%20explosive%20effect%20of%20each,65%20and%20105%20GJ%20respectively
Newest of all are the mushrooming protests directed against civilian casualties in Gaza. Anyone can find injustice in the death of Jewish and Palestinian innocents. Most (including me) are deeply troubled by what appears to be the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians. Many (including me) disagree with a plethora of Israeli policies, want the West bank settlements to stop, and understand the need for a two state solution.
But there is no equivalence between Israel and Hamas. The former’s policies are a function of which government is in power. The latter has declared open season on all Jews by promoting “International Jihad Day.” Israel is a messy democracy. Hamas is a proxy for Iran. The same Iran whose “morality police” killed 22 year-old Masha Amini just 14 months ago for not wearing a head scarf, jailed thousands who opposed it, and executed others after show trials for the crime of “enmity against God.”
Most of the students protesting for Palestine in the West would not last a minute in either Iran or Gaza. Too many of them are not wearing head scarfs. And yet we see those same students – in their tens of thousands – marching for regimes that would deny them basic human rights.
Besides mindlessness, these waves of protests are being buoyed far too much by two unmistakable undercurrents. One is the notion that the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians justifies the planned, purposeful and calculated rape, murder, decapitation, and immolation of some 1,200 Israeli men, women, children and infants. Another is that by marching for – in effect – Hamas, these protestors are giving succor to a group whose anti-Semitism is foundational. Wrapped with a bow around the fact that Hamas (an Islamic fundamentalist terror group) has no interest in a two-state solution. Their mission is to destroy the Jewish homeland, leaving Jews once again with no choice but to place their survival as a people in the hands of a feckless, indifferent world.
We have seen this movie before. But this time, there may be a different ending. This time, Israel has the ability to cause unimaginable damage to the human race.
People can march, protest, and pontificate. They can simplify, spew anti-Semitic tropes and commit anti-Semitic acts. They can push Jewry, and Israel, to the brink. Or they can actually try to think through what they are actually doing, and how they can actually improve a very dangerous situation. I vote for the latter. Because there is another reality in play. Israel is here, and will not permit anyone to make Jews disappear.
What then, do Hamas and Jews share? They share the prospect of a nuclear winter –supercharged by the toxic few fueled by the far too simple many. I can’t measure how much closer this has moved the Doomsday Clock. It was at 90 seconds to midnight in January. That margin must be even slimmer now.