The Last Time I Saw Yaakov
May 23, 2017
25 Min read time
No matter how political things seem, they are invariably personal.
I last saw Yaakov — I will call him Yaakov — in the mid-80s on the Lower East Side of New York. He was visiting from Jerusalem, traveling with the wife of a Soviet dissident on behalf of Jewish dissidents imprisoned in Russia. Yaakov, one of the few English speaking members of their religious sect in Jerusalem, had been sent along to assist her.
I had not seen him since we had been close friends in Jerusalem nearly ten years before, such close friends that we had shared a room at Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus dormitory. Since then I had heard from him only once: after I'd left Israel he had written to me in America, telling me of his intention to enroll in the Yeshiva of an orthodox sect in Jerusalem, and calling me, too, to an awareness of my responsibilities to my Judaism. But I had heard about him: a few years prior to his trip to New York, in Paris, I had seen his old girlfriend from that time in Jerusalem. She — a liberal Jew from the South of France who had been at Hebrew University with us — told me of Yaakov's determination to join the isolated but powerful subculture of fundamentalist radicals in Israel. She had received frantic calls from his parents, hoping she could dissuade him from taking this step. Yaakov had tried to convince her to join him in this — in what would have amounted, for her, to a religious conversion. She refused, and they broke up. After that, until he called me in Connecticut some ten years later, I heard nothing.
Yaakov, who justified murder with a religious myopia that concealed personal trauma, failed to see that he has made a travesty of the Holocaust.
But he had been a close friend, one of the great friends of my life, and so the evening after his call I borrowed my girlfriend's car and drove down to an address in a still Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side in New York. I did not know what I would find there, but I doubted that I would mention that my girlfriend who lent me her car was a Beiruti Maronite.
In a shabby apartment, I found Yaakov and the dissident's wife. She had converted, on her escape from the Soviet Union, to what Avishai Margalit calls "ultra-orthodox" Judaism. Her hair was tied up in a scarf, and she immediately set about serving us dinner. Yaakov's kind, familiar features were hidden behind a massive beard and peyes descending from his sideburns. He was dressed in the drab black suit of his religion.
The dissident's wife served one of the worst meals of my life: fish sticks and spaghetti with ketchup — while Yaakov sat complacently at the table and ate with studied indifference, neither thanking her for nor acknowledging her womanly ministrations. After dinner, we left our plates on the table — mine untouched — and, pausing for Yaakov to don his black hat and overcoat, walked out to find a kosher restaurant for a cup of coffee and a talk.
All of this was strange, a glimpse into an utterly foreign world. But more than anything, what rendered this experience bizarre was that when Yaakov and I had been friends in Jerusalem, his name was Frank, and he was a clean shaven, handsome, cosmopolitan young man from a small city in Germany, a Christian whose father had fought for Hitler on the Eastern Front. He had come to Israel first, like many young Germans, to volunteer on a kibbutz as reparation, and then stayed to study in the program designed for foreign students at Hebrew University. At the end of that year, instead of continuing to his undergraduate degree, or returning home, he had begun a series of conversations with a Jerusalem Rabbi that had led to his conversion and entrance into a Yeshiva.
• • •
My own experience of Israel had been the opposite of Frank's — a time of alienation rather than, as Israelis concerned with immigration like to say, assimilation. True, at first it was hard for an 18-year-old not to fall victim to the most immediately apparent level of that country's complicated ethos. There was, in the Israeli journalist Tom Segev's terms, Holocaust and Heroism. Holocaust was represented by the memorial stones in the kibbutz graveyard where I was called, upon my arrival, to help make up a minyan; heroism by the fighter pilots who regularly used the reflective tin roof of the kibbutz dairy where I worked for mock-bombing practice, spooking the cows and leaving us with a few seconds to cover our ears before the sound barrier broke a few hundred yards above us. There were no Israelis my age on the kibbutz; they were all in the Army, but there were veterans of each war, as well as a hero from the raid on Entebbe, and Holocaust survivors from Europe. On the kibbutz property I found artillary installations left over from the last war, and later, on a military settlement where I spent a short, intensely depressing week on the West Bank, I was given a captured Kalashnikov to carry to work in the fields. On Yom ha-Sho'ah, "Day of the Holocaust," the entire country observed a moment of silence; kibbutz members told me awful, unforgettable stories of battle; folksongs commemorated the heroic Jewish paratroopers who jumped behind German lines during the war.
My own time in Israel had been one of alienation.
But it had not taken long for the faultlines to show. Beyond the real heroism of Israel's defensive wars, beyond the public commemoration of the Holocaust, contradictions were increasingly evident, and required ever greater effort to overlook. Where I had expected to find the rich intellectual tradition and political ambivalence of this small country's culture, a culture informed by the literary, philosophical, and political traditions of pre-war Europe — a country where once, Gershon Scholem and Martin Buber could be seen drinking coffee in Jerusalem cafses — I found a prevalent contempt for that tradition, as if all that I valued in Judaism were, in this Jewish country, denied. Instead I found a deep current of anti-intellectualism, whether in religious fanaticism or militaristic kitsch. In the midst of the kibbutz — the backbone of socialist Zionism, foundation of the country — were the crews of Arab laborers who did all the construction and heavy work on the kibbutz grounds. And the kibbutz movement was actively recruiting foreign members like myself because they were unable to keep their own children on the farm. Aliyah — the Hebrew word for immigration to Israel that comes from the verb "to ascend" — was at a standstill, while yordim — emigrants from Israel to foreign countries, from the verb "to descend" — could be seen all over the world: driving cabs in New York, opening restaurants in Australia, settling in that closely allied country, South Africa. And, in the Begin years which started during my visit, young Israelis were to do the unthinkable: they would refuse service in the Lebanon War, so grossly did the Israeli presence in Lebanon strike them as morally and militarily unjustifiable.
Anti-intellectualism, kitsch ideology, a virtual apartheid throughout the country, and narrow nationalism: even before knowing Israel well, I found my reactions perverse. I learned Hebrew badly, but came to speak a decent French with the many French friends I made; my single close Israeli friend was a man who had been imprisoned for refusing army service in any but the non-combatant medical service, and who had a life-size photo of Isaac Hayes on his wall. And my best friend, Frank, was a German Christian.
• • •
We met when, following a year on the kibbutz, I enrolled in Hebrew University's preparatory year for foreign students with a view to studying agriculture and perhaps returning to the kibbutz. In the confusion of foreign students from all over the world, we were immediately drawn to each other, and agreed to share a room after the summer. I introduced him to my circle of French friends, and one of them soon became his girlfriend.
I had known Germans before — for young Americans, Germans are often the most easily understandable of Europeans with their similarly affluent economy and youth-based culture — and it had never before occurred to me to consider Frank anything other than a European. Now Frank introduced me to a universe of which I had previously been only slightly aware, but which I learned about later, through Peter Handke and Wim Wenders: the universe of the "born guilty." During that year I came to know him well, met members of his family, learned in detail about his life: his childhood, his university career, his work after university. And I learned about the singular, enormous weight of guilt under which he had grown up and which had driven him to Israel.
Raul Hilberg sums up the world of the Second World War as a world of "perpetrators, victims, and bystanders." The guilt of the victims was at least imaginatively familiar to me, as it must be to anyone who has ever opened himself to the fact of the Holocaust. As for the guilt of bystanders, growing up during Vietnam was more than enough to understand that, and if it were not sufficient, I had also in my arsenal the fact of having spent the first few years of my life in South Africa. But the guilt of the perpetrators — or rather, the children of the perpetrators — to this I had never been exposed.
To feel himself bound not to his father's guilt, but his country's guilt, is what amazed me.
At first, it struck me as senseless: Frank had done nothing, he was not born until after the war. Even his father — if he wished to assume his father's guilt, which seemed to me foolish — had been a minor conscript on a distant front, wholly uninvolved with the Final Solution. And yet Frank was defined by guilt, and considered it his responsibility to add his own personal effort to the millions of reparation Deutschmarks flowing from West Germany to Israel.
That, perhaps, more than anything else, amazed me: to feel himself bound not to his father's guilt, but his country's guilt. And I came slowly to understand an enormous difference between us: Like many Americans growing up in the 60s and 70s, I had been so long accustomed to mistrusting patriotism, to considering the government my enemy and my country's culture alienating, that now, to find that people associated their very identities with political entities, with governments and countries, was astounding.
And yet it was everywhere in that small country: Israelis defined by their conviction that only their country prevented another Holocaust; Americans and French whose Zionism formed the basis of their identities; and then Frank, a German who felt that his life's mission was to devote himself to reparation for what his country had done before he was born. Of all the Zionisms I encountered, Frank's was the most baffling.
Part of the answer was revealed one night when Frank woke me from across the room we shared, asking me if I could make him a cup of tea. I assumed he was talking in his sleep, and turned on the light. What I saw was that he was indeed awake, and in trauma. During the night while I sat up with him he told me the strange story of why he had come to Israel. It is a story too personal to repeat, a story of the intimate experiences and events of his life in Germany that had convinced him that he needed, urgently, to immerse himself in a structured existence. The kibbutz had provided one way to do that, but in the end it had not been enough. And so he had come to study in Jerusalem, to learn about being Jewish, to consider another, even more strictly ordered life, that of orthodox Judaism.
I never learned anything more about it. That year, Begin had been elected, and now the worst righteousness, historical myopia, and militarism that I had already come to resent in Israel were empowered by his ultra-nationalistic parliamentary majority which, I felt convinced, did not represent a popular majority. In a year, I would become eligible for the draft; it was time to make a decision whether to stay or go. The decision was not hard to make — without finishing the school year, I took my leave. And with the exception of one letter, in which he informed me that his name was now Yaakov, I was not in touch with Frank again until he came, ten years later, to New York with the Soviet dissident's wife.
• • •
Yaakov and I wandered out into the winter streets on the Lower East Side in search of a kosher restaurant. We did not have to look far: in this neighborhood my standard American dress rather than Yaakov's 16th century Polish garb was the anomaly. At the restaurant he wolfed down a piece of strudel and a cup of coffee — food, to these people, is not to be enjoyed but taken ascetically as mere sustenance. Then, as I sipped my coffee and smoked, we talked.
He had lost almost all of his English, which had been nearly fluent when we had met, and spoke now in a thick accent, more Yiddish than German. He told me about his entrance to his orthodox sect, his studies in the Yeshiva. He had made an arranged marriage to a woman in the community. He studied, he worked within the community, he served in the Army.
I recognized my friend in this serious, bearded, fanatic man across the table, and felt great affection for him, until he said 'I think it my responsibility to kill as many Arabs as possible.'
He was less interested in what had become of me — whatever it was, it was not what I should have been doing. He explained to me at length the universal significance of his religion, how its importance transcended the fate of Jews, how the correct practice of Judaism — his practice — implied the eventual salvation of the world. He was particularly concerned with my Bible, an Oxford Annotated Bible that I have owned and traveled with for many years and which remains to this day very dear to me: he did not feel it was the appropriate Bible for a Jew; he wished to bring me, however marginally, back into the fold. Beyond this, I do not remember much of what he said: much of it — like the instantaneous translation of a fabringen I once attended of the late Rabbi Schneerson — was a barely comprehensible discourse composed of cosmic terms.
Still, I recognized my friend in this serious, bearded, fanatic man across the table, and felt great affection for him, until, in response to my question about his army service, he told me the thing I remember most clearly from this conversation. I think it, he said, my responsibility to kill as many Arabs as possible. And with those words, our evening entered another moral dimension entirely: I was foolish enough to be less curious about him than I was unwilling to listen to any more opinions of that kind, and left him shortly thereafter.
• • •
Two things about leaving Israel had been a huge relief to me: the absence of any clear risk of getting my limbs blown off; and the freedom from the endless talk about Israeli and Arab politics. In time, the circular arguments — the Holocaust and the necessity of a Jewish State, Palestinian terrorism, Arab antisemitism, Arab manipulation of the Palestinians as a tool against Israel, the Zionist justification of Israel — faded from my mind. So much so that when, on a Paris metro, a young Palestinian man, seeing a Star of David around my neck, felt obliged to make the victory sign at me and say "Vive la Palestine," I felt nothing but agreement and curiosity. "Je suis tout fait d'accord," I told him, "but why are you telling me this?"
"Because you're a Jew."
"Yeah, exactly. A Jew, not an Israeli."
"But the two are like this," he said, holding up two intertwined fingers, and was surprised when I began to laugh.
I regret laughing now. A Palestinian acquaintance said recently that in the occupied territories, no one can tell the difference between a Star of David — the same as appears on the Israeli flag; the same as appears on the Israeli Army jeeps throughout the territories — and a swastika. The comparison is simplistic, and he knew it, but I take his point. Is it even possible to ask young Gazans or Nazarenes to bring a historical perspective to the fact of their life-long terrorization by an occupying army, symbolized by the Star of David? Should they think about the Sykes-Picot agreement during their daily humiliation by heavily armed Israelis? Should they think about Kristalnacht? Rabin himself has spoken of the occupation as having corrupted the Jewish state, and the silver Star of David I wear around my neck, a deeply personal acknowledgement of continuity between myself and the generations of the Holocaust, has been stolen from me by the years of occupation.
I found myself plunged into that circle of righteousness from which I thought I had escaped.
And yet, against the enormity of the occupation's crime against Palestinians, other facts weigh with heavy emotional force. Kristalnacht happened, and as we all know, from first day to last, the Allied forces fought World War II as a purely political war, with a disregard of the War Against the Jews so thorough as to constitute an international conspiracy of antisemitism. Yes, I see that the swastika and Star of David are identical to a young Palestinian. Does he see how, for young Israelis, the torture, starvation, rape, experimentation, humiliation, and attempted genocide of the entire Jewish population of Nazi occupied Europe might weigh heavily against the complex and ambiguous demands of justice? Does he see that the centuries of world-wide antisemitism that preceded the Holocaust have, since 1948, been perpetuated by the Arab governments who have indulged a hopeless state of war against Israel, a state of war for which the Palestinians have paid so high a price that it is virtually a state of war against them too?
I laughed when I encountered that Palestinian on the Paris Metro because in his gesture of intertwining two fingers, I found myself plunged into that circle of righteousness from which I thought I had escaped, as clearly as if I were transported right back to an Old City Teahouse in Jerusalem, arguing history with a Palestinian — in those days before the Intifadah when one could go argue with Palestinians in teahouses. I laughed at how quickly, how effectively, he had plunged me back into the past; I laughed because before that earnest young man telling me that Jews and Israelis were indistinguishable, I saw no way out.
But that same year in Paris, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah came out, and through it I began to see an involvement in Judaism that was neither nationalistic nor religious: a way of studying the Holocaust which is not a righteous commemoration, but rather a deep questioning of human experience, of human history and art, not restricted to a definition of victims and perpetrators but dedicated to a profound understanding of the most brutally tragic and epistemologically bewildering moment of history. This study, unlike anything I encountered in Israel, implicates all humanity rather than an ethnic group; it enlightens its student to the tragedy of all nationalisms and racisms, not just the Holocaust, but also the Slave Trade, the genocide of the Native Americans, the Armenian Massacre. The Holocaust studied in this light, I began to see, on two afternoons in Paris as I sat before the unprecedented work by Lanzmann, would not justify the occupation or the treatment of West Bank Palestinians. Rather, it would render the occupation unthinkable.
Holocaust and Heroism. If you visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or Yad Vashem in Israel, you will learn a great deal about Hitler's attempted genocide of the Jews — perhaps you will even take away, as these institutions ardently wish, an imaginative sense of what the unimaginable experience of the Holocaust was. You will learn the dismal, deeply ingrained history of European antisemitism; you will learn of Hitler's enthralling charisma, his thuggish rise to power; you will learn of the culpable indifference of the Allied governments and their citizenry to the plight of European Jewry. And at the end, you will arrive at a section on Heroism: the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; the Lodz Ghetto uprising; Jewish Partisans; the liberation of the camps by Allied forces, and above all, the heroic redemption of Israel. And you will leave, inevitably, with a deep sense of Jewish victimization, and German guilt.
But as I followed the path that Shoah opened up, I began to wonder. Where in the space between Holocaust and Heroism is Hannah Arendt, with her radical non-sectarian insight into Eichmann's banality? Where is Camus, following the insight of The Plague — "we are all Jews" — with the realization of The Fall — "we are all Germans"? Where is Shoshana Felman, interweaving her reading of Camus with a political, psychological, and human understanding of our art and our century that zeroes in on the terrible, universal centrality of the Holocaust, not only for Jews, but for humanity? Where is Ben-Hecht's horrifying coverage of the 1954 Kasztner trial — or Tom Segev's recent study of it — in which Ben-Gurion's government itself stood accused of complacency, if not complicity with the Nazis, during the Holocaust? Where is Ka-Tzetnik 135633, the Israeli survivor who uses his Auschwitz inmate number as his author's name, and who wrote "Wherever there is humankind, there is Auschwitz. Because it was not Satan that made Auschwitz but you and I, just as Satan did not create the [nuclear] mushroom, but rather you and I."
The path that Shoah opens does not end, as does the trip through the National Holocaust Museum, with images of liberation, but with another, lesser known image: that powerful image from Axel Corti's virtually ignored film, Where To and Back, which in three parts follows Jewish refugees from Vienna after Kristalnacht (God Does Not Believe in Us Any More), to exile in New York (Sante Fe), and ultimately back to Vienna (Welcome in Vienna) as German-speaking Americans with the US Army occupation. Corti shows one of his characters leaving for a meeting in the Russian Zone of Vienna, disgusted with American indifference to the complicity of Austrian Nazis in the Holocaust — disgusted with the antisemitism of his own commanding officer — and horrified with the brute business-as-usual of occupied Vienna. And so he decides to defect, convinced that he will find a truer idealism on the other side of the rapidly shutting Iron Curtain. But his Party contact — is she Jewish? — does not want him on her side. She wants him to stay where he is, in the American army, as a spy; she sends him, with his idealism, trudging back to the American Zone. In the image of that — Austrian? American? Jewish? — man, wandering back to the decadence of American-occupied Vienna, where the emerging bureaucracies are already rife with Nazis and antisemites, Corti sums up the futility of any sense that anything, anything at all changed with the Second World War.
Yes, the argument runs, these are deep and important philosophical points. But the Holocaust Museum is not here to teach philosophical complexity, here in this country where a terrifying percentage of young Americans don't actually know what the Holocaust is, and where antisemitism is fundamental to the bigotry of off-the-grid radicals. The Holocaust Museum is here to establish the elementary facts of history.
But can an education in the Holocaust be even minimally adequate with those facts alone?
There are stages, I found, in an education in the Holocaust. There is a time when the atrocious brutality of the attempted genocide, the sadism, the indifference, and the bone-deep antisemitism are all. They overwhelm any other kind of thought, leaving hate, such as Abba Kovner's post-war plan to poison the drinking water of the two Germanys and kill 7 million Germans, as the only response. There is a stage of terrible isolation, in which the realization dawns that the Nazis could never have carried out the Final Solution without the tacit approval of the world around them. There is the horror of one's fascination with these images of atrocity. And then there is the dreadful moment when you are no longer affected by the testimony of survivors, when you are familiar enough with the rape, torture, starvation, experimentation, and gassing that they no longer elicit an emotional response.
One day, attending a video interview with a survivor for the Yale University Holocaust Archives, I felt this last stage as a terrible indifference. I came to see that under the rubric of Holocaust and Heroism, there are only two conclusions: righteousness and accusation, on one hand; indifference on the other. Both demean the Holocaust, both encourage its repetition.
• • •
Once you've been interested in Middle Eastern politics, you find the same questions everywhere — the local Arab grocery, Middle Eastern cab drivers, Israeli shopkeepers. Nothing ever changes: sometimes, through the Internet, I check in on Middle Eastern newsgroups, or join the Palestinian chat channel, and I hear the same kind of nonsense I heard nearly 20 years ago in Israel. Is Israel justified? Are Hamas members terrorists, or soldiers? Did the Holocaust occur? Can the Israeli forces be compared to Nazis? Is terrorism justified? The names change, and the level of brutality has certainly escalated, but everything else is the same — same circular righteousness, same absurd justifications, same unending violence.
Since knowing Yaakov, if it all seems just as tragic, or more so, the absurdity of all this is more apparent to me. New generations, from Brooklyn to Nazareth, grow into consciousness of the argument, but the same underlying assumptions remain unquestioned: assumptions of nationalism, of righteousness, of revenge.
But I no longer see the argument in the same light. When I see a young Hamas member talking about how proud he is of the tragic bombing of a bus full of Israelis in Tel Aviv, I remember Yaakov talking about his responsibility to kill Arabs; when I see a Jewish West Bank settler defending the fanatic mass murderer Dr. Baruch Goldstein, I see Frank, lying in bed, in trauma. George Orwell wrote somewhere that all of his writing, no matter how personal the story, is always political. Yaakov taught me that no matter how political things seem, they're invariably personal. I see that for the Hamas member, the West Bank Settler, and my old friend Yaakov, politics are not, as they believe, purely moral commitments to the cause of right, but answers to personal needs: needs for personal meaning, perhaps, or for righteousness — needs for identity. The Hamas member has been raised through a lifetime of what can only seem to him castrating political and cultural oppression; threatening his masculinity, imposing poverty and marginality. The West Bank settler lives in a world he imagines is out to destroy him and his birthright; he's haunted by the specter of the Holocaust, unable to rise above the threat to his personal safety he sees around him. And Yaakov, born guilty and oppressed by his personal history, finds his meaning in religious observance and the desire to kill. Everything is personal, and yet Yaakov and his religious kind, working in what Amos Oz so correctly describes as a powerful alliance with the ultra-orthodox and nationalistic Muslims of Hamas and Islamic Holy War, may well undo the Oslo Accords and the Rabin-Arafat peace process.
Years ago, in high school, I remember being shocked when one of my teachers, a Jew, said that she was sick of the Holocaust. "It happened 40 years ago," she said, "it's time to forget it." In the end I find myself rather agreeing with her, with a slight difference: It happened 50 years ago, it's time to learn from it. Because we know today that for all the power of Adorno's dictum, nothing has changed since the Second World War. Not only is there art after Auschwitz, but there's also genocide and atrocity: we tolerate ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda and Burundi; we live with interrogation camps in Israel, gross and persistent racism in America. Yes, the attempted genocide of the Jews by the Germans is unique, no, it can not be compared to any other moment in history. That's all the more reason that before the universal indifference to daily horror, from Nazareth to Rwanda, nationalistic righteousness is farcical.
And Yaakov, who justifies murder with a religious myopia that, in turn, conceals personal trauma, fails to see that he of all people — he with his legacy of guilt and reparation — has made a travesty of the Holocaust and withdrawn any possibility of meaning from the brutal torture and extermination of millions of Jews during the Third Reich: he trivializes their memory, he makes transcendence hopeless. Perhaps the heroic Rabin, Peres, and Arafat will effect some meaningful change in Israel, if they're not undone by the world's great scourge, identical in Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike: fundamentalism. And certainly the great suffering and political complication of the Mideast cannot be simplified. But in the end, I come back again and again to a quote I discovered a few years ago in the mouth of Patrick O'Brian's Dr. Stephen Maturin:
I have such a sickening of men in masses and of causes, that I would not cross this room to reform parliament or prevent the union or to bring about the millennium....And I have nothing to do with nations, or nationalism. The only feelings I have — for what they are — are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.
I don't know where Yaakov is now. I remember him often: his stories of his youth in a small town in Germany; the details of our lives as roommates; the utter absorption with which he mastered Hebrew and studied the violin. I think often of the way he comforted me after I had been disappointed in an infatuation, his faithful empathy and affectionate understanding. But when I think back to the friend I had, that year in Jerusalem, I must also think of the brittle, harsh ideologue I met years later in New York, a man who had by then killed for his religious and nationalistic beliefs, and then I feel the great and unheroic truth of Maturin's words.
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May 23, 2017
25 Min read time