Friday, April 28, 2023

A Leap into the Absurd: Israel at 75


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David Ben-Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel) publicly pronouncing the Declaration of the State of Israel, May 14 1948, Tel Aviv, Israel, beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern political Zionism, in the old Tel Aviv Museum of Art building on Rothshild St. The exhibit hall and the scroll, which was not yet finished, were prepared by Otte Wallish.

From the moment the United Nations declared the end of the British Mandate, there was enormous fear and worry among the Jews who lived in the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Mandatory Palestine. They were overjoyed that the U.N. had authorized a Jewish State, but frightened that the neighboring Arab countries would attack and push the Jews into the sea.


Marie Syrkin, who visited the Yishuv in 1947, captured the mood in her poem “David”:


Suppose, this time, Goliath should not fail;

Suppose, this time, the sling should not avail

On the Judean plain where once for all

Mankind and pebble struck, suppose the tale

Should have a different end: the shepherd yield

The triumph pass to iron arm and thigh,

The wonder vanish from the blooming field,

The mailed hulk stand, and the sweet singer lie.

“Suppose the tale should have a different end.” This possibility was frightening then, and the counterfactual is still too painful to imagine now. But at the time, disaster seemed like the most probable outcome.

Right before the declaration of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion asked Yigael Yadin, the head of the Haganah, whether his troops could withstand the impending attack. Yadin responded: “If I wanted to sum it all up and be cautious, I’d say that at this moment, our chances are about even. If I wanted to be more honest, I’d say that the other side has a significant edge.” A CIA analysis came to a similar conclusion, saying that initially, the Jewish soldiers would hold off the Arab armies, but "as the Arabs gradually coordinate their war effort, the Jews will be forced to withdraw…and having been drawn into a war of attrition, will gradually be defeated." The situation for the nascent State of Israel in 1948 was quite bleak. Ben-Gurion himself noted in his diary that after the Declaration of Independence, he felt like a mourner at a wedding. Everyone else was celebrating, but he could only think about a possible military collapse.


Just a few years after the Shoah, the haunting possibility of a potential sequel hovered in the air. The Jewish future seemed depressing. Worried about continued antisemitism, some European Jews began to deny their identity and became crypto-Jews. Faith felt like a farce; even the man in the street was saying “God is dead.” It was certainly questionable whether the Jewish people, which had just lost 1/3 of their population in a horrific genocide, would be able to continue for much longer. And now they would take on Goliath, and declare a State of Israel?


It was an absurd decision, by an absurd people, at an absurd time.


Zionism never made much sense. This vision of return, in which, after 2,000 years of exile, a beleaguered and scattered people overcome multiple obstacles to reestablish their homeland, was akin to a science fiction fantasy. In 1895, when Herzl wrote The Jewish State, the possibility of that occurring seemed less likely than spaceships colonizing Mars.


What happened in 1948 was part of a tradition of impracticality that has marked Zionism from the very beginning.


Zionism was a leap into the absurd. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his 1978 essay Catharsis, explains what this phrase means:


There are situations in life with which clear-cut logical processes and utilitarian approaches fail to cope, while the sudden spontaneous leap into the absurd (to use a Kierkegaardian phrase) may save man when he finds himself in utter distress. This non-rational and impractical action is heroic….


Rabbi Soloveitchik sees Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel as a prime example of this:


Jacob had emerged victorious from a most awesome encounter; he had held fast his mysterious foe, through a night of sorrow, fear, and loneliness, until the new day dawned. Was Jacob's victory something to be expected; could it have been predicted logically? Was he certain of victory? Of course not. He was alone, weak and unarmed, a novice in the art of warfare. His antagonist was a powerful professional warrior.


Why did Jacob not surrender to the foe who attacked him in the dark? Jacob acted "absurdly," and contrary to all rational practical considerations.…. He, who had displayed so much business acumen and the keenness of a pragmatic mind during his long sojourn in Laban's household, suddenly, in the darkness of a grisly, strange night, made the leap into the "absurd." He refused to yield to a superior force and declared war upon an invincible enemy. …. With daybreak, the helpless, lonely, non-logical Jacob found himself, unexpectedly, the victor, the hero. The impossible and absurd had triumphed over the possible, and logical: heroism, not logic, won the day.


Is this merely the story of one individual's experience? Is it not in fact the story of Knesset Israel, an entity which is engaged in an "absurd" struggle for survival for thousands of years?


Jewish history is one unending leap into the absurd.


Generations of preachers saw Nachshon ben Aminadav as the paradigm of one who makes this sort of heroic leap. The Talmud (Sotah 37a) says that after the Exodus, the Jews stood on the shore of the Red Sea, afraid to go forward. Nachshon jumped into the water, and only then did the water split. In sermon after sermon, Nachshon has been held up as an example of courage and commitment.


But if you think about it, the Jews of 1945 showed greater heroism. Nachshon was making a leap from faith; he had seen God’s miracles in Egypt and could trust that another one would occur. Not so the post-war Jewish community, who had seen the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet they continued forward against all odds, in an attempt to reverse two millennia of persecution and exile. This truly was a leap into the absurd.


The concept of a leap into the absurd is based on one simple idea: change requires one to imagine the impossible, and then create it. One must take leave of the tried and true without being certain what will happen next. And that is what happened 75 years ago with the founding of the State of Israel.


After the Holocaust, many survivors made the choice to go to Israel. The journey wasn’t easy. At border crossings and ports of entry, police and military authorities would turn back refugees who didn’t have the proper travel papers; and even if one managed to make the journey, entry into the British Mandate was restricted. An underground called the Bricha (literally “flight”) mushroomed overnight, organized by the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, representatives of the Jewish Agency, and the survivors themselves. Over three years, the Bricha smuggled as many as 300,000 people into the British Mandate.


The refugees found multiple different ways to make their way to Israel. Between May and September 1947, as many as 8,000 refugees, men, women, and children, hiked through the Krimml Pass, which runs between Austria and Italy and is 12 miles long and 8,642 feet high. They did so under the cover of darkness, in conditions that would challenge even expert mountain climbers. (An Austrian organization, Alpine Peace Crossing, holds a yearly hike and seminar in tribute to these refugees.) These stories, like the Bricha itself, are astonishing. As one survivor put it, when she initially heard about the Bricha she thought it “was something sort of unbelievable…. How could it be possible?”


Once the survivors got to Israel, they joined the Haganah and fought in the War of Independence; nearly 22,000 of Israel’s soldiers at the time were Holocaust survivors. This too boggles the mind; to join the battle against Goliath after surviving the Shoah is truly a leap into the absurd.

Eliezer Ayalon was one of those soldiers. His entire family perished in the Treblinka extermination camp, and he had survived five different concentration camps. He arrived in Israel at age 17. A short while later, he was part of the 16th Brigade of Jerusalem and fighting in the War of Independence.

Years later in an interview, he reflected on his life in Israel. He said:

So here I am right now, I have two married children, five grandchildren and one great-grandson. Three generations born and raised from the ashes of the Holocaust. Today I am the happiest man in the world.


Eliezer and others like him have built families, communities, and a remarkable country.


But in 1945, all this seemed impossible. Back then, it was difficult to even imagine Israel surviving; yet today, she is a country of nearly ten million people, and a cultural and economic success. It’s absurd, isn’t it?


Happy birthday Israel!

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

They Have Not Died in Vain: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Eighty Years Later

The sheer audacity of it is astounding. On April 19th, 1943, a rag-tag group in the Warsaw Ghetto took on the most powerful army in Europe. With a handful of pistols and Molotov cocktails, the Jewish fighters held off a far larger army equipped with artillery, tanks, and airplanes. In the end, the Nazis had to resort to mass destruction to counter the resistance; they razed the ghetto to the ground, blowing it up building by building. Even so, the battle raged on for weeks, with the bulk of the resistance only ending after the Nazi destruction of Mila 18 on May 8th.

Jewish resistance during Holocaust was the subject of fierce debate after World War II. Some disparaged the 6 million victims of the Holocaust as going “like sheep to the slaughter” for not fighting back. Critics such as Bruno Bettelheim and Raul Hilberg claimed that the Jews, by being so obedient, made it easier for the Nazis to kill them. To them, the cowardly, docile Jew, always accommodating, failed to live up to the challenge of the time. Many, particularly survivors, found this theory to be deplorable.

The reality is quite different; there was a considerable amount of Jewish resistance during World War II. Thousands of Jews escaped the Nazis and joined partisan brigades. Underground organizations sprouted up in nearly four dozen ghettos, and there were two dozen uprisings in concentration and forced labor camps. Henri Michel found that Jewish resistance during World War II was far more substantial than that of the Soviet prisoners of war, even though 3.3 million Soviet POWs died in Nazi captivity. As Yehuda Bauer explains, the intensity of Jewish resistance was actually quite surprising. 

But why did they resist? After two millennia of exile, one would expect the Jews to be weaklings, completely broken and beaten down. Where did the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto find their courage?

The answer lies in the Jewish calendar. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began just a few hours before Pesach. The timing was determined by the Nazis, who, perhaps because of their sadistic habit of murdering Jews on Jewish holidays, chose to storm the ghetto that day. But the Jewish response was very much a Pesach response. Alexander Donat, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote this about that evening in his memoir:

Monday night Passover was to start. We had not prepared to observe the holiday fully, but its spirit was very much with us. Under the circumstances, the Haggadah took on a special meaning.

For Donat and centuries of Jews, the Pesach Seder is a classroom of courage. It reminds us that freedom comes first. The Talmud (Kiddushin 22b) explains that after having experienced slavery in Egypt, a Jew must never accept another master upon themselves, and the story of the Exodus reminds Jews never to forget about the dream of redemption. As the leader of the rebellion Mordechai Anielewicz put in a talk to his fighters: The most difficult struggle of all is the one within ourselves. Let us not get accustomed and adjusted to these conditions. The one who adjusts ceases to discriminate between good and evil. He becomes a slave in body and soul. Whatever may happen to you, always remember: Don’t adjust! Revolt against the reality!

On that first night of the uprising, the words of the Haggadah echoed in bunkers and hiding places throughout the Ghetto. In a room that looked as if it were hit by a hurricane, Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchok Maisel conducted the Seder, despite the shooting and explosions just outside; when fighters stopped by he would offer them words of encouragement. To Tuvia Borzykowski, Maisel said “that although he was old and broken.. the young people must not give up…” When Zivia Lubetkin, one of the key leaders of the resistance stopped in, Maisel interrupted the Seder, put his hands on her head and blessed her, and said “I am ready to die now.”  

That evening, the values of the Seder came to life. Jewish blood was no longer cheap; Jews would no longer cower before their murderers. Like the Pharaoh of the Exodus, the Nazis deserved plagues, punishment, and more; by fighting back, these fighters avenged the deaths of their friends and families. As Anielewicz wrote in his final letter, “Self-defense in the ghetto is a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.”

In the Haggadah there is a verse, taken from the Book of Ezekiel (16:6), “And I said to you in your blood you shall live, and I said to you in your blood you shall live." Life can emerge from destruction, and the blood, sweat, and tears of one generation can bring hope to the next. In Yad Vashem, this verse is the caption for a sculpture commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; and indeed, that is the very legacy of the fighters. 

This uprising renewed the Jewish spirit, and future generations would draw inspiration from the fighters’ courage and heroism. These men and women were exceptionally young, (almost all in their teens and early twenties,) and yet they stood unafraid, ready to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of justice and freedom. Mary Berg, an American Citizen who was interred in the Ghetto at the time, wrote in her diary the ghetto’s starved, exhausted defenders fought heroically against the powerful Nazi war machine. They did not wear uniforms, they had no ranks, they received no medals for their superhuman exploits. Their only distinction was death in the flames. All of them are Unknown Soldiers, heroes who have no equals.

These fighters gave up their lives to build a better Jewish future, where other young Jews can walk proudly and without apology wherever they go. Eighty years later, it is up to us, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, to resolve that those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising “shall not have died in vain,” and ensure that it is so.