The Shame Of It All by Daniel Gordis

The Shame Of It All
March 7, 2008


There were days, and they were not that long ago, when Zionism was about something
different. Days when Zionists could articulate what the purpose of Jewish Statehood
was, days when Israelis understood that having a state was about changing the existential
condition of the Jew. Not anymore.

Hayyim Nachman Bialik, writing in 1905 shortly after the slaughter in Kishinev,
understood that the very essence of Jewish existence had to change. What else could
he possibly have been saying in his epic poem, "The City of Slaughter" (scroll down to the two paragraphs that begin with the lines
"Descend then, to the cellars of the town"), when he describes the mass rape scene in
which Jewish women are helpless victims and Jewish men are powerless to intervene? In fact,
for Bialik, the villains of the scene are not the Cossacks; rape and murder are simply what
Cossacks do. The problem with what happened in Kishinev, Bialik intimates with his
bitter irony, rests with the Jewish men. It's bad enough that they were too weak
to intervene, to defend their wives, their sisters, their mothers and their daughters,
though that is clearly lamentable. But worse than that, they were too frightened
to even try. And even worse than that, Bialik says, is that when the slaughter
and the butchery were over, these men looked down at the broken bodies of the women
that they had supposedly once loved, and instead of holding them, instead of telling
them that they still loved them, instead of assuring them that they would take care
of them no matter what, they gazed at these violated, half-dead women, and saw a
halakhic question. "Is my wife," the Kohanim in Bialik's poem want to know, "still
permitted to me?"

It makes no difference whether or not anyone in Kishinev really asked that question,
or thought to. Bialik is not a journalist in this poem. He's a diagnostician, describing
the human (or no longer human) condition of the Jew. And what he wants us to know
is that what is wrong with the Jews is that they have come to accept their victimization
as part of nature. They're no longer shocked by what is done to them, no longer
infuriated by their own powerlessness. These Jewish men, their humanity too eroded
by years of religious escapism and yeshiva study for them to see the broken women
they should have loved as anything other than halakhic questions, aren't people
anymore. Real people, Bialik suggests, simply don't stand by and watch their family
members get raped and slaughtered and do nothing about it. Even if you'll get
killed in the process, you try to defend the people you love. When you no longer
defend your family, he intimates, you're not human, you're sick. The Jews are sick,
he says, their souls eroded by passivity, by weakness, by fear. And the cure, we
know not from this poem but from much of what he writes, is a Jewish homeland.

Just over forty years later, with much water under the bridge and six million Jewish
men, women and children having been ushered heavenward through smokestacks across
Eastern Europe while the world either conspired to assist in the murder or simply
watched and pretended to be aghast, the State of Israel was about to be born. And
Natan Alterman, who in some ways had replaced Bialik as the poet laureate of the
Zionist movement, wanted Jews to understand what was unfolding. It wasn't just
a country that they were getting; it was purpose, salvation. The Jews would not
simply have a State; the Jews would be transformed.

And thus, in " The Silver Platter" (a translation
one can quibble with, but the best that I've found on the web), when the whole nation
assembles to receive the "unique miracle", they are assembled not at Sinai, but
in their homeland. And they are awaiting not Torah, but Statehood. Independence,
not religion, is what will save the Jews, Alterman is effectively saying. It's
a step beyond Bialik. In Bialik's poem, the Jew in Europe is dying, but there's
no clear solution. Forty years later, after the UN had voted on the Partition Plan
and Israel was about to be created, Alterman believed that the solution was at hand.

Alterman clearly shares Bialik's disdain for what they both see as Judaism's religiously
induced passivity. In his poem, as the people awaits its transformative moment,
State replaces Torah. And if you look carefully, and compare the biblical account
of the giving of the Torah at Sinai (especially Exodus 19),
you'll see other differences. In the Biblical account, Moses tells the men not to
approach a woman (verse 15), but here, the boy and the girl are inseparable, and
virtually indistinguishable. In the Torah, the Israelites are commanded to wash
their clothes (verse 10); but in the poem, the boy and the girls are caked with
dirt, and they do not wash. Saving the Jews, Alterman wants to suggest, requires
that you get dirty. "You prefer to stay clean?" he seems to say - "fine, but prepare
to be dead." We'll come back to that.

For Alterman, like Bialik, like many of the Zionists of their day, Zionism was about
changing the condition of the Jew, by changing the nature of the Jew. And for them,
the nature of the Jew would be changed by moving away from the religious tradition
that made us weak, that offered us a "spiritual refuge" in which we could pretend
that things were not as they are, that was an opiate guaranteed to prevent the Jews'
confronting the utter intolerability of their condition.

Bialik and Alterman were, of course, quite right. And dead wrong. Bialik was right
that the condition of the Jew in Europe was untenable (though as he died in 1934,
he never got to know exactly how right he was), and Alterman was right that new
boys and new girls, caked in dirt and blood, would help redeem what was left of
the Jewish people. But they were sadly wrong about the advisability of leaving Jewish
religious discourse in the dust, for they failed to predict how quickly Israelis
- bereft of any substantive Jewish discourse - would find themselves unable to
say, or to remember, why they needed this State in the first place.

When you've lost the sense that Jewish statehood is about changing the condition
of the Jew, and when you can no longer recall that independence was designed (inter
alia) to end the era of hunting seasons in which the Jews are the ducks, just because
they're Jews, when any semblance of a Jewish conversation is thoroughly absent from
your worldview, it's hard to say much about why the Jews need a State. It's hard
to say why the high cost of living here (and I don't mean financial) is worth it.
How do you explain to your friends, and to yourself, why you should drive your eighteen
year old son to the base where he'll be inducted, and hope and pray for three long
years (or more) that he'll be OK, if you have no idea why a Jewish State matters?

When you can't articulate why you need this State, you fret. You worry mostly about
what the world thinks of you, because more than anything else, you simply want to
be "normal," indistinguishable, just like everyone else. So, just like the "men"
in Bialik's poem, you don't allow yourself to be horrified by the fact that almost
8,000 rockets have been fired at Sederot, that life there has been transformed into
hell. You don't allow yourself to remember that for years, yes seven years, kids
(and old kids, sometimes in their teens) have been sleeping in their parents' rooms,
making any kind of normal family life utterly impossible, elementary school kids
have been wetting their beds, half the businesses are vacated, more than half the
town is empty, the economy doesn't exist and everyone is scared to death, all the

You don't allow yourself to focus on the fact that this is exactly what Zionism
was supposed to prevent. You get so used to it that you don't see that Jews sitting
like ducks, simply waiting to be hit by homemade missiles while the region's most
powerful army sits on the side and polishes its boots, is a bastardization of what
Zionism was supposed to be.

When you can't say anything anymore about why the Jews need a state, about what
Statehood was supposed to do to the condition of the Jew, you don't allow yourself
to stare reality squarely in the face and to wonder what will happen when they get
Grads, and then Katyushas, and hit Ashkelon and then Ashdod - until they start.
And then, when they do (which they did, this week), you tell yourself that it's
"not so bad." After all, in yesterday's attacks on Sederot, "only" one woman was
killed. "Only" one house (not her house, but a different one) was burnt to the
ground. And in the roadside bombing of an army patrol, which isn't even on the news
anymore, because last night got a lot worse, they "only" killed one soldier, and
"only" one soldier was in extremely critical condition. "Only" a few families forever
destroyed - we're going to get worked up about that?

When a country's leadership can't express a single coherent thought about why the
Jews need a State, when its Prime Minister can articulate no agenda for the Jewish
State beyond the hope that it will be "a fun place to live"
(and look who gleefully cites that interview), you know we're bankrupt. You're bankrupt"
because Bialik and Alterman were too successful. They were part of a movement that
so utterly disconnected the Jews from the discourse that had nurtured them for centuries
that now, aside from being a marginally Hebrew-speaking version of some benign and
characterless country, we can't remember why we wanted this State to begin with.
So we don't defend it, because we don't want to hurt their civilians (even though
they openly target ours). We don't want to earn the world's opprobrium, because
our Prime Minister loves being welcomed in foreign capitals. We don't defend ourselves
because we're no longer sure that it's really worth the casualties on our side that
preventing these attacks on our sovereignty would require.

So we allow ourselves to grow comfortable being sitting ducks, and find ourselves
exactly where we were a century ago. Kishinev morphs into Sederot, and very few
people see the irony, or the utter shame, and shamefulness, of what's transpiring

Almost as if he foresaw the stalemate that now has us in its grips, Alterman writes
in his poem that the boy and the girl are dirty, caked with the dirt of the fields
and the fire-line. Unlike the Torah, which suggests that preparation for the revelation
requires that everyone wash their garments, Alterman suggests that if the Jews insist
on being clean, or insist on purity, there's no hope. It's a dirty world we live
in, he understands, and in this world, we have to decide how badly we want to stay

But we haven't decided that we want to stay alive. We don't want Ban Ki-Moon to
chastise us. We want George Bush to love us. We don't want the BBC or CNN to broadcast
pictures of Palestinian children wounded or killed by Jewish soldiers. We don't
want more protests like we had this week, with Israeli Arabs rioting in opposition
to the minor incursion into Gaza and voicing their support for Hamas. It's all just
too complicated and unpleasant; we'd much rather pretend that we live in America,
that we can ignore the dormant volcano of Israel's Arabs, too.

So we sit. And civilians keep getting targeted, and keep dying. And soldiers die.
And Israeli towns become ghost towns. But George Bush most supports us, so we feel
better. And the charade with Abu Mazen permits us to continue hallucinating about
the possibility of peace, to pretend that the Palestinians aren't simply an utterly
failed people that will never make peace in our lifetimes or those of our children,
so we feel even better.

Bialik would recognize us. And he would weep.

And then, at the end of the day, you're sitting in a friend's living room, a few
dozen people gathered together to congratulate him on a new book contract. Everyone's
happy for him. Everyone's forgotten the funerals (of the woman from Sederot, of
the soldier who was killed at Kissufim, and God forbid, of the soldier whose condition
wasn't terribly clear) that will soon take place. Everyone's put out of their minds
the mindless abdication of sovereignty unfolding in front of our very eyes. Everyone's
pretending that we live in a normal country, and that Zionism's not failing even
as we prepare for the sixtieth anniversary of independence.

So he's speaking modestly about what the book is about, why he's excited about writing
it, who's publishing it. There's wine, and food, and good humor all around. And
then someone's phone rings, and then someone else's. And before you know it, before
your friend has even had five minutes to say anything about his book, all of the
Blackberry's are out, and all the cell phones are being used, because the news
has reached us - it's starting again. There's been an attack at a yeshiva at the
entrance to the city. We know the drill, the invariable climb in the numbers. At
first, it's one dead, scores wounded. Then it's seven dead. Then eight, and lots
of wounded. Some of them might die, too.

In the morning, the papers report the attack, but there's not a single mention of
a response, or even a contemplated response. Of course one will come, but not yet.
It will have to get worse first, because a few people killed in Sederot, and a couple
of soldiers, and even eight kids from a yeshiva - well, it's sad, but just for that
we're actually going to start a war?

No, probably not, at least not yet. Because to go to war (or more accurately, to
respond to the war that's been unleashed against you) to defend your citizens, you'd
have to be able to articulate why this country still makes any difference. You've
have to be able to say something about why it was created in the first place. You'd
have to have a sense of Jewish history. You'd have to have a vision for the Jews,
an agenda for your country. You'd have to be able to see yourself as part of a several
thousand year old conversation. You'd have to have some courage. And yes, you'd
?have to love your people more than you love your office.

There were days when this land was filled with that. There were days when we remembered,
and we knew. And we fought. And even if we died in the process, we figured it was
worth it, because life here was about something, for something. And so was dying

But those days are gone. Our Prime Minister doesn't want to defend Sederot. Or Ashkelon.
He doesn't want to tell Bush that the charade with Abu Mazen is bound to explode,
and that when it does, more of us will die. He just wants a country that's "fun
to live in."

Well, he's a lucky guy. Because tonight, the month of Adar begins. And the Talmud
tells us (see the very last words of the page) that "when Adar begins, we increase
our joy." So let's be happy. Let's have some fun. Why not? It's not as if our enemies
have actually won. Not yet, at least.

It almost makes you grateful that Bialik's not around to see what's happened.