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Carol Smaldino

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In Berlin, Far From the Israel of Today

Posted: 08/19/2012 10:34 am

I have noticed before that seeing a memorial to the Jews within the context of being with non-Jews, has given me an increasing sense of humanity as opposed to any exclusive importance to the Jewish experience of my own. It was so in Auschwitz where I went with my daughter Emma and a non-Jewish Polish friend whose uncle had in fact been in Auschwitz for having been caught helping Jews.

Today has been a day spent in Berlin, devoted largely to its impressive and evocative Jewish Museum. There is already a great deal written on this museum, which opened in 2001 and whose architect is New York's Polish born Daniel Libeskind. Libeskind's openness to the openings that human beings need in order to feel the depth and breadth of something like the larger Jewish experience, are well documented and formidably inspiring.

And so it was not only that I felt a great deal but I felt the information and spaces were set up so that I could learn. And even though I had already known that Central European anti-Semitism wasn't new I hadn't realized for one, that when the plague of the Middle Ages struck it was systematically blamed on the Jews. There is, of course, a pattern, and much anti-Semitism has been based on the view that the Jews were, in their rejection of Christianity's gifts and righteousness, a blight on human existence and on the human spirit.

In yesteryear, Jews were prejudiced against harshly, and kept away from what were considered decent folk. They were blamed for Germany's financial crisis in the early 1930s. So aside from the unspeakable and systematic sadistic extermination and torture of the Jews en masse, in Auschwitz as a main example, the world of Europe was no stranger, even prior, to the Jew as scapegoat. And for the Jews who were denied access to military service for much of their tenure throughout the years and whose culture and religion translated into an emphasis on literacy, study and more scholarly aspects of life, violence hadn't been a key part of their/our cultural stories.

But as we all have shadows, the darker sides that we tend to be scared as hell to admit, we remain in denial. The Germans in their Nazi years and who knows how many now, were in denial of their own fears and weakness, their gentleness, their capacity to empathize with the every person. The Jews had identified with kindness and decency and giving and with not entirely uncommon exceptions of violence towards other Jews in the camps, and some notable resistances, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, they were a peaceful group. So peaceful that many Israelis of the next generations frequently were quick to spurn the imagery of the weak Jew being led to slaughter. No, there would be a definitive departure: a new State of Israel would be built that would never ever tolerate or endure the danger of its own extinction.

And so now we have Iran, as but one example of Israel's current woes. Roger Cohen in his International Herald Tribune column of August 17, 2012, entitled "Israel's Iran Itch" made points on both sides of the equation of Israel's experienced urgency in attacking Iran. However he comes out on the side of rationality and of the fact that an Israeli attack on Iran would be disastrous in so many ways that it should be taken off a table. It would turn all the tables against Israel and against the United States in the region as a whole; it would be war and stoke more possibilities of war. Lastly, though not discussed in Cohen's piece, it would dehumanize the Israeli people in their dehumanizing the Iranians: once again it would inflict nuclear damage in the world, making that an increasingly utilizable option.

I was asked how I felt about the Museum today, how I felt about things in general that may have been evoked by the experience. My insides had managed to stay humanized if jolted by the whole experience, plus the outside Garden of Exile which is designed to have the visitor feeling lost and unbalanced. The 49 tall pillars are not unbalanced per se, but the floor of rocks is, and so it is dizzying even though the sky is visible, and as such hope is visible.

So while my feelings seemed complex, one thought/feeling came through loud and clear: We who -- through history or memory or collective memory or direct experience -- have been through the horrors of dehumanization should be working towards peace, not daring to approach nuclear terrorism. We know too well, psychologically speaking, that the abused person who does not approach working through of the pain (however impossible that is in its entirety), can easily become the abuser. The perpetrated can become the perpetrator. And what's more if the victims of yesterday are not motivated to live in a viable peace -- viable for Palestinians as well as Jews, we, the Jews -- will become an equal part of the destructive tendencies of our world.

In his op-ed piece, Cohen takes a radically realistic position. I remain, however, morally better suited to be an idealist tamed by skepticism and hopefully by reality as well. By either account, I do not want to become part of the dehumanization and denial of human vulnerability and equality that we are seeing way too much of. Those politically conservative politicians or religious zealots yearning for the Armageddon written into their scriptures, should not distract us from the purpose of becoming realistic and motivated -- motivated to find and create and invent ways towards cohabitation on this delicate planet.

 

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