Gaza, in better times
I have been doing my best not to think too much about Gaza, not only publicly but for myself. I can no longer avoid pondering all the uncomfortable thoughts Israel's bombing of Gaza is bringing home to me. Of one thing I'm sure of -- I want to tell Netanyahu, "I told you so." Netanyahu's purpose was always designed to prevent any chance of rapprochement. What's unfolding was foretold by his actions.
Jewish settlers taunt a Palestinian woman has just been evicted from her home
Netanyahu has forced me to question my relationship to Israel in a fundamental way. I have some strong credentials as a Jew. I come from the centuries-old Schneersohn dynasty of the Chabad movement of Hasidic Judaism. When the last rebbe, who was the closest thing to a pope Judaism ever had, died, his followers expected he would be the messiah. It turned out he just died, and was not the messiah. During that period, when they were looking for his replacement, some powerful Lubavitchers approached me. I was more of the bloodline than the last rebbe, so my bloodline made me attractive to them. Even when I pointed out I was not a good candidate -- that I was an atheist and a socialist, they wanted to keep talking. Of course, being an atheist and a socialist would not have saved me from the death camps, quite the contrary. So we talked. In the end it was not to be. But as a Jew, I was deeply affected by my knowledge of the Holocaust. My study of the Holocaust became an obsession.
For many years, I accepted that as a Jew, it was good to have an Israel at my back. Or so I thought. In case California became a great Auschwitz, I could go to Israel. But now, Mr. Netanyahu has precluded me from that connection to the land of my ancestors. I feel no kingship with a man like Netanyahu.
Despite being an atheist and a socialist, I spent nearly 10 years editing the old B'nai Brith Messenger, one of Los Angeles' pioneer newspapers. When it folded, it was nearly a century old. It had a long career as the voice of Los Angeles' Jewish community. It had begun as the newsletter of the B'nai Brith Congregation.
I interviewed Abba Eban at some length in the Messenger in 1987.
Abba Eban was one of Israel's greatest elder statesman. It was Abba Eban who pleaded the cause of Israel before the United Nations in 1948, and obviously did so well. He was a former deputy prime minister, foreign affairs minister, an ambassador to the UN and the U.S. But he also believed in a world, and an Israel, that was diverse, progressive and peaceable. When I interviewed Eban, he was excited about a discovery he had made about Los Angeles -- he liked the great mix of people in Los Angeles -- the Latinos, the Asians, the Jews and blacks and other Middle easterners. He said it was a very good thing. It was like Abba Eban, one of the great founder of the nation of Israel, had founded nirvana not in Jerusalem but in Los Angeles.
"It's a healthy thing," he told me. "It diminishes the sense of national assertion that has brought so many disasters. Most nations accept a pluralistic view of faith, of identity."
Eban's other big concerns at the time was the rise of the Israeli right. "You cannot occupy a foreign country and be a member of the Democratic world. There has to be a choice. Many Israelis want three things that are not compatible. We want a Jewish state, a democratic state and to maintain our rule over the territories. You can't have all three," he said.
He bemoaned that Israel's victory in 1967 had made Israel substantially less democratic. And as a great scholar of human history, which he was, he was bothered by the rise of fundamentalism in his own land. "You can't be satisfied with what the bible says when it says we should smash the heads of a child against the rocks," he noted.
Eban warned his fellow Israelis that the land won in the 1967 war was dangerous to hang on to because it put Israeli in a "totally untenable situation." They would not be able to be democratic and also oppressive to their neighbors, he said. Inevitably, war would break out over and over again.
So even more than three decades ago, Eban was here in Los Angeles warning that if Israel tried to hold on to the territories, that would preclude any peace.
The latter seems well on point. Yeah, Hamas are religious fanatics and killers. But they have their Jewish counterparts -- Netanyahu, for one. And then there's the element that became the ugliest part of Israeli politics. Mostly from Brooklyn, and followers of the Jewish fascist Rabbi Meir Kahane, they came to reclaim the glorious lands of Judea after the 1967 War.
I interviewed Kahane once -- I remember I was with him face to face, and he had these strange ticks and twitches marching across his face. There also was an unsettling intensity in his eyes. He unnerved me, and I came away feeling he was strange and evil.
I thought the man a monster, even if as a kid I used to get beaten up going home through the alley from Woodrow Wilson High School because I was a Jew. I was starting to read about anti-Semitism, the '30s, the Holocaust, so the expression "Never again," which Kahane invented, connected with me. The members of this gang of Christian thugs took turns slugging me, as they called me a 'Christ Killer.' The leader of the Christian thugs was a Baptist minister's son.
I learned about Christian thugs early, but how to classify a Netanyahu? I see Kahane and Netanyahu as the same person. When I heard Netanyahu wishing out loud that someone would kill Prime Minister Rabin who he said was a traitor because he signed a peace treaty with Arafat, I could tell this was a thug. I learned there were Christian thugs, who wanted to kill me. But how to deal with Jewish thugs, like Bibi Netanyahu, the current prime minister. Rabin was assassinated in 1995. Netanyahu should have been thrown in jail for inciting his assassination, but he wasn't. He and his kind took over in Israel, and set in motion the events that could only lead to more war. He wanted to set up roadblocks to any permanent peace with the Palestinians.
Mind you, I understand the peculiar power that resides in Jerusalem. Especially when you are listening to Giora Feidman playing the ancient tunes of Safed on his incredible Klezmer clarinet. Like a lot of Americans, I have a certain feeling of rootlessness, and there are many things in Jerusalem that can fulfill them. But so can London, or perhaps a stroll on the Black Sea, or even a train trip from Los Angeles to Chicago.
I would love to be just a visitor or even a resident in Jerusalem, but never an occupier. To be an occupier, you have to be a thug. Yes, I know Jerusalem is a great crossroads of civilization. I get that it's a powerful brew, but I know all my fellow Californians, whether blacks or Indonesian, Mexicans or whatever, have ancestral roots in other lands. That very fact is what gives a certain strength to living in a diaspora. Los Angeles is a diaspora for many of the world's peoples. And that is a good thing.
We in Los Angeles are too politically correct to accept the rantings of people who proclaim other people cockroaches. But in Israel, there have been a disturbing number of such comments against Palestinians. They come close to calling them vermin, perhaps worthy of a genocide. A number of such voices have been published in the Israel Times and Jerusalem Post.
This brought home the prophetic words of Alex Odeh, a Palestinian Catholic who was a representative of the PLO when I interviewed him in the early '80s. He was assassinated in his Orange County home, apparently by a Meir Kahane-type. I remember him sitting in my dining room, and I asked him what he would most like to tell the Jews of Los Angeles.
"I would want them to know that the crux of the matter is that Palestinians are human beings, who have been subjected to a kind of Holocaust, genocide, abuse, harassment, such as Jews went through in Europe in the thirties and forties," he said. "Jews in Los Angeles have a legitimate concern about the survival of Israel,but they must take into consideration the Arab or Palestinian factors," he said.
I remember when I first visited Israel how one Israeli woman laughed off my notion when I complained Israel had not turned out to be the kind of country a gentle visionary like the great Bal Shem would have wanted "If Jews aren't going to be the gentle and wise people of mankind, what's the point? Our greatest contributions have been in art and science," I said. I also argued that Jews created the very concept of messiahs -- and for the most part that was good. Otherwise, there would h ave been no Jesus, no Freud, no Marx, no Einstein.
"No, she said, "we always were a pushy, aggressive, obnoxious people. Maybe that's been the cause of anti-Semitism. And you're one of us, whether you like it or not."
Some years later, when I was back in Los Angeles, I talked about Israel with a beautiful young Sabra, a native Israeli. She said the truth was few of the younger generations were Zionists. If you sat at a coffeehouse in Tel Aviv, you'd find that most of them considered themselves Israelis rather than Zionists. And, she said, that included many younger Arab Israelis. Partly, she insisted, they see themselves as Arabs, as Palestinians, but also as Israelis.
I hope it's true that time heals all wounds.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of numerous books, most of which are available in Amazon's Kindlestore.