Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Zionism, Perfidy & My Grandfather: The Intellectual and Emotional Battle for the High-School Student's Soul

It was 10th grade. I walked over to the apartment building which bore a plaque declaring it to be one of the Chicago Community Kollel's acquisitions. Walking up the stairs, I smiled at Rabbi Carmel, his wife and his mother-in-law. Rabbi Carmel's policy was to invite all of his students over for Shabbat lunch. Most students chose to bring a friend along with them. I came alone.

Rabbi Carmel remarked upon this as we sat at the table chewing spinach leaves laced with a delicately sweet dressing. "I think you're the first student I've ever had who came alone," he said.

In many ways I worshipped Rabbi Carmel. A newcomer to the Chicago community, his youth and outlook made him someone we were able to respect within the stifling confines of Templars. He had been raised Modern Orthodox and decided to become more right-wing as he grew up. Now he taught at my school, was part of the Kollel and gave shiurim to many. Despite my mischievousness in class, he contained himself and his temper. Once I wrote him an ode on the blackboard comparing him to Hillel the Sage who was also able to contain his anger.

I think perhaps my foolery, pinning his picture atop that of Mel Gibson (whom he disliked), searching his name on Google and proudly displaying the results, catching him out when he called me 'Chana' as opposed to attaching an appellation to my surname, mocking him for taking off his glasses when he spoke to us...was an attempt to see whether he would get angry with me. He never did. And thus, to the extent that I could, I trusted him. I don't remember how it came about but I began a correspondence with his wife. I would write letters to her, delivering them to him in class to pass to her. She would write back in some kind of Microsoft Word script font. I vividly remember arguing with her about "The Passion of the Christ." This was in the days before Mel Gibson had come out with his anti-Semitic slurs. I was determined to believe good of everyone and argued that Gibson was merely portraying the Gospels. If people were upset by the depiction, they should take issue with the Gospels, not him. After all, I had read the New Testament and thus knew where Gibson drew his material from.

I was attracted to his youth and understanding, the fact that he would play games with me and tolerate my antics. I appreciated the fact that he understood that teenagers could want more than was being offered within the four walls of Templars. I did not appreciate any attempt on his part to quiz, survey or psychoanalyze us. I did not trust him that much.

And so it was that I came for Shabbos, having stopped by briefly on Friday afternoon with an elongated cake that my father had purchased for me. It was a poppyseed cake. Rabbi Carmel was thrilled. "How did you know I like mun cake?" he inquired of me. I just shrugged my shoulders. He brought up this discussion on Saturday day as well. "It's not the usual kind of cake to buy," he said. He meant to compliment me for my discernment but in fact the comment wounded. I had failed at something as simple as picking out the right cake to buy for Shabbat- not that I had done so, of course- it was my father. For all I knew Rabbi Carmel was pretending, overemphasizing his joy so that I would not feel bad. I felt unhappy, and stored away the comment to worry over.

Somehow the conversation turned to Zionism. I was an ardent Zionist for one reason only: to me, that was my grandfather. My grandfather stood for Zionism. Every time HaTikvah came on the radio or was played on CD he would stand up and put his hand over his heart. He taught us all to do the same. The reverence that my grandfather felt for the state, his amazement and awe that he could live to see such a day was transmitted to all of us. For me, to be a Zionist was to be loyal to my grandfather. Anything else and I would betray him.

However, my assumption was that for my grandfather to be loyal to a cause, the cause must be wholly good. Rabbi Carmel attempted to dissuade me. "Do you know what the Israelis did to the Jews?" he inquired. "Do you know about the Yemenite children?"

I shrugged. I had heard vague reports about Israelis tricking Yemenite mothers out of their babies but I knew that could only have been a few very wicked people. There was no way it could have encompassed an actual policy. Israelis, I knew, were good.

"You should read Perfidy," he told me, proceeding to inform me of various atrocities committed by the Israelis.

"It's not true," I told him, defiant, steadfast. I did not know what he had to gain out of badmouthing my Israelis but I was uninterested in it. To me, Israel meant my grandfather. Anything which threatened this relationship or somehow undermined the sanctity of that bond was unimportant and a lie. I knew what kind of people Jews were. They were not the kind of people who would hurt one another, choosing support of a British government over their own, refusing to allow those fleeing from a bloodthirsty Germany entrance to their country. I knew that these were lies, made up in order to force me to obey some kind of Agudah-driven, right-wing anti-Zionist viewpoint.

And so I refused to read Perfidy. For years I avoided that book. To me, it was a book of lies and calumny written by a man whose soul was black and who dared to defame the nation and the land my grandfather loved in favor of promoting a twisted notion of loyalty in me.

It's been five years since that 10th grade encounter, but only now do I have the ability and the strength to read this book. I'm only on the beginning. Hecht writes with a kind of chuckling dark humor, so that you laugh along with him. However, he also generalizes and selectively reports events. He assumes this is all right because he informs you in the beginning of the book that he is not a true historian but only writing his perspective on certain events. I am surprised to find that I like the way he writes; it is conversational in a dry, entertaining way, not the sort where one desires the narrator to drop dead.

The problem with attempting to promote an agenda towards Zionism in high school is simply this. Unless you are willing to go to the effort of looking through the sources, beginning with the Gemara, present them objectively, and ensure that in addition to Perfidy and A Threat from Within we read Kol Dodi Dofek and The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses on Israel, History and the Jewish People, you have no right to promote one view over the other. Both perspectives are legitimate. Better, both can be proven. But to rail against Zionism at a bunch of impressionable high-schoolers means you fail to understand what Zionism means to us.

My friends and I didn't care about Zionism the political movement. In fact, we barely knew what that was. Zionism to us meant our fathers who served in the army, the grandfathers who stood up for HaTikvah, terrorist attacks in which our friends or those we cared for died, a land lush with power and color and the ability to make us fall to our knees in awe. The Zionism we cared for was an emotional Zionism, one taught to us by our fathers and grandfathers, one borne of love and not of mere intellectual ideology. To ask a child to sacrifice the reverence he owes his parents in favor of an agenda he cannot and will not wish to understand is to request a betrayal he will not make. To tell a student to remove the Israeli flag from her locker accomplishes nothing but sows the seeds of dissension and hatred. It does not explain why one disagrees with the aims or objectives of the Zionist movement. It only shows that somehow you have determined that an entire sector of the Jewish population is incorrect in their approach; you have written them off as wrong, bad and flawed. To us high schoolers, Zionism demonstrated our love for our relatives and the land that God gave us. We knew little or nothing about the conditions under which it was spawned and the mistakes its founders might or might not have made. It was not until this year that I even learned there was legitimate opposition to the Zionist movement from within the grounds of religious Judaism. It took me until I was 20 to learn that. And then, I learned it not from a teacher but from a student, a friend of mine who took the time to explain the textual basis for disagreement.

High schoolers are smart enough to understand if you actually take the time to show them the texts and proofs, the basis for your point, objectively demonstrating the fact that there are differing points of view within the Jewish spectrum of opinion. But if you simply rail against that which is dear to us, horrified when we sing HaTikvah on Tu B'Shvat, shouting in my face about the nefarious Israeli government and how they plotted to place Yom Ha'Shoa adjacent to Yom Ha'Atzmaut to suggest we wouldn't have the land except for the Holocaust, screaming that Yom Ha'Atzmaut itself should not be celebrated or acknowledged in any which way...then how shall I listen to you? You are asking me to turn my back on my fathers, brothers and cousins, to betray the ones I love and why? To embrace your hatred. It is a sacrifice I will never make, or if I do make it, it is one I will resent you for till the end of time. If I must choose between the screaming woman and my regal grandfather, standing when HaTikvah plays, you know who I will pick. So long as I am ignorant of the textual bases of these viewpoints, in a battle of emotions, I will choose those I love.


Chai18 said...

צפית ישועה היא כח המעמיד של היהדות הגלותית והיהדות של ארץ ישראל היא הישועה עצמה


Dana said...

wow... very powerful blog.. i can't really comment, because it would take up a page. but i want you to know i've read it and internalized every word.

Anonymous said...


One can make the strong argument that the Israel of our love is flawed and imperfect, but so is a fetus developing before birth, it is not yet the person it shall one day be..... BUT JUST WAIT AND SEE!!!

Israel shall one day make all Zionists proud!


Name withheld said...

I was once told that at a public setting a previous (not sure how many previouses it was) principal of Templars was asked on the school's view of Zionism.

The response: We tolerate the Rebbitzen.

referring to Rebbitzen Ella Soloveichik who loved Eretz Yisrael with all of her heart; she lived in Petach Tikva before hakamat hamedina. Her family left Lithuania because her father saw the increase in anti-semitism, and they eventually came to the US, many of her siblings returned to Israel later in their lives. So did she & Rav Ahron - they bought an apartment and came for the summers. She wanted a little garden to be able to keep mitzvos hateluyos baaretz...I could go on but don;t have the time. But did anyone else on the staff there flee their hometown and go what she did and she supported E"Y very strongly? How can (figurative) baby midgets comment on the ways of elderly giants?

yeshiva dude said...

There are so many sources/points pointing either way that I find it impossible to ascertain whether I am a Zionist or not, so I just decided to figure it out from a non-religious viewpoint. (Turns out, i still don't know.)

Can I be a Zionist without agreeing to its being founded?

Avital said...

Absolutely beautiful post. I went through similar things in high school (being yelled at and told that Yom HaAtzmaut was just another day in the calendar) and you're 100% correct: Zionism, while often shoved into a political "ism" of secular socialists by the "ultra-Orthodox" (though I hate labels), is for most people an emotional experience and connection to Eretz Hakdosha and to the Jewish people.

The Crap Blog Detective said...

My Grandather died in a concentration camp. He fell out of his guard-tower.