Yesterday, after the traditional grueling travel ordeal, I arrived in Tel Aviv. The flight from JFK to Brussels was uneventful (finally got to see Enough Said and a heavily-edited Her — both tepidly recommended), but I had some notable experiences on the Tel Aviv leg.
Seats were scarce on this flight, unlike the four seat row I’d had to myself earlier. As I made my way down the aisle, I found myself face-to-face with one of those rotund, bewigged, horizontally-striped sailor shirt-wearing Orthodox ladies I have so studiously avoided at Seven Mile Market all these years. A comparably sartorially-oppressed young teenage girl sat next to her. I took my seat and we all began dutifully ignoring one another, as you do in confined, air-bound spaces.
Now here’s where things got interesting: Birthright has prearranged for all our in-flight meals to be kosher. Here I am, with this pretty pony mane of pink hair and this black glitter Elvira T-shirt, getting the third kosher meal in our quiet little row. My seatmate was getting curious, so she asked. (I am ashamed my curiosity had ebbed the moment I saw her Pikesville kosher grocery store finery. Won’t be making that mistake again.)
Miriam quizzed me about my family and Jewish background, just to make sure, as Bubbi has said, that I come from “solid stock.” I have decided for myself that this phrase means a long line of unrepentant Jew-ish questioners and seekers, over the more dubious implications.
Once satisfied with my answers, Miriam told me about her life in Antwerp. (Oddly enough, I had just been reading a BUST magazine travel article on her city when our trays arrived.) She lives in Belgium with her Belgian husband, but she makes frequent trips back to Israel to visit the four of her ten children who live there. Accompanied by her granddaughter, they were en route to a niece’s wedding.
Miriam was born in Israel post-’48 to a couple of strong-willed Polish Jews who had a long, complicated emigration after the war. Her parents met in a displaced persons camp for children in Germany. They were 19, 20. Her 85-year-old father still lives in Tel Aviv. Out of his entire family, he was the only one to survive Auschwitz.
So yeah, I think I’m getting it now. Everyone’s stories of this country are so heavily tied to the brutal extermination of their extended families. I can’t say “ancestors” because that removes this event from our collective consciousness, places it 2500 years ago with the Western Wall, Canaan, Israelites. That’s so far away when yesterday I was sitting next to this woman whose father, still living, Baruch Hashem (if I tell it like she does), physically walked (strode? limped? was carried?) out of that death camp we talk about when we talk about death camps.
So here is what bothers me about the whole sorry situation, that media-beloved phrase “Crisis in the Middle East.” The people who came here to have a place of their own were escaping a system of thought, put into stunning, incomprehensible practice, that would have them all eliminated. Do we not see the striking irony in bombing the everliving shit out of the Gaza strip? How is this so opaque, so contrary to the lived experiences of our murdered families?
When I see images of broken bodies and rent flesh in Gaza, my mind goes immediately to Night and Fog. It concerns me deeply that people, most of them Jews, are so lacking in empathy that they cannot find correlation in human pain.
But then, I also saw photos of the tunnels under and into Israel for the first time. Until Miriam opened her Israeli news magazine, I had seen no images of tunnels in any major American sources. The only comparison that seems adequate to describe these images is to suggest you picture the New York City subway system. There are no trains inside the cavernous halls, but rather there are trucks, weapons, and people who want to kill you so dead that your children’s children will cease to exist.
I am conflicted. Hamas, in its role as an organization of disruption, fear-maker, is unquestionably destructive. But I cannot reconcile this with a lapse in the historical memory. Parents survived horrors and brought the first nationalized Israelis into being. Must Palestinian parents also survive these new terrors in order to give their children a state? As usual, I suspect the human race’s capacity for introspection is limited. We perceive only what is present, threatening to our current way of life. Yes, I find those tunnels terrifying too, but what scares me more is our inability to make empathetic choices. Never again, right?