For those of you who’ve never been involved in the barroom brawl better known as Israeli politics, let me give you a sense of what it’s like. For those Israelis who are, like me, to the left of hard right forces in Israeli politics, listening to cabinet ministers talk and watching Knesset debates is a cross between watching an especially contentious edisode of Crossfire and watching Bill O’Reilly stomp on his “Commie pinko” (i.e. all those whose views he finds distasteful) interviewees. In short, there’s no home for the meek or mild there. Even centrist or left of center political figures political figures who wish to make a mark within the mainstream electorate have to present themselves as “security hawks.” Security is the name of the game in Israel. You can imagine if the U.S. faced 9/11 in 1948 and regular terrorist threats every year thereafter–you can imagine what our political debate would sound like. It would sound like a broken record: security, security, security. Pretty much like George Bush’s current broken record of a national security policy.
So imagine my surprise to read in the New York Times and Haaretz (Lapid calls for end to Rafah demolitions) that Justice Minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a Holocaust survivor, attacked the Israeli Army’s contuining incursion into Rafah (Gaza) and its demolition of scores of Palestinian homes. James Bennet reports in Israeli Official Offers Empathy but Hits a Nerve that Lapid told Israel Radio:
I did think, when I saw a picture on the TV of an old woman on all fours in the ruins of her home looking under some floor tiles for her medicines – I did think, ‘What would I say if it were my grandmother?'”
Mr. Lapid, who was born in a Hungarian-speaking part of Yugoslavia, lost relatives in the Holocaust, including his father and a grandmother.
According to Haaretz, Lapid had the audaciousness to tell his hard line cabinet colleagues:
“The demolition of houses in Rafah must stop. It is not humane, not Jewish and causes us grave damage in the world.”
“At the end of the day, they’ll kick us out of the United Nations, try those responsible in the international court in The Hague, and no one will want to speak with us.”
Bennet reports that he further said during the interview:”We look like monsters in the eyes of the world. This makes me sick.”
Strong stuff. You can imagine the rage and invective that rained down upon Lapid for this unpardonable likening of Israel to the Nazis.
Minister Danny Naveh, who lost relatives in the Holocaust but is not himself a survivor, rejected any comparison to the Holocaust.
“Any analogy, even hinted at creates greater anger and has no place in any form.”
Haaretz reports that Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom added: “Retract your comparison; it is not proper. You cannot compare what you are saying with the way IDF soldiers behave.
Isn’t it interesting how those who have not directly suffered through a catastrophic experience like the Holocaust feel the right to tell those who have that they have no right to think of their suffering in certain ways. It reminds me of Denny Hastert telling John McCain, Vietnam War hero and prisoner of war, he doesn’t know the meaning of the word sacrifice. In short, Lapid has the right to think on his own suffering any way he wishes and no one has the right to tell him otherwise.
By the way, Lapid is the founder of the Shinui (Change) Party and his 20 seats in Knesset make his position secure enough that he doesn’t have to worry about what any of his far right colleagues think of him. That’s the only reason he can afford to be so candid.
As I thought of Tommy Lapid sitting by the TV, watching the Palestinian granny picking through the rubble of her home, and thinking of his own grandmother’s suffering during the Holocaust–it brought to mind Yehuda Amichai’s wonderful poem in which he silently watches an Old City Arab shopkeeper and thinks back on his own father who ran the same type of store in pre-Holocaust Poland. I’ve translated and commented on the poem at Jerusalem 1967. Here’s the translation:
On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned
Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City.
I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab,
Not far from Shchem (Nablus) Gate, a shop
full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread
Of every color; and snaps and buckles.
Brightly lit and many colored like the open Holy Ark.
I said to him in my heart that my father too
Owned a shop just like this of buttons and thread.
I explained to him in my heart about all the decades
And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now
While my father’s shop burned there and he is buried here.
When I concluded it was the hour of N’eilah (“locking the gates”).
He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate
As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.
Any Israeli politician who claims you cannot talk of Jewish suffering in the same breath as Palestinian suffering needs to reread Amichai. He’ll tell them differently.