by Rabbi Avi Shafran
This article first appeared in The Providence Journal-Bulletin, which
serves the citizenry of southern New England - on September 14, 1993. That
was one day after the famous Clinton-Rabin handshake on the White House
Modern Jews are often, and not entirely wrongly, seen as somewhat more,
well, sensitive than the general population, at times even bordering on
paranoid; there are, unfortunately, considerable historical grounds for
Paradoxically, though, the modern Jewish mindset is pointedly, eternally
hopeful as well. Just as the ancient Jewish prophets introduced the world
to the concept of utopia, their descendants in our own time are similarly
obsessed with one or another variation of the idea. Even as many of us
fear what others might do if we should dare turn our backs, we Jews still
somehow trust deeply in the inherent goodness of humanity. In the depths
of the Jewish heart, holocausts and hope somehow coexist.
And so, with some of Israel and part of the PLO yesterday signing a peace
agreement, Jews in general - and Israeli Jews in particular - are
experiencing the strangest of feelings, a joyful giddiness intermingled
with dark trepidation. It's pleasurable and discomforting at the same time
- the Mother, one might say, of All Ambivalence.
We hope, to be sure, and we desperately want to trust. But we can't help
but remember, either.
When I first read of the likelihood of a breakthrough in the
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, an episode from my youth - objectively
insignificant but highly symbolic in a personal sense - returned to haunt
me, 2 ½ decades after the event. I attended a private Jewish high school
in Baltimore back in those days, and the memory is of a beautiful early
spring day when a few classmates and I were playing baseball.
A group of scruffy but smiling strangers about our own age suddenly
appeared on the vacant lot that served as our field. They seemed pleasant
enough, if different from us in dress and demeanor, and asked to play; we
were more than happy to be able to fully stock the outfield and to make new
friends in the deal. It was home team against visitors.
After flipping a coin, we went to bat first. I don't remember if there was
any score at the bottom of the first, only that the visitors, once in
possession of the bats, suddenly lost all interest in the ball. They came
straight into the outfield at us, shouting obscenities liberally peppered
with the word "Jew," their smiles suddenly turned predatory. That was the
first time I ever heard the sickening sound of wood coming down on bone,
and I know I'll never forget it.
We all survived the Tuesday Afternoon Massacre, less only a little blood
and several bats; our innocence, though, had been dealt a decisive mortal
wound. My friends and I had always been taught both to be trustworthy and
to trust in others, in the essential holiness of all those created in G-d's
image. Our new experience, though, had taught us a different lesson: There
are those who choose, even for no discernible reason, to hate. And a
corollary: Haters, all too often, choose Jews.
The Arab world, , to be sure, hasn't always hated Jews. Though Mohammed
became upset at the Arabian Jews of his day for not abandoning their faith
for his, the Middle Ages saw great cultural, scientific and human
cooperation between, for instance, the dominant Muslim society in Spain and
its Jewish subjects. However, since the fairly recent assertion of Jewish
sovereignty in the Jewish ancestral land (the return to which Jews the
world over have prayed for thrice daily for nearly two millennia), Jews -
not only Israelis - have been vilified, attacked and slandered by their
Anti-Semitism, generally unfashionable if not exactly uncommon since
Hitler's day, became the eagerly adopted demon of much of the Arab
world. Under the guise of "anti-Zionism," Jews have been portrayed there -
and treated - as sub-human and treacherous. What had once been Greek and
Roman canards, then Christian and German ones, became the cherished
property of a new world of rabid Jew-haters. Innocent lives were blasted
to bloody bits and the vilest racism was seared into the impressionable
minds of little Arab boys and girls, all in the purported cause of
Palestinian nationalism. A cause now reconciled, or about to be
reconciled, with the reality of the Jewish State.
The hope: Just as Christian anti-Semitism eventually yielded up its ghost
to the righteousness of such men as Pope John XXIII and Lutheran leaders
who had the moral vision to disown part of Luther's legacy, so might the
Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world choose the path of reason,
empathy and sincere desire for peace..
The fear: They might not.
Put aside the fact that Yasser Arafat seems to be having great difficulty
convincing even the most "moderate" faction of the PLO, Al Fatah, of the
wisdom of making peace with Israel. Put aside, as well, the fact that
other factions within that erstwhile terrorist organization, such as the
Palestine Liberation Front, have made clear their total opposition to any
peace plan. Put aside even the critical fact that Arafat's leadership is
rejected by what is probably the most determinedly violent player on the
scene: the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.
To feel the fear, a Jew need look no further than the 1964 charter of the
PLO itself, the one calling for the destruction of Israel. It has never
been abandoned nor modified. On the contrary, Mr. Arafat is still on
record defending it, and even as he pushed his peace plan to the world he
spoke to his own people about it being the first step on the road toward
"our Jerusalem." Jewish ears did not hear those words as very reassuring,
not when the prospect of a Palestinian-controlled country in the very heart
of Israel was what was being roundly celebrated by all concerned.
Still, though, even we paranoiacs hope. We must, for the sake of justice
and peace. But we cannot afford to be naive. It is wonderful to hear good
news, but Jews no longer swallow good news without smelling it carefully
first. We've learned the hard way about the dangers of indiscriminately
The same year of our half-inning baseball game, I played the part of
Monceau, a French actor being held by the Nazis, in Arthur Miller's play
Incident at Vichy, our high school performance. The Jewish Frenchman,
hearing his fellow detainees repeat rumors of forced Jewish labor and death
camps, resists the information, insisting that it is unbelievable nonsense.
He smugly tells the others about a relative of his who was sent by the
Germans to a camp in Poland.
"I have several letters from him," Monceau informs his listeners, "saying
"They've even taught him bricklaying," the trusting fellow concludes, happy
for and proud of his cousin in Auschwitz.
Millions of Monceaus would be much wiser today, had they survived. So
while politicians, journalists and commentators across the political
spectrum gush at all the pleasant purring emanating from the Mideast, and
while many Jews themselves gratefully breathe deep the cool, refreshing
winds of change, others among us, while still hopeful as always, cannot
help but wonder whether we're just imagining it or if the breeze might just
be carrying the faintest echo of wood striking bone, the merest odor of
We pray fervently, hopefully and with all of our hearts that it's only our
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Shafran is currently director of public affairs for Agudath
Israel of America. When the article above was written, he was a religious
studies teacher in a Jewish high school in Providence, RI.