In light of the horrific stories coming out of Gaza and Israel, I’d encourage all of us to listen to this interview we did with two remarkable human beings: Robi Damelin, who lost her son David to a Palestinian sniper, and Ali Abu Awwad, who lost his older brother Yousef to an Israeli soldier.
Shoah: A Table of Elements
by Dov Abramson, guest contributor
"The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary nor congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent."
—Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
The Holocaust represented a contradiction in perception: ordered, regimented evil and unrestrained, billowing pain. For decades, artists have sought to capture the ineffable destruction that befell the Jewish people.
"Shoah: A Table of Elements" describes the task of making order of the ungraspable. In so doing, it works to release some of the emotional charge of our most raw subjects, while evoking the more prominent associations of the Holocaust: the gases, the smoke, the debris.
"Shoah: A Table of Elements" is a meditation on how we commit to memory, how we use symbols, and how we represent that which we cannot behold.
Dov Abramson is founder and creative director of an art and design studio in Jerusalem, Israel. His work combines classic graphic design and branding with independent artistic work that deals with Jewish and Israeli identity. His projects have been featured in Zeek, Forward, Maariv, Haaretz, and the Chicago Tribune, and his art has been exhibited at The Jewish Museum in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Tumblr. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Are Arab Jews Extinct?
by Naava Mashiah, guest contributor
A man holds a misbaha in the old city of Jerusalem. (photo: Flavio Grynszpan/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
The growing rift between Israel and the Arab world makes it hard to imagine that Jews and Arabs once coexisted across the Middle East. At one point these identities could be found not only in the same neighborhood, but even in the same person.
Is it an oxymoron to be an Arab Jew? An Arab Jew refers either to a Jew living in the Arab world or one whose ancestors came from Arab countries. This term flourished once in the Middle East but is not widely known today. Not long ago there were Jews living in the cities of the Middle East who were integrated into their societies and held influential roles in their communities and economies.
My grandfather, Baba Yona Mashiah, was such a figure in Baghdad. He was, I would say, an Arab Jew. My childhood was sprinkled with stories of his grand personality, power and business acumen. He was a prominent land and real-estate developer and in the 1940s contributed to building “Baghdad el Jedidah,” a chic neighborhood in the Baghdad suburbs. His partners were mostly Muslim and some were prominent government officials.
Over the years I have accumulated stories about Baba Yona like pearls on a string and play with these beads, just as he played with the beads on his misbaha, the traditional Muslim prayer beads. My father recalled how he used to accompany my grandfather, who was also known by the Arabic name Abu Fuad, to meetings in cafés and the respect that people showed him.
Baba Yona was an integrated member of Baghdad society and its business world, yet he was a Jew.
In the 1950s the Jews of Baghdad experienced an exodus from Iraq. A reluctant exodus, I would claim, which was brought about by a combination of increasing Zionism, anti-Semitic propaganda, envy of the privileged life Jews had when Iraq was under British control and the creation of Israel. The displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies were the final blow.
Life had become unbearable for the Jews and even those who had wanted to stay were compelled to leave. Jews were assumed to be a fifth column and turned into scapegoats following the defeat of Arab armies by the Israeli Defense Forces. Baba Yona watched his empire crumble. His peer and neighbor, Mr. Addas, another influential Jew, was hung in the square. He himself was imprisoned for three months, accused of having Zionist connections.
At a certain point the Iraqi government offered a deal for Jews, inviting them to escape to Israel if they would renounce their citizenship and relinquish their property. Baba Yona was forced to leave Baghdad with over 100,000 other Jews to the one country that would accept them at the time — Israel. Ironically, the Zionists, whose movement played a part in alienating Muslims from their Jewish compatriots, were there to save them.
So as they were airlifted out of Baghdad, did my nine year-old father know where he was headed? Was it en route to Cyprus and during the eventual landing in Israel that he stopped being an Arab Jew?
In Israel, the younger generations became embarrassed by their Arabic-speaking parents. My father, Sabah, was given a Hebrew name, Shaul, but his brother who had arrived in his late teens, too late for a name change, is called Jamil until this very day.
In fact, my father’s Arab identity was totally effaced in Israel. It was a combination of external pressures and self denial. Thus he became successfully integrated into the dominant culture in Israel of that period.
My interest in my Arab roots began about ten years ago when I established my business, which focuses on economic cooperation between Israel and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Many Israelis asked me why I had chosen to do so. The notion that Israel should forge economic ties with other countries in the MENA region is not self-evident within Israeli society.
Their questions led me to excavate my own identity and connect with my grandfather’s world. I am discovering more and more young Jews like myself who have been able to distance themselves from their parents traumatic experiences and proudly reclaim their Arab roots.
I recall one day when I brought home old records of Abdul Wahab, a famous Egyptian singer, and put them on the phonograph. My father Shaul transformed back to Sabah and sang all the words. He did not understand how I could be interested in this music. My curiosity for the poetry and music is deep-rooted to an extent that baffles him.
Today when I ask my father if my grandfather was an Arab Jew and he proclaims, “No way, there is no such thing,” I beg to differ.
Naava Mashiah is CEO of M.E. Links, focused on the transfer of technology from Israel to the MENA region, Senior Consultant at ISHRA and the editor of MEDABIZ.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on January 17, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
The Nameless, Faceless 1,027 Palestinian Prisoners and One Named Israeli Soldier
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
On the surface, it seems like the Palestinians and Hamas won a major victory in today’s exchange of prisoners. Gilad Shalit, one Israeli soldier, in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinians. The numbers are theirs to claim. How could Palestinians not be declared the victors?
With all this media coverage, I really only know one name. The general public truly only knows one name. One face. One set of parents. One human story of drama and pain and sacrifice. I know Gilad Shalit. He’s my son and my brother and my friend. He’s the child I would sit out in the rain and the blazing sun to protect and bring home. I ache for his family and his country. He’s human, he’s real, he’s flesh and blood.
With the Palestinian prisoners, I don’t know the name of one person. We don’t know the name of one person. No headlines in the papers or blogs exclusively devoted to the single surname of a Palestinian prisoner returned to her family. I know only numbers and politics and negotiators. I don’t know the woman above. We don’t know her. The story of a daughter and a sister and a mother and a wife. We don’t identify with her because she has remained faceless, nameless, lost. How long has she spent inside an Israeli prison? How long has her family begged their government to make a deal for an exchange? She goes unnoticed and unnamed by all of us.
Even the description of the photojournalist doesn’t identify her but names one man:
"A Palestinian prisoner hugs relatives after arriving in Mukata following her release on October 18, 2011 in Ramallah, West Bank. Israeli Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit was freed after being held captive for five years in Gaza by Hamas militants, in a deal which saw Israel releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners."
This is the tragedy of the circumstances. When the dust settles and history remains our only chronicler, we will remember the name of Gilad Shalit — a young man who spent five years in Palestinian cell — but not the name of this one Palestinian woman. And we will remember that the Palestinians received 1,027 people in return. Numbers get confused in our memories, but the story and image of one individual, one life worth retrieving, will remain with us forever.
But, now at least, I know her face. We see the love of a family and the pain of return. And, even though it’s not the equivalent, it’s a beginning. The Palestinian leadership would do well to remember this, and so should the media, including us.
Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
The problem starts with the ridiculous crowns we claimed for ourselves and with the hypocrisy, emptiness, and blindness characterizing them. … Who isn’t against terror and for Shalit’s release? But that same sobbing society did not for a moment ask itself, with honesty and with courage, why Shalit was captured. It did not for a moment say to itself, with courage and with honesty, that if it continued along the same path there will be many more Gilad Shalits, dead or captured. In successive elections it voted, again and again, for centrist and right-wing governments, the kind that guarantee that Shalit will not be the last. It tied yellow ribbons and supported all of the black flags. And no one ever told it, with courage and with honesty: Shalit is the unavoidable price of a state that chooses to live by the sword forever.
—Gideon Levy, from his op-ed in Haaretz, "Shalit Is Returning to a State in Psychosis"
A stark contrast to the perspective of Yossi Klein Halevi and the quotation we posted from his latest piece on Gilad Shalit’s release and the trading of prisoners with Hamas. Both should be read.
Photo by Erin Nekervis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For more than a year the Shalits have lived in a tent near the prime minister’s office. When I walked nearby I would avoid the protest encampment, ashamed to be opposing the campaign. This past Israeli Independence Day, though, I saw a crowd gathered around the tent, and wandered over. “GILAD IS STILL ALIVE,” banners reminded: It’s not too late to save him. Inside the tent, Noam and Aviva were sitting with family and friends, singing the old Zionist songs. I wanted to shake Noam’s hand, tell him to be strong, but I resisted the urge. I didn’t deserve the privilege of comforting him.
I wanted to tell Noam what we shared. As it happens, my son served in the same tank unit as Gilad, two years after he was kidnapped. I wanted to tell Noam that that was the real reason I couldn’t bear thinking about his family. That in opposing the mass release of terrorists for Gilad, it was my son I was betraying.
—Yossi Klein Halevi, from "Everyone’s Son" in Tablet
This beautifully written essay is poignant, well-reasoned, and honest. And perhaps that’s what makes me so uncomfortable about this necessary read. Yossi Klein Halevi, whom On Being recently interviewed during our trip to Israel and the West Bank, puts you inside the difficult mindset of those Israelis who are frightened about giving ground to Hamas and Hezbollah, even at the expense of their own families, and yet lauds the decision of a benevolent state and its “hard leaders” to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli, Galid Shalit.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
I know the country is open to a renaissance of spiritual-moral values, and the rabbis kill it. We have a rabbinate that has absolutely no connection to the people, no understanding of Jewish history, no understanding of the Zionist revolution.
As this quotation from our interview with the unorthodox thinker indicates, Hartman’s is a voice that challenges all types of conventions. Our show with him is airing on more than 250 public radio stations across the U.S. this week and via our podcast. If you want the unexpurgated version (like all our interviews), we’ve made the mp3 available too. How’s that for transparency!
Now this is a graphic worth pondering and wrapping your mind around. What a wealth of information from the National Post:
Graphic: What would a Palestinian state look like?
As the Palestinian Authority’s at the UN moves forward, the Post looks at what a Palestinian state would look like. For a large version of this graphic, download the PDF here
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Walking a Constant Tightrope Between Vulnerability and Responsibility
by Krista Tippett, host
It feels poignant, and important, to put this conversation, “Opening Up Windows,” with David Hartman out into the world this week. Last week’s experience of the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh evoked a bit of light and air in the present contested moment. So, too — albeit very differently — does David Hartman. Neither of these men speaks for his people, but each uniquely embodies and articulates the drama of his national narrative.
What David Hartman offers is a window into intra-Israeli searching and struggles that drive news headlines from this part of the world, but are rarely heard in and for themselves. The effect of his presence is at once humanizing, uncomfortable, and revealing.
Years ago, in the early days of creating this program, people sometimes asked me about the balance of drawing out a single voice to speak to a complex issue. The question, I think, betrays the way we’ve narrowed the idea of balance in our public deliberation of many important issues. There is certainly a place for debate between fixed, competing positions; but the biggest “issues” before us are often, as Sari Nusseibeh so acutely put it, matters of gradual human maturation and evolution. Point-counterpoint exchanges bury this possibility, but it can be heard through a single voice — in the self-examined life of a person who wrestles with complexity and change, and who continues to challenge oneself.
So, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, questions of how to define statehood and draw borders always coexist with related, but not identical, questions of how two peoples can maintain their dignity and live together. As a Jew who chose to move to Israel with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, David Hartman has lived along the continuum of the Jewish encounter with all those questions in the decades since. A former congregational rabbi, he created a think tank and educational center that has brought Jews of different traditions together in unprecedented ways.
David Hartman has also been an unusual religious figure in Israeli society as a leader who challenges traditional Judaism from the inside. His daughter Tova is known as an Orthodox feminist. In part, because of her influence, David Hartman became an activist for the inclusion of women in ritual and practice, challenging traditional Jews to see the matter of women’s rabbinic ordination as a statement of nothing less than the character of the God one worships. To deny the full personhood of women, David Hartman says with characteristic forcefulness, is “spiritual suicide.”
He is frank and searching, too, on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “That’s so painful,” he says, when I ask how his discernment on God and the dignity of women might relate to the Jewish relationship to Palestinians. On the morning I interviewed him, a Jewish family, including a three-month-old infant, had just been brutally murdered in a settlement near Nablus. The weight of that news was all around us, and so too was the fear — soon to be realized — that this act of violence would yield to a new cycle of reprisal and attack, with grief on both sides. “I am constantly moved up and back,” David Hartman tells us. “When my family gets killed, and my family’s frightened to go to sleep at night, I get angry. I have a lot of anger in me. But part of my tradition is to learn how to control that anger. And I don’t know if they really want to live with me.”
It’s strange, really, that for all the human drama that is so assiduously reported from this part of the world, we so rarely hear the kind of direct struggle with anger and pain that David Hartman offers in this conversation. Both emotions are embedded in the fabric of daily life in this land, and they merge with the longer lineage of Jewish history. “[A] core meaning of the State of Israel,” David Hartman has written, “is precisely the will of the Jewish people to remain in history, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks involved.” In Israel as in the rest of the world, as he describes it, Jews walk a constant tightrope between vulnerability and responsibility — alternately powerful and weak, and both at once.
He describes the dignity he experiences of being at home in Israel as “a return to memory.” And so, he adds evocatively, “How do we deal with this memory? Narcissistically? Triumphantly? Arrogantly? Or we say, ‘Now that I have my memory, tell me about yours.’” This echoes the journey Sari Nusseibeh shared with us, of walking into a former “No Man’s Land” in 1967 and looking back at where he came from — wanting to see himself from the other side. In such images, we don’t merely experience a new way to see a painful global crisis; we feel ourselves addressed.
About the photo: Krista Tippett interviews Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo by Trent Gilliss.