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ISRAEL

Memory and Destiny

I cannot stand watching as Israel commits suicide before my eyes.

April 07, 2002|LYNN COHEN | Lynn Cohen is a Los Angeles writer.

I was raised as a Conservative Jew. Holocaust history--with it's mantra of "never forget"--was as familiar to me as the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. I've cried at the displays of banjos stretched with human skin, at the piles of scuffed shoes with empty eyelets. I don't hear the word "chimney" without thinking of crematoriums silhouetted against gray Polish skies.

I speak Hebrew. It's a language that runs like sweet, coarse batter over my tongue and down my throat. When I overhear a conversation between Israelis at a cafe, my whole being inclines toward the sounds. When I was little, I gave my quarters in religious school for planting trees in the holy land. The teachers showed us glossy photographs of green-foliaged hills surrounding a glittering blue lake. Even the word "Galilee" felt lovely to say. I felt proud of what my quarters had helped create. They showed us filmstrips of kibbutz life, where, under trees I'd helped to plant, tanned handsome people with black hair and dark eyes beamed over heaping barrels of oranges and lemons. They taught us that, as Jews, we were all citizens of the nation of Israel, that it was our homeland, wherever we happened to be, that Israel was our reward for having outlived our unwelcome presence in so many other places.

I believed them, still believe today that the destiny of every Jew is intimately bound up with that of Israel. Which is why I feel obligated to speak out. I am not alone, I know, in feeling increasingly frantic for Israel to learn, finally, that retaliation will not work. I so want to believe that people who have been catastrophically wronged--as the Jews have been--can take from that experience the need to do what is right. I want Israel to honor the covenant entrusted to it as a nation of Jews. I want this nation of Jews to do whatever it takes to make a home for the Palestinians. I want this because I love Israel and I cannot stand watching as it commits suicide before my eyes.

Every Jew in Israel or America today likely had relatives who were rounded up and selectively tortured, maimed or killed, whether in Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russia, Romania or Latvia. Who better than Jews should know what such systematic humiliation does to a people? Who better than Jews should understand the reasons for not targeting people based on ethnicity?

In 1979, I lived in Jerusalem, in an apartment near the Jerusalem Theater, where the symphony orchestra I played in rehearsed. It seemed during that period of relative calm that the complicated blending of Arabs and Jews into a single society could work. During breaks, I would joke and chat with the Arab custodians, Jamal and Fahami. Jamal was shy and deferential, Fahami bawdy and jocular. He insisted I take his cigarettes, though I had my own. After rehearsal, musician friends and I would bus down to the Old City and walk through the maze of shops and studios to the cafe that served the best hummus in the country. The owner, Abu, sat on a stool wearing his checkered kaffiyeh, mashing chickpeas into a smooth paste in a big wooden bowl. Arabic music crackled through a cheap radio on the counter.

On my way home I would sometimes stop at the vegetable stand for tomatoes and cucumbers, carrots and onions and bunches of dill. A handsome man about my age worked there. We flirted through smiles and sidelong glances until the day we spoke. His Hebrew had the Arabic accent. His teeth were gray, his striped wool sweater had holes and was frayed at the cuff. One day he took me into the back room and sat me down on his lap. We kissed hungrily. He took me home to where he lived in a dark, tiny apartment with five members of his family. His father was a garbage collector, his mother a teacher. We drank tea in stained, chipped cups.

That spring of 1979, everyone celebrated the famous handshake between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It felt to me like the diplomatic version of those thrilling, flirty smiles and sidelong glances that could lead to what we all hoped would be a lifelong kiss between Jews and Arabs.

These days I listen all day long to the radio, bracing myself for news of another Gestapo-style rampage by Ariel Sharon's military, of another self-defeating bombing by the desperate and enraged Palestinians. I listen, horrified, to tales of Israeli soldiers executing Palestinian policemen, shooting them at point-blank range, to news of Israeli soldiers pounding on doors, rounding up whole families.

Never forget? Clearly, we've forgotten.

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