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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Slaughter & The Spring

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Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon

None of us slept on the way over from Paris. And not just because of the menacing rumblings of the wabbly propeller (actually, not bad for 1962) that could keep awake the deaf, let alone a bunch of Jewish immigrants praying they would be spared forty years in the wilderness – most didn’t have that much time left. The majority were from Romania, though others hailed from as far as Morocco, and who knows where else. But all of us, all night, did what Jews do best: worry.

It was the usual Semitic sort of worry, a mixture of hope and fear. Above all, hope: that in this fancy New World, which none of us had ever seen, we might be treated like everyone else, as equals. Fear too: that we would indeed be so treated, despite having next to no assets besides ill-fitting clothes. Our skills were largely obsolete, and most of us could speak no English. Well, so be it; no whining, get with the program.

Sure, we were equal before God. That much we didn’t doubt; we were Jews after all, even if our identity came mostly by osmosis, as much culturally imbibed as visceral. But we had heard that we really would be equally treated by laws that applied to everyone, at least theoretically. OK, maybe; but what about in practice? Would this island-continent prove, in the end, as forbidding to us as a desert? We didn’t even have a Moses to assure us that, God willing, it will all work out. Besides, even if God willed it, it was now up to us, which wasn’t all that comforting. Anyway, who’s worried about forty years when you don’t even have forty cents.

Perhaps if we had glimpsed that Statue of Liberty everyone talked about, the Deity of Diaspora, we might have felt a little better. Unfortunately, it was hard to spot from an airplane, especially above the clouds. In any event, could we have believed her promise, inscribed on the plaque at her feet, that all her homeless, tempest-tossed children would be truly welcome? Ragged as we were?

Maybe it would have helped to know that its words had been penned by a young poet, Emma Lazarus, who had also been Jewish, indeed descended from the very first group of Hebrews to settle where we had landed, albeit three centuries earlier, in 1654. They had been fleeing from Brazil, where they had settled after expulsion from Portugal and, earlier still, from Spain (as it happens, alongside my father’s ancestors – who had headed East instead). Those twenty-three peripatetic descendants of Jacob, who had wavered off course into New rather than Old Amsterdam (toward which they had been headed), were eventually, if reluctantly, allowed to stay. A mere two centuries or so later, their Emma would become a famous poet! So, if they, equally destitute, had survived and even thrived, why shouldn’t we?

Our plane was approaching Manhattan, revealing a surreal skyline against the sunniest June day we had ever seen before or, I daresay, since. Were we awake, alive, sane? Could those obelisk-shaped objects be real buildings, or were we hallucinating? The rumbling grew to an apocalyptic roar, the huge rip of unfolding wheels announcing the jolt of descent – heart-stopping, had our hearts not already stopped, in mid-breath. We remembered to exhale, then emerged, dazed, into the light, a burning bush in the pit of our stomachs. Was it the heartburn of being reborn, absent an umbilical cord?

Maybe it would have helped to know that its words had been penned by a young poet, Emma Lazarus, who had also been Jewish, indeed descended from the very first group of Hebrews to settle where we had landed, albeit three centuries earlier, in 1654. Credit: Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Reborn we had to be. And so, we proved to be, my little family, indeed with astonishing rapidity. It didn’t have to take forty years to get used to not being a slave if you had never really been one. Because thanks to my parents’ good sense, we had somehow kept our wits about ourselves during all those years under communism.

Though clearly risky if it had been discovered or even suspected, it hadn’t been that hard to see through the clumsy attempts by the mandarins of the Communist Party to camouflage their naked overfed bellies. Their ill-fitting ideological suits ready-made in Moscow, one-size-fits-all, were too obviously transparent. But even the stupidest little girl knew to keep her trap shut: there was no point in pointing out the imperial nudity so patently manifest. That had been her nursery school lesson number one. (Also, numbers two and three.)

The little girl wasn’t so stupid as not to notice how her parents used the never-read newspapers only as toilet paper, nor how they listened intently to a barely audible radio broadcast after they thought her asleep. And how they would tell their friends jokes in a whisper, believing she couldn’t overhear. True, she didn’t get the punchline; but she knew better than to ask questions when there would be no answers.

More puzzling was grandma’s Friday night ritual of candle lighting. As she draped her always-neatly combed hair in a gossamer-thin scarf, and whispered some mysterious incantation while circling lovingly above the lights, why did tears fall softly on her face? Was this her way of asking questions? Maybe it was her way of getting answers.

Until the answers stopped. A few months after we had arrived in America in June, the children she had not seen in four decades would make it clear it was far too late for her. Then her tears merely accompanied her kaddish: for the relatives sent to Auschwitz who were never mentioned, and for the severely paralyzed adult son for whom she had cared for over three decades, who had died in Paris on our way over from Romania. Before long, she would melt into the darkness that long ago claimed all the dreams she barely dared to have.

The Mother of Exiles, as Emma Lazarus called the secular goddess of Liberty, couldn’t keep the promise she made to all those who washed up on its shores. In truth, it wasn’t really a promise so much as a nod to go ahead and wash up. In my grandmother’s case, the tide had already receded by the time she reached us in America, a few weeks after our own arrival; we scooped her up as best we could, but her wings had been torn long ago, even if she didn’t know it then. She died a few short years after arriving in the United States, a shadow of herself.

As for the rest of us, we had to be ready as soon as we could, to exercise our newfound “liberty.” Whatever that meant; we didn’t really know. The main problem with growing up under communism is that you can never take words at face value but must read between lines, and you couldn’t be sure you got it right, since the official lexicon had to be translated by unorthodox, underground, mostly silent methods. To cite but a few examples:

Democracy: everyone must vote. Not-voting, abstaining, and write-ins are treasonous, subject to unimpeachable and (obviously!) unappealable discretion.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik perfectly captures the role of Jews in helping “to make the case for the exceptional nature of this country for which Jews have always been grateful.” (Republican National Convention)

Dictatorship of the proletariat: dictatorship.

Equality: inequality.

Equality: nonexistent except under socialism/communism/people’s democracy.

Peaceful coexistence: voluntary disarming of non-Communist regimes so militarily superior Communist countries would have an easy time of it when liberating their lucky inhabitants.

Liberation: Communist takeover.

Cosmopolitan: Jewish.

Trotskyite: Jewish.

Jewish: a nationality; not a religion.

Religion: under socialism/communism, none.

Religion: opium of the people.

Fascist: anti-Communist.

Racist: anti-Communist.

Capitalist: anti-Communist.

Truth: what the Party says it is.

Falsehood: what the Party doesn’t want to be said.

Enemy of the people: whoever party leaders want to get rid of.

Trial: a spectacle to fool Communist sympathizers in the West into imagining that not all the accused are already known to be guilty.

Trial by jury: a strictly Western charade.

Communist economics: an oxymoron.

I did know that words are no laughing matter. They can do much more than turn reality on its head – they can change flesh to ashes. Slippery things, words, if you look at them closely. Take allegories with their deceptive simplicity. For example, when the Mother of Exiles beckons all those “yearning to breathe free,” who is she addressing? The nearly choking who want to breathe anything, or merely those looking for cleaner air? Some of the former may have only the vaguest idea what oxygen is, let alone how much of it they needed. We weren’t quite in that situation, but close enough. And what is she promising? At least she might not turn us away – which is more than Europe’s Jews could say when the alternative was crematoria. What did seem clear to me was that the yearning itself is a powerful enough impulse for human beings to risk almost everything.

Not knowing what would await us, our little delegation of freedom-seekers had modest goals: we wanted to live anew, join the near-mythical country that seemed willing to give us a chance, and we would gladly do our best to justify the privilege. We implicitly pledged to link our various histories, habits, and hopes with those of people we would soon call neighbors and compatriots. We would thus effectively become the latest adoptees of the American family, themselves descendants of the self-orphaned.

It was easy for us to be part of a people who had declared the God-given right to liberty as self-evident in what they called a Declaration of Independence. That parchment, signed by men who risked being hanged for treason on its account, represented a covenant (in Hebrew, brit) with the Creator, whose protection in turn was conditioned on their own rightful actions. It was, one might say, in our biblically conditioned bones.

But oh, there was so much we didn’t know. We didn’t realize, for example, to what extent America’s Founders had indeed been informed by the Hebrew Bible. Considering themselves to have been chosen to be free, they were determined to keep that freedom, believing themselves to have been entrusted with a sacred responsibility. The Declaration of Independence, either preempted or later echoed by the state constitutions, was ultimately enshrined in the nation’s birth certificate, the U.S. Constitution. Which turned out to be both very short and remarkably easy to read even two centuries later. America considered itself at the outset to be a creedal nation in the biblical tradition, with the potential to attempt once again to respect all humans as equally unequal.

That creed, unfortunately, is increasingly under attack. Alongside an increasingly vocal and virulent anti-Americanism in the academy and the media, antisemitism has risen as well, hardly by coincidence. Disguised as anti-Zionism, it has found resonance among Jews themselves; so, what should we expect from the surrounding culture? Having first landed in this country a lifetime ago – ten decades, to be exact – I am appalled to see many of my friends giving up on America, afraid of escalating antisemitism. I share Harvard Professor emerita Ruth Wisse’s dismay, as well as her admission that:

“[e]verything about the upsurge of anti-Jewish politics in the United States troubles me: the role of universities, media, and cultural elites in abetting anti-Zionism, the successor and incorporator of anti-Semitism; the organization of grievance brigades against the allegedly privileged Jews; the ease with which the Arab and Islamist war against the Jewish people has found a home on the left; the electability of known anti-Semites to government; the lone shooters who choose Jews for their targets; the underreported street attacks on visible Jews; and the timidity and stupidity of some American Jewish spokesmen in response to all this aggression.”

And then comes the clincher: “It wasn’t the escalation of anti-Jewish activity that surprised me, but the idea that it’s therefore time for Jews to give up on America altogether.” Not only isn’t it time but it would be deeply immoral, given how much we owe this amazing nation. But even more profoundly, it would amount to betraying our very essence as a liberal community. Yes, liberal. Not in the mutated, mendacious sense in which it has been used for nearly a century, but the original, biblical sense: that we are all created equal in God’s image. We owe it to ourselves.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik perfectly captures the role of Jews in helping “to make the case for the exceptional nature of this country for which Jews have always been grateful. The welcome that Jews received in America from the very beginning highlighted America’s uniqueness, how its Founders revered the Hebraic tradition, and fused Lockean ideas with the covenantal thought they found in the Hebrew Bible, forging a worldview that saw Americans as endowed with individual rights but also bound in common destiny.” It is at bottom common sense – still the best defense against cant, lies, and attacks on simple faith in the goodness of creation.

Aren’t most if not all the answers to life’s greatest mysteries simple questions? A child knows as much, as did Rabbi Hillel in the first century BCE, who is reputed to have asked: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, then when?” The effective protection of individual liberty, far from excluding empathy, presupposes it. Over the millennia, Jews have paid dearly for this insight. But they exemplify the human condition. “Because the Jewish struggle for freedom is always launched against political despotism,” explains Wisse, now a distinguished fellow at the Tikvah Fund, “it benefits everyone else who truly clings to freedom.” Don’t be fooled by words: the liberal idea is no mere ism. It is a way of life, and hope, and compassion. Against slaughter there must be spring.


Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. Her books include The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom, The Art of Peace: Engaging a Complex World, Soulmates: Resurrecting Eve, Why America is Such a Hard Sell: Beyond Pride and Prejudice, The Bloody Flag: Post-Communist Nationalism in Eastern Europe — Spotlight on Romania, Notes From the Other Side of Night, and three anthologies. She has published over two hundred articles and reviews on international affairs, human rights, literature, and philosophy, and has made frequent appearances on radio and television

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