Demons surface. For most people, demons surface in nightmares, but for us, for Jews, demons seem to surface in history. Pharaoh, Amalek, Nebuchadnezzar, Titus, Torquemada, Chmielnitsky, and Hitler were real demons. They killed real Jews. The night demons can be forgotten, but not the demons that remain when the morning breaks. These demons have changed something in the Jewish soul. I cannot say what the change is precisely, hut it amounts to this at least: we Jews cannot fully trust the world again.
An op-ed piece last spring in the New York Times by Seymour Martin Lipset shows it. He tells of a successful, urbane, cosmopolitan New York Jewish publisher who confessed to harboring the deep belief that Gentiles go home at night and dream of killing Jews. Lipset believes that the wild paranoia of this man is present in some greater or lesser degree in the mind of most Jews. When set against the fact of Jewish power and prestige, Jewish wealth and status, this paranoia about the world’s Jew-hating might seem incomprehensible. But this is the demon in our soul, and no simple ceremony will exorcise it.
There are things for the world to learn and things for us to learn about our demon. There are reasons for our paranoia, good reasons (if one can speak of a collective neurosis in this positive way), reasons which perdure despite our power. To begin with, the only meaningful Jewish statistic: we are a people who are today three million fewer than we were fifty years ago. And this despite fifty years of Jewish babies and good medicine. We were at least eighteen million in 1940 and we are perhaps fifteen million today, and in that time the population of the world has risen from three to five billion people, so our relative percentage of the world’s population is smaller still.
The world must understand what happens to a people who cannot return to the land of their forebears and find distant relatives who will welcome them back home. Irish-Americans can go to Ireland and visit family and friends in their ancestral home, Italian-Americans can renew and freshen their roots in the soil of their native Italy, African-Americans can return as free people to a mostly free Africa and sort out the meaning of slavery in the context of a living and enduring African culture. But where can an Eastern European Jew go to taste the old food and sing the old songs and pray in the old synagogues? The great Jewish centers of Europe are dead, and the synagogues burned down or almost empty. We are cut off from our past and so we must leapfrog back to the past of King David and try to replace our roots in Europe with roots in the state of Israel. But Jerusalem is not Vilna, Beer Sheba is not Krakow, and every time we try to reminisce, the demon in our soul wounds us with the searing knowledge that our European past is, like us, turned to dust. All that and more is what the world must learn about the demon in the Jewish soul.
The world must understand what happens to the psyche of a people who must find a way to cope with an event within the memory of living Jews in which one out of every three Jews in the world was murdered while essentially nothing was done to stop the carnage. These are more than statistics, more than numbers. They are the arithmetic of devastation, and they must be understood, as Judith Miller has pointed out in her new book on the Holocaust, “one, by one, by one.”
Arthur Hertzberg astutely points to these numbers as the explanation for the stridency and excesses of Jewish defense organizations in response to even peripheral threats (to wit: the excessive fuss over Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson, or the instantaneous denunciation of some intemperate remarks by Cardinal O’Connor). The residue of guilt for doing so little to try to stop the Holocaust remains as a part of our demon in every institution we have built after the kingdom of night was destroyed. The specter of being indolent in the face of catastrophe twice in one generation is simply too terrifying for any Jew or any Jewish organization to bear. On the day of their induction into the army, Israeli soldiers march to the top of Masada and utter the oath, “Masada lo yipol od”—“Masada will not fall again.” At some time in his or her life, every Jew in the world has taken that oath.
The world must also learn that the demon in our soul is the first warning call to the world whenever freedom is imperiled. Today Europe, east and west, must decide which of the voices freedom has unleashed will be the voice of the new Europe. Perhaps it will be Vaclav Havel’s Jeffersonian compassion, or perhaps it will be Jean-Marie Le Pen’s quasi-fascist and anti-Semitic National Front. Either way, it is the attitude about the Jews, the pitiful remnant still alive in Europe, which will tell us everything else about the new world aborning there. A united Germany may be dominated by the green shirts or by those who dress again in brown shirts. In others’ treatment of the Jews lies the barometer of decency, the litmus test of freedom, the yard stick for human rights, the truest measure of decency and democracy in the world, and it is the demon in our soul which makes us cry out. But it is still the world’s choice to listen or turn a deaf ear to our warning cries.
In recent months, Jews all over the world were expecting an attack on Jews in Russia. The fear was so real that in early May Jewish defense organizations sent squads of reporters to cover the impending pogrom. And while we were waiting, the attack came in France. It was an attack on dead Jews. The desecration of the Carpentras cemetery was a message that the demon still lives not only in our fears but also in the world. When even dead Jews are not safe from attack, how can we be blamed for not trusting the world again?
How do you tell your child about the demon? My son Max plays first base, goes to camp, does not pick up his socks, and has never once had to fight his way home through groups of bullies shouting, “Dirty Jew!” He is just like most middle-class American kids, and so when he asked me to explain the events at Carpentras, and why people would dig up a Jewish body and mutilate it, and why they hate us, I did not know what to say. I told him, of course, that the whole world was not like that, but not so long ago the whole world was just like that.
Now is the time for my son Max to choose what to believe. He must decide whether to trust in his normalcy, or fear the news story which caused his father to cry over the morning coffee. The demon is knocking at my son’s door, and I fear he will be different now. But truth to tell, I also hope he will be different, because we are the rememberers and it is the demon who makes us remember.
I want Max to understand that the deal we made with the world was not honored. For two thousand years, from the time of the Roman conquest to our own age, we Jews made a deal to live in the world in a condition of political powerlessness. At the very moment the Jewish defenders of Masada were taking their lives rather than submitting to Roman rule. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai went to the Emperor Titus and asked him for the right to open a rabbinical academy in the city of Yavneh in return for which he would not urge or foment revolt against Rome. The deal was based on the belief that without political power, the Jewish community would not be a target for attack because no prize would be won in attacking a powerless community. But this deal did not comprehend that we would gain economic power, and would need Roman emperors and the emperors of a thousand empires to protect us. By and large, we have learned from history that the emperors were not willing.
Political powerlessness coupled with economic prosperity was, we now understand, a deadly combination. In 1302, Pope Innocent III, realizing that almost 80 percent of church lands were mortgaged to Jews, canceled the debts of the church to Jewish money lenders. He understood that the Jewish community could not protect the wealth it had accumulated because of the flaw in the deal Yochanan ben Zakkai had made with Titus. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella explored the new world with confiscated Jewish money and expelled the Jews from Spain because they realized that the Jewish community could not protect the wealth it had accumulated because of the flaw in the deal Yochanan ben Zakkai had made with Titus. After 1933, Hitler armed the Third Reich with confiscated Jewish money because he, too, realized that the Jewish community could not protect the wealth it had accumulated because of the flaw in the deal Yochanan ben Zakkai had made with Titus. Only in America, the land of a democracy born of the dispossessed, could wealth be protected. And now Israel with power and will protects the people and its wealth and future.
Protection from vulnerability is the fetish and foundation point for any informed modern Jewish life. However, it must come to each of us, in the night, or in a moment of uncertainty in the day, that perhaps America and even Israel are just like all the other places; that perhaps we have not built the walls high enough or amassed enough power or might to protect what we have earned. If Russia, a great land of eleven time zones can fear being invaded again from the Balkans, and the world can honor that fear, why can the world not honor the fears of a little people who cannot ever believe they are truly safe?
The curse of the Jewish people is that we must live with the demon, that the world will never let us live in peace. But the world must also live with a demon, the knowledge that it created the demon which torments us so.
There are also lessons for us to learn about our demon. Jews must also grow from the horrid wisdom of the past. There are several lessons we must learn and are trying to learn and with patient friends and peace will surely learn.
We must learn that although we were victims, we are not victims now. We have power now and security now and wealth now and we are part of the elites of the world. Our state of affairs in the diaspora (Russia excepted) has never been better and our state of affairs in our State, though constantly endangered by threats from real enemies, is strong and politically powerful. Tempting though it is to ignore these irrefutable facts, we must face them and alter the way we think about ourselves in the world because of them. We cannot in good faith both pursue power and also cloak ourselves in the moral innocence and righteousness of the victim. Vigilance must continue, particularly in Israel, where the threat is palpable, but we cannot imagine that we do not control our destiny, and we cannot continue to maintain that our behavior even in Israel is solely the result of external hatred.
When FDR met with reporters after Kristallnacht in 1938, he said he had no plan and no commitment to make for the emigration of German Jews. When Bush and Gorbachev met in June, one of the highest agenda items after arms control was the emigration of Soviet Jews. Perhaps 300,000 Soviet Jews will be released in the next two years. The world is different today than it was fifty years ago, and in a word, the difference is Jewish power. Lipset points out that there are thirty-one Jewish congressmen and seven Jewish senators, a representation well in excess of our percentage of the population. The world is different today for us and the reason is Jewish power.
Consider two recent New York stories as telling signs of this change. A grocer in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn was involved in a racial incident as the result of an argument with a customer, while at the same time across town on Wall Street a fabulously wealthy investment banker was convicted of insider trading violations and forced to pay a six hundred million dollar fine. Now, if fifty years ago one had been asked to guess which of these two was the Jew and which the non-Jew, the prudent guess would surely have been that the grocer in Brooklyn was the Jew and the investment banker was not. Of course today, that guess would be wrong, and the difference is Jewish power.
We must accept the reality of Jewish power and we must accept moral responsibility for the uses of power. Whether on the West Bank, or on Wall Street, we are not the victims any more, and we cannot shrink from the accountability power imposes and requires.
Another lesson we must learn from the demon in our soul is that we must learn to trust Christian love.
Elie Wiesel reminds us that only the killers are guilty. We must acknowledge both Christian complicity as well as Christian heroism in the face of death. Rabbi Harold Shulweis from California is now engaged in a project of surpassing moral eloquence. He has formed an organization to help poor elderly Christians who saved Jews during the Holocaust. This is not a repayment for an old debt. Rather it is a statement that only the killers are guilty, and we as Jews can come to acknowledge, and believe in, and even trust in Christian love.
I can trust my friend Thomas. Tom is a priest, and I know he would shelter me if the demons should rise up again. I know this because we are dear friends and I have come to trust him. We became friends when I decided to silence my own demon and believe in Christian love. We do a television show together in which a priest and a rabbi who like each other try to explain their traditions to each other on the air. Our show, “The God Squad,” seems to have helped lots of folks begin to understand their neighbors and this understanding may lead to trust or something like trust.
In this experience of working together, Tom has begun to understand that the symbols of love for him are often symbols of hatred for me. So Tom came to understand that the cross planted in the ashes of Jewish men and women and children at Auschwitz was not a symbol of love and reconciliation for me, but rather a triumphant return of the crusaders’ cross to another field of Jewish blood. And so Tom and I have silenced the demons between us. I do not believe that Tom dreams of killing Jews.
I will say, however, that the demon in me did surface towards the beginning of our relationship. I do remember feeling for more than a moment this dark thought, “If they come to get me and my people, my friendship with Tom will be useful in saving some of us.” I am ashamed to have felt that even for a moment, but I am not completely ashamed because I know the demon is in my soul and I know the demon cannot be easily exorcised. However, now I trust Tom with no reservations. We are dear friends and soul mates. I do not believe, I know that Tommy dreams of a world where I will not be afraid, and where Max can grow to be just a first baseman and trust the world much more than my grandparents and a little more than me.
Truth to be told, we have not only demons but also hopes embedded in our collective Jewish soul. We possess a tradition which, though buffeted by history, has not been morally impoverished by the vicissitudes of history. The same Jewish tradition which contains a song of thanks to God for drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea also contains a custom of dipping one drop of wine out of the kiddish cup on Passover for each plague, in sorrow for the Egyptian lives that were lost in the Exodus. The same tradition which produced a prayer asking God to pour out His wrath on the Gentiles for what they have done to us, also produced a law which tells us that when we hear a Gentile in prayer who praises God, we must answer, “Amen.”
Perhaps it is the amen that will drive away the demon in our soul and help us finally to find each other.
Marc Gellman is Rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills, NY, and the author of Does God Have a Big Toe? Stories About Stories in the Bible.