Published on Sunday, December 14, 2003 by the Los Angeles Times
Israel: Ghosts of a Dream
My parents rise up from the grave, demanding to know: How has it come to this? How did a great and persecuted people become the persecutors?
by Grace Paley
Jews are afraid these days. I'm Jewish, so I'm afraid too. I'm afraid for my mother and father in their Russian Jewish youth 90 years ago, their high spirits and dangerous bravery. I'm afraid for my grandmother because she will have to find a wagon to bring her murdered son home. I am afraid for him. He falls down. He's been shot. It's pogrom time. My grandmother finds him among other dead boys. With all her strength, she lifts him, tips him into the wagon. He's 17. His name is Rusya. A photograph about 2 by 3 feet stands on the windowsill of my front room. When I walk into the room I see his intelligent Russian Jewish face and I am afraid for him. It will not be able to save him. I am afraid for my grandmother's sadness. It will never end. It is almost 100 years old.
I am afraid for my grandchildren. Two of them are the great-great-great-grandchildren of imported African immigrants (slaves). My grandchildren are called African American. I am afraid for those two little children. I am afraid of America.
Ten or 12 years before World War II, my aunt, my mother's sister, visited us. She came from a place called Palestine, where she has lived as long as my parents have lived in this America. She came floating over the sea in a big ship. It was called the Grace Line. She gave me a wonderful button to pin on my dress. It said Grace. Then, at the supper table, she told my parents that she was ashamed of them. They had become members of the terrible American bourgeoisie. She herself had kept her socialist idealism alive, active in a place that would eventually be called Israel. My father ignored her rudeness politely but thought it over. He said: What about the Arabs? You think they'll sit still? They'll eat you alive. My aunt said: You ignorant fool, we will live with them together. You'll see. My mother said: Maybe she's right. You don't know everything.
Then the years passed, as they do for nations as well as people, not always at the same rate.
I am afraid for the Jews of Israel. A great people may not have had to become a small nation, despite promises made 2,500 years ago. Even He, its presumed Author, did not imagine that His Book, made in Yavneh, so full of myth history prophecy law poetry, would carry us without the baggage of real estate (which must be defended) into the 21st century. A Book, a Testament of such beauty that you didn't have to believe in God in order to praise Him on the high holidays. With this Book, we have lived in the United States, France, Brazil, South Africa, Algeria. China! We spoke the languages of those countries; our voices live in their literature. Sometimes we speak with a Yiddish accent, or Ladino. This seems to be useful to those other languages, though they would deny it. They are so busy being nations.
I was talking to my Indian friend from India the other day. She said her family had become obnoxious conservatives. What had America done to them? I talked to an Italian friend who said it was all impossible. With one set of anarchist grandparents and one set socialists, all the old uncles had voted Republican. My Irish friend thought his generation was sensibly progressive, but something had happened to his elders when they settled in a bad mood in South Boston.
This did not happen to the Jewish people for a long time. Their experience of enraged anti-Semitism kept their politics clear for some years. Also they had to state frequently, at home and in shul, "for we were strangers in Egypt." I thought a lot about that phrase when I was a kid. It meant, I thought, that we had to be nice to the two or three Christians who had inexplicably chosen to live in our noisy Jewish neighborhood.
Now at one time, the Jews wanted a king. They'd had a couple of perfectly good prophets, but they said they really wanted a king. The prophet Samuel, with biblical experience and wisdom, pointed out that a king would require all sorts of taxes, olive orchards, concubines, etc. — a terrible expense. No, they said, they wanted to be like all the other nations and have a king — also, they'd probably need, like all the other nations, an army, airplanes, nuclear weapons, borders, checkpoints, and maybe a big wall and a lot more land.
My father said, I told you they'd run into trouble. It's true my parents died years ago, but they still speak to me whenever I'm willing to listen.
My father continued. Anyway, what is this business of settlements? Probably mostly from Brooklyn? What do you mean they're tearing up trees and knocking down people's houses? Then the Arabs (he always says Arabs), for revenge they go after the Jews, killing themselves along with our people? Young boys and girls? They just give away their lives? I bet you one thing, there's some big shot 50, 60 years old handling the whole business. Fifty-year-old people don't want to die. By the time they're 60, even less. Then our people take revenge? Then back and forth? You heard the expression, Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord? They can't wait? My God, I'm glad I'm six feet under. And the Jews of America say all this is OK? They don't yell, Stop? I think they lost their Jewish minds. Us. Poor people hounded all over the Earth for a couple thousand years, and now they want to be the hounds?
I want to correct him, No, no, Pa, there are people on both sides who want to live like humans. You would recognize them. He said, sadly, I know, of course. Usually they're better, the people. But always in the end I have noticed how it grows, the state and its terrible power.
My mother who died 30 years before my talking father is shy. She wants to take my hand. Of course she can't. She's thinking about her sister and the grandchildren. All the children. She says, Only have pity.
Enough, my father says. And they are gone.
Grace Paley is a poet and fiction writer. This essay appears in the book "Wrestling with Zion."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times