Thursday, May 08, 2008

Now, be careful blowing out all those candles...

Today, Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary. A bit early, but, you know, no biggie.

I am grateful to Francis for reminding me of that and to Norm for expressing succinctly why it is worth celebrating.

So, from both of us here, very hearty congratulations.

As Norm's first reason for why this is worth celebrating suggests, this is an anniversary that is still (and will always be?...always is a long time...) marked by the memory of horror.

That was brought home to me about a decade ago when I was assigned as a teaching assistant to a course on Jewish history. I must admit to a certain amount of trepidation, as that was really not my field, and I was dreading facing courses full of students with a decade of Hebrew school in them, who would, of course, know far more than a humble goy like me about the history of their religion and ethnicity (as I learned right away, the issue of 'who is a Jew' -- whether it is about belief or about blood -- is one that seems to divide many Jews).

As I discovered, however, most of my students (about 90% Jewish according to one definition or another) knew very little about the topic of the course. Other than for the Orthodox students (a minority...but a strikingly intense and well-read minority) most of my class had two points of identity with Judaism: 1) The Holocaust and 2) Israel.

They ended up being a bit frustrated, as the professor (one of the best and most good-humoured I've worked with) spent all of two weeks on those topics. In fact, the last two.

The rest of the time was taken up with Jewish life and thought between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Although my memory of the course has become a bit fuzzy with time (and my research interests lie elsewhere), that was a remarkable period in Jewish history. A weird, ambiguous time, full of tragedy and occasional terror, but also of great achievement and patches of joy. (Indeed, there is nothing about that description that is confined to specifically Jewish history...those were an interesting few centuries in Europe for everyone.)

But, for my students, someone like Moses Mendelssohn was as distant as any other random eighteenth-century figure. The historic schisms among Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed Judaism were as foreign to them as any other historic event.

Which was rather a shame, I thought. There is quite a remarkable history of Jews in Europe before that iconic year 1933, when all the worst nightmares were let loose.

This was brought home to me only last week, when I (accompanied by The Wife and The Mother-In-Law) visited the Jewish cemetery in the Franconian village of Kleinbardorf, one of the largest in Bavaria. (Largest Jewish cemeteries that is, not villages as such.)

To give you an idea of what it looks like, here's a photo (sorry for the quality: the visit was spontaneous and I didn't have a proper camera with me. This is the best that my sorry Motorola can do...)

The cemetery has existed since the seventeenth century. It's a lovely, quiet place, particularly isolated as it's at the top of a hill and not all that accessible, really.

The most moving of the many monuments for me was this one:

Now, there might for some of you be a strange cognitive dissonance seeing that helmet in a Jewish cemetery.

However, this is a monument to Jewish soldiers who died in the First World War in the service of their country.

There is, I think, a special poignancy to this kind of memorial, and a reminder of just how integrated (indeed, how German), one particular Jewish community was. For many war heroes who survived the horror of either front in that war, the notion that they had done their bit for the Fatherland sustained their belief that they were immune from any political twist or turn.

That turned out to be wrong. In the worst possible way.

On the other hand, it seems to me a particular sorrow that the first victims of Nazism were not only specifically Jews (and socialists and Communists, and Catholics and homosexuals), but rather (all of them) other Germans. The extent to which a single society tore itself apart is -- even at this historical distance -- astounding. And that not only the children of war heroes, but even the war heroes themselves, could be re-imagined as 'enemies of the Reich' is a testament to how fragile modern collective identities can be.

Like my former students, however, I think it would be in some way wrong to focus too much on what has gone so wrong. Jewish history (like German history) is much longer than the sum of twelve years' horror.

There is a longer and more positive -- if still troubled -- historical relationship that, for those who lived it, was neither doomed nor second-rate.

This deserves at least some recognition.

Just as the quite remarkable -- flawed, full of ordinary ambiguities and disputes, and even a few extraordinary ones -- history of a state that has endured sixty years is more than the atrocity that preceded it.

No simple answers here. But a sincere hope that some -- however minor (we're not optimists here) -- improvement is on the way.

Mazel Tov!

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