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Rest in Pieces – A Thought for Tisha B’Av

July 19, 2010

Khaled’s been our “fix-it” guy for a decade. When he was over recently, I came upon him in the living room as he was taking a break from his work. He was looking at a series of photographs on the wall, one of which is called “Rest in Pieces.”

“What is this?” he asked.

“It’s a Jewish cemetery in Argentina,” I told him. “See the Hebrew lettering on the tombstones?”

“But why are the tombstones shattered?” “People broke them,” I explained.

“But why would anyone do that?” “Because they hate Jews, I guess,” I told him.

“Why?” And a moment later, “But these Jews were dead,” he said to me. “They hate dead Jews, too?” Now things had gotten surreal. Was an Israeli Arab really asking me why anyone might hate Jews? Khaled wasn’t kidding. He seemed utterly perplexed, and continued studying the photograph.

I didn’t really know where to begin. I told him that in some places in Europe, people still destroy Jewish cemeteries. He was astounded. For a moment, I considered telling him what the Jordanians had done to Jewish cemeteries between 1948 and 1967, but for whatever reason, I decided not to. Maybe I just wanted to relish, even for a few moments, the hopeful moment of an Arab man who couldn’t understand why anyone would hate the Jews. It was the sort of moment that gives you some hope, even if but a faint flicker.

But flickers fade, especially in this region. A few days later, my wife and I were in Tel Aviv for an outstanding program on “The Law of Return: Just or Discriminatory?” sponsored by the Metzilah Center, founded by Prof. Ruth Gavison, one of the country’s most eminent jurists and a Zionist thinker of great profundity. Dr. Raif Zreik, of Tel Aviv University, whom I’d never heard before, was the first speaker.

Zreik, it was immediately obvious, is an intellectual to be reckoned with. Educated at Hebrew University, Columbia and Harvard, he is extraordinarily articulate, speaks a mellifluous Hebrew and doesn’t pull punches. Nor did he waste any time.

Zreik began by explaining why he knew he wouldn’t change our minds. The difference between an intellectual and an ideologue, he said, is that an intellectual can surprise himself. Intellectuals are sufficiently open-minded and rational that they occasionally find themselves adopting positions different from what they’d originally thought. An ideologue can never do that, he said.

But we immigrants, Zreik asserted, “don’t have the luxury of being intellectuals…. You are all small-minded intellectuals, not because you’re not smart, but because your bodies won’t let you be honest. If you were, you might have to admit you have no right to be here.”

From there, Zreik launched into what he called a macro-view of the Zionist story. The Palestinians were in Palestine, he said, and Jews in Europe. The Jews in Europe ran into deep trouble, but there was then a mismatch between the place of the problem (Europe) and the place of the solution (Palestine).

Everything that’s followed, he insisted, is the result of that original mismatch.

What was astounding was everything that Zreik did not mention. That the Jews also had a connection to this place and had been exiled from it. That before Israel was created, Jews had nowhere to go. That the world understood that and ultimately, with Balfour, Peel and the partition plan, collectively decided that the Jews should have a state, and that it should be here. That, ironically, it was Zionism’s success that ignited Palestinian nationalism. No, none of that would fit into his theory, so it went unmentioned. Zreik, brilliant though he clearly is, had become the very ideologue he’d just defined.

Ultimately, Zreik was a high-brow version of Helen Thomas. “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine” – Thomas’ words, but Zreik’s position, too. And with the world almost everywhere turning on the Jews once again, saying “get the hell out Palestine” is tantamount to saying “rest in pieces.” Zreik may not intend that, but that’s where his theory must inexorably lead.

HOW DO we get more Khaleds, I wondered. Decent people, understandably not always happy with their lot as Israeli Arabs, but people who just want to live together, not to turn the clock back to a place it can never go.

I found myself missing Khaled’s bewilderment at the hatred. Of course, most people don’t use the word “hate.” They speak in terms of Palestine belonging only to the Palestinians, or the immorality of the Law of Return. Or the intolerability of the embargo. But ultimately, their positions boil down to this – you, unlike everyone else, do not need, or deserve, a home. Leave. And rest in pieces.

Which brings us to this week. There are Jews who wonder if the Ninth of Av still makes sense. After all, no one is slaughtering us. Israel is thriving. And Jerusalem is rebuilt. Why all the mourning? For me, moments like an evening with Dr. Zreik, articulate and brilliant though he is, make the case for this period of mourning. It’s not just about the past, but also about the future, about what could still happen, and what may already be beginning. “The Lord has summoned against Jacob enemies all about him,” says Lamentations (1:17). “Jerusalem has become among them a thing unclean.”

The Khaleds of the world are too few and far between. Today, for the most part, we’re surrounded by a world that has tired of us, once again. It has tired of its guilt, and has tired of the state that it re-created when that sense of responsibility was at its peak. Gone is the era when the world understood, even if momentarily, that we, no less than anyone else, deserve a place to be. We had it, briefly, but it’s gone.

Which is why, I suppose, we still conclude the reading of Lamentations not with its last verse, but by repeating the penultimate sentence: “Take us back, O Lord… renew our days as of old.”

(Photograph by Zion Ozeri,

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