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1948: A new dawn
The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner recalls how it felt to experience the moment of independence
For the Jewish child in me, Israel represents an irresistible call to hope, and Jerusalem a powerful love song.
In my small Romanian town, nestled in the Carpathians, I often walked the streets imagining myself sitting on a bench somewhere in Judea, listening to a master explain the mystery of words, the strength of memories and the human thirst for miracles.
With my grandfather, a fervent Chassid, I spoke Yiddish. He loved teaching me Chassidic tunes and, most of all, watching me pore over a Talmudic tractate. His dream was to live long enough for all of us to go together to the Holy Land and there welcome the Messiah. Indeed, I dreamed about the Messiah more than about a political Jewish state. Then what happened happened.
Where was I on May 14, 1944? Still in the ghetto. I was 15. The first transport toward the unknown, organised in haste, was getting ready to leave or had just left. For us, destiny wore the mask of death of which the enemy had made its own saviour.
May 14, 1948. Paris. Israel is about to be born. Stateless, I had already lived three years in France. Liberated from Buchenwald by the American Army in 1945, I was asked by an officer where I wanted to be repatriated.
Like most of my friends, I answered that I wanted to go to Palestine, but the British mandate on immigration at the time had in effect closed those doors to us. In the end, OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants), an outstanding French Jewish humanitarian organisation, brought about 400 of us to France. I remember.
It is a Friday. David Ben-Gurion reads the new Jewish state’s Declaration of Independence; radio stations all over the world broadcast it. In the evening, I go to synagogue. Jubilation. Strangers share their feelings. What? A Jewish state? Three years after the worst catastrophe in Jewish history? It is difficult for me to concentrate.
An old bearded man with feverish eyes lectures me: This is the result of prayer, which is more important than politics. I want to tell him that I agree, that it is prayer too that allows us to witness the fulfilment of an ancient promise. But I am too shy and remain silent. My thoughts move to my grandfather: Didn’t he deserve, much more than I, to experience this glorious moment? My father, my mother... my thoughts go to them, carried away by the whirlwind of fire and ashes. Must I include in the Mourner’s Kaddish for them words of gratitude for the new Jewish state? Could this shining moment truly be the response to the torments of our Night? Israel, a compensation for Auschwitz?
I do not remember precisely what I thought at that moment, but I hope that I already rejected these theories. They are cruel, simplistic, absurd and, above all, unworthy. And then, the child I was grew up. I became an adult who finally felt the true weight of years. What changed?
First from Paris and then from New York, I was for more than 20 years a correspondent for Israel’s evening daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. I was thrilled as I followed events in the Holy Land. For me, it was not a war of conquest, but a return, a liberation. After 2,000 years of hardship, of lives lived moving from one exile to another, from one danger to the next, the victims of their own weakness had finally overcome it, become authors of their self-determination, and thus acquired unexpected power. The newly born sovereign state was prepared to live within the narrow borders defined by the United Nations’ partition plan. But then the young nation, lacking weapons and an established, structured military, was attacked by not one, but five well-armed Arab countries.
At that time, I was not yet keenly conscious of the fact that, in the lives of men as well as nations, the dream of one can — in an instant — turn into a nightmare for the other. The big question: What would have happened if the Palestinian leaders of that period had followed Israel’s example by declaring the establishment of an independent Palestinian state? Why did the Palestinian rulers, to quote the late Abba Eban, “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”?
I remember my first journey to Israel in 1949. I boarded a small ship overcrowded with immigrants — mostly young Zionists — in Marseille. Upon arriving at Haifa, I saw, on the horizon, the majestic Mount Carmel, which brought to my mind its young, wandering prophets. I remember how moved I was seeing the first Jewish policemen, Jewish customs officers and Jewish soldiers.
My first visit to Jerusalem. I wandered aimlessly through the city feeling that I had been there before. In my mind’s eye, I had been there countless times. And yet, whenever I now visit Jerusalem, I feel it is the first time. In 1967, Egypt ordered the United Nations forces from Sinai and thus provoked war. I remember that June.
With the war still raging in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights, I took advantage of every free hour to pray at the Wailing Wall that had recently been liberated. One day, as I walked through the narrow streets of the Old City, I met a group of Arab children who looked at me in a strange way. Suddenly I realised: They were afraid. I frightened them because I was a Jew. This troubled me deeply. As Jews, we have a long history of experiencing fear. But children frightened by a Jew? I have no problem with any religion. But I abhor fanatics of all religions, including mine. Those suicide terrorists who breathe hatred and practise the cult of death are a plague on all nations. And I hold their leaders responsible for the mayhem they wreak. I know, of course, that questions can also be raised about Israeli leaders.
Over years and years of bloodshed, have they seized every opportunity to end the hostilities? On a personal level, I ask myself why I did not move to Israel. At war’s end, many of my childhood friends made their aliyah illegally, via Cyprus, while I remained in France, intent on sounding out and binding words together. Why? Sixty years later, all these questions and so many others remain open. I know there are those who accuse me of doing too much and others who blame me for not doing enough — and particularly for living in America, so far from Israel and its countless problems. And what about hope in all this? Is it necessary to renounce it once and for all and accept reality? To tell ourselves that we must live from day to day with our constant fears and fleeting joys? And what should be the role of the writer, the teacher, the witness or simply the Jew in me who does not live in Israel but who owes to Israel his attachment and his loyalty and perhaps as well — why not? — his gratitude for simply existing as a Jew? Of course I — and many Jews living in the diaspora — feel the need to help Israel break away from and rise above the isolation in which “the nations of the world”, to use a Talmudic expression, often try to enclose it. Many of us, when we speak of Israel, feel duty-bound to raise the debate to a loftier level. Is this to say that we must keep silent about the Palestinian men, women and children, especially the children, who live in misery, fear and sorrow, and who hold Israel responsible? Of course not. And I know that Israel’s government and the country’s majority believe that, if there is a solution, it lies in two states living side by side, opting for peace.
For a Jew like me, with my past and my involvement, helping Israel implies more than just material aid. I was among those, including King Abdullah II of Jordan, who initiated the very first meeting — at our Petra Conference in 2006 — between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Peace in this extraordinary region, blessed by God and abused by man, remains our most impassioned priority. But how to achieve that goal?
In the mid-1970s, I published a letter: “To a Young Palestinian Arab.” In that letter, I told him that the man I am, the Jew I am, understands him better than anyone. I understand his suffering and even his anger. I told him that I was ready to try to help him build upon the ruins, as we Jews have done over and over again. The difference is that when we faced our challenges, we never chose violence. If I were to write this letter today, I would add that if he were to renounce his tactics — the absolute violence of suicide terrorism — I and so many others would immediately take up his cause. But how can I support any man or group that preaches or even tolerates a doctrine whose declared goal is the annihilation of a community of six million Jews living on their — and my — ancestral land? Why am I not an Israeli resident and citizen? Mainly because, for many years, I naively thought I would be more useful to my people outside of Israel. Also, I admit, I just was not ready.
Even today, I have trouble detaching myself from the diaspora and its anxieties, its memories and its challenges. And so, while it is true that I do not live in Israel, I could no longer live without Israel. © 2008 Elie Wiesel. Translated from the French by Jamie Moore. Via The New York Times Syndicate