Dirty Jokes — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The old clock on the café counter inside ticked at least five times before the men began to laugh. At first it was just Nissim, whose trinket shop was just up the hill on Strauss Street, on the border of Mea Shearim. He guffawed as if he didn’t really want to, as if guffawing were the last thing he should be doing at this moment, when they were about to set out for a battle in which many of them were sure to die. But he couldn’t help himself, and when Shlomo joined in with a real belly laugh, coming straight from his very prominent belly, Nissim felt free to enjoy himself. Then Meir joined in, his thumbs pressing out against the straps of the threadbare paratrooper’s pigeon vest that he had been incongruously issued to carry his ammunition in. Arthur, the lost American with the mustache, banged his rifle against the Ta’amon’s display window so hard that Feibel looked up from his newspaper, wiped his hands on his apron, and shuffled out to yell at them.

       illustration by Avi Katz

       illustration by Avi Katz

When the laughter died down and Feibel had gone back to spreading out used teabags to dry, Nissim ventured to ask Pini whether any of it was actually true. Pini shot him a condescending glance and Nissim mumbled, “Well, the stories you hear about Paris!”

Shlomo started laughing again. He shook his head. “That’s real talent,” he chuckled. “It takes real talent to tell a joke like that well. I mean, I can just picture them, the babushka and the rabbi and the convent girl! Where’d you learn to tell a joke that way?”

Read more

Hazony Today, Kuhn Tomorrow

Haim Watzman

Poor Thomas Kuhn . Superzionist, a.k.a. Yoram Hazony, author of the quirky The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul, has drafted the author of the seminal but flawed classic of the philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to explain why everyone hates Israel.

I’m late in getting to Hazony’s essay, Israel Through European Eyes which he e-mailed to his fans last July 14. But it just reached me, through a series of forwards long enough to man every team in the World Cup. Like all of Hazony’s writing, it displays great erudition, has lots of footnotes, and makes some obvious points while parsing them all wrong.

Behind the excess philosophical baggage, Hazony says something that has been said before—that the antipathy that Europe, and especially Europe’s political left, displays toward Israel is deeply rooted in the Holocaust. Hazony correctly notes that Zionism and the European left learned two disparate lessons from Hitler’s genocidal program. Zionism claimed that no one would defend the Jews if they did not defend themselves, while the Europe emerged from World War II horrified at the death and destruction wrought by chauvinistic nationalism and concluded that national feelings were too dangerous to be left to politics.

The Zionists established a Jewish state, while the Europeans sought to create a pan-European political framework that would make it difficult for the fanatics of any one European nation (but those of Germany in particular) to persecute outsiders and to seek to impose hegemony on the entire continent. So we have Israel, and we have the European Union.

But Hazony can’t just say that.

Read more

Why Pass on the Trauma? A Conversation with Avraham Burg

On bloggingheads.tv, I’ve interviewed Avrum Burg about his nearly new book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes.  I say nearly new, because the book came out earlier in Israel, where it was roundly attacked, mostly by people who hadn’t read it but knew precisely what it said. I’m told that this … Read more

Jews, Despite the Holocaust–“Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dear Niot,

You told Holocaust jokes at the table on Friday night. Ima and I grimaced and tried to segue into a discussion of the boots you are refusing to buy and your insistence on trudging through the Polish snow in running shoes. We acknowledged that telling jokes with your classmates would be a legitimate way of letting off pressure during your trip, although we didn’t think the ones you told us were particularly funny.

It was then that I knew how I was going to write this letter, a letter that your teacher asked us to deposit with him in a sealed envelope for you to read, in Hebrew, when you arrive in Poland. That’ll be at about the same time that The Jerusalem Report’s readers receive it in their mailboxes in English (and thanks for giving me advance permission to share it with them).
I reminded you that when your older sister and brother wanted to sign up for their class trips to Poland’s Nazi death camps, in what has become a routine part of the Holocaust curriculum for Israeli high school seniors, I objected. “Why?” you asked.

I explained that I don’t want my children to be Jews who are Jews because they are victims. I don’t want my children to be Israelis because the world hates them. Our history, tradition, and culture are rich and powerful and provide adequate reason to want to be a Jew and an Israeli even if Hitler had never been born and the swastika never had reigned.

When your sister said she was going to Poland anyway, I was reminded of a comedy skit I once saw at a club in New York.

Read more

The Humanity of Evil: Amir Gutfreund’s “Our Holocaust”

Haim Watzman

The title Amir Gutfreund chose for his novel Our Holocaust has a quadruple meaning. “Our Holocaust” is the Holocaust of the survivors who populate his story; it’s the Holocaust of Hans Underman, the German scholar who intrudes on the story; it’s the Holocaust of the narrator and his childhood friend, Efi, who appropriate the Holocaust of their parents’ generation for themselves; and it’s the Holocaust that human beings can suffer, or perpetrate, under circumstances beyond, and within, their control.

It’s an appropriate book to write about on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples. The Jewish prophets and sages understood that each of these awful catastrophes, which were accompanied by the slaughter and enslavement of their people, had a double meaning. These previous Holocausts were crimes committed against the Jewish people by other nations, but they were also evidence of the depravity of God’s chosen people, of their failure to adhere to the moral code of God’s law.

In today’s Holocaust discourse, that synthesis is often absent. Some see the Holocaust as an unparalleled crime committed by the Germans, a nation with a culture uniquely degenerate. Therefore, the Jews, as the particular victims of this crime, derive a special status from it. Others see the Holocaust as just another instance of man’s inhumanity to man. From that they deduce that the experience of the Holocaust ought not to have changed the Jewish nation’s perception of itself. But both these propositions are true. The Jews learn from the Holocaust that they can trust to the protection of no other nation but themselves; humanity—including the Jews—learns that no matter what cultural failings led the Germans into the hell they created, the crimes they committed were human crimes. Thus every human being, Jews included, have a duty to guard themselves, and their nations, against the possibility that they will sink into moral dissolution (one need not sink to the level of the Nazis to commit horrible deeds).

Read more

The Bounds of the Human: Holocaust, Army Service, and the Importance of Clean Underwear

In the Holocaust, the Jews were, uniquely, the victims of a horrible, unprecedented crime. In the Holocaust, the crime committed by the Germans against the Jews shows how fragile the boundary between humanity and beastiality is and how human beings are capable of committing unimaginable crimes. Both those statements are true, but a difference in emphasis is characteristic of the dialogue on the Holocaust between American Israeli Jews–as was brought home to me in a discussion the other day.

An American participant in this discussion of the Holocaust criticized Israeli author David Grossman’s novel See Under Love, for depicting a Nazi concentration camp commander with human depth. In the third part of that novel, the commander and one of his victims share memories of children’s stories.

I responded that, in my reading, Grossman used this device to show that, however deep into inhumanity the Nazis had sunk, they were still human beings. While the Nazi evil represents a decay of natural human morality far deeper than any other in the modern age, the Nazis were nevertheless human beings and their actions represent an extreme to which any human being, and any nation, has the potential to reach.

Read more

More Anti-Semitism, or Just More Fear?

Everyone knows that Europe has grown more anti-Semitic, as Avi Primor writes in the new issue of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Like many things that everyone “knows,” the facts are different, writes Primor, who’s the former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and now head of the Center for European Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Only bits of the journal, I’m sorry to say, are online, and Primor’s article isn’t one of those bits. If you want to read it, you’ll need to find a hard copy. But here are a couple of key points:

Read more

Divine Press Office: No Comment

In a discussion set off by certain recent comments on God’s role in the Holocaust, my  friends on a wonkish listserve strayed briefly from economic policy and election polls to The Big Issues. One comment was from Harold Pollack, a public health researcher and occasional columnist:

God, since I was twelve years old, I have wondered how Hitler could be one of your children. I’ve never received a satisfactory answer. Could you contact me offline to clear this up?

I couldn’t help but pass on this message:

God is busy for the next day (a thousand human years) trying to figure out how the crown of Her creation, human civilization, came to include such evil. She will respond to Her email afterwards.

Harold’s answer:

Darned press secretary. Given my age, doesn’t he know that I’m operating on a fifty-year deadline here?

Read more

Hagee, McCain, Aipac: The Audacity of Cynicism

John McCain was shocked, shocked to know that there were horrid thoughts going on around Rev. Hagee’s brain about the positive side of the Holocaust. These comments, from a sermon on how God used Hitler to get the Jews to return to their land, in case you missed the news all weekend, include:

“How is God going to bring them back to the land? The answer is fishers and hunters,” Mr. Hagee said, referring to how Jews ended up in the modern state of Israel. “A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and forces you. Hitler was a hunter.”

As we know, McCain actively pursued Hagee’s endorsement. As the NY Times notes,

At a speech last year before Mr. Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, he thanked Mr. Hagee for his “spiritual guidance to politicians like me” and said, “It’s hard to do the Lord’s work in the city of Satan.”

Hagee has every effort to make his views public via every media available. His comments expressing empathy for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin appeared in a book that became a bestseller in its market. The same book looks forward to an apocalypse in which enough blood is shed on Israeli soil to create a river of blood 200 miles long. One of the scholars who introduced me to this literature correctly spoke of the “pornographic violence” of the visions of the end promoted by Hagee and others of his school.

Read more

Half-told stories: “Exodus,” the Armenians, and Holocaust Day

In real life, Yossi Harel didn’t really look like Paul Newman. Harel was the commander of the “Exodus,” the illegal immigration ship that was stopped by the British in 1947 before it could bring 4,500 Holocaust survivors to Palestine. In real life, the “Exodus” carried the survivors back to Germany. When Leon Uris fixed up the story for his potboiler, the boat got here. In the movie, Newman played Harel, renamed Ari Ben Canaan. OK, so Hollywood makes everything prettier and simpler and bigger. Nonetheless, Yossi Harel really was a hero, who also commanded three other illegal immigration ships.

Harel died last weekend, at age 90. The Hebrew obit in Ha’aretz quotes him describing what drove him. When he was 21, he said, he read Franz Werfel’s novel “40 Days of Musa Dagh,” about the Armenian genocide during World War I. “The book influenced my generation. I knew it by heart and my sense of mission grew sharper. I knew it was my job to save Jews.” Later, commanding the immigration ship Knesset Yisrael, he stood on the deck and looked north toward Turkey, and “the story of the Armenian people’s fight connected to my mission. To bring the survivors of the Holocaust, the refugees, to a safe shore, was the greatest thing I could imagine.”

For Harel, according to that testimony, there wasn’t a line between answering one genocide and another. He was helping Jews because fate had put him in a place where those were the people he could help.

Last week was the memorial day for the Armenians.

Read more