BY HARRY PINCUS | When I was growing up in Brooklyn, in the 1950s, I thought that being Jewish was normal. I thought that it was normal for grandparents to speak English with a heavy accent, and tell stories of a far-off land, from which they had once had to flee. The truths that they had known were hidden from us, and we were protected, like the warm and loving hand of a momala as she
covers the sensitive ears of a small child when an obscenity is uttered.
I didn’t know that 23,600 Jews were marched out of my grandfather’s hometown of Kamanetsk Podolsk, in the Ukraine, and murdered between August 27 and August 29, 1941. I didn’t know that my friend Israel’s father, who owned the candy store where I bought my grandmother the Jewish Daily Forverts (the Forward) every day, was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Our cousin Abe, and the lady who served the stuffed cabbage in the dairy restaurant, and many of our neighbors had tattoos with numbers on their forearms. I was eventually told that they had once been to a place called Auschwitz, but it was many years before the word Holocaust was even uttered, and we were protected from the word, and what it truly meant.
The searing stench of that horror was an unspoken fact in our neighborhood, and it permeated my childhood, like the smell of death and vinegar that arose from the aptly named Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital, just across the street. It was an unspoken horror which greeted us when we wanted to treat ourselves to a cherry cheese knish after school, and had to walk past a photograph of a weeping Jew with broken eyeglasses in the bakery window. When I mentioned that photograph at our high school reunion, some of my old classmates had wiped it from their memory, or said that they had never seen it at all.
My grandfather was Orthodox, and avoided turning on the light in the evening for the Sabbath. When he was 90 years old, I asked him what he thought about as he sat beside the window, in the darkness. He shrugged and said, “I should think?” His son, my father, rejected the old orthodoxies of religion for assimilation to baseball, and the hope of a socialism that rose from the factory floor.
“How can a thinking person, in this day and age, believe in that mumbo jumbo?” he would say. And, yet, he told me about how he had been chased beneath the El in Williamsburg by kids who were throwing stones at him, and yelling that he ought to go back to where he came from.They didn’t mean the Bronx, either. They were telling him to go back to Europe, where the Holocaust had already begun.
My father had many tales about the hatred he experienced because he was a Jewish. When I first showed him the old factory buildings of Soho, almost 50 years ago, all he could say was that he had looked for work here during the Great Depression, and that they wouldn’t hire Jews. He had no illusions, and didn’t resort to the comfort of religion until he was on his deathbed, when he allowed that perhaps he had been wrong, after all. But if there was one abiding thing that my father believed in, it was the State of Israel, where a Jew could live without the fear of pogroms and concentration camps.
When my father finally visited Israel, he happily donned a keffiyeh, because he believed we must all learn to live together. He dreamt of a socialist Israel, with kibbutzim that would make the desert flower, and his dream came to fruition. I am seeing it on the evening news, today, but it has been bloodied and defiled.
We have just witnessed a slaughter comparable to the atrocity in my grandfather’s town of Kamenetz Podolsk at the beginning of the Holocaust. Hitler prioritized the murder of the Jews, and the assassins of Hamas have now shocked the world by slaughtering babies, putting bullets into mothers and grandmothers, and raping and murdering beautiful young people at a peace festival. It must have been very personal, and almost intimate, yet this atrocity can only have been motivated by an agenda of racial extermination. A killing of the blood, the soul and the future of a people.
These are not the acts of a rising, courageous movement, but of an envious neighbor who would rather destroy the garden next door than share in its bounty. They are suffering, but rather than learn from Israel, or teach Israel, Hamas has devoted their resources and energies to destroying the Jewish people, and remaining in darkness. Israel stands accused of perpetrating a cruel repression —but isn’t it now clear that the murderous intent of Hamas must be repressed?
In our land, privileged little hipsters, public intellectuals, so-called progressives, tenured professors in our universities and scions of ingrained anti-Semitism have emboldened the killers to degrade themselves by committing these bestial acts, and they have even blamed Israel. Jew haters of the world unite! You can now ride your high horse and proclaim how concerned you are about the Palestinians, while doing exactly nothing for anyone.
The beautiful kids who were celebrating a hope for peace at a music festival did not want Gaza or the West Bank to go on suffering, and perhaps they could have done something about it. Their murderers have only proven that they need to go on being incarcerated in their own hatred and ignorance.
Perhaps this happened because Israel is divided. But the recent series of massive rallies prove that most Israelis want justice and peace. You can blame Israel for many things, but what could they do with a murderous neighbor who refuses to accept their very existence, and lives to eradicate them from the face of the earth?
And what of the divided giant that is our own great nation? Are we too foolish, and too divided to survive? Is there a barbarian waiting at our gates, or will our fall come from within?
The people of Gaza are being held hostage by a government that they did not elect, and they will be subjected to further tragedy because of their selfish rulers and their unyielding ideology of hatred. When a society that can barely supply clean water diverts their resources to build thousands and thousands of missiles, they are greatly mistaken, and have failed to serve the needs of their own people.
A society that it is dominated by hatred cannot succeed, and a nation that exists in order to kill its neighbor is destined to fail.
There is still hope in this world. A few days ago, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was illuminated with a gigantic Jewish star. The former symbol of Nazi Germany was transformed into a beacon of tolerance, and healing, in a nation that long ago abandoned its doctrine of hatred and went on to become a successful society.
“Free Palestine” is an easy slogan, and anyone of goodwill would want to see a better reality in Gaza, the West Bank and amongst all of the struggling peoples of the world. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there certainly is something wrong with wanting to exterminate another people.
To be young today means being fed the conventional idea that Israel is “racist,” and numerous friends have casually informed me that Israeli soldiers smash babies’ heads against walls. Hating on Israel is required for admission to the frat, like getting a tattoo, ironically, or putting a spike through your nose — but the haters have fueled an enormous, and as yet untold tragedy. These people are not true socialists, unless they wish to take collective responsibility for the means of production of a mass murder. Nor are they “progressives,” unless we are
progressing toward a truly hateful and dystopian calamity.
Someday “Free Palestine” will mean Free Palestine from Hatred, rather than free Palestine to kill thy neighbor. We will have peace, by then, but it may well be the peace of a collective grave.
Pincus is an award-winning artist and longtime resident of Soho.