Only a few days ago, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba innocently asked how it could be that the Jews have so quickly forgotten that when they were once refugees fleeing an inferno, no one opened a door to rescue them.
A good question. How did we forget? It appears to be a sudden case of amnesia. If we had remembered, without a doubt we would have acted in a completely different manner toward Ukrainian refugees.
But truth to be told, this isn’t an isolated case. Attacks of amnesia like these are growing in number. Only a few days earlier, MK Ayman Odeh called on Palestinian citizens of Israel not to take part in the work of the occupation and the oppression of their fellows. A hue and cry arose in the land that was no less a product of this Jewish amnesia.
If we had correctly remembered the history of our own people, we would surely have remembered that we Jews had also faced the same dilemma as that of the Palestinians serving the occupation. For 2,000 years, we were caught time and again between two warring sides where Jews were drafted to serve the enemy. French Jews found themselves fighting German Jews, Spanish Jews fighting English Jews, Turkish Jews fighting Greek Jews. Jews fighting Jews.
Shaul Tchernichovsky wrote about this in a heart-rending poem called “Between the Straits” (“Bein Hametzarim”). The two sons of Rabbi Shmuel of Salonika volunteered for the war – one fighting for the Turks and the other for the Greeks. On the night of the battle they kill each other, with the poem’s final and deliberately incomplete line saying, “And by the light of the blast, each recognized his brother – “
Time and again, Jewish thinkers have tried to find a way out of the tangle, to square the principles of “dina d’malchuta dina” (“the law of the land is the law”) and “Thou shalt not kill.” They have no solution.
Perhaps if we had better remembered our own experiences, we would have better understood Odeh’s conflicted heart. We then would have certainly understood the plight of the people that we, with our own hands, have imprisoned in this very Jewish dilemma. Perhaps we would have tried to help by freeing them from carrying weapons. We would have respected their sensitivities just as we respect the sensitivities of the Haredim who refuse to be drafted into the army. (Actually, one should not expect too much).
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But no. Another attack of useful amnesia has struck us and released us from the burden of humanity. Let us forget all those troublesome, bothersome things. We have forgotten grace, loving-kindness and mercy. We have forgotten morals. We have forgotten our conscience. We’ve forgotten the law of the stranger, the widow and the orphan. We’ve forgotten Jeremiah and Amos. We’ve forgotten to be Jews. What fun.
We’ve also forgotten Jewish humor. Such humor was enlisted by the late comedians Shimon Dzigan and Israel Shumacher to cope with the scorching dilemma, in this story:
Two Jewish soldiers in the Russo-Japanese War meet each other at the front. “What are you doing here?” asks the first Jew. “Do I know?” answers the second. “The emperor of Japan sent me, so I went. And you?”
“The tsar of Russia sent me,” said the first Jew. “He gave me a rifle and said to go kill people. … I don’t understand, complete strangers, why do I need to kill them? If it were my family, I’d understand … but just anyone?”
Perhaps that will be my small contribution to the Palestinian dilemma: Listen to the wisdom of Zeev Jabotinsky: Learn to laugh. It helped us.