A Dose of Nuance: The day my grandfather cried

If you’d been born in 1908, you’d never have really known a moment when anyone, anywhere, was inclined just to let the Jews be.

bibi w/ photo of begin 300 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bibi w/ photo of begin 300 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
This coming Monday will be the 35th anniversary of one of the few times that I ever saw my grandfather cry. He’s long gone now, but I still think of him very often. A noted scholar, public intellectual and leading American rabbi, he undoubtedly had more intellectual influence on me than anyone else. But at this time of the year, it’s not his teaching of which I’m reminded, but his tears.
I was a freshman in college, and Anwar Sadat was going to visit Israel. Sadat was scheduled to land in Israel on a Saturday night, which meant that it would be Shabbat in New York. In a newly deeply pious (and undoubtedly insufferable) phase of my life, I wasn’t going to turn on a TV (which was a bit of an academic decision, since I didn’t even have one in my dorm). But I knew enough to know that this was a historic event, and I certainly didn’t want to miss it. So my grandfather, who lived about three miles south of Columbia University’s campus, told me to come over to watch with them.
That Shabbat, I walked the three miles to my grandparents’ apartment near Lincoln Center, trekked up the 24 floors of stairs and, drenched with sweat and out of breath, knocked on their door. He looked me over, made the inevitable comment about how “this is definitely what Shabbat rest is supposed to mean,” and ushered me in nonetheless. Not much later, we sat down to await Sadat’s arrival.
The three of us were seated on the sofa – my grandfather, my grandmother and I – and we watched. The plane landed. The red carpet was rolled out. Sadat emerged. Menachem Begin and his entourage greeted him. The anthems were played. Begin stood at attention for Egypt’s anthem. Sadat, an erstwhile enemy of the Jewish state, stood in respectful attention during “Hatikva.”
It was pretty heady stuff.
Suddenly, in the midst of all of this, I heard a sound that I couldn’t quite identify. At first, I thought it was coming from the TV. But it didn’t seem to be. I looked around the room but saw nothing that could have been making the strange sound. And then I looked to my left and saw my grandfather weeping. He was a large person, not only in reputation but physically too, and to this day, I remember his blue button-down shirt, soaked with tears.
I’d never seen him cry before and, to a kid like me, the sight and sound of a grandparent weeping was unsettling.
In all the thousands of hours we had spent together – reading, studying, arguing, laughing – it was the first time I’d ever seen him cry. To this very day, whenever someone mentions the day that Sadat came to Israel, I think of my grandfather. Much more clearly than anything else that day, exactly 35 years ago, I remember my grandfather crying.
I felt very grown-up back then, because I was in college; but I was, of course, just a kid. Barely 18 years old, I didn’t have the developed historical sense to truly understand why he was weeping. I assumed, of course, that it was about peace. I’d lived in Israel for a couple of years in elementary school. I knew about our enemies to the north, the east and the south. Now, it seemed, there would be at least one border on which Israel might have some quiet. That was a dramatic change, undoubtedly for the better. And that, I figured, was why he was weeping.
But that was a rather anemic understanding of what Sadat’s visit must have meant to a man like my grandfather.
He’d been born in 1908, five years after the Kishinev Pogrom. The century that then unfolded had been unremittingly horrible for the Jews. Kishinev was not the last of the pogroms, and the pogroms were not the worst of what the 20th century would unleash. European Jewry went up in smokestacks. Eventually, the Jews managed to create a new home in their ancestral homeland, but that new lease on Jewish life was attacked from all sides even before independence was officially declared.
If you’d been born in 1908, you’d never have really known a moment when anyone, anywhere, was inclined just to let the Jews be. The Jew remained the proverbial outsider, buffeted by winds we could not predict and certainly could not control, left to defend ourselves when we could and to suffer grievous losses when we could not.
What was truly powerful about November 1977, then, was that it suddenly seemed that all that might be changing.
Yes, of course, the prospect of peace with Egypt was significant in its own right. But perhaps even more important than the prospect of peace (for, if Egypt, the most powerful Arab country in the region, was signing, how could Syria, Lebanon and Jordan not soon follow suit?) was the image of Sadat standing at attention for “Hatikva.” An Arab leader would stand for our anthem.
An Arab leader would speak in our Parliament. An Arab leader appeared ready to usher in a new era, an era in which Jews were like everyone else – neighbors and partners, not enemies and victims. What Sadat’s visit heralded was the prospect of a world utterly different than the one that my grandfather had witnessed from the day of his birth until that moment.
If you were my grandfather, if you knew what he knew, if you’d seen what he’d seen, how could you not weep? For 35 years ago this week, we Jews believed that a new world might be dawning.
BUT IT never did. And that, more than anything, is what makes this week such a tragic anniversary. If my grandfather was still alive, I ask myself, might he not still be weeping? If he was weeping, though, would it be for all that Sadat’s visit promised, or for all that it didn’t deliver? Thirty-five years after that visit, our world has changed much less than we’d hoped it might. Even when Israel did have peace treaties with two of its neighbors, other challenges sprang up. The Palestinians pressed their case much more effectively than Golda and Begin ever imagined that they would, and though it appeared once or twice that Israel and the Palestinians were headed to an agreement, that never happened.
Begin’s doctrine that no enemy of Israel would be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon was established with his successful destruction of the Iraqi reactor at Osirak (extraordinary thought that mission was) and was reaffirmed by Ehud Olmert’s successful attack on Syria’s reactor. But Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu confronts a much more formidable challenge in Iran. Israel’s enemies are no less lethal, and they have gotten smarter.
And as for the peace treaties, what are they really worth today? The Sinai is no longer demilitarized. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, presiding over the chilliest spring one can imagine, is a tyrant and a radicalized Muslim and he hates the Jews no less than did any of his predecessors. With Israeli citizens shuddering under a barrage of rockets from Gaza this week, Morsi has warned that if Israel uses ground forces, he will recall his ambassador.
Egypt is chomping at the bit to undo the deal that Sadat came to Israel to negotiate.
When Assad falls, as it appears likely he will, will the decades-long stalemate with Syria still hold? For the first time in almost 40 years, Israel fired into Syrian territory this week. Does anyone really imagine that we know where that will end? And what will then happen with Jordan? Once Morocco, Yemen, Egypt and Syria have fallen, is King Abdullah secure? And if his Hashemite regime falls to his majority Palestinian population, what then? Given that the world has not changed very much in the 35 years since Sadat descended those steps from his plane, it might seem that our response ought to be to weep again. But were my grandfather still here, and if I could still speak to him, I’d tell him not to cry. This is no longer the time for tears.
Yes, those erstwhile hopes have been dashed. But some things are still very different. Our enemies are no less consumed by hate than they ever were, yet they can’t destroy us as they once did. They will exact heavy prices here and there, but they cannot bring down the state. (Sadat came to Jerusalem precisely because he recognized that.) Yes, Iran is worrisome. Syria could erupt. Egypt could lose its mind. Hezbollah has rockets. Hamas makes life utterly miserable for Israelis in the areas surrounding Gaza.
But no one is going to destroy the Jewish state. There is going to be no genocide of the Jews. For all that matters have stayed the same, matters are actually entirely different.
The 20th century is not about to repeat itself because our future is now in our hands – not in the hands of our enemies.
So, long overdue, let’s change the conversation about Zionism. Probably 85 percent of the time that we speak or read about Israel, we speak or read not about the Jewish state, but about our enemies. That is depressing and exhausting, and it’s chasing a young generation away.
Those conversations evoke none of Judaism’s intellectual richness, but they’re almost all we talk about. What would be left of most of our conversations about Israel if we ruled out any discussion of Iran or the UN, the Palestinians and the Obama administration, Egypt and Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas? What would we talk about if we didn’t discuss Turkey and flotillas, Gaza and rockets, or drones and Israel’s not not-entirely-impenetrable air supremacy? Would we have anything left to say? What we should be talking about is what the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty means. We should be talking about what we’ve accomplished educationally and what still remains to be done. How will we raise young Israelis to be willing to defend their country and to kill if they must, but not to hate Arabs just because they are Arabs? Can we both sustain a Jewish democracy in which no one forces anyone to study anything in particular and at the same time foster a society in which more and more Israelis will wish to know something of the tradition they have inherited? How do we fashion a marketplace of ideas that can make that happen? Will we ever elect leaders who believe sufficiently in Judaism’s richness that they would curtail the power of the rabbinate so that Judaism in the Jewish state would have to compete for the attention and allegiance of millions of Israelis seeking meaning in their lives, and thus emerge much more enriched than the pabulum the rabbinate currently spouts? How is life in America different, richer – and poorer – than what the Jews have created? And why? Those are the sorts of things we should be speaking about.
Yes, it is sad that none of us is likely to live to see Israel at peace or with internationally recognized borders. But it’s only sad, not devastating. November need no longer be the season of our tears. Now is the time to celebrate the things that we can control, the society that we can create, the questions we can grapple with. It is time, I would say to my grandfather, were he still here, to regret what didn’t happen, but not to mourn it any longer. For today, the people who will determine the future of the Jews are not our enemies, but us. Today is the day to imagine not what they will do to us but what we will create, and to fashion a conversation about Israel that evokes not tears and exhaustion, but images of a glorious future of which Jews everywhere will wish to be a part.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His most recent book is The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength (Wiley 2012).