Sunday, May 23, 2010

Free Passes For War Criminals?

Nathan Englander is one of my favorite authors. His 1999 collection of short storied "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges", blew me away. I re-read the stories several times. and gave copies of the books away as presents. His 2007 novel "The Ministry of Special Cases", while not as good as his short stories, in my opinion, is still one of the better novels I have read in a while. His unique, quirky style is a sort of Jewish Magical Realism. His works are always steeped in a both a deep sense of irony and a deep sense of humanity. And they all have a strong Jewish angle.

So I was excited to learn that Englander had published a new short story in the recent issue of the New Yorker (May 17.) I found it on the internet, printed it out, and read it on the bus coming home from work.

And I was deeply disturbed. Angry even.

[SPOILER ALERT !! - at this point you should go read the story on the New Yorker web site, as I am about to reveal a few plot details.]

What is this story about? Is it really only about Professor Tendler, and the Gezers. If so, OK. People suffered terribly in the holocaust and some came out twisted, and we can understand that, and even forgive them a few excesses now and then. Can we forgive them cold blooded murder, in the immediate aftermath of the holocaust? Maybe even that. Can we forgive them killing enemy soldiers: people who could just as easily have been taken prisoner. Well not so much, but it was in the middle of a war and it was a long time ago, and the survivors did suffer terrible personal trauma in "The War."

But I sense that this story is a metaphor. And its publication date, just a year and a bit after Israel's most brutal war - the 2008/2009 "Cast Lead" war on Gaza -  when the issue of possible Israeli war crimes is in the public debate, is not, I think, a coincidence.

Now I am not a literary critic, but am I wrong in thinking that Englander is saying - "The Holocaust made us do it! And because the holocaust was so heinous and has so traumatized us we are all miskenim (poor souls), and should be forgiven our sins - all our excessive violence and brutality in war, even up to the murder of innocent children."

This just pisses me off. Yes the holocaust was terrible. And yes it has scarred the Jewish people, and affected the State of Israel negatively. (If you want to read a a poignant cris de coeur in this regard, I recommend Avraham Burg's "The Holocaust is Over. We Must Rise From Its Ashes.") But, as Burg says, we need to get over it, not wallow in it.

And while we might understand and maybe even forgive holocaust survivors their personal sins, does that really give a free pass to their children, and grandchildren, not to mention the sons and daughters of immigrants from Morocco or Iraq, whose connection to the holocaust is much more tenuous.

Englander calls his story "Free Fruit for War Widows", but it seems to me he is really asking for a free pass for recent excessive violence of the IDF.

Our am I mis-reading him? I hope so.

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