How Did It Come to This?

BY the time of my bar mitzvah in 1946, my religious faith had been severely shaken by the tears of my mother. I would often find her alone with her sadness in the kitchen of our modest duplex on the east side of Cleveland. Her forehead would be pressed against the door of our old-fashioned refrigerator and she would be silently crying. To a child, her sorrow was unfathomable and a little frightening. I finally learned why my mother wept. Only one of her eleven brothers and sisters had survived the Holocaust. The rest of them, along with their families, had been murdered by the Nazis.

For me, the existence of Auschwitz created grave doubts about the existence of God, doubts that persist to this day. Yet despite my skepticism, I have always proudly identified myself as a Jew, even when I encountered anti-Semitism in school or in the Army. And I still identified myself as a Jew several months ago when I visited the seething Palestinian towns and refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza.

Being Jewish has always meant adherence to the ethical values that I learned from my mother and father. These values are really not very different from the ethics that most parents try to teach their children, but they seemed to have a special weight because they were connected to the extraordinary 3,000-year history of the Jews. They also had significance because they were connected to my father, a small-businessman who immigrated from Romania in the 1920s.

My father was a roofing and siding contractor and a Talmudic scholar. The scruples fostered by his avocation probably contributed to his lack of success at his business. Every Saturday afternoon he taught the Talmud at the Orthodox synagogue we attended. I can still remember the musty smell of snuff and old paper that emanated from the big, worn volumes that my father and his colleagues pored over. The ethical values discussed in these ancient, sacred books were the values my parents imparted by example to their four children. In the Talmud they are summed up in the three pillars of Judaic ethics - truth, justice, and peace.

I found no truth, justice, or peace in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I saw soldiers routinely humiliating Palestinians of all ages and beating young men for no reason. I saw children in hospitals with bones shattered by Israeli clubs and bullets. I saw dazed Palestinian villagers living in tents next to the rubble of their dynamited homes. I met people who had spent months in Israeli prison camps even though they had never been charged with any crime.

In January, on the day before Epiphany, my wife and I were among the holiday shoppers on Salah el Din, the main commercial street of East Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers, determined to close the shops, suddenly began tossing tear-gas canisters at the sidewalks crowded with pedestrians, including children and the elderly. As people fled, we didn't know what to do or where to go.

Seeing our confusion, the Palestinian owner of a small tea shop hustled us into his kitchen, a tiny cubicle containing little more than a sink and a two-burner butane stove. In that little back room, along with several Palestinians, we waited for the police attack outside to end. Tears streamed down our faces, not only from the gas, but also from anger and dismay. How had it come to this?

Fifty years ago, Martin Buber, perhaps the greatest Jewish philosopher of the 20th century and a lifelong Zionist, said the actions of Jewish terrorists in Palestine ``should be repugnant to every Jew with an inkling of what Judaism and humanity are.''

Ten years earlier Hans Kohn, who had dedicated 20 years to the Zionist cause in Palestine, expressed even greater despair. In 1929, dismayed at the Zionist leaders' failure to attempt reconciliation with indigenous Palestinians, Kohn left Zionism and Palestine. His bitter conclusion was ``Zionism is not Judaism.''

The ethical values cherished by men like Buber and Kohn were the same ones that my father found in the Talmud. In Israel today, these values are expressed not by the policies of the government but by the resistance to those policies. They are expressed by the Israeli men who go to prison rather than serve in the West Bank or Gaza. They are expressed by the Israeli ``Women in Black'' who every Friday, despite obscene taunts, stand quietly in Paris Square in West Jerusalem with placards protesting the occupation. They are expressed by the Israeli physicians who work with their Palestinian colleagues to provide better health care for the victims of the occupation.

It is a sad irony that the fundamental ethical values of truth, justice, and peace that my father found in his books are best exemplified, not by the leaders of the Jewish state, but by those Palestinians - the majority - who remain resolutely nonviolent in their struggle for self-determination, despite terrible suffering.

Two thousand years ago, one of the most venerated sages in Jewish history, Hillel, delivered a maxim that was echoed a century later in the Gospels and in all of the centuries since. His simple standard of conduct is as valid now as it was then. A mocking nonbeliever challenged the sage, ``Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.''

Hillel responded with this summation: ``Do not unto others what is hateful to you. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.''

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