Jews amaze me



One thing never ceases to amaze me about Jews—their ability to marvel at the hostility directed against them. With every antisemitic murder, attack, massacre, or pogrom, we’re stunned. 

We are offended by the lack of empathy of our usual affable greengrocer; we are outraged by the reaction of the UN Secretary-General; we cannot stand the semantic contortions of Jean-Luc Mélenchon[1], worthy of the best Yeshiva students; we are revolted by the radical loneliness of the persecuted Jewish people. We rub our eyes every time, as we did the first day when we saw Harvard daddy’s boys denouncing the “genocide underway in Gaza” or the Queers for Palestine tearing down posters of Israeli hostages. It’s suffocating to hear the four clamps of the Tsedek collective take over from the clownish French Jewish Union for Peace to serve as useful Jews for the antisemitic Houria Bouteldja. We feign astonishment to discover that all intersectionalities become a zero-sum game as soon as the Jewish coefficient is invited in.

But why are we surprised? What messianic expectation is revealed by such naive disappointment? Why do we expect that what has always been will miraculously cease to be? 

By what miracle would those who burned the Jews of Strasbourg in 1349, murdered their neighbors in Barcelona in 1391, or set fire to Jewish dwellings in Baghdad in 1948, not have successors in 2023? Who can believe that the Cossacks, the Einsatzkommandos, Stalin’s agents, or the Almohad troops acted only with motives and circumstances specific to a particular time or group?
What kind of collective schizophrenia do we suffer from that makes us wave the flag of the Jewish people when the slightest antisemitic tweet from the latest trendy influencer shakes us to our core?
What is the point of commemorating Haman’s archetypal genocidal project on Purim, singing about the darkness of exile on Chanukah, and solemnly recalling “that in every generation they (the nations) rise up against us to destroy us” at the Passover Seder? What kind of charade is it to read throughout the year Moses’ prescient visions of “women eating their children,” Isaiah’s imprecations against his unfaithful people, Jeremiah’s lamentations about Israel’s decadence, if we are unable to embrace them when reality collides with the texts? We cannot legitimately give credence to these texts. But we can’t say that our ancestors, the very people who made us who we are and who are the architects of the “4,000 years of history” of which we are so proud, didn’t see sense in them.

To sum up, I’m amazed that the oldest and most banal thing in the world continues to surprise us. But there is an even greater astonishment—it’s the one that arouses in me those discreet and noble people who, with tiny words and gestures, defy the antisemitic law of history. The dignity of a parent at my children’s public school, with whom we had never gone beyond the bare minimum of small talk, and who, after several days of reflection, wrote me a letter of compassion in very simple words, apologizing for not having written sooner because “all words are awkward.” The elegance of that Arab friend who, during a long-planned lunch, took care not to discuss “the situation,” knowing full well that this would lead to a dialogue of the deaf that could only change a friendship that we both cherish. Finally, the courage of the non-Jewish companion of a friend, an eminent artist circulating in an exclusively pro-Hamas milieu, who chooses to suffer in silence and to live in his flesh the Jewish solitude of his loved one. 

These people are by no means overflowing with Zionism or philosemitism. They simply feel, in the intimacy of their being, the mystery of Israel.

Jewish tradition refers to this type of person as chassid oumot haoloam.
Oumot haolam are the nations of the world. Chessed, the root of chassid, trivially means generosity or piety (hence the chassidim). But its primary meaning is excess, an overflow, something that blows up the natural, and therefore cruel, order of things.
An intrusion, in short, that upsets the coordinates of reality.
Hatred of Jews is the rule, no wonder. What’s surprising is the opposite, those who disrupt the inviolable order of history.

And then there was the crushing blow, the one that scrambled all our moral and mental radars.
I’m referring to the unbelievable, unbearable gesture of 85-year-old hostage Yocheved Lifschitz being released by her Hamas jailer to the Red Cross.
Before leaving the masked, armed henchman, the old lady makes a point of greeting him. She turns and gives him her hand. The terrorist takes it and pats it with something unmistakably warm. 

We can comfortably invoke the Stockholm syndrome, the dementia of the old woman, or the cynical communication strategy of Hamas and move on. But no one can deny that for two seconds this man was animated by a shudder of humanity. 

The scene reminded me of a passage from Maus, in which Spiegelman recounts how, in Auschwitz, he “befriended” one of his SS guards, who was a little less cruel than the others, and with whom he sometimes talked about the weather in moments stolen from the infernal routine of the death camp.

This Hamas guy will surely be liquidated by Tsahal in the next few days, like most of his accomplices, and I’ll be the last to be moved by it. His deed neither saves nor exonerates him. There’s not the slightest trace of Christ-like love for the enemy to be hunted down here. It’s simply a sign that even those we call, for lack of a better term, barbarians and savages, can be crossed by something that unwillingly seizes us with astonishment.

And wonder is literally at the origin of the world. In the second verse of the Torah, the universe is “Tohu-Bohu,” a biblical hapax whose meaning, by definition, no one knows.
Rashi, in the first of thousands of glosses in medieval French that will punctuate his commentary on the Torah and Talmud, introduces insight into the semantic chaos: Tohu, he writes, means “estordison,” or what happens when a person is struck with wonder and astonishment.

Maus, Art Spiegelman

Jews and their friends are the ones who wonder, the ones who never settle for the world as it is, and they themselves are amazed. The oldest people in the world are constantly astonished, like newborn babies, stunned by their surroundings. And this insatiability, this inability to be satisfied with meaning, is not forgiven to them.

Ruben Honigmann


1 The leader of the French far left

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