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On February 25, 1986, my grandfather Robert Arnold Riesman Sr. delivered a speech at his synagogue in Providence, Rhode Island. Grandpa was a lantern-jawed, even-tempered man — an industrialist, a philanthropist, and a bona fide war hero — which made it all the more striking when, on occasions such as this, he invoked life’s horrors like a fire-and-brimstone shtetl rabbi. He began with a story of Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous mad scientist of the Nazi camps, who had been tried in absentia in Israel the year before. He quoted the testimony of a Jewish survivor who had been forced by Mengele to starve her own newborn child to death: “The child grew thinner and thinner, weaker and weaker. Every day Mengele would come and look at it.” A nurse secretly procured some morphine to put the baby out of its misery. “You want me to kill my own child?” she asked the nurse. “‘I can’t do it.’ We had a big argument until I did it. I murdered my own child.”
Grandpa then quoted the rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg about how the Holocaust taught Jews “that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, but absolute powerlessness corrupts even more.” My grandfather, a whisperer to two U.S. senators and a former president of the Rhode Island Jewish Federation, was far from powerless, and he made it his business to get the world to know and care about what was happening to the Jews. And the most effective way to do that was to rally American Jews around the common goal that united the vast majority of them, regardless of denomination, location, or political party: the defense of the Jewish state.
My grandfather’s aim that winter night was to goad his listeners into being more ardent supporters of what he proudly referred to as “the pro-Israel lobby,” of which he was a significant component. “Exercise your rights as a citizen,” he told the crowd. “For your children and grandchildren. For the powerless who died in the Warsaw Ghetto or the death camps, who never had the chance to live free in Israel. And for those who today live free in Israel and want to stay that way.”
Was my grandfather thinking of me when he spoke of Mengele? Just 11 weeks prior, he had been cradling my infant body in his arms, blessing and cooing at his firstborn grandchild in the maternity ward. His speech drew a straight line between Jewish powerlessness and the deaths of Jewish infants because he genuinely believed the two were inextricable. In his eyes, Israel was always under mortal threat, and if its foes were to defeat it, there would be mass Jewish death there on a scale with which his generation was all too familiar. If his people lost their citadel in the Middle East, who knew what other dominos might fall? The scion of his own line could be next.
Such was the argument. Such is the argument still. And look where it got us.
In my grandfather’s day, Israel was the great unifier of the American Jewish community. Now it is the great divider, both inside our own community and in cleavages with other ones. Bring up Israel with any American Jew and you can feel the atmosphere tighten. There is no topic that incenses us more, whether the emotions are pride or shame, defensiveness or hatred, fear that not enough of our coreligionists support the Jewish state or rage that they support it too much. There are those among us who have opted out of the conversation altogether, but one can run only so far these days.
It is impossible to ignore the denunciations of Israel that have featured in both traditional and social media since fighting between Israelis and Palestinians escalated this May. Jews and Gentiles who had previously betrayed no interest in the topic have taken up the cause of the Palestinians who are governed and besieged and, in many cases, killed by an occupying state. Although Twitter, as they say, is not real life, it’s often a leading indicator of where real life is headed, and the conversation about Israel increasingly heralds disaster and disunity for the Jews of the United States. My grandfather, had he not died in 2004, would almost certainly be infuriated by the left’s response to Israel’s recent actions and penned passionate defenses and delivered fiery addresses. Which is to say, he’d probably be infuriated by me.
I used to be one of those Jews who had no particular interest in Israel. For whatever reason, Grandpa never really talked to me about it — perhaps he thought I wasn’t old enough to understand — and neither did my parents. But in recent years, I’ve developed a level of fixation on the place, both personal and journalistic, that rivals even that of my grandfather. The conclusions we have come to, however, are worlds apart.
I have not come here to denounce my grandfather, or to defend him. I have come to tell his story. Although his life had its unique contours, his journey illuminates much about the birth, ascent, and decline of the American Jewish community’s pro-Israel consensus. And while I’m reluctant to discuss any of this, family is the lens through which one must look to figure out how and why it all went wrong, for there are two questions every Jew has to answer when it comes to the dizzying topic of Israel: Who counts as your family? And what would you do to protect them?
My grandfather’s father, Joseph Riesman, never talked about the Old Country. There are no extant family stories about his place of birth. No one even knows for sure where it was. In my archival searches for genealogical information, I’ve come across many forms on which Joe or his brother were ordered to give their town or city of origin, and they always just wrote “Russia” — which doesn’t exactly narrow it down during that nation’s late-imperial period.
However, my grandfather once did an interview in which he mentioned his dad coming from the same place as a business partner, and that partner’s naturalization record says he emerged from Sudilkow, a small town in the western half of Ukraine. When Joe was born in 1897, just over 2,700 Jews (including Steven Spielberg’s maternal great-grandparents) lived there. There was a time when it was known for the delicate art of weaving Jewish prayer shawls. A famous rabbi used to give passionate sermons at a local synagogue. Today, the residents call the town Sudylkiv. You’re unlikely to find a single Jew among them.
Although the near-extermination of European Jewry was still decades away as of Joe’s birth, the mass murder of Jews was still common in that part of the world, and the Riesmans got out just in time to experience the miracle of class mobility that came for many of the Jews from Slavic lands who migrated to the United States. Joe’s father, Philip, arrived in Boston the same year Joe was born; Joe followed sometime between 1899 and 1902 (there are conflicting records), along with mother Anna and brother Myer. The family chose the heavily Jewish Boston suburb of Chelsea as their new home and were thus surrounded by fellow members of the tribe.
That said, while American anti-Semitism might have been less violent than that of Europe, it was undeniably a fact of life. There were countless professions from which Philip was excluded due to his heritage, so he became a junk dealer, picking up or buying scrap metal and other materials for resale. Eventually, his sons joined the family business and transformed it into a successful electrical-equipment manufacturing company known as Royal Electric. In a classically Jewish contribution to America, they were known for being the world’s second-largest manufacturer of Christmas lights.
The Riesmans placed a high value on humanitarian work. By all accounts a buoyant and inspiring presence, Joe used his newfound wealth and influence to improve the world around him, as did Myer. “My family, from the earliest days I remember, were involved either in temple activities or in philanthropy,” my grandfather would later recall in a deeply revealing 1984 oral history for the United Jewish Appeal, a philanthropic organization that raised funds for Israeli initiatives. “It just came naturally. It was part of what the family did.” Joe’s efforts were not restricted to the Jewish community, by any means: He donated enough to his alma mater, Northeastern University, that they named an auditorium and a laboratory after him. But he never forgot about the Jews of the world who had not been so fortunate.
In the 1930s, as the storm clouds darkened over Central Europe, Joe signed affidavits for the refugee-resettlement agency known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, helping Jews from Austria and Germany immigrate to the U.S. Joe even had an immigrant family living in his house at one point, and he worked closely with refugee activist Walter Bieringer, a neighbor and close friend. My great-grandfather’s work in this realm saved lives, and it left a deep impression on his oldest son, Robert — my grandfather.
Born on January 25, 1919, Robert, known by friends and family throughout his life as Bob, was a sharp, studious, tough-minded child. Bob’s mother, Sadie (née Finkelstein), a graceful and melancholic woman whom Joe met under circumstances lost to time, would say he was a born warrior. As Bob put it in a different oral history many decades later, “My mother, who knew and understood me very well, said, ‘I always knew you would [become a soldier] because you used to play with guns when you were a little boy and you had all these war games, and you read about it, and there was never any doubt in my mind that you would someday, if there were a war, be part of it and want to be part of it.’”
Young Bob was all too aware of the specter of Nazism and watched with horror as the rest of America shrugged over the fate of the Jews. When he enrolled at Harvard University in 1936, he entered an institution that had little use for his people. There were de facto quotas in place for Ivy League Jews in those days, and in order to convince Harvard to admit Bob, one of his (Gentile) recommenders felt compelled to remark, “He has little or none of the appearance of being a Jew.” In the wake of Kristallnacht in 1938, Bob got together a group of students called the Harvard Committee for Tolerance and pushed the school to take on Jewish students and professors from Germany. The administration refused.
The 1930s were a radicalizing decade for my grandfather, but they didn’t quite make him care about Jewish life in the Holy Land. Bob recalled his father dragging him to see Chaim Weizmann, a world-famous leader of the Zionist movement, speak in 1939 about America’s paltry quotas for European Jewish refugees. “I’ll never forget what he said: ‘By the time this thing is over, there may be a quarter of a million Jews left in Europe, at which time your problem will have been reduced to manageable proportions,’” Bob would later recall. He was moved, but there was a caveat: “I did not see the connection between the existence of a place for them to go to and Israel.”
Such sentiments were quite common among American Jews before the Second World War, when Zionism hadn’t yet come into fashion. Seeking Jewish self-determination somewhere outside of their home continent, European Zionists kept returning to Palestine, the Middle Eastern region where the last attempt at Jewish self-determination had been crushed by Rome nearly two millennia prior and which remained an object of veneration and fascination in Jewish liturgy and scripture. The trouble was that there were already hundreds of thousands of people in Palestine. The arrival of territorially assertive Jewish settlers (they proudly called it a “colonial” project back then) was met with resistance by the local Arab Muslims and Christians. By the time Bob saw Weizmann speak in 1939, there had been decades of intermittent violence between the Jewish and Arab populations of the Holy Land with no mutually acceptable resolution in sight.
None of that ethnic strife mattered much to the Jews of America, generally speaking. Information from that part of the world was sparse and scattered, and Arab voices were rarely heard from. That’s not to say Jewish Americans were all Zionists — far from it. Most identified as non- or even anti-Zionist, though not because of concern for the fate of the Arab Palestinians (as they would come to be termed). The issue was life for Jews in the U.S. since a Jewish state might create a situation in which Jews could be accused of divided national loyalties. What’s more, Jews had already found a significant degree of acceptance and peace in America and broadly held no desire to till the deserts of the Middle East.
Bob was focused on Hitler back then. He had been a member of the ROTC since entering college, which was a supremely unpopular move in an isolationist era. He was not a closed-minded patriot, even going so far as to date a pro-Soviet leftist from Radcliffe who, during the period of Nazi-Soviet nonaggression, vigorously opposed U.S. intervention on the side of the Allies. However, he never betrayed any doubts about his imminent mission, and he thought of it in very personal terms. When asked about the nature of his motivation for joining the Army, he replied, “I don’t know how anti-fascist it was, but it had to be Jewish.”
By the time of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Bob had already graduated from college and was serving at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. His day had come. He had become an artillery officer and, after a stop to train in Britain, he and his unit were sent to the North African theater to fight Erwin Rommel and the various Axis forces in Algeria and Tunisia. He participated in some crucial victories, then was sent to Sicily, where he got some shrapnel in his back and was sent back to Algeria to train in Army intelligence.
It’s impossible to understand my grandfather’s later feelings about Israel and the Palestinians without a grasp of what he learned in World War II. When he was in intelligence, he found out before most of the world what was being done to Jews and others in the Nazi death camps. “Some people didn’t believe it,” he recalled. “I had no trouble in believing it whatever. My immediate response was ‘For God’s sake, let’s get on with the war. Let’s invade Europe and defeat the Germans there.’”
He made good on that urge, helping to plan D-Day from a base in the U.K. and thus advance the death blow against Hitler. By war’s end, his youthful military inclinations had hardened into a sense of duty to whoever he perceived as being on his side. “All we knew was that the more we killed, the sooner the war would be over and we would stop fighting and go home,” he said. “It was like keeping score at a football game. That’s not a very nice answer, but I really didn’t think of killing the enemy so much as taking the opposing pieces off a chess board.”
Grandpa finished the war with a cushy placement overseeing the post-liberation military government in Paris, then returned to the U.S., met and abruptly married my grandmother (a fellow Massachusetts Jew whose family had achieved quasi-assimilated, quasi-patrician status), got a job at his dad’s company, and bought a house in Providence to be near the Rhode Island factory. In 1948, the Zionists declared the formation of the State of Israel in the midst of a civil war between Palestinians and Jews, then went on to defeat invading Arab armies and reach an armistice. In the process, more than 700,000 Palestinians were driven from Israeli territory by systematic force or threat, although American coverage of that exodus was patchy and often biased toward the Israeli narrative. My grandfather, likely unaware of the extent of the Palestinians’ plight, held esteem for newborn Israel (as he put it, “I identified with Israel, as I did with America, as the great liberating force”), but it was largely for a pragmatic reason: No one else wanted the European Jews who had survived.
“There was absolutely nowhere for them to go,” he later recalled. “They couldn’t stay in Europe, which was a graveyard, and I could see from my prewar experiences they were not going to be accepted in America or anywhere else. So at that point, it was a process of elimination.” Grandpa was not a sentimental man, and the fact that Israel sat in part of the territory of ancient Judea held no interest for him. “It was,” he said, “just the only place available for them.” The UJA interviewer asked if his thinking about Israel had evolved since then. “It hasn’t evolved; it’s crystallized,” he replied. “It can’t be anywhere else, even if, geographically, it’s an inconvenient place to be.”
In those early years of Israeli sovereignty, Grandpa held no particular affection for the country. As he put it to the interviewer, “It was really like a relative that you had to support, whose company you didn’t particularly enjoy, who gave you no excitement, no stimulation.”
Bob’s first visit to Israel was a rough one. In 1961, he took on the annual bond-selling drive held by the Rhode Island Jewish Federation (then known as the General Jewish Committee, or GJC) for bolstering the Jewish community in Israel. After its conclusion, he wanted to see how the money was being used there. He was aghast at the country he found. “I went there, and I was very disappointed,” he said in the UJA oral history. “In one sense, I had been led to believe in the pioneering spirit — not that I expected to see people sitting around the campfires, ploughing with rifles on their backs and so on — but it was the most thoroughly bourgeois country I had ever visited, my God!” This was the era of the so-called Espresso Generation, youngsters who believed Israel should abandon its rigid, austere, millenarian ideology and become a normal place to live in the western mold. Many of them believed peace with the Arab world was just around the corner — an assumption my grandfather did not share.
Sure enough, as the ’60s wore on, Israel’s dangers grew, as did Bob’s concerns. It was around then that something strange happened to my grandfather: He fell in love. “It was because Israel was threatened that it became precious,” Bob told the UJA interviewer. “When it wasn’t threatened, it was an inconvenient relative; when it was threatened, it became something you liked.” It’s a pithy and revealing comment, and it summarizes the broader political and cultural shift that occurred within and around him. The rattling of sabers in the Middle East crested into a roar in the spring of 1967, leading Bob to firmly believe that millions of Jews now faced another existential threat. They were his family — how could he not throw himself into saving them?
The June 2, 1967, edition of the Rhode Island Herald, the local Jewish newspaper, bore a full-page ad with a silhouette of Israel and imperative text: “Let Us Show Our Strength And Support In A TOTAL MOBILIZATION Of Our Entire Community.” There was to be an emergency meeting held by the GJC on June 8 at Providence’s Sheraton-Biltmore Ballroom. “The future of the Jewish people is at stake,” the ad read. “And as every man, woman and child in Israel stands ready to give his life, let us give to the utmost.” In a slightly bigger font was the name of the campaign chairman: Robert Riesman. By the time of the event, Israel had already launched a surprise attack, and the Six-Day War was well under way. Bob whipped the audience at the ballroom into a frenzy of patriotism for a country that was an ocean and a sea away, raising a vast sum. “That mass meeting was the most fabulous thing,” recalled a friend of my grandfather’s who sat in on the UJA interview. Bob chimed in with one word: “Yes.”
That 1967 war (known to Palestinians as al-Naksa, “the Setback”) turned out in Israel’s favor. It also marked an abrupt and astounding shift in the history of American Jewry. For the first time, the Jewish community came close to being a community. A wide swath of people, from the Orthodox to the secular, Democrat to Republican, the well off to the destitute, could agree on their love of Israel and fear for her safety. There were dissidents, yes — mostly the ultra-Orthodox sects who believed Jewish sovereignty should come only from divine intervention, as well as a handful of leftist groups — but they were comparatively few in number. There was a potent emotional combination at play: the prewar terror that millions of Jewish lives might be snuffed out so soon after the Holocaust coupled with the postwar euphoria that Jews were righteously powerful. That brew was intoxicating, and, almost instantaneously, American Jewish pride in Israel became the order of the day.
However, in one of the primary ironies of Zionist history, 1967 was also the moment when the seeds of destruction for the pro-Israel consensus were laid: The Israeli military occupied the Palestinian population centers known as the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, placing droves of people there under a martial law that was publicly depicted as temporary yet became all too permanent. Against that backdrop, the Palestinian liberation movement burst into the popular imagination following a series of high-profile plane hijackings and the rise to international prominence of Yasser Arafat. But the cause won few hearts in the Jewish community — least of all my grandfather’s.
Bob left the corporate world in 1968, at which point he devoted himself almost single-mindedly to advancing the broader world in what he saw as a liberal direction. He had co-chaired the Rhode Island division of John F. Kennedy’s successful presidential campaign, and in ’68 he was one of the state’s delegates to the disastrous Democratic National Convention. He was president of the Rhode Island Jewish Federation from 1974 to 1977. He became one of U.S. senator Claiborne Pell’s closest advisers. He led boards, he received medals, he made money on investments, he gave to institutions (particularly Jewish ones), and, in so doing, developed quite the platform for himself. When he spoke, people listened. And what he chose to speak most loudly about, in private and in public, was Israel.
I feel a strange kinship to my grandfather in our mutual commitment to yelling angrily about the media. I do it by complaining on Twitter, but he did it through his generation’s equivalent: letters to the editor. He wrote them prolifically, and they were typically devoted to attacking a publication’s recent article on Israel, declaring it ignorant of the facts and biased toward “the Arabs,” be they leaders of countries or stateless Palestinians. There were ample opportunities for him to do so, as Israel’s government regularly committed war crimes ranging from the settlement of militarily occupied territory to systematic acts of violence against Palestinians and beyond, making the country ever more of an international pariah. One of the few communities Israel could depend on for support was the Jews of America, and my grandfather’s letters testify to the prevailing opinions in that community.
Take, for example, this letter, published in the New York Times on June 28, 1981: Headlined “IRAQ HAS NEVER SHEATHED SWORD AGAINST ISRAEL,” it took aim at an article about Israel’s illegal preemptive strike on an Iraqi nuclear site, which had claimed Iraq “never sent organized units into front-line combat against Israel.” Grandpa cited Iraq’s involvement in the 1948 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars and went on to emphasize that “the state of war between Iraq and Israel is not merely ‘technical,’ as Mr. Smith characterized it. Iraq is the sole ‘front-line’ Arab country that has never accepted a cease-fire or armistice agreement with Israel.” This was not just a fact-check — such comments in the Israel debate never are. It was an opportunity to use his considerable intellect to suggest that any statement that could be of use to Israel’s enemies was woefully ill informed about the nature of the threat and hadn’t properly computed the moral calculus.
Bob was, unlike many, under few illusions about Israel. He traveled there as many as three times a year as early as the 1970s and had high-profile contacts, from parliamentarian Yigael Yadin to President Chaim Herzog. Grandpa was a military man, and he knew where — and how — bodies were buried. The UJA interviewer mentioned that one of my grandfather’s Jewish friends, Rhode Island governor Frank Licht, had recently returned from a visit to Israel depressed over its reactionary politics. My grandfather’s response is remarkable:
Frank had a dream and he still has a dream and he has a standard. What is happening is not in accordance with his dream, so to the degree to which it falls short, he is depressed. I, on the other hand, came from a tougher school than Frank and one thing I know — and Orwell said it, though not in so many words — is that the latrines of the soldiers of freedom and democracy smell just as bad as the latrines of the soldiers of fascism. The food is just as bad and the sergeants are just as bull. Israelis are human beings. They’ve got one fucked-up political system.
In this metaphor, Israel was the beacon of freedom and democracy, and the Arab world was akin to the Nazis, which is how my grandfather would go on to depict them in his speech just after my birth. That’s the way leading American Jews characterized the conflict in the ’80s.
Perhaps my grandfather had too much of a military mindset to even process, let alone be repulsed by, the various atrocious actions committed by Israel’s government and the institutional anti-Arab bigotry of its society. He was doing what needed to be done, regardless of any crimes committed in the name of defending what he saw as his community. His family.
That is my half-hearted attempt to explain things like the August 19, 1982, issue of the Rhode Island Herald. In June of that year, Israel had invaded southern Lebanon and, in the ensuing months, killed upwards of 10,000 Arab civilians through bombing, shooting, and siege. There were, of course, complex triggering events that led to the invasion, but by August the consequences were undeniable: Much of Lebanon’s south, including large portions of Beirut, had been reduced to rubble. And yet there was a photo of Grandpa on the cover of the paper, beneath a headline reading, “Federation Officials Return From Mideast; ‘Lebanon Not In Ruins.’”
Bob and a group of other Jewish Federation officials had gone on a UJA propaganda trip to the country, which resulted in his coming back with a bizarre argument based on visiting parts of the country that hadn’t been attacked: “The point we are making is that the rest of Lebanon was hit very lightly,” he told the Herald. They had made a stop at the city of Sidon and crowed that the destruction was limited to the obliteration of just two and a half city blocks. They met with the ardently right-wing prime minister Menachem Begin, who “repeated his insistence that Israel has no interest in one square foot in Lebanon” (it would go on to occupy the southern portion of Lebanon until 2000). Bob said all the Israelis he met were “terribly upset” about the “raw deal” their country was getting in the international media. The article concluded on a grim, violent note: “Riesman said he would have preferred military action to resolve the conflict and regrets Israel having halted its drive on Beirut.”
I’ve read and reread that article and wrestled with the question of gullibility. When my grandfather parroted the Israeli government’s talking points there and elsewhere, did he ever suspect he was being played? I suppose it’s possible that he, like many American Jews, truly believed that the Israelis wouldn’t lie to him, that a man like Begin could be relied upon, that one couldn’t trust mainstream media outlets and institutions for accurate information. But I fear the answer may be worse. He might have known full well that he was being served bullshit and, in turn, was serving it to others — and didn’t care. He and the rest of the Jewish Establishment in America had signed their pact. The first casualty of war, as they say, is truth. And if peace meant making Jews less safe, then war was the only option.
To the very end, my grandfather was defending Israel. His final published work was a letter to the editor of the Providence Journal, printed on May 24, 2004, attacking an op-ed by a University of San Francisco professor who had criticized Israel and the U.S. for not coming to the negotiation table with the Palestinians. “Where has the professor been for the last decade?” Grandpa asked, then praised the Israelis for their efforts at peacemaking. A few weeks later, he broke his femur and died in the hospital at age 85. The senior U.S. senator from Rhode Island, Jack Reed, delivered the eulogy at his funeral, and the junior one, Lincoln Chafee, soon after read it into the Congressional Record. “Bob’s faith was more than just a theological exercise,” Reed said. “It was for him a summons, not just to reflection, but also to action.”
I so deeply wish I could talk to my grandfather about Israel. But I also dread the notion. I suspect it would be like the biblical conversation between God and Job. The eminently mortal Job questions the judgment of the Almighty and is given a stern talking-to in return. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God asks. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” My grandfather was undoubtedly a more educated and experienced man than I am or probably ever will be. I try to be confident that I’m morally wiser than he and his generation were when it comes to Palestinian liberation. But who am I to darken counsel by words without decades of knowledge? Where was I when Grandpa won World War II?
I retain a sliver of hope that he could understand that I, like him, want to save the Jews. I have chosen to see them as my family, for better or worse. And I believe that backing the status quo in Israel is not just a moral wrong but a recipe for disaster. I am not alone in this — Israel’s own politicians and security officials have long said the occupation makes Israel less safe. I believe Jews should have free access to the Holy Land and do not in any way want to see them driven into the sea or killed. But nor do I want to see Palestinians continue to be massacred and imprisoned. I don’t think my grandfather wanted to hurt Palestinians, but their concerns didn’t keep him up at night. For me, they do. They are part of my family too. And until they are safe, the Jews will not be. Israel and the Palestinians will not fix their problems without audacious solutions. Solutions as audacious as, say, the creation of a Jewish state 70-odd years ago.
I tell Bob’s story not to litigate whether he was a good or a bad man. He is family, so I can’t trust my own judgment to be objective. However, younger generations can learn from his grave mistake of not interrogating his own generational biases and assumptions. After all, Bob and his ilk thought they were humanitarians doing the Lord’s work for the oppressed people of the earth. Let us be careful when we try to do the same.
In 1975, Bob delivered a speech during his temple’s services for the holiest day of the Jewish year, the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur. The topic was the biblical text Jews recite on that holiday, the Book of Jonah. In the text, God orders the titular prophet to tell the wicked people of Nineveh that they will be punished, a task Jonah initially rejects. After finally performing it, he leaves the city and sits under the shade of a gourd plant to watch the end of the Ninevites. But God spares them, enraging Jonah. God then kills the plant, endangering Jonah in the harsh sun, and asks Jonah whether he has pity for the dead flora. Jonah says yes. “And should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons?” God asks. The book ends.
“If I thought about Jonah from one Yom Kippur to the next, it was with sympathy for the prophet,” my grandfather said in his speech. “I shared his frustration at God’s 11th-hour reprieve of the Ninevites.” But as Bob grew older, his opinion changed. “Jonah’s lack of compassion for the Ninevites was a failure of awareness, of imagination,” he said. “The death of the gourd affected his personal comfort and safety, but preoccupied with his own concerns, his own vanity, he could not visualize, he had no feeling for the consequences to his fellow human beings in the city of Nineveh, any more than the bombardier of an aircraft, preoccupied with his bombsight and release button, visualizes the consequences of his act to the human beings in and around his target.”
I wonder if Grandpa could see the irony of what he was saying — that he was literally describing what his beloved Israeli military does to human beings on a regular basis. “Are we aware of the pain that our lack of awareness, our thoughtlessness, our preoccupation can cause to those around us, even to those closest to us?” he asked. “When we do become aware, does our pride, our vanity, our selfishness, our fear of being rebuffed, concern for our presumed status or reputation, stand between us and compassionate action, between us and our responsibilities?” He went on: “Are we responsible? Are we compassionate? Or do we value the gourd above human beings?”
Then came the final line. I’ll let it be mine as well, unsatisfying though it may be: “The question hangs in the air like an unresolved chord, a chord that only each of us individually, in his or her own heart, can harmoniously resolve.”