Passover in the Land of Jewish Ghosts

April 4 2018

Having devoted several months to visiting the locations of vanished or vanishing Jewish communities, David Wolpe spent Passover in Spain. He shares his reflections from the eve of the holiday:

Although Spain’s history is particular, its outlines are sadly familiar. To travel almost anywhere in the world as a Jew is a tour of loss. . . . With rare exceptions, there are three kinds of synagogues that survive at all. There are those that whisper their history through the faded remnant of a Jewish star on a stone above the arch of a building now serving as a mosque, a church, or a department store. There is the historic synagogue, no longer in use, that is preserved by the waning Jewish community or the government as a monument to what once was. And there is the synagogue that still functions, but all too often only for the handful of older people who still care, and who pray with the ever-present consciousness that no one will come after. . . .

Many of these empty buildings, like those in Eastern Europe, are a mute reminder of the mass murder of World War II. The synagogues in Poland and Lithuania were filled one day and empty the next. Others reflect the emigration of entire communities to Israel or the United States because of persecution, economic deprivation, or cultural isolation. And some represent a gradual ebbing away, the slow fade of a minority swallowed by a much larger culture. Intermarriage, absorption, indifference: the trifecta of modern disappearance. . . .

In Hebrew, a synagogue is called not a house of God but a house of gathering. But there are none left to gather. . . .

And yet. The Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz once titled an essay “Jews, the Ever-Dying People.” He wrote that each generation believes it is the last. In my travels I’ve come to understand that sadness is essential, but despair is a sin. Spain may be a land of ghosts, but it was not hard for me to find Jews with whom to celebrate the Passover seder.

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More about: Jewish World, Passover, Religion & Holidays, Spain, Synagogues

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat