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Saturday, May 30, 2015

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Escaping an interminable nightmare

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Jean M. Gerber

About 2,600 years ago on or about the 9th of Av, the First Temple in Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The number of casualties? No doubt in the thousands.

About 1,944 years ago, on or about the 9th of Av, the Second Temple fell to the Roman army. Thousands died, and more died some 63 years later after the Bar Kochba revolt.

About 1,522 years ago, on or about the 9th of Av, Jews of Spain boarded ships and began their exile. Hundreds of thousands died or went underground as Conversos, many to die later in the Inquisition.

And 69 years ago another destruction: six million Jews died, along with millions of others, in that European slaughterhouse.

The deaths of three Israeli teenagers, murdered, almost by chance it seems, are a part of the never-ending series of deaths our people have endured. Then came the horrific and senseless revenge burning and murder of another mother’s child, a Palestinian boy. Now hundreds – will it be thousands? – of people will die in this latest battle, which has not ended as of this writing, and there’s no end in sight. 

Finding out who perpetrated the Israeli boys’ deaths will do what? Allow closure? Punish? Give us a sense of justice? Or will death follow death, and will those deaths blur any commemoration into one of bloodlust? Shall we add them to the lament on Tisha b’Av?

How do we measure a scale of death? Is six million more meaningful – or should I say more deadly – than three? Than one? I’m sure none of those who died would want their suffering diminished by an account of the numbers. Each child is precious. Each death, as John Donne put it, diminishes me. It diminishes us as a people. 

Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but in the heat of anger, it’s often seen as the first and only course.

Humans have the gift of memory. This gift allows us to recall not only our personal past, but also to study our collective past, which we call history. We can analyse the causes of World War I (much on the mind as we stumble toward the centenary of its outbreak). We can compare, with caution, the era of Rome and its empire with current powerful states and ask if they, too, will fall once their power wanes – or question whether any comparison is valid.

Maybe what is past is not prologue. Maybe those who do not study the past are bound to repeat it. Maybe the past is a different country and they do do things differently there. Shouldn’t we do better?

These are slogans historians subscribe to with care, lest our present mindset interfere with analysis of the past.

What is happening in Israel and Gaza right now is agony for us – indeed, for all Israel. Is there a point to any of these latest deaths beyond prolonging the war between two nations? None. Not one thing about this adds to hope or history, but merely destroys trust.

How do we stop this slaughter of the innocents?

Are we destined to live like this indefinitely, with teenage armies hacking at each other? As Matthew Arnold wrote in Dover Beach, we are indeed “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

One of my favourite mystery writers is the late Tony Hillerman, who wrote the Leaphorn and Chee mysteries that take place in the Navajo reservation and involve two Navajo tribal police officers. Along with the crime story, we get a full picture of the Navajo belief system and how they heal after encountering evil.

The time will come when Jew and Arab will have to go through a healing process. These crimes, this latest war, just push that date far into the future. Yes, it will be painful. But it must come, or we will remain caught forever in this interminable nightmare.

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