Michael M. Rosen
August 11, 2011
"We answered the call," a young man and his wife told me in 2004, two years after the man's sister, her husband, and their child were brutally murdered on an Israeli road, leaving nine other children orphaned. I visited with the couple, who had adopted all nine of their nieces and nephews, as part of my San Diego synagogue's Israeli terror victim relief program, and learned first-hand of the horrific tragedy that befell their family—and the heroism it inspired.
Giulio Meotti re-tells this story from the perspective of one of the survivors in A New Shoah, his detailed exploration of the human toll exacted by terrorism in Israel over the past 15 years, a book that encapsulates small narratives of brutality yielding to loving kindness.
The cultural editor of Italy's Il Foglio and a Wall Street Journal contributor, Meotti spent four years in Israel meeting with the families of the fallen, absorbing their stories, and marinating in their sorrow. The book lovingly and unsparingly describes the victims and survivors of Palestinian terror attacks, making flesh the abstract newspaper headlines that antiseptically summarize (and minimize) the brutal carnage. As Meotti explains, recounting these tales is nothing less than "an act of solidarity against the abandonment and dereliction of these thousands of victims, young and old, children and infants, women and men."
Both the Nazis during World War II and the Islamists today aim to eradicate not only the Jewish people, but also the Jewish name, and hope to stamp out any sense of Jewish personhood. As the author puts it, "the silence of Chelmno and the silence after a suicide bombing, the Zyklon B of the Nazis and the suicide belts of Hamas have this in common: the total destruction of the victim." And so Meotti set about "giving a voice to Israeli families destroyed by terrorism, letting them speak as the memories are beginning to fade" as "a form of incarnation like those stark walls of names at [Yad Vashem, Israel's] Holocaust memorial," which itself means "hand and name."
A sincere non-Jewish admirer of the Jewish state, Meotti enshrines the memory of the fallen in probably the most effective way possible: by gently turning over his pen to the families themselves. Seemingly half of the book consists of direct quotations by grieving parents, siblings, and children gleaned from interviews, eulogies, and other memorial speeches. These stories are organized haphazardly, and they're often graphic and difficult to stomach—both tendencies appear to be intentional.
Now, eight years later, insulated by the remarkably successful West Bank security fence, we easily forget the extreme anguish and mortal fear in which Israelis wallowed during the Second Intifada. In the 15 years since Oslo, 1,723 Israelis—equivalent in percentage terms to 74,000 Americans, or roughly 25 9/11's—have perished in some 150 suicide attacks, while another 10,000 have suffered injuries.
This inhuman slaughter transcends stereotypes. From leftist kibbutzniks protesting the security fence to immigrant security guards protecting open-air markets and coffee shops to Jerusalem doctors treating and working alongside Palestinians, the victims hail from every ethnic, political, denominational, and generational demographic in the Jewish state. As Meotti observes, Islamist terror knows no bounds; it sees, and attacks, anything that "represent[s] Jewish civilization." In particular, Meotti's heart-wrenching depiction of the ghastly 2002 Passover Night bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya shimmers with an almost literary brilliance. The theme of blood—painted by the Israelites on their doorposts the night of their exodus from Egypt; commemorated by four cups of wine at the Seder; accused for centuries by gentiles as the key ingredient in matzah; and, in 2002, now splattered across the devastated hotel dining room—mingled hauntingly in Meotti's telling, like the admixture of Jewish persecution during Passovers past and present.
Meotti also catalogues the hundreds of Israeli victims of terrorism whose lives were tied in some way to the Holocaust: children of survivors and even survivors themselves, dwelling tranquilly in their homeland thousands of miles from the crematoria, until fanatical Jew-hatred returned to claim their lives, only at a different latitude. He tells of a funeral of five victims of the unnerving Sbarro pizza shop bombing in central Jerusalem, where the children and grandchildren of a Dutch Bergen-Belsen survivor were mercilessly slain. At the service, a woman lamented "this isn't a funeral, it's a Holocaust," while the Chief Rabbi of Israel, himself interned at Buchenwald, also cried out, "How long will it last, O my God, how long? It's been three generations."
Although such echoes of the Holocaust indeed reverberate throughout Israel's contemporary struggle with Palestinian terror, Meotti neither defines the term "Shoah" or marches through the key similarities in an organized fashion. In this sense, his study isn't so much an argument that Jewry today finds itself plunged into another Holocaust as an evocation of its horrors. And though this tendency allows for beautifully told stories, it also, at times, shields the author from fully appreciating just how well Jewry nowadays is surviving and thriving because of Israel.
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The book contains hints of the marvel of Israel as a safe haven, including Meotti's description of the 2003 flyover by Israeli fighter jets above Auschwitz, when the air force general leading the squadron noted that he "felt the courage of the millions who faced infinite suffering" and "understood the enormity of our responsibility, in guaranteeing the immortality of our people and bearing their greatness upon our wings." Likewise, he characterizes a charitable fund that has raised and furnished hundreds of thousands of dollars in assistance to Israel's terror victims as "a major sign of Israel's triumph over Islamist destruction." Still, for the most part, Meotti seems content to focus on the disturbing continuities between the Jew-killing fever of the Holocaust and the related virus that has spread to the Arab-Muslim world, while downplaying the signal discontinuity represented by a vigorous and unapologetic Jewish state.
At the same time, however, another powerful discontinuity looms just 800 miles away in Tehran, and it is Meotti's near-obliviousness to the Iranian threat that constitutes the book's most significant flaw. The mullahs quite literally are plotting a new Shoah, even while Ahmadinejad denies the occurrence of the original. And as Daniel Gordis observed inCommentary, Iran need only develop, not detonate, a single nuclear device to sow precisely the kind of existential angst Israel was created to dispel; the potentially paralyzing fear of a second Holocaust is nearly as valuable to the Jewish people's enemies as its implementation.
Admittedly, Meotti's focus is deliberately limited to actual terrorist atrocities carried out against Jews in Israel (and abroad), which is an enormous and significant topic in its own right. But to write a book entitled A New Shoah without devoting so much as a chapter on a potential Shoah-in-the-making is, however unintentionally, to minimize its grave danger.
Toward the end of his book, Meotti quotes author Naomi Ragen, who survived the Passover Netanya attack, citing the immortal passage from the Haggadah: "not only in one generation have they sought our annihilation, but rather in everygeneration do they seek our destruction." Tragically true, and poignantly illustrated throughout this important book.
Yet equally significant is the passage's conclusion: "But the Holy One, Blessed Be He, rescues us from their clutches." Even though its existence hasn't curbed (and may even have whetted) the genocidal impulse, the Jewish state—a homeland for God's "chosen people"—stands as a firm bulwark against future Jewish annihilation. In this sense, as Meotti recognizes in his conclusion, Israel itself has answered the call for a battered, bruised people.