Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba
Those words trigger a Jewish instinct; we stand to attention and know just what to do, like some sort of ancient reflex to join in mourning, whether out of sorrow or as strangers, side by side.
The structure of the Kaddish-prayer is beautiful, and it reflects how we as Jews relate to death and mourning. We let the mourners speak of their sorrow but we interrupt them, interject as to say, “you are not alone”. We prop the mourner up when he cannot stand for himself and when his voice breaks we pick up, letting him know that if he goes silent we are here to carry the tune.
I never really understood the kaddish, not until last night. Last night I sat in a kitchen, holding a mother who had just buried her child and I heard the men praying net door and I could hear how they carried the father, answered him in the way we know how, telling him that he would never be abandoned. What I before had found repetitive was now meditative and meaningful and before the man with the broken voice is even done asking for God to reveal his majesty in our time he is interrupted by a loving unison
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach
l’alam ul’almei almaya
And at this point, I start to cry.
I cry because these are no longer words, but a prayer over my dear friend Sara, who was buried just as she had turned 18. I learned of her death as I was walking home from dinner in downtown Tel Aviv and I remember very little of the rest of that night, except the cold feel of the apartment floor as I failed to get up from it, hours after hours on end. I scrolled through my phone in search of pictures of her until I got to my favorite – one where she is braiding my hair in my kitchen while we rummage through my mother’s old jewelry box. We were talking about life and love and Sara told me that she was impatient to get out there, into the world that was eagerly awaiting her, so that she could fulfill her two dreams; curing epilepsy and moving to New York to become a famous actress.
Out of the mouth of anyone else those would have sounded like pipe dreams, but for Sara they were anything but. She walked into a room and she was noticed, and more importantly – she truly noticed you. Always helping, always giving, seemingly unaware of the beauty she possessed. At the end of that night I gave Sara a Magen David-pendant I loved but never ever wore, knowing I could never pull it off. The stones and gold would outshine me, but on her it looked just right, as if it hung around her neck not to rival but enhance her perfect Jewish beauty.
As we sit there at the shiva, I want to tell her mother what I am thinking, but I seem to have lost all my words. Nothing comes out, expect tears and a silent wailing, and I realize that these rituals are not just for the family, but also just as much for us.
It is hard to be close to pain, as humans we have an instinct to fear the things we cannot change and avoid a hurt we cannot diminish, and just as the mourner has an instinct to hide and stay away we who love them are paralyzed with all the things we cannot do to ease their pain.
So we are forced to sit in the unimaginable, stay in that pain and we finish each other’s sentences just to show that we are there. We cry together and we are silent together, we remember and we talk and we refuse to give way to the loneliness and darkness that threatens with its presence, just outside that door. Seeing what I saw and feeling what I felt yesterday I now think that this is one of the ultimate strengths of our Jewish existence – how we show up for each other and stay there, despite and through the hurt, and that the darkest parts of life are neither skirted nor ignored.
We say that the memory of a loved one should be a blessing, but with Sara it is so much more than that. I envied the confidence with which she walked through life and the beauty and largeness with which she lived it, inch by glorious inch, and I know that this is true for everyone who came into her life. Her entire being was a bracha, not just the memory of what she was, and having lost her far too soon I owe it to myself and to her to live bigger and truer and fuller – just as Sara would have if she got the chance.
When we as Jews enter the Temple Mount we turn right and walk counter-clockwise, except for when we have suffered a heartbreak or loss. When we hurt we turn left and walk clockwise, so that we bump into other people, directly facing them, open to their questions and comfort. Our traditions teach us not be alone, but to be radically brave and emotionally confrontational.
We are the chosen people but also a people who make choices, and we choose to come together as the world does its best to rip our hearts apart. For this I am thankful now, in midst of pain and anger; I am thankful to be Jewish and with that to never truly be alone.
Sara. I know you never got to see your name in lights but you will see your life live on through all of us who now owe your memory a blessing. I promise you that I will do my best to care for those you love the way you did, with compassion and humility, and dare to use red lipstick even when I’m feeling down.
You are loved, and you are remembered, from here to all eternity.
HAVANA — The young woman sees me watch in amazement as she gets up from her seat and attempts to carry the four bags with her through the aisle of the plane, and she gestures at them and shrugs.
“There is nothing in Cuba, so whatever we can, we bring.”
It took me a few days to fully grasp what she had told me, being a first-time visitor in a country entering its 58th year of communist dictatorship, and its very first without Fidel Castro. I came here to find out what had changed since his passing, and what was next for the island regime, but to my great surprise it was business as usual, in more ways than one.
On my way from the airport I ask my cab driver if things feel different since Castro’s death. He shakes his head and tells me that even on the night of his passing there was little movement in the streets or commotion through Havana.
“I was impressed, actually. Fidel has been everything, you know? He is the father of the revolution and when he dies – nothing – not a word. They were able to control everything, even then.”
By “they” he means the regime, now taking orders from Fidel’s brother Raoul Castro, and the security apparatus attached to it, with its infamous security service, Direccion General de Intelligencia (DGI) making sure the wheels turn smoothly. It is a simple yet brilliant scheme, where every neighborhood has an informant, reporting to the Comites de Defensa de la Revolution (CDR), a secret police in charge of keeping tabs on counter-revolutionary activity, and every infraction or sign of disloyalty is met with stern and immediate consequences. Given the dire straits of the people in Cuba, the regime is not willing to take any chances, having experienced revolutions in the past it knows not to allow the flame of change to be ignited.
With a monthly salary of $30 USD per person, supplemented with a fixed portion of rice, eggs and beans, the people of Cuba have been forced to use every opportunity to make some money on the side in order to avoid starvation. This has resulted in a shadow-society to take shape within communist Cuba, a society that is highly capitalist in every single way. I get evidence of this en route to old Havana one day, when my driver stops for gas and is told there is none left, only to leave the car with a fistful of cash and return later, car filled-up and ready.
“This is what we call the Cuban way. You see, the gas station belongs to the government, so the only way for these men to earn something extra is to sell gas to the highest bidder and deny those who can’t pay. I call it communist capitalism.”
The same is true everywhere you go: people cooking the books to fill their plates and fight their way out of desperation, and as a tourist you accept it and move on, constantly struggling with the guilt of living here in a bubble that everyday Cubans will never be privy to. To outsiders, the combination of poverty and oppression and the recent loss of the symbol of the revolution would inevitably result in a turn toward democracy and capitalism. But as the regime does its best to convey, very little has been buried with Fidel.
The Cubans I have spoken to are proud of their country. Even though they criticize the regime, under promise of anonymity, they are quick to add that they don’t necessarily want Cuba to become the United States or just any other country in the West. When I ask them if they believe that democracy and capitalism will come to Cuba now that Fidel has left and Raoul is on his way out, they respond in the negative, saying that whatever will come next will be a Cuban version of those things, an adaptation from what it is now.
And the way things are looking, they may be right. Rumor has it Raoul Castro has already reshuffled the government, replacing generals and ministers with his personal confidants so that he will remain the unofficial leader even after his assumed successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is sworn in as president in 2018. This ensures that even though Fidel is dead, the spirit of the revolution lives on, and the Cubans I’ve spoken to fear that the regime will take steps to emphasize the status quo by tightening its grip on the population.
It is not an improbable scenario, but rather a common tactic for totalitarian regimes when dealing with dramatic shifts, as most recently seen in Iran after the nuclear deal, where executions and imprisonments have risen dramatically during and after the rapprochement with the West. There is an important difference, however, and that is that Cuba is unlike many other countries of its kind, and that difference may actually be a hindrance in its journey toward democracy.
One thing that sets Cuba apart from other totalitarian regimes is the romance that surrounds it, still, despite the thousands of extrajudicial executions and arbitrary imprisonments, a ruined national economy, and denial of basic freedoms of association, religion, movement, and speech having taken place in the past 58 years. Even those who do not hold an ideological torch for the communist revolution are still enchanted with the country’s beauty, charm, and lust for life, making it easier to disregard the daily crimes committed against its people and quell the international community’s instinct to intervene.
Cuba is truly magical, and yes, it is full of life, but once you step outside of the lush hotel garden you see that it is life on the brink of death, magic existing in a state of suspended animation.
This is made possible by the geographical and cultural proximity to the U.S., loosening of sanctions and the idea of Cuba being kept alive through and by the booming Cuban tourism industry. This process is quietly supported by the regime itself because, ironically, the only way for the communist revolution to survive is by covert capitalism, keeping the population from starvation, and turning a blind eye to this keeps the oppressive communist regime from having to admit defeat.
There were no rallies through Havana on the eve of Fidel’s death and now, almost 4 months later, he has already moved from leader to martyr, cementing a well-directed legacy. Life goes on for the Cubans, with or without the father of the revolution, as they watch tourists flood their Island paradise, hoping to benefit from some of the overflow.
Cuba is lively and loud – full of life for days of play. But when it really matters, it is quiet – its people’s fate decided in silence, without so much as a word.
There are 11 people around the table in the small south-side apartment. It’s warm and loud and smells of fragrant kubbeh. Somewhere in the other room, a child has discovered the magic of her own feet. It is home to us, to so many of us, the place that we go after Shabbat services and the radically un-Swedish interior stands in stark contrast to the opaque calm that dominates outside. Most Swedes would never see these scenes or know these people that I call family but we belong here just as they do, we play a role in the larger society and in some sense save it from itself, our antiquated ways and deeply rooted rituals balancing out the modernity and ennui of contemporary life.
I have spent the better part of five years trying to make the case for our survival, speaking of and writing about the life of European Jews. At first I got little more than a courteous nod, and now, after terror and totalitarianism has reared its many heads, the response to our plight is an immediate call to leave and stay gone forever. Perhaps I have failed to capture what it is I’m fighting for in a clear and snappy sentence and perhaps that is why the right to remain is not perceived as a human right for us Jews, once the right to return has given and defined. Or perhaps it is one of those things that cannot be captured in words but rather needs to be felt through experiences, and those are unavailable to many and of too little interest to most. So we are locked into an either-or, where we are somehow expected to stay and assimilate or, if our Jewishness persists, leave for Israel and be happy with our lot.
But there is more. There is this. Us. The 11 people at this table, hearing the kiddush, singing and eating and praying together, and we have every right to be here if that is what we choose to do, being a integral part of a society that is nothing like us. The debate has been focused on the negative, the pain and the plight, and I, too, have been guilty of trying to achieve understanding by telling the worst scenario and citing statistics of crimes, horror and hate. Those things matter, but I may have come further if I had told the stories that matter even more.
Later that same day, I go to my friend Isidor’s house to attend his wife’s yahrzeit and to lend a helping hand. An hour later, there’s a prayer service in his living room, praying in one ancient voice, and I stand to the side just watching the scene and wishing I could capture what it is to me and why this deserves to be preserved.
European Jewish life is its own thing, our very own strain of Yiddishkeit with a tapestry of memories and meaning that we only share between ourselves. We walk the line between soul and society, purpose and practice, and the way we do this is a testament to the strength of who and what we are.
Isidor is telling jokes in Yiddish and though mine is quite rusty, I can tell that he works blue. We are eating gefilte fish from his grandmother’s recipe and drinking l’chaims made on traditional Swedish spices and nothing could more exquisitely describe the gorgeous complexity of our Swedish-Jewish lives. There are five countries and backgrounds represented at this table and so many untold stories folded and hidden beneath our mother tongue. We are not facts on the ground or mere statistics but people with pasts and futures that we should be allowed to master on our own.
I wish you could have been there, I really, really do. I wish all those who tell us to leave or who minimize the loss of freedom in our lives could have experienced the beauty of our joy and of our struggle. The right of return can never replace the right to remain, and both should hold a place in the Jewish psyche on the list of priorities of anyone who cares about our people’s fate.
The men who came to pray and to honor Isidor’s wife took time out of their lives to tend to not only him, but to our rituals, and that is why we are family and why we will remain. We show up for each other, be it in synagogues or crowded apartments or a memorial prayer service for a loved one or a brother we don’t know. We show up for each other because we all know this life and we all walk this line, as European Jews in a time and a place that urges us to be either extinct or irrelevant.
But we won’t be, not just yet, not as long as there is life and breath within us. We show up for one another, and I expect the world to show up for us, fighting for our right to Jewish life and not merely Jewish survival.
This article was first published in Israel Hayom
Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I sit at my desk and think about all the media coverage that this anniversary generated, and how quiet it is now, the day after.
Yesterday I read ten articles about the Holocaust, about the victims and the need to remember.
But today when I skim through the news feed, I find nothing at all.
Does that mean there is nothing to write about?
Yesterday a prominent parliamentarian spoke at the Great Synagogue.
In past years other dignitaries have made that same speech
flanked by the Swedish royal family.
But where are they today?
When it comes to defending the Jewish minority’s human rights, are they just as easy to reach?
Do they stand up for the right to circumcision?
Do they fight to repeal the shameful 1937 ban of kosher slaughter?
Do they promise to ensure the Jewish minority’s safety?
Or is it that simple, that it is politically more favorable to mourn the dead Jews than to ensure continued Jewish life?
I have all the respect in the world for what the Living History Forum of Sweden is doing by organizing this memorial, but I lack a forum for a living future.
The difference between actively remembering, and passively mourning, is vast.
To actively remember is to every day reaffirm your identity, and to live it.
Not allowing commemorations to serve as a political platforms, but be promise for the future.
For what greater respect can we show those we have lost but to keep living?
Proud and visible.
I am pleased that the synagogue was packed yesterday
but I hope that we honor the memory by filling it every week.
Many beautiful words were written in our newspapers on Monday
but I hope that our fate is considered news worthy every single day.
Politics and the royal family stood by our side in Raul Wallenberg Square
I sincerely hope that they also do so in the halls of our parliament.
This is my hope, amidst all the despair.
That proximity to death will be a call to life.
Yesterday people spoke eloquently about the need to remember, but what is done to make sure that the rest of us will not become memories of the past?
Who will love the Jews, the morning after?
“I’m in a fight for my life – not for their death. I want to live, of course, but I don’t want another life lost, be it Jewish or Arab or Christian”.
Eyal Gelman and I are the same the age, but I feel oddly young and naïve, sitting at his desk in the Kiryat Arba security office. I’m there to meet him in his role as a security officer in one of the most dangerous areas in Israel, but also because he has been personally affected by the terror most of us only read about or catch snippets of on the 8’ocklock news.
2 weeks before I got there, Eyal’s brother Eliav was catching a bus back from his military base when he was attacked by a Palestinian man, 26-year-old Mamduh Amro, at the Gush Etzion junction. While fighting off his attacker who was wielding a knife, Eliav was shot by an errand bullet from the weapon of an IDF officer who had arrived at the scene, and a few hours later he was pronounced dead at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Eliav was the father of two, a deeply religious man and a decorated soldier, who had lived his entire life in and around Kiryat Arba, and his was the 29th death from Palestinian terror in 2016.
“My brother always said that people like us have to do more so that other people may be able to live normal lives, and I truly believe that. Heroism does not necessarily mean to do extraordinary things, it just means you do more”.
His brother is not the only person Eyal Gelman has lost in recent years. Gelman’s brother-in-law was Benaya Sarel, an IDF soldier killed during the 2014 Gaza war who was also from Kiryat Arba, and I ask Eyal the question that has brought me there to begin with – how do you stay and raise your family in a place where death is your door at any given time?
“Bereavement is the spinal chord of our nation, Annika, and just because I am hurting it does not mean I am wrong or that I should allow the hurt to change who I am or what I do”.
And more share his sentiment, it seems, as Kiryat Arba has been growing steadily in the past 20 years, along with other settlements in Judea and Samaria. Since 1993 and the Oslo accord, the settlement population has grown from 100.000 to 430,000, and at this point the waiting list for housing in both Kiryat Arba and the nearby Hebron is permanently full, and I ask Eyal what he thinks the draw is to come here, despite the constant waves of terror?
“People want more, they want to feel connected, and here the life is built on connectivity. We are not about the immediate satisfaction or the selfish, but a bigger picture that spans 3000 years. And that is also why we are not disheartened, because our perspective is longer than most, we see our victories through history and feel confident about our future in our ancient homeland. And it’s not merely a religious issue – 35% of those who live here are secular- it is about fighting for something larger than yourself”.
As we walk out of the simple office structure Eyal greets a white-bearded man sitting on a bench outside. The man has a friendly face and a loud laugh and when we’re introduced I realize he is Shalom Sarel, Eliav Gelman’s father in law and the father of Benaya Sarel, the soldier killed in the 2014 Gaza war. I sit with him for a moment, overlooking Hebron and the land that we both love and so many have died for, and I ask him how he got here and why he’s decided to stay.
“I came here as a newlywed, looking for a cheap house, because my wife and I couldn’t afford a place in the city. Many years and 8 children later I am in love, and I could never live anywhere else. It was a practical choice at the time, but a few months later we found ourselves on the frontline of the 1st intifada, and from then on, every time I leave the house I know I can be the victim of terror. It is a daily reality here, ever since”.
Shalom Zarel speaks perfect English and he smiles with his entire face, gesturing lively as he points out the houses of his family and friends. Kiryat Arba may be a war-zone in the news, but to Shalom, Eyal and the others living here, it is a tight-knit neighborhood and it is home. And to me, an outsider, it looks weirdly normal. Perfect rows of houses and well-kept gardens, plenty of playgrounds with monkey bars and colorful swings. It’s noisy, but not from gunshots or war, but the laughter and conflicts to be found wherever children meet to hammer out the details of an intricate game.
As we head for the car I say my goodbyes and I thank Shalom for living here, doing what most cannot stomach, but he laughs at me and shakes at head.
“You don’t get it, Annika. On Yom Kippur in 1941, Nazis murdered my great grandfather. Today I live here, in Kiryat Arba, with 8 children who have all contributed greatly to the Jewish state. This is not a sacrifice – it’s a privilege”.
The road between Hebron and Jerusalem is as treacherous as it is beautiful. Passing the infamous Al-Arroub camp, known to be a home for terrorists and then coming up on the hill overlooking Gush Etzion, the sun coloring the nearby valleys in deep pink and purple. Every bus stop here is fortified with concrete and hidden behind barriers, a way to create a normal-style life in the era of car-rammings and “spontaneous” stabbing attacks. As we re-enter Jerusalem I feel myself exhaling, ever so slightly, feeling as if I have visited a different world just 20 minutes away. But we don’t stop long, as we are headed to Samaria – the heart and midriff of Israel – to see more of the spinal chord that runs through this land.
“Would you like to see her room”?
Adva Biton is a beautiful woman, wearing a grey sheath dress, black high heels and a colorful jacket as she greets us in her house in Yakir, a village high in the Samarian Mountains. Last year, Adva’s 4-year old daughter Adele died as a result of a terror attack. Adele was critically hurt in a terror attack two years earlier, on March 14, 2013 near the town of Ariel when a truck driver suddenly hit the brakes after stones hurled by Palestinians struck his vehicle. The car behind him, carrying Adele, her two sisters and their mother Adva Biton, lost control and collided with the truck, wedging their car under the truck. The two other sisters, Avigail and Naama – aged four and five – sustained moderate injuries.
“There was an ambulance nurse there, an Arab man with the calmest voice, he took care of us. He carried Adele out of the car and saved the life of her sisters. He is my hero, and we still speak, he came to the funeral and he calls us every now and then and asks how we are”.
Adva tells me about Adele, about all that this little girl gave to the world in the short time she was in it, and how her life and death has helped others and changed the lives of many she never even knew. Tears start rolling down her cheek as she retells details. Her favorite game, the dress she wore that day, the party they were on their way home from. I’m fighting back my own sadness and anxiety, digging my nails into my palm as not to cry, however her words kill me I feel I don’t have the right to break down or break whatever professional barrier I’ve built. I have two children at home; one not much older than Adele, and to even imagine that loss or that heartbreak is to stand on the edge of a bottomless pit.
My train of thought is interrupted by a neighbor walking in unannounced, carrying a bag of groceries and gifts for the Purim holiday, and Adva, now 5 months pregnant, carefully gets out of her chair to greet her guest. We all chat for a while and I ask them both what I had asked Eyal, how do you stay here and raise your children, living in the heartland of this conflict?
“I wonder how they live in other places, how they survive grief and catastrophe in places where no one knows their neighbors”. Adva turns to her guest and says “look at this – it happens every day- people bring food and comfort and care for us here, because we are family and we have all chosen to be here, we are all in it together”.
For a period of a year and a half, Adele was hospitalized in various institutions, the attack having left her severely disabled and only partially conscious. Her parents Adva and Rafi immersed themselves in a battle they hoped would return Adele to life, Adva leaving her job as a doctor of medical chemistry to spend her days nursing Adele. In the middle of this battle, the family welcomed a new baby, a few weeks after the birth, Adele succumb to her injures and died, at the age of 4.
From the Oslo Accords in 1993 until September 2000 – nearly 300 Israelis were killed in terror attacks, and another 1,100 were murdered during the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada (Sept. 2000 – Dec. 2005). Since December 2005, Palestinian terrorist attacks have claimed at least another 203 Israeli lives and injured three times as many.
According to data compiled by the Israeli Shin Bet Security Agency, 2015 was the deadliest year for terrorism since 2008. Twenty-eight people were killed in terror attacks in Israel during 2015: two foreigners, one Palestinian, three members of Israeli security services, and twenty-two civilians. So far, 34 people have been killed in terror attacks in Israel in 2016, and according to a report on terrorism published by the Israel Ministry of foreign affairs earlier this year, there have been 156 stabbing attacks (including 76 attempted attacks), 98 shootings, 46 vehicular (ramming) attacks and one vehicle (bus) bombing. These terrorist attacks are part of the Palestinian Authority’s strategy of “popular resistance” adopted by the PA and Fatah at the Sixth Fatah conference in August 2009. After every attack, spokespersons from Fatah and Hamas have issued statements describing the attacks as “heroic actions” and “the natural response to Israel’s crimes”.
On our way back, we stop for dinner in Tapuach, a small Samarian settlement with approximately 1,200 inhabitants, about 40 minutes North of Jerusalem. The modest restaurant opened just a few weeks ago, serving simple food grown on the premises, and the owners run a 2nd hand clothes shop out of an adjacent room. The girl serving us our food is no older than 15, she does not speak English but smiles at me, shyly, as she puts overflowing bowls and plates on our table. An older woman is standing in the doorway, watching us, and she doesn’t smile yet I feel that she is friendly. Her face is sad, her long hair tied and meticulously covered and she seems very protective of the young girl by my side.
“Her name is Raaya”.
My friend sees me watching her, and nods in the woman’s direction.
“Raaya’s sister and brother were murdered in a terrorist attack at the Tapuach Junction 13 years ago, leaving 6 children orphaned, including a 2-month old baby. Rayya dropped everything and moved with her husband and 8 children from the Galil to Tapuach to raise her sister’s children as her own”.
It’s everywhere – the sadness and the tragedy and the stories of insurmountable human loss, and suddenly I feel I need some air. Outside there is perfect spring air, pink flowers and hills for days, and I see why this place inspired songs and prayer and the hopeful dreams of my ancestors. In the distance I see Tapuach Junction, one of the most dangerous places in Israel, but right here I feel safe and calm and at home like few times before.
“I just love the air up here”.
Rayya is next to me now, watching the view as the sun slowly sets.
“I love the air up here, it’s the tension in it that I can’t stand”.
These people, my people, are so often dehumanized in the media simply based on where they live. But regardless of geography or where your political alliances lie, their lives need to matter, their loved ones have the right to be mourned and remembered as more than “settlers” on the 10th page of a newspaper or a meme in a media-feed.
The Palestinian Authority is waging a war, without uniforms or tanks, but with plenty of soldiers acting on orders from their leaders. Incitement leads to murder and murder leads to shattered families and broken homes, and the more we dehumanize their victims the more effective this warfare will be, taking more lives and causing more hurt.
When I sit down to write this piece my phone vibrates and I see a newsflash, saying that there has been another death. On June 30th, 13-year old Israeli girl Hallel Yaffa Ariel was stabbed to death in her bed at her home in Kiryat Arba, by 19-year old Palestinian Mohammad Tarayreh, who had broken into the family’s house. The attacker was from a nearby village, and climbed the fence into Kiryat Arba before breaking into Ariel’s home and locking himself inside, where she was alone. After the murder of Hallel Yaffa, her killer was hailed as a hero by Hamas and candy was passed out in the streets of Gaza as part of their celebration of the martyred terrorist.
Hallel leaves a devastated family behind, a life cut short and a story untold, as Adele, Eliav, Benaya and the hundred of other’s murdered by terrorists in Israel in the past years. These are stories that deserve to be told, faces that deserve to be known and human heartbreak that deserves its place in history. Not because of politics, nor geography, but because Jewish lives should matter, too.
In September, I met with Ami Horowitz for an interview about Sweden and immigration, for a documentary he was making on the topic. Horowitz had heard of the work I had done on the issue, such as my reports in the Washington Examiner on the recent mass sexual attacks at music festivals in Sweden that the media and police covered up, as well as my essays on Sweden’s growing problem of jihadi tourism.
Horowitz and I met up in a sleepy Swedish town and spoke for almost half an hour, of which four minutes ended up in the final cut of his documentary, Stockholm Syndrome. The film also includes an interview with two Swedish policemen and the director’s own running commentary. The documentary received some attention at the time it was released, but not much more than the occasional link appearing in my newsfeed. But — as we now know — that has since changed.
President Trump mentioned Sweden in a speech in Florida on February 18. I first learned about it from my father, who called me early the next morning to ask whether I was perhaps involved in an international incident. As soon as I went on Twitter and saw the outrage, I started to connect the dots. After sifting through the many angry tweets, I could conclude that not only had the international media severely misconstrued what Donald Trump had said about Sweden but also that the newly elected president had put his finger on exactly what ails Sweden as well as the entire European continent. For the past week, I have been under tremendous pressure to rescind my statements and to swear off not only Amy Horowitz but also the entire premise that Sweden has problems relating to its immigration policies. Trump’s statement, however confusing, highlighted the most taboo topic in Swedish society and the well-oiled apparatus that does its utmost to keep it under wraps. And now that the world has its collective eye fixed on our country, the Swedish establishment is fighting hard to convey the party line.
Part of the reason for the outrage is that Sweden has a long-standing, complicated, love-hate relationship with the United States, defined by an equal mix of envy and distain — the U.S. being both that place we are better than and the country we secretly long to be. Sweden’s self-image is that of a country with solid liberal values, institutionalized equality, and social justice. Having an American president question that is a direct affront to the one thing we had going for us: our carefully cultivated sense of moral and intellectual superiority. The solution to this conundrum is to belittle and mock President Trump, making him seem ignorant and racist, poking fun at his statements through a barrage of colorful memes. But what all of these methods fail to address is the underlying issue and the truth at the heart of the president’s words.
As Swedish-Iranian economist Tino Sanandaji observed at NRO last week, we see a remarkable lack of statistics showing a correlation between immigration and crime in Sweden — not because there is no such correlation, but because there are no statistics. There are no statistics because the government has consistently chosen not to release them or bring the issue to light. This secrecy has sparked the rise of a populist right in Sweden, and it has also failed the most vulnerable — the immigrants subjected to extremism and crime in urban neighborhoods where the pundits and politicians never go — sacrificing them on the altar of political correctness. Because the truth is that Donald Trump was right to compare the Swedish crisis to that of the rest of Europe, and the reactions to his words were out of panic rather than persuasion. Something has come undone in Sweden, and that is the fault not of an American president but of the failed policies of the political establishment, going on 25 years. The results of these policies are now visible in individual lives and on city streets, and we see them clearly in ballots. The far-right party Sverigedemokraterna (The Sweden Democrats) has tripled in popularity in three elections and is now the second-largest party in the country. Most of the votes it has gained have migrated from the Social Democrats, the working-class party, suggesting that the political climate in Sweden is far less removed from its American counterpart than the Swedish political and intellectual establishment would have us believe.
The truth is that Donald Trump was right to compare the Swedish crisis to that of the rest of Europe, and the reactions to his words were out of panic rather than persuasion.
While Sweden is not, as hyperbolic far-right sites claim, the “rape capitol of the world,” it is suffering from a serious social and economic crisis that is related to the influx of immigrants. It’s not anti-immigrant to debate this and to criticize the policies that led to this crisis; it’s a defense of classic liberal values at a time when they are under attack. In 2015 and 2016, Sweden took in 150,000 immigrants from countries whose populations have views on women, sexuality, equality, and the separation of church and state that are starkly different from the views that Swedish society claims to protect and uphold. There is an inevitable clash of values, and the refusal to acknowledge that clash is only intensifying it, victimizing those who are least likely to have their voices heard. We now find ourselves with societies within the society, policed by gangs and plagued by violence; we see honor killings on the rise, sexual assaults being covered up by the police and the media, and public bathhouses gender-segregated to accommodate religious fervor. These are issues that deserve to be brought to light, and refusing to do so does nothing but spread the darkness.
In the week since Trump’s infamous Sweden-gate, I have reflected on the irony of the Swedish media’s criticizing him for silencing certain media outlets — after all, conservative voices in Sweden have been consistently silenced for as long as I can remember. And rather than face the evident problems caused by systemic political mismanagement in Sweden, the establishment is using President Trump as a bogey man; he is a welcome diversion from the failure of its own ideological paradigm. Swedish pundits and politicians are now describing a war between two images of Sweden, but that very thesis perfectly encapsulates the core of the problem. Sweden is not the dystopian hell shown in Horowitz’s documentary, but it is also not the perfect liberal society touted by people furiously defending Swedish honor from Trumpian insults.
A country with two such competing images of itself is in danger of becoming exactly what it condemns in others: a propaganda machine in defense of a false narrative. Since the beginning of the immigration crisis, Sweden has cut 950 million U.S. dollars from its foreign aid to allocate to immigration services, and much more will have to be cut from other welfare programs to deal with a projected massive influx of refugees. No available studies show the current immigration as anything but a net loss for the country. The idea that immigration is noble has become a truth in Sweden and in much of Europe, and any critique against it is interpreted as racism. In this climate, we close our eyes to real solutions, such as devoting resources (military or financial or both) to aid individuals where they are. Western nations are now, at great expense, creating a problem within their own borders — to fulfill some sort of idea of themselves as being “good” countries — rather than doing actual good elsewhere.
Europe is not dealing with the reason for the immigration crisis but is only delaying its solution indefinitely. On November 12, 2015, the Swedish government announced that it would reinstate border control for the first time since joining the Schengen Agreement in 1996, a treaty that led to the creation of Schengen Area in Europe in which internal border checks have largely been abolished. In restoring border control, Sweden cited “threats to inner order and security.”
This action, while sudden and drastic, does not change the right to seek asylum, nor is it guaranteed to stop or even lessen the influx or relieve the acute costs of settling refugees. If we go by the current estimates, Sweden in two years will spend on immigration alone the equivalent of two annual defense budgets or the entire cost of unemployment benefits. There are no signs that the number of immigrants will diminish, and there is no plan to cut federal costs or raise taxes to pay for this.
Our country is currently operating at a loss, both economically and socially, and the biggest losers are those farthest from the halls of power and the newsrooms that laud this failure as a success. That is why I stand by my statements in Ami Horowitz’s documentary and why I give President Trump credit for putting his finger on the issue we’ve been avoiding for far too long. The Swedish debate on immigration is so contentious that even relaying statistics can lead to one’s being branded a bigot, which might be why journalists and politicians often insist that immigration is good for the country, creating jobs and paying for itself in the long run. When the reality of people’s daily life fails to comport with the picture painted by reporters and lawmakers, it creates a disconnect between the people and the powerful, and it stokes anger among voters. The ongoing crisis is changing the political landscape, intensifying social tensions and causing a rise in crime — eerily reminiscent of days past. The inability to address the root cause of the problem or even to utter its name is pushing Sweden toward disaster, full steam ahead.
After World War II, Europe rejected borders and decided on a brave new world, based on an idea. What European leaders failed to understand, though, is that no matter how much they wished that the divisions had forever died in the war, the divisions still mattered. What we are now witnessing is a continent scrambling to rebuild something it long ago deemed obsolete. Trump won, at least in part, because he recognized that a nation has a right to control its borders. Europe is losing its soul as a result of its denial, giving up on a liberalism that has been its essence since the Enlightenment.
The immigration crisis highlights the grave problems in Sweden’s and Europe’s immigration policies, problems that may very well cause the eventual dissolution of the EU.
The European peace project has ended up exacerbating the refugee crisis while abandoning the Syrian people on the ground, the Kurds in the hills, and the children dying to reach a European dream — a dream that never really existed beyond the pages of a post-war manifesto.
This article was first published in National Review
“Jewish dignity and honor must be protected in all circumstances. The seeds of Jewish destruction lie in passively enabling the enemy to humiliate us. Only when the enemy succeeds in turning the spirit of the Jew into dust and ashes in life, can he turn the Jew into dust and ashes in death.” – Menachem Begin
As I dropped off my 6-year-old son at school the other day, I was called aside by his teacher. Apparently there had been an “incident”, as she put it, when my son had refused to participate in the annual Saint Lucia celebration; him saying that “we don’t do stuff like that in my family”. He had, after some negotiation, agreed to sit in the room with his peers as long as he could wear his blazer, his nice shirt, and his new tie and did not have to dress up in Christmas gear like the other kids.
Hearing this, I was proud and amazed at the ease with which my son had affirmed his identity. At 6, he knows who he is and who he is not — and he was willing to stand up to authority in order to stay true to that conviction.
We are approaching Hanukkah. At this time last year, I took some unorthodox action, attempting to change the status quo. I filed for asylum in my own country, citing religious persecution, in order to fight the growing anti-Semitism and demand action from my government. No such action came, nor did it garner any significant reaction from the Jewish community itself.
In the past 12 months, Europe has seen not a mere rise in anti-Semitism, but an explosion in overt hatred: murders in Belgium and France; riots, torched synagogues, and defaced Holocaust memorial sites; and all this alongside a dramatic spike in hate crimes all over the continent. Jews are once again being denied entrance to restaurants, service in stores, and treatment in hospitals. They are even losing their livelihoods for no other reason than that they are Jews.
My asylum case coincided not only with Hanukkah, but also with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. As I ended up reading both narratives simultaneously I saw one clue to our demise running through these stories of rebellion.
The Germans had planned to destroy the Warsaw ghetto in three days, but the Jewish resistance held out for more than a month. Even after the end of the uprising on May 16, 1943, individual Jews hid out in the ruins of the ghetto and continued attacking Nazi soldiers as they patrolled the area. More than 56,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were ultimately killed, but that symbolic uprising inspired others from Bialystok to Treblinka and created hope among the dying in German-occupied Europe.
The Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto was fought for and through Jewish dignity. The fought even when they knew they were outnumbered, because they understood that, while the Nazis would ultimately kill them, they still had the choice not to enable their enemy to humiliate them. Perhaps most importantly — unlike the Jews of today — they chose to do so without the backdrop of the Holocaust.
We know what happened. We have already been to the gates of hell. Yet there is no Jewish resistance to the pogroms of our time. Perhaps the reason why lies within that statement itself.
Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust is often described as a rebirth, but with that the Shoah became our ground zero and our main point of reference as a people, creating a litmus test that deems everything short of death camps as acceptable. If we say that we were reborn, then we accept that what came before was a death and not one of history’s most stunning acts of survival. By the focus on Holocaust remembrance we have engaged in a dangerous forgetfulness that includes most of our history and all of our greatness.
There is no lack of death and destruction in Jewish history, but these are now hailed as examples of Jewish survival. We gather around the table to tell stories of how they tried to kill us, and how we lived; tales of slavery and triumphant freedom. In the case of the Holocaust, the Jews of Europe remember only death, and the days of remembrance focus not on the freedom we took but the freedom we were given. For 70 years we have been uttering the words ‘never again’ as if it was an all-encompassing incantation. While using the Holocaust as the sole comparison, the new and evolved forms of anti-Semitism have been flying well beneath the radar.
Forty men and women from the Treblinka rebellion survived the war, hiding in the woods after fighting the SS guards while on the brink of death. Seventeen Nazi soldiers were killed by the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. During the Auschwitz Sonderkommando revolt in 1944 the prisoners managed to kill 77 Nazis after blowing up a crematorium and attacking the soldiers with makeshift weapons.
These are a few of many stories of Jewish dignity and amazing survival during the Holocaust. These are stories to be told around a table with our children, and they should be told as part of a long history of trials and triumph.
Redefining our relationship to the Shoah is not forgetting, nor is it forgiving. It’s merely choosing not to be defined by the evils of others, but by the strength of ourselves. If we choose to tell stories of our heroes instead of the stories of our captors it does not lessen their responsibility, but it frees us from the legacy they tried to bestow upon us and helps connect us to our own.
It’s a known fact that victims of violence and trauma often stay in that day they were hurt, recreating the moment and thus becoming revictimized over and over again. I fear that the Jews of Europe are in this state of arrested development, unable to mount a resistance to persecution as they are so focused on death that everything resembling survival passes as life.
In a few days, my sons will help me light that first candle and we will remember those who fought for our right to be who we are. We will honor the losses but revel in the victories that were, as we prepare for those to come.
I believe that, while we may not have a future in Europe, we do have a say in our demise. By releasing the bonds of the Shoah, rising up and not enabling further humiliation, we can leave not as clouds or ashes but as doves. If the heroes of Warsaw, Czestochowa, and Treblinka taught us anything, it’s that there is value in fighting even a losing battle — and that Jewish dignity and honor will still matter long after we are gone.