I’m home now, writing from the comfort of my own bed, with its supremely comfortable mattress that doesn’t sag in the middle. Bless the invention of the laptop, that allows us to write in bed! I’ve hardly sat at a desk since the mid-nineties.
I’m sorry for the hiatus in these blogs—events transpired that made it seem advisable for us to get out of Dodge, as we say in the west—or in plain English, to leave Cairo for a few days, during which internet access was hard to find.
Before we left, we attended the New Year’s Eve candlelight vigil in the Mogamma plaza on Tahrir Square, and saw the New Year in with a large, peaceful gathering of our friends that was heavily watched by the Egyptian secret police, but not interfered with. The next day, we were at a spirited rally in front of the Israeli Embassy, which is high up in a ten-story building, its presence announced only by an Israeli flag on the roof. The Egyptian police have now established their pattern—they herd us into a protest pen, keep us there for a while, eventually let people out and when the demo is over, we leave.
For me the highlight of the day was a long conversation with Hedy Epstein, an eighty-eight year old Jewish survivor of the holocaust who is here with us in support of justice for the Palestinians. Hedy is small, with curling white hair and bright eyes and a ready smile, and tough in the fiber, as they say about hobbits. She went on a hunger strike when she arrived, and went off it only when her doctor ordered her to eat. She was in the melee with the Egyptian police in Tahrir Square, and managed to come through the pushing, shoving frenzy undaunted and unharmed.
Someone like Hedy makes it impossible for us lesser mortals to say, “I’m too old for this shit.” Over dinner, I heard some of her story, which she tells in vivid detail—the terror of a child on Krystallnacht, when Nazi thugs broke windows of Jewish businesses and homes all over Germany, of being attacked and vilified by teachers and the principal of her school, coming home and finding her father and uncle gone, her mother in hiding. She survived because her family was able to get her onto a kindertransport: the ships and trains that brought 10,000 Jewish children to Britain just before the onset of war. Her parents were sent to the camps in France and ultimately to Auschwitz.
She grew up to work with the U.S. Government in Germany, among other things, as a research analyst during the Nuremburg Trials, investigating the doctors who performed cruel medical ‘experiments’ on inmates. And out of her own pain and loss, she became an activist, fighting for civil rights and human rights.
We’re always on dangerous ground when we start talking about the Holocaust and Palestine in the same breath. As Hedy herself says, “Each experience is unique. You can’t compare them.” Yet there are resonances that are hard to ignore. I’m remembering being in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank when all the men were rounded up and marched off, how I felt sitting behind closed doors with the women left behind. We were taken in by one family who wanted us as witnesses to protect the son they’d managed to hide, a young student of psychology in his twenties who was still so traumatized by a former arrest and incarceration that he couldn’t leave the house on his own, work or study. I’m thinking of the night I spent locked in a room with a family, singing funny songs to the children to distract them from the sounds of the Israeli soldiers methodically destroying their home, ripping the stuffing out of the chairs and prying the paneling off the walls, in the name of a ‘search.’
True, Israel has not set up gas chambers for Palestinians, nor ovens. As Dov Weinglas, an adviser to the Israeli prime minister, said, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
But when you have to start arguing over the nuances of oppression, about whether the number of dead constitutes a massacre or just a slaughter, whether your policies are really genocide or just sorta like genocide, you have left the path of righteousness.
On the last day, I snuck away from a demonstration in support of a court case Egyptian lawyers are bringing against their own government to stop the construction of the steel wall that will seal up Gaza’s last lifelines. I went to the pyramids, because I was determined not to leave Egypt without seeing the pyramids. I did the shlocky tourist thing, and rode a camel. And it was wonderful—to get out onto the stark desert and squint my eyes to block out the tour busses and just see camels moving over the sands with those pure shapes behind them, and young men racing Arab horses through the empty land.
And yet I couldn’t feel a spiritual connection there. Looking at those great blocks of stone, thinking about the immense numbers of mud bricks beneath, the human labor and effort in raising these mountains, I kept imagining the lives of the slaves. The Jewish people are my people, and this land is woven into our narratives. “We were slaves in Egypt” goes the litany of Passover. I build with mud myself—I know how much sheer, physical work goes into a small bench or a low wall. We were slaves, and we escaped, and the land of Canaan was our refuge. We were the victims of massive genocide, and the land of Israel was our consolation—at another people’s expense.
From a heritage of pain, you can draw a number of different conclusions. You can say, “In a world of slaves and masters I choose to wield the whip rather than suffer the lash. ”You can say, “Never again will I let this happen to me or mine!
Or you can stand with Hedy and all those like her, and say, “Never again will I let this happen to anyone.” Not in my name, not to my benefit, not by my silence.
We are still wandering in the wilderness. Over a far horizon, we can sometimes catch a glimpse of a new Promised Land–a place without walls, without checkpoints, without prisons, without masters and slaves, us and them, our tribe and their tribe—a place where everyone is free. But we have a long journey still before we get there, and we do not know the way.