Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Not really a happy ending

This article appeared today or yesterday in the Israeli press and despite not being friendliest to the author (Lily Galili from Ha'aretz) I found myself in total "einverstanden" with her, for reasons I can't really explain for the time being.

If of any relevance, of course I have my deep disappointments with Israel and with her people, that are of the same branchtree than the European Judaism of fathers and mothers; the story-telling of a tragedy like in Margarete Susman's "Job" and Else Lasker-Schueler's "Cain" no less than in Arendt's "Walter Benjamin". But the disappointment can mean manifold things, and if at all... it can mean humanity in the sense of Cain and Lessing. The disappointment with Israel is very Messianic and the disappointment with Europe very cold; I'm not sure if I'd agree with E. that the difference between them is that Israel is like a 5-years-old with whom one can never really be disappointed, and that with Europe is the feel toward an old and wise grandfather that has stumbled upon the same block too many times. I'd incline myself to say that it is a matter of being disenchanted with your best daughter, different from being disappointed with a muse... no matter how much hope lingers about the former. Israel is that hope, and Europe is the loss of the mother tongue (the Greek) in the blunder of the street. But somehow I do retain the faith, in a little dim way, despite myself... so that I keep writing those verses everyday... somewhere in between the eternity and the nothingness just about everyday.

The philosophy turns from Diotima and the ways of a former nihilism toward a need, to understand... why is there so much lack of hope, why is this world so immanent today? No need to change, but to understand... so that I can help myself a little. "Politics is love applied to life" -H. Arendt. I guess that as long as that world (meaning the lovers of the world) is possible I do desire for it more than I'd be willing to admit, and only dark times can become the source of this endless poetization of the commandment for which I search a place and an origin in philosophy.

I spoke to Katharina today about the paintings of Charlotte Salomon, which do remind me of my muse very much and we agreed that it is from the beauty and oblivion of those paintings and of poems like those of Lasker-Schueler and Susman that we can derive any possible will to continue living, to support the world... because the images are at any given time so ready to die that they can only incite one to live so fully as though no one else lived before. Perhaps the poem "allen Dingen" does echo something in my head, does echo to somebody I'd like to speak to from "das Fernsein des Fremdes". Sure I'm dying in my dreams all the time, I'm angry all morning long, restless, unable to speak, but that can only mean the road is still unpaved and wunthering and all the more desirable.

If we begin at the end, good and surprising things happened after Michael Leiner's story was published here two weeks ago. Mainly, once again we found good people who exposed the nakedness of wicked and cruel systems.

Leiner, the grandson of a Ukrainian Righteous Gentile who risked his life to rescue Jews, immigrated to Israel 13 years ago. A short time later Leiner's wife died, at the age of 24. She left him alone with their young son. Eventually Leiner's elderly parents immigrated to Israel as well - his mother, the daughter of a Righteous Gentile, and her husband, an atomic scientist. Leiner brought them to live with him in a small apartment he purchased in Jerusalem's Neve Yaakov neighborhood. Both his parents passed away within a short period of time. Leiner reacted so poorly to their death that for several months, he was unable to return to his job as a security guard, which required possessing a weapon.

And then the worst blow of all fell. Leiner began to fall behind in his mortgage payments to Bank Tefahot. When the debt grew to NIS 18,000, a bank representative came to the apartment, changed the lock and evicted Leiner from the house. He found himself sleeping in a room at the yeshiva where he works as a security guard, several kilometers away from the tree planted in memory of his grandfather, in the garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

The publication of the story led to an exceptional number of reactions from Israel and abroad, all of them offers to help. Pensioners offered to transfer their entire allowances to Leiner; others, who asked to remain anonymous, volunteered to cover part of the debt or to raise donations to pay off the entire debt; they all said they were ashamed.

That's how it is here: The citizens are ashamed, instead of the institutions, like the bank that evicts a father and son from their home because of a NIS 18,000 debt. An American Jewish philanthropist covered the entire debt and Leiner returned to his home. The Bnai Brith organization in Israel gave a scholarship to his son Leonid, 15, who is studying at the academy of music in Jerusalem. So, the story has a happy ending.

A happy ending? Not really. Every year, about 2,000 families are evicted from their homes because they are unable to meet their mortgage payments. Only few of them get to return to them, and even fewer reach the media and benefit from responses such as those received by Leiner. There is no question that the fact that Leiner is the grandson of a Righteous Gentile worked in his favor.

"I'm attentive to distress, but this story made me particularly ashamed," says Nehama Ben Shach, an 80-year-old pensioner who offered to help. "His grandfather risked his life for Jews in times of great danger, and in a supposedly normal country there is nobody to help him."

Leah Levine, a television producer who called about Leiner several times, said, "I feel pain about every person who loses his dignity here due to an aggressive economic policy, but as a second-generation Holocaust survivor this story aroused special feelings in me. I thank God that my father can't see these things. My parents came here after the Holocaust in order to be part of a country based on humanism. If we've lost that too, what's left?"

What a shame that they aren't all descendants of Righteous Gentiles. Although it doesn't help with the authorities, it still has an effect on Israeli society and world Jewry.

There was a time when we were not like that. In 1966 there was an earthquake, and a child from Beit Shean said during a radio interview, "I'm hungry." It is hard to exaggerate the intensity of the reaction. The sentence made headlines in the newspapers, and was the subject of editorials. The public was shocked at the thought that there were hungry children in Israel. Forty years ago, one little girl did what some 600,000 children living below the poverty line have not managed to do today. At the time, nobody thought to ask whether this was genuine hunger or only malnutrition, and no neoconservative went to check whether her mother dyed her hair instead of feeding her daughter. That was the age of innocence, before the war that brought hardheartedness and dulled our sensitivity to suffering and pain of the other, and of our own.

A child who complains on the radio that she is hungry is no longer a story in 2007; thousands of hungry children and hundreds of thousands of families in need of Pesach food packages barely rate a passing headline. Only one bad thing came of that story in 1966: It established covering poverty as a momentary ratings hit. The same is true for Leiner: It turned out that he knew someone who knows someone who could be told the heartrending story of the man whose grandfather was a Righteous Gentile.

The truth is that being a Righteous Gentile is no longer such a big hit either. Ran Melamed, the deputy director of Yedid - the Association for Community Empowerment, says his organization recently took care of a Righteous Gentile who was dying of cancer but didn't meet the criteria of the Ofer Foundation, which provides drugs that are not included in the health services basket. Unfortunately for him, the man who did not check the credentials of the Jews he saved during the Holocaust had contracted the wrong type of cancer. Melamed says that when he turned to Yad Vashem, they replied that unfortunately the illness of a Righteous Gentile is not something they handle.

Melamed has concluded that the time may have come to pass a law arranging the status and rights of the Righteous Among the Nations and their descendants, such as the right to public housing. He believes the law has to apply to grandchildren as well. "We are rightfully nurturing the third generation of Holocaust survivors," says Melamed. "Likewise, we have to take care of the third generation of rescuers."

So what did we learn from this story? That there are many good people in a country where it really is no fun to live.

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