Imagining the Unimaginable
by Jonathan Klate
I am a Jew.
My father and all of my grandparents emigrated from the pale of settlement in eastern Europe, as did my wife’s Jewish father. It was difficult to know where they lived exactly and for how long; Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Hungary, Belarus… the borders kept changing, the pogroms kept threatening. Jews were people with fundamental insecurity of place, of home and homeland. They were often on the move, from one site of subsistence and abuse to another.
When my wife and I traveled around Ireland, we knew it was possible to find relatives of her Irish Catholic mother whose grandparents had come to the USA. When traveling to the places our vast extended Jewish family members had lived who did not emigrate with our fathers and grandparents, there would be no one there to find as nearly everyone was annihilated in the Holocaust.
A few years ago we spent a week at Auschwitz/Birkenau in contemplation of horrors truly beyond imagination that we felt compelled to imagine nonetheless. We sat in meditation alongside the gas chambers and crematoria, in the grove where the children clung to their mothers awaiting their turn to die, letting the blood in the earth open and break our hearts.
I have been to Yad Vashem, the holocaust remembrance center in Israel, and there, too, absorbed as well as I could the fullness of the monstrous acts of which human beings are only too capable when certain conditions come together to stimulate our worst suppressed impulses and urge forth our worst potential, impulses and urges we all carry buried within us. Yes, everyone.
So, I do not need to be reminded of Jewish suffering and after centuries of persecution the soul deep yearning for sanctuary. I assure you, I have not forgotten it. And, at the same time, I know that I do not really know what it must be like to live in Israel at this particular time. I can’t imagine.
I have also been in refugee camps in the Palestinian West Bank and gazed into the living light within the innocent undefended eyes of Palestinian children who have lived and most likely will live their whole lives in virtual captivity. I have known Palestinian mothers to embrace these children with the same unbounded love with which Jewish mothers embrace their children. Some Jewish friends and even members of my own family have denied my experience (never having shared it) and devolved into the belief that Palestinian mothers do not love their children or else, they say, they would not use them as “human shields.” I find this notion to be obscene, the wretched propaganda of an oppressor absorbed by those who will not look at “the other” long and deeply enough to really see them as fellow beings.
I ask you. If a suspected potential enemy combatant may be hiding in an apartment building is it legitimate “self-defense” to bomb that building into rubble, crushing and mutilating everyone there? Do you think that mothers and fathers who did not heed the command to abandon their home and commence walking through a hellscape into the desert without food or water with no promise nor likelihood of ever returning to their now demolished city don’t love their children and are deliberately using them as “human shields” when the building comes down upon them? Do you?
And wouldn’t the suspected enemy who was the supposed target be the first to squirrel away into the warren of tunnels beneath the streets leaving only the families in the building when it is reduced to rocks and dust?
Since the barbaric Hamas massacres of October 7 began the current eruption of this ghastly war I have been talking with a dear Israeli friend, a rabbi with whom I travelled around Israel years ago, prompting me to write what you now read. The entire 70-member extended family of a Palestinian friend of his in Gaza has been wiped out in the bombing by the IDF of which he was once a member. His beautiful heart and mind are empathetic to the suffering of all and he is devastated, as am I, at what is being done, and in our name.
We have been told since Israel’s founding that worldwide Jewry is safer if there is a strong Jewish state. I believe, for this to be so, that state must be righteous among the nations. If not, our collective peril increases, as it now has.
A famous rabbi, Yekusiel Yehudah Haberstam, an Auschwitz survivor who died in 1994, asked his students if they could imagine anything worse than the Holocaust. They could not.
He then offered his own answer, saying, even worse is to be the murderers. Of such elevated sentiment, human beings are also capable.
As the poet W. H. Auden counselled at the outbreak of World War II, “We must love one another, or die.” Such love is required of us. Are we equal to it? This is the question I ponder and to which I have no answer.
Jonathan Klate writes regularly about spirituality, political ideology, and the relationship between these two.