As a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, born before the end of World War II, my childhood was overshadowed by the Shoah, which is the Jewish term for Holocaust. Within my large family and their numerous Jewish acquaintances living in an America where hatred and fear of Jews was fairly prevalent until perhaps the late 1950’s, the Shoah showed once again, in the most horrific terms, that Jews were not safe in any country where they resided. Not only were Jews not safe, but they probably never would be in any country in the world. In the aftermath of the horror the NAZI’s inflicted, it is sometimes forgotten that Jews had flourished in Germany and even assimilated to some extent. The Reform Jewish Movement began in 19th Century Germany as an attempt by some Jews to assimilate further into life as German citizens. In Reform Judaism men no longer had to wear “kippot” (yarmulka’s, skullcaps), nor wear the “tzitzit” (tassels) hanging from a garment around their waist. For Jewish women in the Reform Movement they no longer had to cover their heads, with scarves or “sheitels” (wigs). Reform Jews thus could look and dress like any other German citizen and were able to intermix with polite German society, though with a generally reduced status. The argument could be successfully made though that in Germany the Jews flourished up until the late 1920’s, to a greater degree than their counterparts in the United States. Then came Hitler and with it even Jews whose parents had converted were swept up into the killing machine. It was a lesson not lost on all Jews in the “Diaspora”. As a palliative to the real Jewish fears in their new “homelands” the movement of Israel towards the realization of Statehood, began to be clung to as a life preserver for Jews facing such uncertain futures in the Christian, Muslim and Communist Countries. Let me explain then how the King of Denmark enters into this tale.
The metaphor for my own Jewish insecurity happened to be a widespread, semi-true myth, about the King of Denmark Christian X. The NAZI’s had invaded Denmark in 1940 as a prelude to their more strategic plan to invade Norway. As with other European countries they had invaded, the NAZI’s began to demand that laws restricting Jews must be put into effect. The most important of which was that each Jew must wear a yellow Star of David prominently on their garments so they could be identified and singled out. The myth was that the day after this order, the King of Denmark Christian X rode out of his palace on his magnificent white horse with a yellow Star of David sewn onto his tunic. The story though now deemed apocryphal made a great impression on my young mind and brought tears to my eyes when I first heard it. I have always loved this idea of Denmark since I first heard this tale and truth be told the Danes still evoke a warm feeling in me even now as I know more truth about the myth.
While it is probable that King Christian never donned a yellow star history reveals that he was probably adamantly opposed to ill treatment of Jews in his country. History also indicates that most of the Danish people not only felt the same way about “their” Jews, but that for certain geo-political reasons a higher percentage of Jews remained safe in Denmark than in any other occupied European country. The truth is that most European countries gave up “their” Jews with depressing alacrity. While there are many true tales of a few heroic Christians risking all to save Jews, in the main this was the exception rather than the reality. Imagine then if you were a Jew at this period of time what insecurities you might have about your own country. An America that had only within a few years had been a hot bed of overt Jewish hatred and discrimination towards your people. The metaphor of the Danish King then had a flip side and that was to be a Jew meant to always be a stranger in a strange land. The only possible salvation for it, since historically conversion hadn’t removed the stigma of being Jewish, was for Jews to have their own homeland as refuge from the recurring storm of fear and loathing.
The metaphor for Jews much closer to home was the incident in 1939 of the German ocean liner the MS St. Louis, that had 936 German Jews on board trying to escape to either Cuba, or the U.S.. Despite efforts by the Roosevelt Administration to diplomatically get Cuba to accept these passengers as refugees, the Cuban government refused. The ship then sailed to Florida, where the U.S. Coast Guard harassed it and the U.S. State Department refused to issue visas, citing an immigration law of 1924 which was specifically written to limit the number of Eastern European immigrants (Jews?). There was even sentiment to allow them to enter Canada by its Prime Minister, but Canadian immigration officials also denied them entry presumably because they were Jews. The ship eventually returned to Europe and the United Kingdom allowed 288 passengers to enter thus saving their lives. The remainder were accepted in France, Belgium or The Netherlands. Some 88 of those emigrated before the NAZI invasion of those countries and a little less than 50% of those that remained in Europe, died in the Shoah. FDR was reviled as a “Jewish” President by many haters and he had many prominent Jews in his Administration, including Henry Morgenthau, Jr.. That Franklin Roosevelt, who was one of the most powerful Presidents in U.S. history, wasn’t willing to put forth the political capital to get these refugees accepted into America, was a fact not lost on American Jews.
With the reality of the Shoah, which today many doubt ever existed, those who identify as Jews had to accept that for the Jew it is hard to believe that any land will offer them equality and protection for their freedom of belief in perpetuity. More than that though, history has taught again and again the bitter lesson that even if they so desire Jews cannot escape their heritage by converting to another religion. One has only to look at the histories linked below of the “conversos” and “marranos” affected by the Inquisitions in Spain, Portugal, North Africa and South America. They were still persecuted for many generations after their conversions to Christianity.
Given that very brief, though well-documented history in the links below, is it really a mystery as to why those of us who identify as Jews love Israel? I’ve been moved by the loyalty and sense of connection that some have for their Scottish heritage and clans. This is true for many people of Irish, Italian, Greek or Turkish Heritage as well. These are the descendants of immigrants, who have come to America and fit in, yet they still retain the sense of their own ethnic history. Their writings and other multi-media, contributions move me because I as a Jew can relate to their depth of feeling for their ethnicity and for their ancestral heritage, perhaps even more so because countries they’ve some from have also suffered much persecution in their history history.
So yes, my love is with Israel and that is of course true for many Jews. Those who’ve read me know that I am not a knee-jerk supporter of Israel by any means and that I dislike its’ current leader and his Likud party intensely. My dislike comes not only for a lack of support for Likud’s policies, but also because I believe that their policies hurt the cause of Israel’s future, weakening it rather than assuring it. I believe that a two State solution is the only answer and that Netanyahu has not tried to attain that end, but actually he keeps trying to push it further away. I believe also that the “settler” movement on the West Bank has been driven by the foolishness of fundamentalist Orthodoxy and itself is dangerous to Israel’s further existence. Yet to lay my cards completely out on the table, I frankly don’t give a damn anymore about the equities of Israel having become an independent nation. Israel is here and will remain here for a long, long time and people need to get used to it. Some may accuse me of “tribalism” in this respect and if that is the case I must say they are making a good point. I do feel that I am a member of the “tribe” and I’m damn proud of it. As with all discussions of the Middle East, I am convinced that the point I am making and could in the minds of some, quickly bog down into the “right and wrong” of the matter of Israel and its indigenous Arab people. Therefore, let me be perfectly clear, my point in writing this is as follows.
To many people Jews are seen as mysterious and/or exotic. I can understand why we seem so unfamiliar to non-Jews after all these years and to some extent why we have brought that air of mystery upon ourselves by being very cautious about saying exactly who we are. All I’m trying to do here is give non-Jews some insight into why Jews so fiercely support Israel and admitting that it has to do with our insecurity, as always being a small minority in every country that we’ve ever settled in. History has clearly taught Jews, in my opinion, to be alert to the possibilities of irrational hatred rearing its head no matter how secure we feel in our particular country and no matter how far we rise into its power structure. I love America and have never had a wish to immigrate to Israel, but knowing it exists, when I see the hatred and bigotry still extant in this country towards many so-called “minorities”, it is very comforting to know I could have a Jewish home in Israel among my tribe.