My paternal grandfather was a pain in the ass. He liked to argue and he liked to win. He may have had a gleam in his eye, a gleam of ruthlessness tempered with irony. He would often talk me and my sister into playing rummy for pennies, and in so doing take a small fortune from very young people. That was just sort of mean. He was from Springfield, Massachusetts, except insofar as he was from Poland, representing as he did the fraction of the family that fled early on and thus survived. As a kid I went to Springfield sometimes for Passover, to fulfill my very particular and embarrassing duties of reciting the Ma Nishtana. I resented my sister for not having to read the Four Questions. We would have Passover supper and then we would talk not about Pharaoh and the plagues but about the Siege of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple and the Heroism of the Jewish People.
It would not be until sometime later that I understood we were also talking about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Jews walled in, massively outnumbered, led by competing factions often with little to recommend them aside from that one infinitesimally rare essence, the willingness to fight back. Eventually this would be discussed openly but for a time it was coded. I am not quite sure why. I suppose there was some thought that I and my sister were still too young to hear about the Holocaust, while the annihilation of a city 1900 years previous was far enough in the past to seem like a fairy tale. I am not sure about this explanation because I am not sure that attending to the delicacy of youth played a large role in my grandfather’s psychic life, given his ethics re taking little kids for their bank in card games.
Despite the imperfect match between the Siege and the Uprising, or because of the imperfect match, it was a particular kind of pedagogical lesson. We were supposed to see how much these two events shared in a way that verged on allegory, and we were supposed to use that skill of seeing allegorically to be ready for next time, to recognize the moment when it came, and we were assured it would come. That was method. The larger lesson, which would become more explicit as we got old enough to hear about Warsaw, and perhaps part of this lesson was to be found in being forced to play rummy against a ruthless opponent with massive advantage, the lesson was, when the moment came, we were supposed to fight back.
There are various ways to fight back and I wish we had heard more, for example, about the Minsk Ghetto, how for a variety of reasons—having to do with location, with the spread of Soviet cosmopolitanism, with greater solidarity between Jews and non-Jews—people there more often fled into the forests and joined or formed partisan resistance groups, and how this might have been more effective than a single desperate insurgency. There were a great many people warehoused in miserable conditions in Europe’s Jewish ghettoes and as we know some of them, like humans do, froze or yielded or collaborated, but many fought back in different ways against the eliminationist ethnostate. We admire that now. We celebrate it. We like to imagine that we would be the ones to fight back, even if we do not always imagine what that would look like, and even if some of us carry, as I carried even then, the shame of knowing that we are basically cowards.
The Israeli national project must now be understood in these terms, as what must be fought back against. This has perhaps been true for years, decades. The last year has been politically decisive. In the last 12 months, against a background of global Islamophobia running from Don Trump’s murderous incitement against Ilhan Omar to the mass murders of Christchurch, Israel has intensified its commitment to national chauvinism. Last year it adopted a law declaring that only Jews have the right to national self-determination. This is a formalization of the ongoing apartheid against Palestinians. But it was not “Jews” in some abstract sense who did this; it enacts as state policy what has long flowed from the rifle barrel and the bomb bay. Many objected, and to collapse all Jews with the apartheid state of Israel is antisemitic in the extreme. In the recent election, the truly monstrous Netanyahu—egged on no doubt by the United States’ recognition of the Golan Heights occupation and recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital—put himself over the top of a somewhat close election by promising against every international law and finding to annex the West Bank, the territory where 2.5 million Palestinians live in ever-more-ghettoized areas, and where also live fewer than half a million Jewish settlers occupying lands seized violently from Palestinian families.
The annexation of the West Bank by all accounts puts an end to the possibility of a two-state solution, much as last year’s apartheid law erects a barrier against a one-state solution wherein all parties live with equal sovereignty and citizenship. In the polite phrasing of Zack Beauchamp, “Virtually the entire world, including most Zionists, rejects this option as an unacceptable human rights violation.” But here we are. The ludicrously dishonest Zionist claim that they have sued for peace and been refused is debased once and for all. Israel having now foreclosed both the two-state and the one-state solution, eliminationist ethnostate solution it is.
I am not sure how allegorical things need to get. Off-rhymes are all that history puts on offer. There are reasons not to make any casual suggestions that Gaza, say, is identical to Warsaw. Still it is almost impossible, unless one is the most zealous of Zionists, to miss the inner and deadly character of the reversal, and the present circumstance of Palestinians. Moreover, it is now clear enough that Islamophobia functions as the international logic for closed-border security states from Fortress Europe to America, and further provides domestic logic for murderous political persecution, and that support for Israel’s apartheid state is a linchpin for that project of global xenophobia.
Against this, I can tell you what I have gathered from my youth attending Passover seders, when not busy losing the game where you search the house for hidden flatbreads. I can declare as if it were necessary what can readily be gleaned from allegorical thought, when it is understood not as a mode of interpretation or scriptural subtlety but as a method of political practice, the practice of survival. The moment has come, it came awhile ago. Not the only moment, and it need not be the only moment, the only siege. There will be others; this is one. We are obligated not to wait 2,000 or even 50 years to celebrate and admire the fact that Palestinians are fighting back in the many and various ways that you can fight back. We are obligated to not let this become a tale told at supper, of heroic defeat and slaughter. The slaughter is already in progress. We are obligated by the memory of all the ghetto uprisings. It is next time.
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