Editorial on Yom HaZikaron
For Wellesley Jewish Alumnae
April 25, 2023
The end of my sojourn at Wellesley coincided with the beginning of my sojourn at the Hebrew University. Together, they form the major institutional affiliations of my life. More importantly, each represents a different social, political and ethical climate in which I came of age. My freshman and sophomore years at Wellesley, besides yielding two of the most important friendships that have stood the test of time (with Trudy Oliver Bulkley and Davi Rosenzweig Chabner), incubated my intellectual and moral passions. By the time I reached the place that the College Dean, after reluctantly giving me permission to spend my Junior Year at Hebrew University, referred to as that “valiant little country in the Middle East,” I already had the foundations of a liberal western education-- nurtured in my public high school in suburban Chicago and more firmly grounded at Wellesley in a classical curriculum—what we then called the Great Books. Wellesley and its inspiring professors—especially David Ferry in English and Madame Surama Dasgupta, visiting professor of philosophy from India—taught me how to think critically, how to open myself to the poetic word (“O Rose thou art sick!”) and philosophical rigor. Of course, we would all soon discover that there were many voices missing from that curriculum, and my generation was privileged to add them to the list and—for those who went into the teaching profession—to pass on that expanded “canon” to our students. As professor of Comparative Literature, I have been privileged to educate generations of bright students at Hebrew University and several American and Canadian universities.
But from my perch in the first half of my 81st year (!), I watch with horror as that “valiant little country in the Middle East,” engorged by territory conquered in 1967, has been hijacked by archaic theocratic and fascistic forces. Having won a slim majority in the Knesset a few months ago, they immediately began to undermine the already-flimsy underpinnings of Israeli democracy. Led by a prime minister who is as vicious an egomaniac as Trump –but, alas, much smarter– aided and abetted by leaders and funders worldwide, these rulers have adopted the so-called “Hungarian” model (which has also worked in fragile democracies like Poland and Turkey). They attack the judiciary in a system that has no constitution and has survived as a “democracy” on the very limited “Basic Law of Human Dignity” and flimsy institutional brakes and balances. They work in devious ways to undermine the liberal educational institutions, beginning with grade school textbooks, while protecting the ignorance of hundreds of thousands of Yeshiva students who never learn math or English, let alone social science or any useful profession, and are exempt from military service so they can study “Torah” (which means only Talmud: nothing of the glory of the Hebrew Bible or Hebrew poetry from the fifth century to the present!).
Now for the good news. I have been protesting in the streets of Jerusalem and the hillsides of the occupied territories for over fifty years, since the fruits of the 6-day War became the poisonous fare of religious fanatics determined to “liberate the entire Land of Israel,” to eradicate the Mosques and build the Third Temple to hasten the coming of ‘our’ Messiah (!). I have watched in horror as a few settlers in the West Bank swelled to a population of half a million, “religious” Jews with vengeance and anger in their hearts and “God” on their side. But now that things have come to such a head with Netanyahu’s government blatantly attacking whatever democratic protections exist, the people in the streets number in the hundreds of thousands—and our gray hair is overshadowed by the
dark locks and the blond curls of the young and middle-aged, who have taken a clear stand on behalf of “demo-crat-ya!!” Teachers, students, hi-tech executives, army officers and reservists, pilots, doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers and business executives have joined the young leaders who have seemingly sprung up overnight to protest the demolition of our fragile democracy. And to this have been added, finally, loud voices protesting the Occupation and demanding justice for two peoples on this holy/accursed land.
Today is Memorial Day for the soldiers who fell and others who have been victims of the never-ending “conflict” with the Palestinians. Last night we attended the memorial ceremony of the bereaved families on both sides—Palestinians and Israelis. This Mourners’ Circle was founded several years ago as an interfaith, interethnic dialogue among those who had lost loved ones to the violence. Tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians joined in a grassy park in Tel Aviv and
thousands more watched on their computers as, in turn, each bereaved Jewish or Arab mother, father, brother, son, daughter or spouse told their personal story of grief and their determination to share a vision of coexistence. The event was blessed by words from Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson and the final chords of Yonatan Gefen (our Leonard Cohen), who died last week. His most iconic song includes the vision of a God who watches with great “concern” as his human creations pluck the lovely blossoms from His garden. Everyone in the audience joined in the last chorus through their tears.
The evening ended with the Hebrew-Arabic choir who every year sing Chava Alberstein’s version of the Passover ditty “had gadya”—in Arabic and Hebrew. I invite everyone reading this letter who belongs to the Wellesley Jewish Alumnae Association—Jewish or not—to listen to this song, written years ago, but even more urgent today. Indeed, it expresses the angst and the hope of both our peoples in this blessed/cursed land.
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Wellesley ‘64
Professor (Emerita) of Comparative Literature, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature (University of Chicago Press, 1980)
Booking Passage: On Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (University of California Press, 2000)
Figuring Jerusalem: Politics and Poetics in the Sacred Center (University of Chicago Press, 2022)
Winner of the National Jewish Book Award, 2023
Sidra is a College professor, author, and writes for Haaretz magazine. Read about Sidra here.