A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism
By Giulio Meotti
Encounter Books, 428 pages
Reviewed by Daniel Gordis
Towards the end of the Shoah, and in its aftermath, as the remnants of Eastern European Jewish communities began to internalize the extent of their devastation, the need to preserve the memory of what had once been became pressing. As it became clear that some communities had been utterly destroyed, with not a surviving soul to tell their story, and that many others would never be rebuilt despite the survival of some small portion of what had originally existed, a number of Jews, and the occasional non-Jew, breathed new life into a medieval custom—the writing of the Yizkor Book.
The “Memorbuch” originally appeared in the latter portion of the 13th century after the devastation wrought by the Crusades, and in the aftermath of a genocide against which the Crusades paled in comparison, the tradition was revived. In Yiddish, then in Hebrew, and occasionally even in English or Spanish, several hundred of these books were compiled in the 1950s and 1960s. The print runs were small, for money was scarce, as were readers. Who, after all, would read volumes such as these, other than people who had come from that town or one nearby? And very few of those people remained. But the urge and the instinct to preserve the memory of a destroyed Jewish world trumped logic. The Yizkor Books, or pinkasim as they were sometimes called, would help memorialize communities bereft not only of tombstones but even of graves. They would capture both the names of the dead and the now-silenced rhythms of prewar life.
Giulio Meotti’s A New Shoah is perhaps best understood in this light. The cultural editor of Italy’s Il Foglio, Meotti spent years speaking with the families of hundreds of the victims of the second intifada. He recorded what they could tell him about not only the deaths of their loved ones but their lives as well. What emerges is essentially a Yizkor Book about Israel in the years 2000-2004, which, in its author’s words, “is intended to rescue from oblivion an immense reservoir of suffering, to elicit respect for the dead and love for the living.”
Indeed, A New Shoah is a labor of love. In his introduction, as well as in the pages of the often horrifying stories themselves, Meotti’s passionate devotion to Jews and their state is always on display. In this era of rampant marginalization and delegitimization of the Jewish state across Europe and increasingly in the United States, a paean to the Jews and their state from a man with Meotti’s soul and pen is a welcome relief to those of us watching with both recognition and dread the world’s renewed abject hatred for Israel. One can only hope that readers will work their way through his book, despite the fact that reading hundreds of these stories is so painful. Meotti deserves that, as do the victims of whom he has written so lovingly. So, too, does Israel, for the world has long forgotten the horror of 2000-2004, and Meotti brings it back to life.
No less jarring than Meotti’s descriptions of the moments of murder (in some of which he permits himself a degree of poetic license, such as when he claims to know what was going through the thoughts of a suicide bomber in the minutes and seconds before she or he detonated a bomb) is his book’s title, A New Shoah. Meotti’s narrative flits back and forth between the Shoah and the Palestinian Terror War. He moves from images of victims with purple numbers tattooed onto their forearms to victims with numbers scribbled onto the Polaroid picture taped to the black plastic wrapping in which they’ve been laid beside the bus in which they were incinerated. He writes of those who survived the hell of Europe only to bury their children or grandchildren in Israel after a Palestinian attack. Meotti transports us back to Chelmno, to Sobibor, to the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, and then to the scene of countless assaults in modern Israel. He writes of Faina Dorfman, whose grandfather, a rabbi, was burned by the Nazis and whose only daughter was killed in the bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub. For Meotti, the Palestinian Terror War is Shoah Redux.
But is it? Meotti’s reverence for the memories of both the victims of Palestinian terror and the Nazi genocide is palpable. But that does not mean that the Shoah and the Palestinian Terror War lend themselves to such comparison. Palestinian attacks killed many hundreds of Jews and sowed terror in the hearts of all of us who lived through it. But at the worst moments of the intifada, even as we Jerusalemites put our children to sleep to the sound of gunfire from Beit Jala into Gilo, and even as our children clutched tightly to their chests stuffed animals that had long been relegated to the foot of the bed, there was no confusing the horror of what we were living through with the horror of what the Nazis had done.
The intifada was murderous, but it was not genocidal. The Israel of which Meotti writes is not a destroyed community; in some ways, in fact, it emerged from the hell of 2000-2004 stronger and more willful. Israelis were victims, yes, but not powerless victims. Israel responded to Palestinian attacks, both with military action designed to destroy the terror apparatus and with defensive measures, such as the security fence, to prevent the murderers from reaching our children. The victims of the Shoah had no such options, and that makes all the difference.
The uniqueness of Nazi genocide should not be compromised, however unintentionally, by comparison with other assaults on the Jews, no matter how horrific. Not every anti-Semite ought to be compared to Hitler, and not every murder of a Jew is the beginning of genocide. The sanctity of the memory of those who perished during the Shoah demands that we preserve the distinction and that we encourage others to do the same.
And yet, Meotti’s title ought not to be dismissed cavalierly. His claim that “threat of a new extermination of the Jews is today a reality and promise” is apt, not because anyone is likely to round the Jews up and gas them again, but rather because his assertion that “the extinction of European Judaism took place amid the complete and tragic failure of European culture” is entirely correct. And European culture is failing again. The assault on Israel’s legitimacy, along with the methodical and relentless marginalization of the Jewish state and the portrayal of Israel as a rogue state, is not ultimately only about Israel.
The ongoing assault on Israel is now much more sophisticated than it was during the years Meotti chronicles. For as horrific as those years were, there was no way that suicide bombers were going to destroy a country. They could wreak havoc on Israel’s economy by bringing tourism to a standstill and poisoning the spirits of its people. But suicide bombers could not end Israel’s existence.
Not so, however, with the relentless attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, which could well play out in ways that do end Israeli sovereignty. Europe’s leadership is more than a bystander to this new crusade—it is its source. European academics lead the charge in academic boycotts against Israel, pitting Europe against the very Israelis who are most left-wing and most critical of their government’s policies in the “occupied territories,” because the issue is not and has never been Israel’s policy—it is Israel’s existence. The decision of the 2010 Madrid Gay Pride Parade to ban the previously invited Israeli participants from joining the march was another example. Tel Aviv is an oasis of freedom for gays and lesbians in the Middle East, unparalleled in any Arab country or in the West Bank or Gaza (where gays are routinely killed). But that made no difference to the organizers of Madrid’s march. It was more important to marginalize Israel than to shame the Arab world into emulating Israel.
If unstopped, these assaults on Israel’s legitimacy will isolate Israel even further. Academics will have to choose between rewarding careers and a life in Israel. More and more businesses will cease to do business with and in Israel. In time, multiple airlines could well decide not to fly into Ben Gurion Airport, and their host countries could well revoke El Al’s landing rights. There is no limit to where this relentless verbal assault on Israel could lead, and there is no guarantee that it will end before Israel does.
Thus, Giulio Meotti’s warning that a new assault on Jewish life is now underway must be taken seriously, even if he does not characterize it as we have herein described it. If we read his title as a description of what transpired during the Palestinian Terror War, it is, indeed, problematic. But if we see the Terror War as but one stage of the inexorable Palestinian (and now international) drive to destroy Israel—and with it, Jewish life as we know it—the phrase a “new Shoah,” however uncomfortable it may make us, could prove unbearably prescient. Whether or not most Jews wish to acknowledge this, the future of Jewish life is once again at stake.
Of course, most Jews today are unlikely to heed Meotti’s implicit warning. The Jews of England in 1290, the Jews of Cordoba in the 15th century, the Jews of Berlin in 1933, and now the Jews of Western Europe and the United States imagined then and imagine now that they were or are safe. Jews today look at Israel either with love or with disdain, either with concern or with certainty, that all will work out, but with a fundamental sense that whatever may transpire in the Middle East, they themselves will continue to thrive.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of several books on the intifada, including If a Place Can Make You Cry, Home to Stay, and Coming Together, Coming Apart. His latest book, Saving Israel—How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award.