The ongoing war against Israel is most visible at precisely the point where the effects of terrorism are concealed. If that sounds paradoxical, think of the bodies hurled into the void from the World Trade Center – only to immediately disappear from the television screens and the front pages of newspapers.
Israel’s ordeal under terrorism is at the core of my book A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism (released last month in the U.S. by Encounter Books).
I spent six years tracking down and interviewing witnesses to terrorist atrocities – as well as people who survived attacks and family members of victims who did not. It was a labor of relentless determination, loneliness and, dare I say it, obsessive moral commitment.
When I was finished, I had thousands upon thousands of words that finally were edited down to the current 400 pages of the book – the first ever devoted to Israeli victims of terrorism.
I began the project knowing it was virtually impossible for survivors themselves to tell these stories. Their testimony is a kind of peripheral knowledge kept locked neatly in the shadows. But given the right circumstances, that knowledge can be brought into the light. And with each witness and each hearing the understanding of truth grows, as does the sense of the past existing within the present.
A New Shoah is not an archival reminder but rather the reliving of a smaller-scale Shoah – a Shoah not of millions of Jews killed merely because they were Jews living in Europe but a Shoah of thousands of Jews killed simply because they were Jews living in Israel.
I had to resurrect the events not as something from the past but as the horror that still exists in the minds and souls of those who witnessed and survived. Israel’s Ground Zero is not limited to a building or plot of land. It is an immense black hole that in fifteen years has swallowed up 1,557 innocent men, women and children and left more than 17,000 injured.
Israel is a very small country – a jet can fly from one end to the other in two minutes and the distance between the Israeli city of Netanya and the Palestinian city of Tulkarem is only twelve miles. Does the reader want proportions? It would take the murder of 53,756 Americans and the wounding of 664,133 others to equal, in terms of percentage of population, the number of Israelis who have fallen victim to Arab terrorism in just the past decade and a half.
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My book tells this story of a slow-motion 9/11 launched against civilians day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, attack after attack.
While the media were busy falling over themselves in denouncing Israel, the suicide bombers kept coming. Some places were not hit as hard as others; none, though, was completely safe. Jerusalem bore the brunt of the suicide bombings; Jewish communities inside the West Bank came under attacks by terror groups; rural settlements near the pre-1967 border suffered badly; coastal cities such as Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hadera and Netanya were all bombed.
There were times when Ben Gurion Airport had more security guards than travelers. To the relatively few people who did come – I was one, arriving in 2003 to make a documentary about the Intifada – the country presented a surreal spectacle. There were few external signs of damage. Immediately after each terrorist attack, teams of specially trained volunteers and medics would gather the dead, tend to the wounded and literally scrape up human remains before putting them in plastic bags. Municipal crews would then quickly repair the structural damage. It was only a matter of hours before life returned to “normal,” no matter how bloody the atrocity or how high the casualty count.
Israelis’ consuming need for normalcy was on unusually vivid display just a few weeks ago, during the tenth anniversary of the start of the Second Intifada. Surprisingly few articles or reports in the Israel media were devoted to the decade-long trauma. The silence of Jewish writers was disconcerting – as it has been for a long time now.
Maybe it was the duty of a non-Jew, a non-Israeli, a stranger, to enter this realm of desperation and solitude.
In 1968, just months after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, the American writer Eric Hoffer, also a non Jew, wrote an op-ed article for the Los Angeles Timesin response to the proliferation of anti-Israel sentiment in the international community. His words now seem prophetic:
“I have a premonition that will not leave me; as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish the holocaust will be upon us.”
The Jewish condition is again the focal point of an enormous battle of identities. The survival of Israel is the most important – the defining – issue of our time. Tiny Israel matters urgently to the Western world because it has become its most imperiled member – yet widely treated as a sacrificial lamb.
The book I’ve written is not journalism, not propaganda, not political. For me it was an act of witness. A New Shoah is an affirmation of life in the kingdom of death.
Why did I choose to adopt the word “Shoah”? The Holocaust is a unique evil in human history, and I had to be very careful in terms of making false comparisons. What has happened to Israel under the hanging sword of terrorism is a very specific destructive process. The families and stories in the book are like a Greek chorus that gathers an inexorable hypnotic power – a hymn to life that rises above the experience – of death. “Holocaust,” with its sacrificial connotations, was an inadmissible word.
Shoah is an opaque word that, to me at least, links the generation of the Holocaust to the Israelis killed in their homeland. A New Shoah is a lament for the most tragic past, delivered in the present tense. I wanted to show the absolute character of Jewish tragedy. I wanted to show how the Jews were victimized and how they were alone, abandoned by the world – now just as then.
After each terror attack, the media would, with dreary and depressing regularity, boycott the memories of the murdered and the maimed. For me, these innocent victims are all saints and heroes; and those who survive them are the best humankind has to offer because they held on to the value of life. The testimonies, the tears, the emotions of the witnesses are more authentic than historical documents.
Today, to speak the name of Israel in friendly tones, especially in journalistic and academic circles, is to risk facing a firestorm of condemnation. Doors are often closed to authors who refuse to use lies and hatred against Israel. Anti-Semitism assumes many masks, and anti-Zionism is certainly one of them.
Since few people admit to believing in the devil anymore, the state of Israel is a handy substitute, a convenient secular replacement for Satan. The Jewish state has become the object of unremitting demonology; Israel, the Collective Jew, has become the purveyor of all ills; Zionists are considered the instigators of every type of disorder.
This ontological hatred of Israel can be seen in many people, mainly, these days, on the political left. It is ontological because it is beyond reason; it sees the creation of Israel as a latter day Original Sin. And if Israel’s existence is attributable to sin, both the sin and the state need to be expunged, and so Israeli victims of terrorism become nothing more than insignificant and faceless casualties. The “civilized” world easily accepted the daily massacres during the Second Intifada and the unending waves of Kassam rockets because Israel’s sins had to be washed away by Jewish blood.
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You listen carefully to the way the families and survivors speak and you see it is not about the past. Their testimony – like the book itself – is about Israel’s future. A New Shoah is daunting and draining; its moral and emotional weight slowly accumulates until it is inescapable.
I decided to locate the Israeli victims at the center of two stories, different and extraordinary: the great story of their original societies – European, North African, Yemenite, Russian, American – and the little story they created in coming to Israel. The story of pioneers who refused the title of “settlers,” the story of doctors who healed Arabs before being killed, the story of soldiers and professors, secular and religious people – the humanity of a small country guilty of one unforgivable fault: surviving.
I decided to start the story with the destruction of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. I chose that terrible event because those Israeli athletes were killed, in front of a worldwide television audience, just because they were Israelis. Those athletes were rays of light and beauty in the darkness of pure hatred. For me, they belonged to a different moral order.
I could not, of course, tell the stories of every Israeli who lost his or her life to terrorism, so I had to make a sad but necessary choice: I had to rescue significant stories from Israel’s various communities. My book challenges the reader to enter a new, probably unfamiliar world – a world where Zionist triumphalism is conjoined with an inherent vulnerability. An invincible people confesses its bewilderment while the world isolates it and deepens its wounds.
It was very hard to enter a world where journalists and other outsiders rarely, if ever, venture. They’d rather not have to confront the infinite martyrdom of the Jewish people, who instead of mass shootings and gassings conducted by Nazis now confront a continuous drip murder administered by terrorists.
As I plunged, one by one, into the lives of those killed, I found wires connecting the Holocaust perpetrated against the Jews of Europe to the contemporary jihad launched against the Jews of Israel.
The book’s protagonists are all branches of the great and hopeful “kibbutz galuiot,” the union of nations that is Israel, and their stories are cautionary tales of the maniacal hatred of Jews that has pursued this people through the centuries.
And yet The New Shoah is not only about the suffering of the Jewish people as a whole but about the suffering of individuals, individually remembered. The terrorists direct their explosives and guns and rockets not against military outposts or armed soldiers but against a pizzeria, a discotheque, a school bus, a restaurant, a hotel, a railway station – wherever there are civilians to exterminate.
Civilians like the father, mother, brother and grandfather of Menashe Gavish, who lost his loved ones in a night of terror. Civilians such as Malka Roth, who was simply returning home from school. Civilians like Gabi Ladowski, studying at the university. Civilians like Yanay Weiss, who was playing the guitar in a Tel Aviv caf? just beside the U.S. consulate.
I wanted to show just how monstrously determined so many of Israel’s enemies are to kill Jews – but I also wanted to show the determination and spirit of the survivors. These families are a moral example to the whole world. I portrayed the beauty of their lives in order to make the unbearable bearable.
I hope I am able through my words to dramatically illustrate the appalling costs the rebirth of anti-Semitism, fueled by an absolute and undying hatred of Israel and its citizens, is imposing on the whole planet, not just Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Sixty years ago my country betrayed its Jewish citizens, allowing them be deported from Rome to Auschwitz. They were separated from parents, siblings, spouses and children. They were stripped naked, their documents, their identities, thrown into the fire. They were pushed into a room with a low, heavy ceiling and no light. And they were gassed.
Sixty years later, I offer this book, this labor of love and tears, as my memorial chant for the martyred Jews and my own personal protest against the immorality of silence, then and now.
Earlier on I described A New Shoah as being a draining and daunting book. But it is also a comforting book. In its way, by giving identity to the Israeli victims of terrorism, it honors the words of Simone Weil, who wrote: “If, as is only too possible, we are to perish, let us see to it that we do not perish without having existed. ”
One cannot write a book like this without being condemned to solitude. Yes, I drew inspiration from the shining example of the families and witnesses I interviewed, but the more I involved myself, the lonelier I became. I began this article on a paradoxical note and now I’ll close on another one. In order to deliver such a book to the world, an author has to be very much in love with life. And – even more so after being in the presence of those families and witnesses – I am.
Giulio Meotti is an Italian author and a journalist with the Il Foglio newspaper. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Commentary and Yediot Aharonot.