Lacking Seed

November 1, 2005
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Joshua Gross

I am concerned about Jewish seed.

Last year, while wandering through the labyrinthine passageways of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, I came to a dead end crowded with abandoned antiquities. I was about to turn back when something caught my eye, a certain stone column. The dust-smudged index card identified it as the Merneptah Stela of 1207 B.C.E. The glyphs were translated: “Israel is stripped bare, wholly lacking seed.”

Later I would be shocked to discover that this inscription is the first archeological evidence of the existence of Israel — nation or people. In one of history’s most inspired ironies, the first declaration on the Jewish people is a death knell.

Standing before that hewn stone, I experienced a strange feeling of familiarity. After all, throughout my travels in Europe I have bowed my head to observe a moment of silence at dozens of monuments to Jewish death. Younger Jews like me seem to be at ease amidst the sepulchral atmosphere of these memorials; after the silence breaks, we take photographs and continue our previous conversations. After all, we have survived and are comforted by that knowledge. But the more time I spend in the presence of these monuments, the more I begin to question their purpose. Do we gather around them to mourn Jewish death or to celebrate Jewish endurance? And when confronted with such a broken world, are we responsible for anything beyond our own self-preservation?

In 1995, Germany began accepting submissions for a national “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Artist Horst Hoheisel provocatively proposed blowing up the Brandenburg Gate as a fitting testament. Hoheisel is representative of the German “memory artists” that have emerged in the last 25 years. These artists are defined by a shared fear that memorials may actually relieve a population of the burden of remembering. In the spirit of William Faulkner’s immortal statement, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” German artists have proposed living memory projects and created “negative form” monuments to mark the ruins of Jewish communities in sites throughout Germany.

Ostensibly, Holocaust memorials have been built so that the global community will not forget past lessons. But a problem arises when, in the presence of such monuments, viewers simply stand still and silently “remember.” The Jewish community has not yet decided whether “Never Again” is a universal obligation or a self-referential declaration, and the memorials we build reflect this uncertainty. They inspire us to remember, but not to take action against contemporary injustice.

When the author of the Merneptah Stela wrote that Israel was “wholly lacking seed,” he was referring to physical eradication. But I wonder if the Jewish community is experiencing a spiritual decay, one that calls into question the very merit of our survival. So many of our monuments address that we have survived but not why we have survived. Since the Holocaust, we have focused single-mindedly on Jewish survival and have failed to collectively define exactly what surviving requires of us. Rabbi David Hartman has argued, “Sinai prohibits the Jewish people from ever abandoning the effort of creating a shared moral language with the nations of the world.” Has our monumentalization of the Holocaust truly created a shared moral language? Or does the Shoah relieve us of the burden of healing a world that has so cruelly rejected us?

The memory of our tragedy must transform the Jewish community into a phalanx against injustice. While many young Jews have already made this choice and thrown themselves into activism or service, tragically, many of these Jews feel that they need to suppress their Jewish identity in favor of a more humanistic posture. But now more Jews are beginning to perceive their conscientious voting, social justice advocacy, or fair trade shopping habits as a logical extension of their Jewish consciousness. Hopefully   these leaders will employ the leverage of Jewish institutions, museums, and memorials to give voice to the other oppressed “Jews” of the world. Perhaps one day a Holocaust museum will be re-coronated as a Museum of Jewish Responsibility to better serve the memory of our murdered six million.

The aforementioned German counter-monuments were designed to afflict the German psyche while catalyzing a fresh, continuous relationship with their history. Can the global Jewish community acknowledge that we too have our empty spaces, our ruins, our negated ghosts, but that we have not yet chosen to confront them as the Germans have theirs? With the founding of the Jewish state now decades behind us, it might be safe to consider what monuments our own people might build, guided by our unique moral vision, compelled by our own obsession with history.

On the website, activist Eytan Bronstein has begun this process, lamenting, “Many monuments and road signs point out the loss of Jewish soldiers in wars, yet no indication of the destruction of Palestinian life may be found on our cultural and geographical landscape.” His proposed solution — posting signs at the sites of destroyed Palestinian villages — has, as one might expect, met with widespread Jewish hostility.

This heated issue won’t be addressed today,   but one day a public, communal, cathartic reconciliation must occur. Bronstein’s proposal might be a good start. Acknowledging some Palestinian presence within Israel’s borders will allow us to transcend our subjectivity as Jews and address Israel’s turbulent history. Every decade that passes without such an acknowledgement risks demoralizing another generation of Jews who are shocked to discover the history of a Deir Yassin. The Jewish community is in desperate need of a new generation of memory artists.

If we turn away from our obligations as a so-called chosen people, then our covenant will wither and our purpose will be lost. Jewish thought and action, by both design and history, elevates consciousness and raises moral standards. Should the coming decades be defined by a continued failure to grasp the universal meaning of b’tzelem Elokim and further indulgence in morally narcissistic victimhood, the loss would be measured in human lives — from ethnic cleansing campaigns in Central Africa to state-sponsored killing in East Asia. Our monuments have adequately marked our survival. It will be much harder to formulate — and then, hopefully, to represent — what that survival means. Memory is not only a wound to be cauterized. The Merneptah Stela gathers dust in Egypt. Only our actions can determine if Israel’s seed is truly lost.

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Joshua Gross, born in 1981, was raised in Trumbull, CT and was bar mitzvahed at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. He graduated with honors from the University of Michigan with a degree in English and Creative Writing. Following college, he spent a year volunteering in Israel on Project Otzma. Until recently, he worked at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale under the tutelage of Rabbi James Ponet. While at Slifka, he staffed an American Jewish World Service project to El Salvador, which awakened him to his potential as both a Jew and as a human being actively involved in the world. He currently resides in Washington, DC, where he is searching for a job that will complement his idealism and cynicism equally.

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