Often my Fridays include a visit with a wonderful woman in her nineties called Irene. Irene Rosenschein was raised in a shtetel in the Carpathian Mountains, then part of Hungary, now Ukraine. Most of her large family did not survive the brutality of the Holocaust, but she and three of her sisters all did and were all alive until just a few years ago. Known as “die vier Shwester”, the four sisters, they were all in Auschwitz and, miraculously, stayed together and survived to share the horrors of the experience. Her oldest and last sister, Feige, just died on Shabbat Hanukkah at 102 years old in her brownstone apartment in Brooklyn. Despite the unbearable suffering that Irene endured, she is one of the most beautiful, loving and generous people I have ever met and visiting her feels like a privilege.
One particular Friday visit in December was the same day that President-elect Trump announced his nomination for US Ambassador to Israel. It became widely publicized that David Friedman had labeled liberal Jews who support a two-state solution as “worse than the kapos in the concentration camps.” Irene is always very aware of what is going on in the world and was so troubled that day. All of her memories of the kapos in C Lager, the Auschwitz barrack where she was imprisoned, were alive in her. She described in detail three Jewish women about her own age who were so brutal and cruel, abusing the power that they had chosen to assert over their fellow Jews in these most heinous of circumstances. One, whose name Irene shared, but I cannot recall, was a striking Rumanian red-head who carried a sinister, leather belt at all times, which she used to beat the already frail inmates of this hell. Irene was so disturbed and upset that day that a future ambassador to Israel would use such a horrible comparison to describe fellow Jews with a different political outlook to his own. She wanted to look him and Donald Trump in the eyes and scream, “how dare you?!”
Most of the Jews I know who support a political solution of two independent states have a very deep love for Israel and for the Jewish people, along with deep concern for the human rights for all. Because such Jews question the continuing expansion of West Bank settlements, many of which are illegal according to international law, they are defined by those Jews who support these settlements as traitors to the State of Israel and, as we now hear so clearly, far worse. As a survivor, Irene loves and supports Israel so much, but views and comments like this one concern her so deeply and somehow violate her memory. What has happened to the soul of the Jewish people? How did the beautiful and essential rabbinic concept of machloket l’shem Shamayim – disputes for the sake of heaven – drown in the insanity of extreme ideologies?
I get the frustration and sense of betrayal that the US did not veto the UN Security Council resolution 2334. I share some of the concerns, but to let this anger and disappointment now leave us with a one-sided narrative of Obama’s two presidential terms as testament to his anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel feels like a gross injustice. Obviously, he and Netanyahu have disagreed on almost everything, but under Obama’s administration, a commitment to Israel’s security (most manifest through the funding of the Iron Dome missile) and right to exist has been unwavering. Of course, many Jews opposed much of what Obama stood for, but we have to be able to disagree without demonizing those with different views on a secure future for our people and for the State of Israel. As much as I fear for Israel, I fear for the Jewish community here in the US where we have lost civil language to talk to one another and have used pernicious insults, like “worse than kapos.” Of course, equally disturbing insults happen the other way around and mentioning this one example is mainly because of how it has now crept into our discourse on the level of government. There is so much healing to be done as we walk together on a very uncertain path.
Editor’s note: here is the original caption for the main image in this article: “Jewish police detain a former Kapo who was recognized in the street at the Zeilsheim displaced persons camp. (Photo from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Alice Lev).” When you first looked at the picture, who did you think was who?