Here is a story I used to tell frequently, but haven’t for many years now. It is a true story I made up in 1980 or so. (A true story I made up? Yes. The compelling reason we love stories is that they do not have to have happened in order to be true.)
It was 1860, or maybe 1861, in Minsk, or possibly in Pinsk. Wherever, whenever, there were a dozen Jews who used to get together every Tuesday evening for some good talk.
What did Jews talk about? Why, about what it would be like one day — what, that is, Jerusalem would be like. In exquisite detail, they would imagine Jerusalem, its climate, cuisine and culture. Their elaborate, continuing conversation had long since developed a near ritual character, including its periodic interruption by the one skeptic in the group, a fellow named Berl.
Every few months, Berl would say: “Can’t we please, just this once, change the topic of conversation? Really, it’s quite tedious by now. I mean, if we’re really that interested in what it’s like in Jerusalem, why don’t we pack up and go? If we like it, we’ll stay. And if we don’t like it, we’ll also stay, and make it into something we like.”
To which the others would inevitably respond, “Berl, Berl — don’t be so naive. Don’t you realize how much easier, and how very much safer, it is to sit in Minsk or Pinsk and talk about what it might be like than to go and confront the reality?”
And Berl, because he was a sociable fellow, would again drop his complaint and join in the talk.
This was, for those times and places, a rather sophisticated group; indeed, they had some non Jewish friends. Once upon a Tuesday, they invited one of their non Jewish friends to join with them, and together they talked until the wee hours of the morning, until, in fact, their guest stood and said: “Fellows, I’ve enjoyed the evening enormously, but I really must get going. Thanks so much for inviting me, and goodnight.”
“Thank you for coming,” they replied. “But before you go, we do have one question we’d like to ask.” “Please, anything at all,” their guest said.
“Our question is…” — here there was an awkward pause, and much clearing of throats — “what we’d like to know is, what do — oh, dear, how shall we ask it?. What do people like you — if you know what we mean — think of people like us — if you know what we mean?”
“Oh,” their guest said, “you want to know how we feel about Jews.”
“Yes, that’s right, you have it. You see, we are usually so isolated, and we have so little opportunity for feedback. You don’t mind telling us?”
“No, not at all. I think you’re a wonderful people — passionate, generous, literate. I have only one problem with you.” “A problem? What kind of problem?”
“Well,” the guest replied, “there is one aspect of Jewish behavior that really annoys me. You people seem to believe — why, I can’t imagine — that you’re morally superior to everyone else. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think you’re any worse than average. But I can’t understand your moral conceit, and I find it frightfully annoying.”
To their credit — for they knew it was so — his hosts did not deny the accusation, but sought instead to explain their “conceit.”
“As you yourself observed, it’s very late, so we can’t give you the whole etiology of our sense of moral superiority. We’ll explain it instead by way of an example, — a metaphor, if you will: We do indeed think we are your moral betters, and the reason we do is that we don’t hunt. You people hunt, and we don’t hunt, and that makes us better than you.”
Their guest guffawed, and then stormed at them: “You silly, trivial people; of course you don’t hunt! We don’t permit you to own guns!”
That is where the story ended, or, more accurately, rested. I hesitate to tell the story these days, because I can no longer be certain that those hearing it will get the meaning of “We don’t hunt,” that those words will resonate as they always did 30 or so years ago.
There is a postscript, however, and it is because of the postscript that I retell this true story. The very next morning, the men came to Berl, the skeptic, and said to him, “Berl, pack up. We are leaving to go up to the land, [there DEL?] to set out to prove that even with guns, we will not become hunters.”
And what happened next? They did go up to the land, and what happened is still happening. There are ominous signs; there is ample reason for concern: One recent event is, alas, suggestive: On June 2 — Jerusalem Day — the Jerusalem municipality sponsored and largely financed a mass march in favor of further Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. With police protection provided by the state, tens of thousands of marchers — estimates range from 25,000 to 40,000 — followed Road No. 1 south and west into Sheikh Jarrah and then into the Old City. Most of the marchers were young people, and they marched through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, this through the wee hours of the morning, chanting such slogans as “Butcher the Arabs” and “Death to leftists,”, “The Land of Israel for the People of Israel” and “This is the Song of Revenge,” “Burn their villages,” and “Muhammad is dead.”
But I promise you this: The story is not over, not yet; it is still being written, in ink of blood and tears.