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From 'Fiddler on the Roof' to Netanyahu's Israel. How Did We Get from A to B?

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Two days ago I saw the Yiddish-language version of the classic Broadway musical, "Fiddler on the Roof." I had been fortunate enough to have seen the original production, with the great Zero Mostel playing the lead character, Tevye, on Broadway in the 1960s. I had also seen the movie that was made of it in 1971, as well as the recent revival on Broadway. The Yiddish version was first created in Israel, back in the 1960s. It has been performed infrequently since then, never in the United States. In the various English-language productions that I have seen, "Fiddler" has always been a mixture of musical comedy and dance (particularly in the recent Broadway revival), with some drama. In Yiddish, the show becomes quite something else again.

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I do not, unfortunately, speak Yiddish. The last of my ancestors to arrive in the U.S., my maternal grandfather Jacob Kyzor, came here from England in 1895. His parents were Russian Jews who somehow got to the East End of London in the 1860s, but Grandpa Jacob did not talk about them. They presumably spoke Yiddish and as a child Grandpa presumably did too. But by the time I knew him, in the 1940s, he spoke only (unaccented) English. His wife, Grandma Lil, was the descendant of Sephardim who arrived on these shores in 1849 from Holland, so there was no Yiddish there either.

As for my father's side, his grandfather and grandmother arrived from Poland (the city of Wroclaw, in those days Breslau in the Prussian Empire) in 1867. They presumably spoke Yiddish, but the language did not make its way down neither through my paternal grandfather Henry nor his wife, Rena, a German Jew (and they certainly did not speak Yiddish). Why do I go through all of this family history? Because while I do not speak Yiddish and am an atheist and a member of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York City, I have a very strong Jewish identity inherited from my father Prof. Harold J. Jonas. Regular readers of mine will perhaps remember a recent column which consisted primarily of a republication of a paper of his on the problem of the Jewish refugees from the Nazis in Europe in 1939, with no place to go.

For the "Fiddler"-in-Yiddish audience, which consisted almost entirely of Russian and English speakers, there were very well-done Russian and English super-titles. It happens that I speak some German so I did understand a word of the Yiddish here and there. As to the nature of the show, as I said above, in English it is "a mixture of musical comedy and dance (particularly in the recent Broadway revival), with some drama."

In Yiddish, for me at least it is quite something else again. It becomes a tragedy with some humorous highlights. Why? Because in Yiddish, for many of us, even non-Yiddish speakers, a language of impending doom, the story is driven towards its tragic ending. That is, on three days' notice all of the Jewish families have lived in the fictional village of Anetevka in Ukraine for several centuries, are given notice to leave, on the order of the Czar. The order was to be forcibly implemented by groups of Ukrainians (presumably ancestors of the Ukrainian Nazis who fought alongside the Wehrmacht in World War II and currently form part of the U.S.-supported Ukrainian government.)

As I recall, in the English version, the expulsion was treated more like a departure. In the Yiddish version, it is clearly an expulsion. It is possible that the Yiddish version was edited to make it starker, but I do not know that for certain. Certainly, nowhere in it are several great dance numbers for Jewish and Ukrainian characters performing together that were added to the recent Broadway revival. Except for the romance and departure of Tevye's third daughter, Chava, with a Ukrainian young man, an essential plot element, there are no positive interactions between the Jews and the Ukrainians. And so, at the end of the Yiddish version, the Jews are clearly driven out of the homes that they have occupied for up to centuries, with no clear place to go.

Making it a little easier for audiences to take, in the play various characters happen to have relatives in various parts of the U.S., and since this was well before the Republicans clamped down on Jewish, Italian and Eastern-European immigration in 1924, assuming the relatives were able to send them the cost of passage, they were able to go there. But in Russia then there were certainly plenty of Jews who were left homeless. It did happen that one character, the match-maker Yente, was somehow going to be able to make it to the "Holy Land." In the 19th century this move had none of the historical meaning that such emigration had in the 20th.

So how do we get to Netanyahu's Israel from there? Well, since the beginning of the State of Israel in 1948, as the Israeli-exile author Ilan Pappe has put it, the "ethnic cleansing of Palestine" has been underway, virtually non-stop. The Israeli historian Benny Morris clearly documented the ethnic cleansing in great detail, only to later deny that he had ever said such a thing. But he did. Under Netanyahu, the process has been intensified in the Occupied Territories, while the totally isolated Gaza strip has been made into a concentration camp with apartment buildings, offices, and stores, periodically bombed by the Israelis. And how indeed did we get from Anetevka to Gaza and the Occupied Territories? Well, the full story has been written about in many book-length treatments, and certainly deserves a summary-length column itself. But in a VERY BRIEF outline, here is the story. It starts with the original invention of anti-Semitism as a politico-religious doctrine.

1. Religion-based anti-Semitism, of the "Jews killed Christ" variety, was codified by "St." Augustine in the 5th century. It served a variety of politico-economic needs of the Church and European Christian governments over many centuries.

2. Certain Jews were permitted to become wealthy in a limited number of occupations, but they were never allowed access to state power.

3. Over time, "The Jews" served a very useful purpose as the "cause of our problems" in a variety of European countries. They were also from time-to-time expelled en masse from whole nations, as from England in 1190 and from Spain in 1493.

4. The parliamentary system of government was developed in Europe, first under the monarchies, in Europe in the 19th century. Political parties developed of course, around various themes, issues, and class-elements. In the 1880s, a couple of Austrian anti-Semites introduced the use of anti-Semitism into electoral politics.

5. With the intensification of political anti-Semitism, that latter became even more rampant in Europe.

6. One Jewish response came from Theodor Herzl, the developer of the movement called "Zionism," to establish a "Jewish Homeland" somewhere outside of Europe, to which all of the European Jews who chose to could move.

7. Skipping many historical stages here, this "homeland" eventually became the State of Israel. It just happened to be set up on land already occupied by another people.

8. In the Israeli Declaration of Independence, there is this stirring statement:

"The State of Israel will be: open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and, it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."

Honored not even in the breach.

9. Although the current Netanyahu government has been the worst in the oppression of the Palestinians, there has been a fairly consistent policy all along of oppression of the Palestinians, interrupted on a serious level only briefly by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. When he was assassinated (the word, by the way, ironically comes from Arabic and means literally "political murder") by an Israeli far-Rightist, that marked the essential end of any meaningful negotiated, just, settlement. Netanyahu's government has made it clear, especially with the latest "Jewish nationality" legislation, that they eventually want the whole thing of "Eretz Israel" which would mean the total expulsion of any non-Jews.

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10. So how did this horrible circle come to be closed? Many of the ancestors of post-war settlers of Israel (those who were not murdered by the Nazis and their allies such as certain Ukrainians) were descended from the symbolic folk expelled from Anetevka. And now many of their descendants in the State of Israel have done the same thing to many Palestinians that was done to those self-same ancestors, and certain of them advocate doing much more.

A very simplistic answer (upon which I would hope to elaborate someday) is this. For many centuries in Europe there were wealthy Jews. But because of anti-Semitism, they were never allowed access to state power. The first time in history Jews as a group, dominated by the wealthy among them, came to have unchallenged state power, they began acting like any other ruling class in history: pursing their own class interests without regard for the welfare of any people or peoples who stood in their way. And so, we can have "Anetevka" (and of course the Holocaust) done to the Jews, and we can have the Nakba and it successors done to the Palestinians.

I knew what was coming at the end of the drama of "Fiddler." But in the Yiddish version, it appears to be much starker than it does in the English version. I wept on and off through the whole thing.


Postscript: What the Israeli Expulsionists have done over the decades is to give the lie to central charge of the anti-Semites over the centuries: "they are just different, and deserve to be treated differently from everybody else." What the Israeli Right (and, one must say, their supporters in the United States) has done is give the lie to that claim. Given access to state power, Jews can be just as oppressive and retrograde as any other politico-ethnic group.

(Article changed on August 21, 2018 at 22:12)

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a ├ éČ┼"Trusted Author,├ éČ Ł he is a Senior (more...)
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