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Dec
8
2023

Claire Schwartz (culture editor): On November 17th, the Palestinian poet Hala Alyan posted a 2011 photograph of children on the beach in Gaza, arms outstretched, the clear blue sky punctuated with brightly colored kites. The day the picture was taken, the children broke the Guinness world record for the most kites flown simultaneously: 12,350. The day Alyan shared the photograph, 12,350 was the estimated death toll from this iteration of Israel’s relentless assault on Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. There is, of course, no common measure to this confluence—only a devastating coincidence: The children’s insurgent exuberance recedes and Israel continues to kill, the world that might have been rattling horrifically inside the one that is.

I have been thinking of these children and their kites since yesterday, when I learned that the Israeli regime assassinated Palestinian writer and professor Refaat Alareer. I have been reading and rereading his final poem:

If I must die,

you must live

to tell my story

to sell my things

to buy a piece of cloth

and some strings

(make it white with a long tail)

so that a child, somewhere in Gaza

while looking heaven in the eye

awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—

and bid no one farewell

not even to his flesh

no even to himself—

sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above

and thinks for a moment an angel is there

bringing back love

If I must die

let it bring hope

let it be a tale

In the wake of Alareer’s death, the opening line constricts, the conditional already fulfilled. Then: You must live. Trade what the poet left behind so that a Gazan child might have a vision of love beaming back at them. Alareer does not write “your kite,” or even only “my kite,” but “the kite, my kite you made.” He implores the reader: Stitch your life to the wake of my living and make of it something definite: “Let it be a tale.” A tale (like a tail) is what comes after. It is a doubled after that Alareer’s poem charges us with—not only the after of persisting in catastrophe’s wake, but also the after in “to look after,” to care for, to return. As poet and performance artist (and JC artist-in-residence) Fargo Nissim Tbakhi writes: “The past is a future we return to.” On the photograph she posted, the kites’ tails flying every which way in the wind, Alyan overlaid the words: “Oh, the promise of our long, unruly memories.” The glimpses of other worlds that persist might, if we bring them forward with our living, offer a route toward as-yet-unrealized liberated futures. This is the charge I am holding: To make of Alareer’s life a kite, to thrash with the others in the narrow aperture of the poem’s if until it widens toward other ways, until all Palestinians can again touch their sea.

David Klion (contributing editor): The death of Henry Kissinger last week at 100 has been a cause for celebration on the left, uniting those old enough to remember the Nixon and Ford administrations with a younger generation whose collective impression of Kissinger was best articulated by Anthony Bourdain. There are innumerable books on the former national security advisor and secretary of state; one that influenced my own thinking is Greg Grandin’s Kissinger’s Shadow (2016), which casts Kissinger as the prime architect of American empire as we know it today.

The book I want to recommend to Jewish Currents readers isn’t about Kissinger, but it tells us a lot about the tradition he belonged to. As I mention in my Kissinger remembrance in The New Republic, I happened to finish Fritz Stern’s Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire (1977), a hefty tome I had been making my way through for months, just days before Kissinger’s death was announced. Stern and Kissinger had much in common: Both were born to Jewish families in Germany in the 1920s, and both fled the Nazis in 1938 and settled in New York City. They both went on to have distinguished academic careers, and even ran in the same social circles. But unlike Kissinger, who pivoted to war crimes, Stern remained in academia, teaching history at Columbia for decades prior to his death in 2016. Stern and Kissinger were both leading figures of the German Jewish diaspora, a community set apart culturally and socially from the Yiddish-derived milieu of the majority of Ashkenazi Jews in New York. Much of Stern’s work concerns German Jewish history, and Gold and Iron functions almost as an origin story for modern German Jewry and its distinctive self-conception.

Gold and Iron is a history that reads like a 19th century novel about elite intrigue set against a backdrop of diplomacy, war, and social upheaval. It tells the story of Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” who unified the German states into a single empire in 1871, and his long relationship with Gerson von Bleichröder, a Jewish financier who had functioned as the Rothschild family’s agent in Berlin before becoming a power broker in his own right. Bismarck was a product of the Prussian Junker class—basically, a militarized landholding aristocracy whose way of life was increasingly out of step with the modernizing economy of 19th century Europe—and in order to preserve his class’s privileges, he was determined to build a sophisticated industrial economy in which finance capital would play a central role. The wealthy and continentally connected Bleichröder made this possible, financing Bismarck’s military victories over Austria and France and helping to establish Germany’s diplomatic position and overseas colonial empire over subsequent decades (a particularly fascinating chapter covers his lobbying for the basic civil rights of Jews in newly independent Romania, using German diplomatic recognition and trade ties as leverage). In the process, Bleichröder became one of the wealthiest men in Germany, and essentially the public face of a rapidly rising Jewish financial and professional class.

Inevitably, this meant Bleichröder also became a prime target for the rapidly rising antisemitism of the Junker elite, who remained politically central in Bismarck’s Germany in spite of their declining economic fortunes. Despite a career spent bowing and scraping before the German state and ignoring constant antisemitic sleights including from Bismarck himself, Bleichröder never fully achieved the acceptance as a German that he desperately sought. As for his children and grandchildren in the 20th century, well, you can imagine where this story is headed.

Kissinger cast himself in the mold of Bismarck, imposing his realpolitik and grand strategy on the global chessboard. But the figure he more closely resembled was Bleichröder, the ambitious striver willing to endure elite antisemitism—in Kissinger’s case, that of Nixon and his Jew-baiting entourage—in exchange for proximity to the heights of power. As Stern shows, this was not Bleichröder’s unique character flaw, and nor was it Kissinger’s—it was the bargain that 19th century Germany and to some extent 20th century America offered its Jews, but it was, to put it in the most German terms, a Faustian bargain.

Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): It’s strange to say that an academic article by two sociologists is a favorite that I frequently revisit, but the meticulous noticing of “Virtual Returns to Jaffa” (1998) by Salim Tamari and Rema Hammami creates a loving yet painful portrait of the city from which the authors’ families were expelled. In six vignettes, the writers vividly detail their visits to Jaffa alongside other Palestinian exiles, cataloging the emotional toll of returning to a place that has written you out of its history. It reads as an elegy of a city that has already been lost, but given the aggressive pace of gentrification in Jaffa since the article’s publication, it has itself come to feel like a precious artifact.

The inevitability of disappointment is conveyed throughout. Hammami’s discovery of her family’s home—transformed into an institution for the infirm—fails to deliver any catharsis. Tamari fulfills a modest desire to dine at a seaside Palestinian fish restaurant in Jaffa, only for new expectations to crop up—and to be dashed as quickly as they emerge. For the two writers and their fellow returnees, this “duty to the past” is as irrepressible as the present forces that are quashing it. Nowhere is this vicious cycle clearer than in the figure of Liza, a Palestinian who has joined them for the return and who “was taking pictures of everything that moved,” leaving her suspended between tenses: absent in the present, and already reliving the mediated past of a photograph from an indeterminate future. When Arab visitors reconstitute the past “using the rubble [of the old homes] as their nodes,” the present never seems to fit together properly.

For Hammami, abandoning the past would mean being “burned at the stake for collaborating with a reality built on the demolition of dreams,” yet the authors’ encounter with Murjana, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, troubles the nostalgic frame of their return. As a present-day inhabitant of Jaffa, Murjana pays no heed to the city’s repressed past, and her family seems more comfortable in Hebrew than in Arabic. Her invitation to the group to lunch at her family home forces them to live—however uneasily and temporarily—in the present.

In the final section, Tamari and Hammami resolve to “make greater efforts to observe the existing realities of Jaffa,” but their meandering into the present defies easy legibility. They obliquely discuss the Nakba and the displacement of Middle Eastern Jews using the Arabic word “tabadul” (“exchange”) with a Mizrahi shopkeeper named Shlomo. His slow and incomplete understanding of the word’s meaning (“You see,” he concludes unnervingly after pointing to his cassette collection, “we Arabs are like you”) is the closest the Palestinians come to any sort of recognition from those who have replaced them.

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