Eager as always to rouse myself from yawning indifference before the Nine Days, my first welcome stirrings came compliments of a moderate Muslim. He reminded me of an aspect of national memory that I have often overlooked in the past.
Tarek Fatah is a nightmare for people who see things in black and white. He is no booster of Israel. His Muslim Canadian Congress supported boycotting Israel, and branded it as “apartheid.” Fatah has called Israel’s “occupation” of lands coveted by the Palestinians for a future state as “illegal” and “immoral.” But you can’t color him black. Fatah clearly is no anti-Semite. He authored an entire book excoriating Islamists for turning Jew-hatred into an Islamic requirement. He blasted Ahmadinejad for threatening to annihilate Israel, whose right to exist Fatah accepts. He finds it repugnant that Westerners do not speak about the horrible specter of radical Islam for fear of offending the Palestinians.
In a word, he seems to be a genuinely moderate Muslim, thoroughly Westernized after leaving his native Pakistan, still sympathetic to those he regards as his extended kin. His first leanings were “Marxist,” although you would be hard pressed to find any orthodox Marxism in his presentations today. They focus more on stopping the march of Islamism at the gates of Vienna, Paris, London, DC and Ottawa.
A few weeks ago, he spoke powerfully to a gathering of young Canadians . Speaking without notes after a long hospitalization for cancer, he chided the audience for their blindness to the magnitude of the threat to Western civilization, which contributed so many of the values he and they cherish, and that clearly did not come from the universe of Islam. The Nazis, with enormous resources at their disposal, were defeated in four years. Why did it take ten to get Bin Laden?
“Because you are silent,” Fatah grimly concludes. While his neighbors are loath to fix blame on Muslim extremism, Fatah dishes out blame easily – on Islamists, and on a cowardly, self-indulgent West. “The hockey game, the basketball match…are more important to us than the civilization we’ve inherited.”
You can tell from his voice that his intention is not to mock them, but to inspire them. His message is simple. You are here only because of the sacrifice of those who preceded you. Many gave their lives for the freedoms you take for granted. You are on the verge of squandering them forever. You have little right to do that. The sacrifice of other creates moral obligation.
This, I believe, is an important hakdamah to the Nine Days and the kinos of Tisha B’Av. Menachem Begin reportedly objected to instituting a Yom Hashoah. We already have one, he said. Our national day of mourning is Tisha B’Av. We don’t need another. That observation has merit even without noting as we would (which Begin may or may not have meant) that the threnody of galus history owes in its entirety to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdosh.
To us, then, weaving together centuries of persecution and destruction with the events of ancient Yerushalayim is perfectly natural, albeit painful – in several ways. We see endless torrents of blood in our mind’s eye. Were we really so terrible as to deserve this? Why? As quickly as our emunah in Hashem and His goodness beats down the question, it is replaced with another. If we are always matzdik His din, then why are we carrying on for hours calling attention to our past woes? The litany of sorrow sounds like a complaint. Are we complaining to G-d? Surely we are not registering a protest, and telling Him that we demand that He put a halt to all the suffering! We are not in a position to demand, and not even to question critically.
There are several ways out of this paradox. One is to regard the historical kinos as a kind of tefilah. “Ribbono Shel Olam, things are bad. We’ve suffered so much, even as we acknowledge our own wrongdoing. Look at what we have become. We know that punishing the worst evildoer is not something You relish. Our behavior may be sorely wanting, but we are not the worst evildoers either. Please have rachmanus, and put an end to this galus business. Please fix history by sending our redeemer.”
Tarek Fatah’s presentation reminded me of another approach. We read and lament about the sacrifices of so many others not just to honor them. We are not just saying, “See, we remember you hundreds of years later, we cherish your remembrance, even though your oppressors are long forgotten.” We are also reminding ourselves that we have our Yiddishkeit only by way of their commitment to it. They died faithful to the Torah because they spent their lives before their deaths faithful to the Torah. They bequeathed that unshakeable devotion to us. Those who survived them, who picked up the pieces after the expulsions and the plundered communities kept Torah alive despite the efforts of so many to snuff it out. Our memory and appreciation of them creates obligation. We are what we are because of them.
Perhaps, in trying to discharge that debt of gratitude, we will be successful enough to gingerly take the first tentative steps out of galus.