Hash of Civilizations

When I was a child in immigrant Jewish Montreal, and would visit my grandmother at her home on Saturday afternoons (really, my Auntie Merche’s and Uncle Benny’s home), there were few adult sentences that weren’t also prayers of a kind. Surrounding me were uncles, aunts and cousins (my mother, estranged from my father, never came). Their affections were noisy, their Yiddish stories interesting and vaguely heroic. So it did not seem strange that every happiness was reported with Gott tzedank, “Thank God,” every plan or prediction with Im Yirtze Hashem, “God willing.”

If we worried about catching a cold, skidding the car, or flunking a test, there was the mandatory “God forbid.” A new shirt would elicit, “May you wear it well and tear it well.” If I sneezed while someone was remembering a dead relative, an aunt would pull my ear: Tzegesunt. If my sister looked particularly beautiful, another aunt would say Keinahora, a warding off of the evil eye. Any age was blessed as a step to 120 years: “Bishundredtundvantzik!” God was everywhere, mute, motionless, attentive—on our side, somehow. (I would not experience such compassionate silence again until the end of my psychoanalysis.)

I suppose I don’t have to add that (unlike psychoanalysis) very little in my family circle encouraged what I later understood to be independent thought, at least not beyond the givens of public decorum and private disgrace. Whatever good we did in the world was considered a mitzvah, something ordered, preordained, in a way. Sex and disease were not spoken of: they were like snakes in the grass. My aunt’s cancer, like my mother’s loss of my father’s affections, were more or less their quiet shame. It was the responsibility of cousins to save our aunts particularly from the disquiet of hearing about such things.

And insofar as we had a politics, it began as a reflexive defensiveness, the chance to prove our fidelity to the Jewish people, whose innocence might be extrapolated from its suffering. Beyond the family was a realm of duty. There was the need for vigilance against the goyim. There was the utter justice of Israel. There was the need to show strangers a pure welcome. There was a need to get “A”s, and to doubt the decency of youth who didn’t strive to. (Out of 15 cousins, 100% got at least one university degree.)

People who were then called “freethinkers” were spoken of with cautious respect, but were also assumed to be tainted by instability and hubris. (My father’s restlessness was a case in point.) When our oldest cousin, legendary for his having finished MIT in 2 ½ years, married a minister’s daughter, and then began organizing for C.O.R.E., he became a non-person. Biting into shrimp was the point of no return. But once we started at McGill, enjoyed the openings of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution,” took the mandatory courses in philosophy, literature, etc., most of us eventually passed that point.

I AM THINKING of this childhood now because I just saw Geert Wilders Web-film on Islam, Fitna. Like most, I am troubled by the film, but for an odd reason, perhaps. You see, I have myself spent a good deal of time in the markets, living rooms, and board rooms of Palestine, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Libya. At their most ordinary, these places have seemed to me much more like my grandmother’s home than a hostile civilization. Every Insh’allah and Hamdililah, every blessing for every plan and transaction, felt perfectly familiar. Even exaggerated acts of welcome, which could appear insincere at times, seemed an obvious effort to project the warmth and honor of the family onto the public realm.

Wilders may be right to imply that efforts of this kind can be oppressive, illiberal. I am not really disturbed by the film’s logic, that there is a connection between political violence and religious dogmatism: there are, indeed, all kinds of people who will rationalize unspeakable acts of violence and self-sacrifice by referring to texts they consider sacred. Nor do I reject Wilders’s insistence, much like V.S. Naipaul’s, that liberal societies are an achievement requiring vigilance and an absolute defense—that no book is truly sacred, while the right to interpret books is. (I wrote about this myself in The American Scholar in Spring, 2003.)

But what Wilders lacks is something gentle and simple, which is just what the dogmatic enemies he hates lack. I mean patience. There is the force of logic, but there is also the force of time.

IN A SEPARATE interview, Wilders refers to the Koran as a fascist book. As if Numbers and Samuel are not. As if big, warm families do not at first turn all young children into adorable little fascists who find it hard to give up on the intimacy of clan when thinking about politics. As if God is not the water we all begin swimming around in until we find ourselves stuck with the first-person singular and (let us call them) scientific doubts.

Which is why it does not seem strange to me how defensive Muslims have become when confronting stereotypical political cartoons like Wilders’s film. I can only imagine how my cousins and I would have reacted had we encountered slanderous cartoons of the Torah in the Western press, even as we shook off its strictures; imagine how empty the claim of freedom of speech would have sounded to us back in the 1950s.

I remember the solidarity we hungered for and reveled in whenever Israel was under attack by “the Arabs,” or Judaism by Christians who wanted to save us. Thank God, what we mostly got at McGill was an introduction to what has been thought, said, and done. Also some years of peace to learn how to leave home.