by Nidra Poller (March 2009)
A grandmother of my vintage—I was born in 1935—is the receptacle of so many additions…so many subtractions…such intricate juxtapositions…
…a woman my age is the accumulation of so many times and places, the junction of generation upon generation and, today, a person in her own right acting in the world with the full force of her individuality. A little old lady-- bubbe, babushka, granny—sits in a rocking chair deep in the heart, chewing her teeth, worrying a handkerchief. Who will accompany my generations as they skirt dangerous neighborhoods? Are the airplanes safe, the highways patrolled, the doors locked; are the young ladies fertile and the young men good providers, are the schools good, the teachers smart, the grades fair; is the future bright? The young reply: Not to worry, grand-mère. T’inquiètes. Meaning ne t’inquiètes pas.
And I am on the warpath. My allies are other grandmothers, mothers, and young women who have yet to begin their fruitful multiplication. We are intrepid. Take no prisoners! Many of my accomplices need body guards, some are enclosed in fortresses, we fear for our children and grandchildren but cannot fear for ourselves.
War means sending young men and women into battle. It’s only a question of time and place: some will be killed, some will be wounded, some will be missing in action. Yet we are at war with the peace mongers who sap the determination of our populations. They have processed peace to death.
This is not a manifesto of the New Amazon, not a maneuver to diminish our male allies; it is an attempt to explore what is female in our courage and how it lives in us, concretely, how we respond to the misuse of the very tenderness that wracks our body and soul, why we take up arms and aim straight with every word. We are at war. We must fight. This is our singular contribution to the war effort.
In this war, a devious enemy attacks us with civilian casualties--misconstrued as collateral damage, human shields--casualties as weapons, high-powered missiles that shoot us down. The picture of an old woman in hijab screaming with grief grounds our air forces, her wrinkled face is stronger than radar and night goggles, her tears are poison, the humanitarian reaction she provokes rips into our guts like killer shrapnel. We have to fight back with our own maternal experience of life and death.
One single bereavement can inhabit me totally. Fear for one grandchild can choke the life out of me. Every living hour is an exercise in self-discipline. Every active verb is fraught with mortal danger. He is going, she will be leaving, she will take the train, he is flying. Their youthful spirit of adventure shines through and dazzles me. T’inquiètes, grand-mère, t’inquiètes..
I will not leave this world with the shadow of exterminationist Jew hatred hanging over my youthful regeneration. These are my war drums. My call to action. Too many atrocities against Jews have gone unpunished at the turn of this century. We are lulled into half slumber. We should be ferocious. Merciless.
This war cry emerges from the depths of my maternal tenderness. I do not claim any singular feminine propensity for war or for peace; I am striving to articulate what is feminine about this call to arms and how it lives inside of me--a woman--like a soon to be born child that I accommodate in the name of a higher good. This feminine way of cutting through abstractions to reach the concrete reality. This down to earth. This exercise of our vocations with a particular mix of the simply ordinary and the lofty.
Beating the war drums means sending young men and women into battle. The simple-minded argued, when we had virtually no political power, that life-giving women would not waste lives in war. Humph! Live and learn. Your local jihad cell presents the grandmother-shahida, ta ta ta ta, who bakes a cake before posing in her apology-for- crime video with green headscarf and Kalashnikov. Her heartless sacrifice touches a maudlin cord in hard hearts: look then how great is their suffering when grandmothers take off their aprons and strap on suicide belts. Pffft!
Don’t kid yourself. Grandmothers, mothers, nubile adolescents, and little girls can be as kind or as cruel as their hearts’ desire. What I am trying to understand is how, for some of us, it is the very abundance of maternal love that translates to exasperation with dithering. We want war. We want warriors. We are at war with the perversion of humane sentiments that makes this agony drag on year after year, making atrocities acceptable and forthright military action unthinkable. International opinion snivels because Saddam is swinging swinging swinging, protects murderous tyrants, deprives us of a well-deserved moment of victory before we enter the inevitable next phase of a world-shaking conflict.
We must have a decisive victory. What prevents us from achieving it is not the lack of means it is an irresponsible indulgence in misguided concern for preserving life and limb; a kindergarten attitude to international relations. A schoolteacher mentality hovers over our embattled civilization. Now then children you mustn’t quarrel let’s hear everybody’s side of the question there are enough toys for everyone enough orange juice and cookies. The jihad killer that is eating away at our margins is turned into a harmless scary-story monster who really means no harm, he was only trying to be friendly in his awkward way. Our enemy is utterly ruthless.
American sons of shtetl immigrants went to war to fight the Nazis. Then my generation raised peace & love children. Europe did its dirty deeds, got saved by the skin of its teeth, and slumped into boundless appeasement. The last great French war was the lost cause of Algérie française. Refusal to serve was a badge of honor. And, since then, minds are frozen in absurd anti-militarism. The external jihad high-fives with the internal jihad and the able-bodied natives live in postmodern denial. How much longer will this false sense of impunity endure?
Where shall we go? Aliyah? The boys will go to war. No problem in the abstract. Then tighten the bolts and put it this way: my grandsons will go to war. Name the grandsons, each one by name, and every Israeli soldier wounded, maimed, kidnapped, captured, or killed is my grandson. Every civilian gashed, gouged, imploded, exploded is my own child. Marines on duty in Iraq, civilian contractors, sons and daughters of my friends in the U.S. are my grandchildren, my heart stops beating at the thought of the danger they face.
I had to endure French media giggles over the body count in January 2007. Three thousand, tipping the balance, voilà, more military deaths in Iraq than civilian deaths on 9/11, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Yankee! What is this ghoulish accounting supposed to prove, for heaven’s sake? I heard it dozens of times as the year came to an end and Saddam Hussein met his hangman. Gna gna gna, 3,000 military dead in Iraq, increasingly unpopular war, Boooosh got his comeuppance, Democratic majority in Congress, Baker-Hamilton report, bring the boys back home, war is never a solution, solve the Palestinian problem, negotiations soon to be concluded for the liberation of Gilad Shalit, exchange of prisoners, Marwan Barghouti will allegedly be released…
Ask Gilad Shalit’s mother how many prisoners she would release in exchange for her son?
Ask the mothers, sons, widows, and bereaved grandparents to excuse the release of the murderer who tore a life out of their universe, wounding them forever. Ask the parents, wives, and children of brave soldiers who risk their lives to slip into enemy territory and arrest jihadis…ask them how happy they will be to discover that Israel too has revolving-door prisons.
The affairs of this world spread out before me like a playroom at the end of the day. I know how to clean up that mess. Wised- up mothers, survivors of confrontations with two year-old tyrants who play on their tenderness and exploit their absolute refusal of capital punishment, have learned how to exert authority. No child would survive, no parent would breathe a single free breath, if we raised our children the way diplomats handle foreign affairs today. It is all so thin and flabby compared to the intense negotiations of everyday life. Why do men and women with power in powerful nations behave like limp rags? Their ultimatums dissolve like a lump of sugar in a hot cup of tea.
The love we feel for our own children is not narrow tribalism, it is the path of socialization, from the particular to the general, from the love of my children to the love of humanity; from the general to the particular, the love of life to the desire to give life. Mature love does not float in the boundless infantile seas of indistinction between the self, the other, and the environment. The clear sense of boundaries is under attack today. We cannot defend ourselves if we are afraid to say “them” and “us.” I carried the children in my womb; no small exploit, accommodating another human being 24 hours a day, pressure on the diaphragm, pressure on the bladder, circulation, digestion; sitting, standing, or walking, not a second without making room for that cumbersome little life, and no way to bring it to birth without risk, uncertainties, the narrow passage. There is no way to perpetuate human life without these heroic gestures.
One death, one misstep, one tragic accident, one sorrow, one handicap, one aging body carrying an ever-bright mind, any single sorrow can trigger that female dilation engineered to open the gates to new life and infinite empathy, rahamim. A moment’s inattention, one stupid conjunction can snuff out a life, crumple it like a piece of scrap paper, tear it up, burst it, mangle it and the grandmother hiding deep in my soul counts every second of every minute everywhere that any one of my loved ones might be and multiplies it by their number. Make the world safe for democracy, perhaps. But make it safe for my grandchildren. I will accept nothing less.
Get this war going! And you, the vicious Jew-haters and cowardly fellow travelers, back off! Jew-hatred produces its own swamp. The problem is, we get sucked into it. No! We have to stay clean and clear-minded. Every single element that enters into the current formulation has been identified and traced to its ghastly conclusion a hundred times over. We have the statistics. The cost is enormous. There is only one way to go: No more negotiations. And the irony is, severity would work. We need an abstract barrier parallel to the pathetically necessary, inadequate security barrier. How can international relations be so divorced from the common sense of human relations? You stepped on my toes a hundred times, buddy. We’re not dancing together anymore. Finished. What? Another business tryst? You’ve got to be kidding. Pack your bags and get out of my life.
Have you noticed? The sweetest, most gentle, most charming bon vivants are in the all-out war camp today. The peace mongers are nasty, bitter, vindictive. They snarl. They reek with bad faith. Why? Because they are in the swamp and pretending to be on the moral high ground. It causes contortions, gurgling, endless falsifications. Maybe they sincerely wish they could get out of the swamp, but there is no middle ground. Middle ground has to exist, concretely. It can’t be invented for the sake of argument.
A woman must curtail her cuddling devotion, her trusting forgiveness, her apple-filled eyes, all that is blessedly soft in her body and soul, her replacement theology—yes, we have it in us to disappear into the desires of our children--her capacity to listen and understand and see the other’s point of view. A woman has to learn that she can do harm by trying so hard to do no harm.
A mother in her childbearing years is easy prey for all sorts of juvenile adults hungering to nurse on outpouring generosity. The war, this time around, is a war of gentle people who saw their kindness mercilessly exploited. Yes, our societies had become maternal, perhaps too maternal. Jihad conquest, supreme caricature of machismo, failing repeatedly in head-on manly confrontation, turned to the tyranny of the whining child. Warriors disguised as naughty children, ruthless combatants hiding behind child-sacrifices, spoiled brats begging for one more chance, another one more chance, a thousand one more chances…not to mend their ways but to eliminate us.
Is there any more highly concentrated force of determination than a small child? How do you handle conflict when you would never lift a hand, when the possibility of rupture is totally excluded, when you do not speak exactly the same language or exactly honor the same values, when you are simultaneously the educator, the boss, the guardian, and the victim of injustice? How do you deal with Ahmadinejad?
Oh, could I scold this dunce of international opinion! Worse than a child playing with matches, with machetes, with guns, skating on thin ice, drinking, smoking, sniffing coke, flirting with AIDS, playing with unexploded ordinance, international opinion stands around picking its nose while that Persian miniature gobbles down children, spits out their bones, and comes thump thumping down our path. Listen here, international opinion--if you don’t know right from wrong, wrong will come to get you. It is wrong to promise to destroy Israel, absolutely wrong.
When international opinion is out of focus, the picture keeps coming up blurred. But the blur is not some harmless subject for media conversation. It is like a poison gas suffocating our minds…it will asphyxiate us unless we can think sharply and condemn outright, without inner wavering. The mistake is to imagine that we must first figure out how we would apply the sentence—bomb all the nuclear sites, bomb some of them, foment an uprising, threaten to snob him and his nation—before pronouncing an unambiguous condemnation. You are evil, Ahmadinejad. We will stop nourishing you with our ambiguities and you will whither like a rotten fruit on a dead branch. Look at the crazy imbalance: he makes credible threats wrapped up in succinct declarations, and we respond with everything but the kitchen sink. Does he ever hear the last word? NO. Does he ever hear us say NO, you won’t do it, you can’t do it, we won’t let you do it, we will stop you? Even though we don’t know how to do it, we have to say it. Trust me. Can I tolerate these international babblings where the author posits what would happen after Iran nukes Israel? They’re popping up here and there like some quirky hypothesis and within a week it becomes an inevitable reality, are you kidding?
Iran is not going to nuke Israel, not a lot and not even a little tiny bit. Why not? Because la grand-mère said so.
We live in times of political pornography. Constant over-stimulation by perverse sensations has numbed the public mind to ethical choices and this international opinion, drunk with perverse power, snaps the whip and makes us dance. Jihad fellow travelers parade behind the mask of public opinion. Now we must take away its unearned privileges, teach it a lesson. I’m the boss here, and I can beat you, I’m not afraid, come along, a million against one, just try.
This is about how a gentle maternal person who knows how to make children bloom, a small delicate person with no more physical force than a ray of light, learned to exert authority. And shakes her head in disbelief. Why do people—the public whose opinion makes policy--want to be pushed around? The world should be afraid of us. Us, the gentle people who will not go silently to slaughter, us, the Jews and our loyal friends, us, the State of Israel; we should strike terror in the dead souls that peddle extermination with rosy cheeks.
My friends need bodyguards. Some of my allies are in hiding. We are all targets. Our side is always on the defensive. Our leaders negotiate with the clean-shaven emissaries of garish killers, they look away when the evidence spells itself out in no uncertain terms, they prattle about political solutions and the primacy of diplomacy.
The long-awaited autumn rains had not yet fallen by that day in mid-December as we drove with S. and the children from Jerusalem to Efrat. Dust rose from the construction site. Fences, walls, tunnels like so many torn and tattered patched up garments. How did it come to this? They take potshots at us. And we just keep on constructing. Constructing an economy, a society, a fence, a barrier, an anti-missile shield and still we cannot draw the line, put up a stop sign, blow the whistle, and end that sick game for the sake of all concerned.
We cringed every morning. First gesture, switch on the radio. In French it’s called “attentat,” and a wait is an attente, and for several years there was no wait and no respite. Attentat in Jerusalem, attentat in Netanya, attentat in the café, the restaurant, the pizzeria, the discothèque, the yeshiva, the market. The horror of hearing it coldly on national radio, complete with explanations of how it was retaliation for the murderous raid on Khan Younis, the unforgivable incursion, the illegal targeted killing. Then the second horror of listening to it on our Jewish stations, with eyewitness testimony, the names of the dead, the extent of the mutilations, the father killed with his daughter on the eve of her marriage, the gifted student in the cafeteria at Hebrew University, the grandmother with her grandchild….
Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad, offers to deliver himself into the hands of his son’s kidnappers and remain until Israel finally “does the right thing,” releases the prisoners requested in exchange for his son. Wouldn’t you give a thousand worthless killers in exchange for your precious son? A thousand, ten thousand, every last one of them and all the prisoners in Guantanamo thrown into the bargain? And if that’s not enough, empty the prisons of America, of Europe, of the entire world. What concession would I not make, what goods, what kingdom would I not exchange for the liberation of my child? I would give my own life.
It’s the old death camp shill game. Totally defenseless, worn down from years of persecution, mistreatment, starvation, humiliation a mother is asked to choose between her children. Which one will have his head bashed against the wall in front of her eyes? She is not asked to choose between her life and the liberation of her children. No one will be liberated, everyone is meant to die, but the term of suffering will be decided on a case by case basis. Which child? If she does not choose, they will all be killed.
Our sons--Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev—are hostages of evil men who respect no rules of engagement. International opinion folds it arms, drops its eyelids, makes no demands. Secret negotiations via Egyptian or German intermediaries produce no tangible results. The International Red Cross makes no visits. NGOs make no reports. And we live with a false sense of immunity. Only a few Jews have been savagely murdered in the United States and a few in every European country. Only a few thousand Americans and Europeans have perished in jihad incursions mislabeled terrorist attacks. For every French Jew who has been beaten up many thousands come and go unharmed.
What should the mother have done, the mother in the death camp? She should have brought in her F-16s! Her commandos. Her intelligent missiles.
Grand-mère, when you go to Israel are you…are you afraid?
No. I am careful, I stick with my Israeli friends, they know their way around, they have sharp intuitions and quick reactions. I’m not afraid. And if anything happened to me, I want you to know I willingly expose myself to danger if danger there is, because unless I support Israel you will be totally exposed. No, I’m not afraid for myself in Israel, I’m afraid for you, here, in your own country.
“For Almog, balancing the force means no more cutting of ground forces and ground force commands, and training the infantry, armor and artillery to work together in large sweeping maneuvers, backed up by airpower, intelligence and logistics. And this, in turn, entails a readiness to conduct fast-moving, rolling warfare without holding back in the ‘post-heroic’ mode. ‘War is a test of the readiness of the nation to put life and limb on the line. In some cases, there is no substitute for ground battles with the attendant loss of life. When air power failed to stop the Katyushas, you needed a ground maneuver,’ he says. Almog says he would make a special effort to train reserve officers, company, battalion and brigade commanders. And he would bring back some of the old-timers, the retired, experienced generals to help with the rebuilding…
To comment on this article, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish interesting essays like this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article and want to read more by Nidra Poller, please click here.