Eicha: A Palestinian Parallel?

Invading forces circle the city – they impose a curfew, and then start battering down the populace; the strongest among the captives loose their dignity in pain, the leaders are like noble deer who have found no pasture, the youth are reduced to wailing babes; better are those who have died by the sword than those who survived in the squalor of destruction, for the city has fallen, the people have been driven off wretched and wanting, and the land is no longer theirs. For this they wail, the city now barren.
In reading the scroll of Lamentations, Eicha, on Tisha b’Av—the day commemorating first and foremost the destruction of the Jewish Temple by King Nebucenezzar of Babylon in 586 B.C.E—I’ve often wrestled with the modern day implications of our story. We, the Children of Israel, have known pain and exile. We’ve known such pain in our own day as well as in our core narrative, defining every ounce of our being and providing us with the drive to coalesce as a nation. How can we, then, commit to others what we would not want committed to us—how could we invade, conquer, eradicate and push out? The story of those who inhabited parts of our current State is so very tragic in that it holds many parallels to our own.
And yet the stories are not one and the same, since the most important, in my mind, part of the Lamentations Jews recite on Tisha b’Av is towards the middle of the scroll: ‘We have sinned, we have been punished.’ Eicha is a lament that maintains the locus of control within the People, and reminds those who read it that hating the enemy is useless—fixing oneself will enable restoration. More, our supplementary legends buttress the personal responsibility felt by the Jewish People for our own destruction: unable to imagine ourselves objects in another’s story, we tell of how the first Temple fell due to idol worship, and the second fell due to baseless hatred—and lack of dignity—in stories such as Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza.
To question the parallel, if one would imagine a Palestinian reading of Eicha, the story might focus on the Zionists—what they have done, how they have done it. It probably would have not mentioned the responsibility born by the population in the land which opposed Jewish immigration, but allowed immigration from around the rest of the world, such that the land the British established a mandate over enjoyed the sounds of over fifty different languages. It would not discuss the previous riots and mass murders of Jews committed in 1929 and 1939, or of the armies mobilized against the Jewish settlement. A modern Palestinian Eicha would not discuss the inequities of the Palestinian leadership, the potential guilt they felt for acting wrongly in the face of a perceived Justice. As far as I know, at the present moment, Palestinians do not tell their children stories as to why their own actions led to the dispersal, why so many of their villages are no longer rooted.
And take the story forward: soon after the destruction catalogued in Eicha, we know that the Jews rose to very high places within the Babylonian establishment, becoming so well known for their loyalty and citizenry that one of their number, Nehamia, was given the highly trusted position of becoming the king’s cupbearer. In that position, Nehamia convinces the king that it is time—only 70 years after the destruction of the Temple—to enable the Jews to rebuild. And it was so that the Jews returned: not as objects, but as subjects; not as hapless victims, but as bearers of their own inequities, and partners in the fixing of past mistakes.
When reviewing this series of events, I remain dumbstruck: how can a people who saw “merciful women cooking their children” only years before now work for that same Empire and rise in the ranks such that a leading advisor to the King can get that same King to grant Israel its wish? Think no further than the 1950s for a parallel: it was less than ten years from the fall of the Third Reich when the State of Israel entered into negotiations with the government of Germany, and agreed upon a scheme of reparations that saved the State from total economic collapse. By 1952 Israel was openly sitting besides representatives of that same nation which murdered six million of our brethren, which wiped out one of the most thriving cultural civilizations in the history of the world, let alone the history of our people—a civilization which begot Freud and Einstein, Kafka and Mendelssohn. It took us seven years this time, and not seventy, to take upon ourselves our own responsibility for the destruction and choose life—always pushing forward, always seeking to thrive and not just survive.
If the Palestinian story is to parallel Eicha, there is a lot more of it left for them to write. The disruption of the way of life lived upon the Land has certainly been marked, and the pain felt by those who can no longer return to the houses of their grandparents and great-grandparents is sharp and familiar. The Palestinians have certainly earned the right to lament, for their Nakba is real and present. And yet the difference between their story and our own is radical, having to do with orientation and locus of control. Eicha, with all of its complexity, is our own. I can only wish upon another people the strength it takes to bear responsibility and to choose life even in the shadow of great destruction.

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