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Are Jews of the past Israelis of today? SARAH’S KEY: in the eyes of an Arab Muslim

on January 12, 2013

Whenever I write, it’s usually because something makes a striking impression on my heart. This time it’s a bundle of emotions ranging between sympathy, guilt, and bewilderment.

It begins with my love for reading and enthusiasm to continue to do so. Recently, I began reading Sarah’s Key, a narrative by Tatiana De Rosnay. Through the reviews, I had known beforehand that it’s a book on the Jewish holocaust. I have known about the holocaust all my life but never tried to learn more or read up on it; not that I don’t care, but simply because I felt it had nothing to do with my life as an Arab Muslim. The whole thing for me was that Nazi Germany despised the Jew and decided to exterminate them.

Holding the book to my hands, I was struck by the question to myself, “Are you going to hold your same prejudices against Israel and apply them here? Will you be truly objective? Will you link the Jews to Israelis? Can you make substantial differentiation as you have always claimed?” “Of course, yes!” was the immediate answer, which came out loud.

But as I read, emotions like sympathy, and compassion began to overcome me and I felt I could not concentrate on the story. I didn’t want to end up directing my emotions to a certain end, but rather desired them to emerge naturally with no pushing from my conscious. I read on.

Thanks to Tatiana’s brilliant narration, I got completely caught up and overwhelmed in the story. Sarah, the small Jewish girl, who had to wear a yellow star badge, captured me as it has captured Julia Jarmond (the key character in the story, an American journalist investigating the roundup of Jews at the time). So weird how a yellow star identifying a religion, a kind of faith, could so devastate a life, or rather a million lives! Having been discriminated against in every spectrum of life; at schools, shops, streets, etc, the Jews eventually found themselves gathered up in 1942 Paris, rounded up in a stadium in what was known as the Vil d’Hiver. When the French Police came to take Sarah and her family, she locked her brother up in a closet, promising to come back, thinking she is protecting him. She held on dearly to the brass key.

Embarking on a difficult journey, witnessing physical torments ranging from thirst, hunger and physical, as well as psychological ordeals; having to witness suicides, deaths, miscarriages, her parents’ frailty and failing health, while all the time worried about her brother back in the place she had hidden him away. She then managed to escape from the hellish camp, with the help of a kind French couple, reached her apartment in Paris hoping to unlock and free him. But as she tugged the door of the safe open, “a rotten stench hit her like a fist … In the back of the cupboard, she glimpsed the small lump of motionless curled-up body … she saw the beloved little face, blackened and unrecognizable”. And for me, tears, weeping and gasps.

This is about humanity. It has nothing to do with religion, opinions or likes and dislikes. Such acts should be condemned anywhere and anytime.

But for me personally, it doesn’t end there. I can’t help thinking, some of those Jews are the ones who decided to occupy a space that isn’t theirs in the name of being a tortured nation. They are repeating the same savage acts done to them 70 years ago. Should I consider the holocaust a reasonable justification to the torments inflicted on Palestinians? How can their past ‘shoah’ at the time of war explain their present ‘shoah’ in Palestine?

I was taken back to 2008 when I’d read on the Telegraph:

A senior Israeli politician provoked controversy today when he warned that Palestinians firing rockets from Gaza would be punished with a “bigger holocaust” from Israeli armed forces. The use of the Hebrew word for holocaust, “shoah”, tends to be used exclusively in Israel to describe the Nazi persecution of Jews.

In Sarah’s Key, Sarah committed suicide at the end because she could never live with her pain any longer and the burden of not knowing overwhelms Julia Jarmond, who unfolds Sarah’s story. Feelings of guilt, pain and sadness stir in me while turning every page of the novel. At the end of it all, I still believe what I did before I started the novel, that Jews of the past aren’t Israelis and the yellow star has nothing to do with the blue one.

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9 responses to “Are Jews of the past Israelis of today? SARAH’S KEY: in the eyes of an Arab Muslim

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Imane. I really liked this article and the fact you had the courage and interest to read the book. I wish more Arabs would and yet would continue to hold on to the fact that what is going on in Palestine is so WRONG! Jews are not the same as Zionists, although so many are. What happened in the past was so, so awful but doesn’t justify what’s happening in the present. There are some wonderful, wonderful Jews, some of whom are also Israelis, that acknowledge this and work towards an equitable peace but unfortunately there aren’t many of them. Thanks for this.

  2. commart says:

    The Jews who defied the Roman Empire (and lost that one), the Jews of the Cordoba’s Golden Age and of the Spanish Expulsion, the Jews who were matched with Muslims for discrimination in 12th Century Christian Hungary, the Jews of Hitler’s Germany, the Jews persecuted and pushed from Arab (800,000), also the Jews of Ethiopia (Beta Israel), the Jews of Afghanistan, the Jews of Uganda (the Abayudaya), and Jews the world over are the Jews of Israel still.

    • Sorry. I do not agree. Judaism is a religion; a relationship between humans and their God. It isn’t to be judged or asked. But Israelis are cruel politicians who build their greediness and brutality on the past of tortured Jews and over other people’s lands and dreams. They are not the same.

      • commart says:

        It’s good to see you back here (it’s been about six months). From ancient Hebron to modern Hadassah, from the archaeological record in Gaza to relations with the refugees of 1948, questions about Israel’s character and legitimacy may be independently researched. The Holocaust should be invoked but sparingly and its meaning — for everyone — sustained with integrity. Conflations like “Zionazi” and the loose use in chatter between armed enemies help no one.

      • why I wrote this piece was mainly a reaction to reading Sarah’s Key novel. It is a wonderful novel about the holocaust; my first ever novel of this kind. I felt so compassionate and was happy that I didn’t mingle my Arab natural hatred for Israel with the humane feelings that had to feel for the Jews. I was happy I am not a racist after all : ).

      • commart says:

        That “Arab hatred” isn’t natural but political and language-borne. Despite its surrounding presence, Israel remains Jewish, the Land of the Hebrews, that global ethnic commune with its heart in Jerusalem and its body deeply anchored in the land.

      • Just a correction, the “Arab hatred” is very natural given the brutality of the usurpers who occupied a land that isn’t theirs and committed massacres that went far beyond what happened to their ancestors. Maybe you view it as its natural place, but I don’t. Whether it will remain this way or not, only time will prove.

      • commart says:

        Benny Morris and Efraim Karsh are good authors in this area. Time is only timeless to God — it is precious to humans who may wish for growth, but it may be stalled by cant.

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