The Eternal Jew Goes on Forever
January 27, 2009
The Eternal Jew Goes on Forever
“With these words he cursed me, this Nazarene
And now I’m just waiting for this world to burn!
Forever I wander, forever alone
Until the Judgment Day…”
(The Wandering Jew Lyrics, Reverend Bizarre)
William A. Cook
On January 19, the second day of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza following its unilateral declaration of a cease fire that brought a halt to three weeks of unrestrained and relentless decimation of the imprisoned people, Ehud Olmert was photographed at the Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait, head thrown back in uproarious laughter as Italy’s Berlusconi smiled approvingly while fondling his shoulders as he stood behind him. In his article on the 20th, titled “Posturing and laughter as victims rot,” Robert Fisk observed “Palestinians (were) carrying the decomposing corpses of their dead” while Olmert reveled in his rest and relaxation from the arduous task of killing hundreds upon hundreds of children, oblivious it would seem to the lives he had destroyed.
Perhaps we have witnessed the most recent sighting of the wandering Jew of ancient legend, a mysterious personage last recorded in Utah in 1868 by a follower of the Mormon faith. Legend suggests that a Jerusalem shoemaker taunted Jesus on the way to crucifixion only to be rebuked when told, you “will go on forever till I return.” Hence the “Eternal Jew” forced to wander without hope of rest in death till the millennium. The legend swiftly became a metaphor in literary art finding life in German as well as Romance speaking countries from the early 1600s to the 1800s. So what does it mean and how does the wandering of Ehud Olmert reflect that of the Medieval Wandering Jew?
In 1846, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “A Virtuoso’s Collection,” an exotic tale of the strange and fantastic. The collection of the title is a virtual museum of human history represented by artifacts that have become the hallmarks of a time, a people or a civilization. As Hawthorne’s narrator returns to the door by which he entered, he seeks to know the Virtuoso that has been his guide and tutor on this unique journey through human endeavor. He makes this observation:
I fancied … that there was a bitterness indefinably mingled with his tone, as of one cut off from natural sympathies, and blasted with a doom that had been inflicted on no other human being, and by the results of which he had ceased to be human. Yet … it seemed one of the most terrible consequences of that doom, that the victim no longer regarded it as a calamity, but had finally accepted it as the greatest good that could have befallen him. “You are the Wandering Jew!” exclaimed I. (emphasis mine)
Hawthorne uses the legend to capture that mystery of behavior that has haunted writers for centuries, a mystery that still befuddles our scientists that search for an explanation for actions that seem devoid of “natural sympathies,” actions that elicit no response to human suffering, emotional or psychological, to physical pain and anguish, to loss of those loved, a child, a son or daughter, a father or mother, actions inflicted for no perceivable reason, where guilt has not been determined nor compassion considered. The legend captures the man that witnesses the suffering of the innocent, the Christ bearing His cross though guilty of nothing but the spirit of human compassion for his brothers and sisters, the sacrifice of atonement, yet mocks the innocent to “go on quicker,” for the Wanderer “is linked with the realities of this earth… to what I can see, and touch, and understand, and I ask for no more.” Nothing can stand in his way as he rushes through life acquiring all that this world can offer, and at any expense, regardless of his impact on others. “The soul is dead within him,” Hawthorne proclaims, the natural sympathy for his fellow humans does not exist.
For three weeks the people of the world watched as the Zionist government of Israel systematically engineered the execution of more than 1300 people and wounded or maimed for life more than 5000, people locked inside a cage unable to protect themselves even by running away, for there was no place to run that the Israeli military could not see or destroy. Indeed, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, simply categorized Gazan civilians as “fighters” and their towns and villages “military bases,” thus enabling the IDF to continue its indiscriminate slaughter. Yet her approach to this illegal invasion pales by comparison with Olmert’s colleague in his government, Avigdor Lieberman, who reflected that the government should drop an atomic bomb on them as the US did in Hiroshima. These are the faces that do not see the faces of those they mutilate and kill. Israeli TV blurs the images of the dead children and mothers lest they offend the citizens’ sensibilities. It is this reality that brings to mind the ancient legend of the Wandering Jew.
How does one explain, no, how does one understand the mind capable of such gross, calculated and unmitigated horror? What people could sit in beach chairs, binoculars in hand, sipping Pepsis, and watch as the F-16s hurled $300,000 missiles into apartment buildings, university science buildings, United Nations storage facilities, mosques and schools, and family homes, totally absorbed in the splendor of the devastation? What minds could conceive the slow and methodical siege that locked the people of Gaza in their cage, unable to leave, unable to acquire necessary water or food or medicine, unable to find work, unable to control the sewage that poured into the streets and sea since they were unable to repair the destroyed infrastructure of their country and forced thereby to endure hours and days without electricity and water, forced to live in darkness while the occupying army sent sound breaking aircraft over head to shatter the silence of the night, forced to stand in lines for food, water, gasoline when and if available, forced to humble themselves before the invading army that struck at will … actions of a sick mind that has no relation to the presence let alone the existence of fellow humans, only the dementia that finds merit in witnessing the pain of another’s suffering.
Hawthorne grappled with this image of the lost soul, severed from the roots that carry all in the concept of humanity, where each is a brother or a sister to another and to all; where the teachings of the faiths that sustain humankind across the globe find love and compassion the fundamental life force that binds all and gives meaning to all; where mercy and kindness serve to heal and advance the commonweal; where the island that is this planet unites all humankind in bonds of necessary and never ending ties if there is to be a future for our children; this is the source of the human spirit that emanates from one all embracing soul that is the common experience of all that must endure the suffering and pain that is this life suffused and made endurable by the springs of love that give joy to the world. This is a concept that requires of all, sharing of all things, that each might survive despite the ravages of time and circumstance. It is the essence of all faiths that truly believe in the human spirit and the uncertainties that control our lives. It finds repulsive, as a consequence, those who seek to destroy the unity of spirit that binds all together in favor of personal gain, sought in the material acquisitions made possible in this world, regardless of the havoc wrought to achieve their ends.
The image of the Wandering Jew reflects that person who abandons his fellows for personal gain, who forfeits human love and compassion for the artifacts of this world gained at any expense, satisfied with the acquisition of wealth, of position, of power even when achieved by devastation and death since ultimately only he exists and all routes to his end are achieved. All humans are expendable and are, then, by definition inferior to the man free of moral or spiritual restraints.
The Wandering Jew is then, as metaphor, another rendering of the story of Cain who slew his brother, for which act he was cursed by God Almighty to wander the earth a fugitive. Why? “Listen to Cain as he walks beside his brother along the path of death: ‘There is no judgment and no judge and no world to come! No reward will be given to the righteous nor any account given of the wicked.’ Such is the belief of those who would declare their independence of any responsibility for their brother, accept any blame for their deception as they accompany him to his death, or bear any guilt for the wickedness they inflict. Without judgment for behavior determined as good or bad, without reward for acts of love or compassion, without retribution for evil and wickedness against his brother, Cain is free to do what he wills to do… Thus did Cain’s intent – satiating his selfishness, appeasing his jealousy, releasing his aggression – reveal the disconnect between his inherent evil and his higher nature” (Cook, The Rape of Palestine 311-315).
The Wandering Jew, like Cain, is Everyman. We are what we will to be: Cain or Abel, with a soul or without one, sympathetic to our fellows or indifferent, human or non-human. That is the metaphor of Melville’s Ahab, of Marlowe’s Faust, of Conrad’s Kurtz, of Hawthorne’s Doctor Rappaccini, of Bunyan’s Demas; it is the conflict inherent in everyman that has intrigued writers from the beginning of time, the chasm of duality that walks the earth, the body and the spirit, selfishness or selflessness, the ego dominant over all regardless of the consequences, the self inflicted wound that separates soul from body, and in that identity declares that he has attained the greatest good, to be not human, the ultimate loss of identity. Emptiness, mad.
Every civilization has had its Cain, its Ahab, its Wandering Jew. The image of Olmert laughing while the mother digs through the rubble of her home captures the cold-hearted man responsible for that death, that Mother’s pain, that instance that mirrors thousands of others piled high in Gaza, but it fails to capture the reality of the metaphor that has to encompass the devastation wrought in the name of Israel that stains the very soul of Judaism.
Compare these three weeks of merciless killing to the Nazis at the Warsaw ghetto; compare it to the wanton rain of death that leveled Dresden, the erasure of 64 Japanese cities and towns before the dropping of the atomic bombs, Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Cambodia. Choose the atrocity that people allow their governments to shower on the innocent. Argue that we have no control over the governments that act in our name, but witness the weeping child that we have failed to protect, witness the dead child cradled in the arms of its father his face contorted with grief, witness the maimed lying in the hospital bed no longer able to walk or see or hold a fork, witness what we will not let ourselves see, what we then tolerate as our military executes its duty imposed by our governments, witness and understand how we become complicit in their crimes, how we become the Wandering Jew, the Ahab, the Kurtz, the non-human.
In my lifetime, the science and technology of mass slaughter has reached levels of devastation beyond comprehension. Citizens can no more see the millions killed by atomic slaughter than the pilots that dropped the bomb from 25,000 feet. Computer controlled aircraft hurl incendiary missiles into crowded streets, white phosphorus falls from the sky turning black the skin it lands on, cluster bombs lay strewn on the fields of Lebanon awaiting the children that will play with them, bulldozers without drivers crush homes beneath their blades of death and destruction, and no one is allowed to see what havoc is wrought in their name. No longer does the Wandering Jew refer to a person, no longer does Cain kill his brother standing alone on the hillside, the metaphor does not hold. Cain is a nation complicit in its barbarity, Kurtz is the corporation that builds the instruments of death, the Wandering Jew is the soul of humans that stand by silent in their complicity content to see no evil and hear no evil, unable then to speak against that evil.
Olmert’s soulless Zionist government mirrors the state and becomes its identity. The world stands in horror at what that state has inflicted on a defenseless people, what Neve Gordon referred to as “raising animals for slaughter on a farm.” It gave Israel a chance to test its weapons from land, sea and air without fear of retaliation of any meaningful kind accept the peoples’ desire to live despite the ruthlessness of their invasion.
The people of Gaza will succeed because they will life. Their suffering will cry out to the people of the world and the world will respond in sympathy for that is the moral imperative that unites all on this earth. But just as Israel’s viciousness destroys Gaza, so in equal measure does it infect its own people with that viciousness. The very image of the Jewish people is threatened, their identity, their character, their uniqueness as a people; it is in the words of Yossi Melman ‘an image (of itself) of a madman that has lost it.”
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak haKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine before the existence of the state of Israel, wrote of four harmonies of the human spirit. The first two proclaim the essence of the Jewish soul tied to the land of ancient Palestine. His teachings are uniquely focused on the Jewish faith, a Zionism of Jewish morality that stands in contrast to the secular forces currently running that state. But if Israel were to turn to his expansive thoughts as expressed in his last two harmonies, the potential for meaningful harmony between Jew and Palestinian might be possible.
These are the last two: “A third man’s soul expands beyond the Jewish people to sing the song of man, his spirit embraces all humanity, majestic reflection of God; And a fourth is transported still higher, uniting the entire universe with all creatures, and all worlds, with all of these does he sing …” This is the soul of Judaism that is now lost to self and the world. The harmony taught in the Psalms, “The earth is founded upon mercy,” (Ps. 89:13), the love taught in Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lev. 19:18), the value of the earth, “given to man to use and protect,” the prohibition against wasteful destruction and care for the needy, “That the poor of the people may eat,” (Exodu. 23:11), these teachings have been the gift of the Jews to all men and women as they have shared their existence in all nations over eons of time, the very counterpoint of the image of the legendary Wandering Jew.
What if the nation of Israel should return to these values, to see in the Palestinians neighbors deserving of recognition and love, deserving of their land that has been given to man to use and protect, deserving of care and compassion that the poor of the earth may eat. What if the harmonies envisioned by Rabbi Kook were to guide the Israeli state so that the historical heritage of the Jews that has so aided the world in overcoming racism, prejudice, segregation, poverty and inequality everywhere might become the lantern of peace in Palestine and these two peoples, cradled in decades of animosity and vengeance, might find reconciliation in the land both love, respect and worship.
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