My Grandmother’s Paper Bag

by Richard L. Rubenstein (August 2009)

Delivered to the New English Review Symposium in Nashville, Tennessee on May 30th, 2009.

In August 1999, I participated in an international Conference of Jewish and Muslim Scholars held in the city of Cordoba, Spain. [1] That was before Bill Clinton’s failed attempt at the end of his presidency to get Yasser Arafat to sign “the best peace deal he was ever going to get,” the Second Intifada, and 9/11.[2] The atmosphere was relaxed and those who were willing to dialogue were more relaxed than they were likely to be thereafter.

I have often been reminded of the essay I presented on that occasion, “The Temple Mount and My Grandmother’s Paper Bag: An Essay on Inter-religious Relations,”3] most recently by the apparent inference in President Barak Obama’s address at Al Azhar University on 4 June 2009, and repeated the next day at Buchenwald, that Israel owes its political legitimacy to the Holocaust.[4]


In that essay, I referred to an experience I had in connection with a visit to my maternal grandmother as a teen-ager. She was born in Vilna, now Vilnius, Lithuania, and emigrated to the United States as a young bride. Although she lived in the United States for more than fifty years, she was unwavering in her commitment to the beliefs and practices of what is now described as Orthodox Judaism but which for her was the only authentic Judaism.  

During that visit, I noticed a brown paper bag in an open drawer. The bag was addressed to her and had canceled postage stamps issued by the British Mandate government of Palestine. Out of curiosity, I opened the bag and saw that the bag contained only a few handfuls of earth. I was puzzled and asked myself why would she go to the trouble of having earth from the Holy Land sent to her by post? I was hesitant to ask about it.


I came to understand the meaning of the bag and its contents years later as I stood by her graveside and watched her oldest son pour out its contents on her casket as she was lowered into the ground. She had kept the bag of dirt so that when her time came, she could, at least symbolically, return home. And for her, there was only one place that she considered home, the Land of Israel.


I have no doubt that throughout her life she had often heard the Hebrew word galuth, exile, used to express her situation and that of her community. Although her ancestors had settled in Lithuania hundreds of years earlier, neither she nor they ever considered Lithuania or any other place in Europe home. Europe was Christian. The most illiterate and impoverished peasant could regard his Euro­pean domicile as home. Indeed, he could imagine no other. My grandmother could not. Her feelings of otherness were, of course, reinforced daily by the hostility of the indigenous population and her place in the social hierarchy. The intensity of that hostility was finally revealed in the Holocaust when a very large number of Lithuanians eagerly cooperated with the Germans in the extermination of that country’s Jews.

My grandmother strongly disapproved of the attempts to “modernize” or “reform” Judaism that enjoyed a certain currency in Germany and the United States in her time. Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany rested on the hope, if not the conviction, that Jews could become full-fledged Europeans if they eliminated the allegedly “unessential,” “archaic” elements in their tradition. My grandmother had no such illusions. The insights of authentically traditional Judaism concerning the condition of the Jews were consistent with her experience. Her religion reminded her that her ancestors had once lived in a land that, rightly or wrongly, they believed had been bestowed upon them by God. In her prayers during the week and on the Sabbath, she prayed that the people of Israel might some day be restored to that land. Those prayers were formulated almost two thousand years ago and retain their authority for traditional Jews to this day.

Had she reflected on the text of the prayers from an historical perspective, she would have noted that the traditional order for the Sabbath and Holy Days contains a verbal surrogate for the biblically-ordained animal sacrifices that could only be offered in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.[5] While the Temple stood, Jews were enjoined to bring their sacrificial offerings to that sanctuary. With the destruc­tion of the Temple in 70 C.E., it became impossible to do so, although the obligation ordained in Scripture continued to rest upon them.


For the small, but growing, first-century, Jewish-Christian community, the razing of the Temple was not a problem. They saw it as confirmation of their belief that Jesus Christ was indeed the perfect sacrifice and that animal sacrifices and, hence, the Sanctuary and its offerings were no longer necessary. By contrast, unable to offer the actual sacrifices, Jews were taught by their rabbis to acknowledge their obligation as best they could, namely, by reciting the appro­priate laws of sacrifice and offering prayers for their restoration in a rebuilt Sanctuary on Mt. Zion. In traditional Judaism, the sacrifices and the Temple Mount loom very large indeed. Thus, three times daily for almost two thousand years Jews offered the following prayer:

Find favor, O Lord our God, in your people Israel and in their prayer, and restore the Temple service to the innermost chamber of your House. May you accept Israel’s burnt offerings and prayer with love and grace and may the service of your people be ever pleasing to you. May our eyes see your return to Zion in mercy. Blessed are you, O Lord, who restores your presence to Zion! (emphasis added)

For traditional Jews, the
Roman victory in 70 C.E. and the subsequent diaspora was a catastrophe that compelled them to adapt an interim religious strategy involving surrogates for biblically-ordained sacrifices. As the prayer cited above makes plain, there is a restorationist ideology at the heart of traditional Judaism that looks forward to the closing of the circle with the return of the Jews to the Holy Land and to the restoration of the Holy Temple on Mount Zion. The yearning to return is very old and is clearly not a post-Holocaust phenomenon. What the Holocaust and the rise of Europe’s murderous anti-Semitism made clear was that, at least for Europe’s Jews, that return could no longer be delayed.


When the Zionist movement sought to transform the yearning to return into a practical program of nation-building, there was considerable apprehension among Muslims that Jewish return would necessarily involve rebuilding the Holy Temple on its original site. That site, known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount, is Islam’s third holiest religious site and is known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. The two most important structures on the Haram al-Sharif are the Mosque of Omar, also known as the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque from which, according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad is said to have commenced his heavenly Night Journey.


Any Jewish attempt to rebuild the Temple would, of course, instantaneously result in a furious, global Muslim response. Fortunately, the Orthodox Jewish mainstream believes that the restoration cannot be the fruit of human agency. It will only take place with the advent of the Messiah and through divine providence. A fringe minority consisting of radical Christian end-timers and equally radical apocalyptically inclined Jews seek the destruction of the Haram al-Sharif as a prelude to rebuilding the Temple. Fortunately, the Israeli government, fully aware of the consequences of such a desecration, is prepared to do everything in its power to prevent such an outcome.


In spite of the fact that there has clearly been a very powerful Jewish interest in preventing any harm to the Haram al-Sharif, some very prominent Muslim leaders have claimed that the Jews intend to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Mosque of Omar and rebuild the Temple. Throughout his career, Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974), the erstwhile pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, never ceased to claim that the Haram al-Sharif was endangered by the alleged plans of Palestine’s Jewish community to restore the Temple. The bloody riots that took place during August 1929 and culminated in the slaughter of 67 unarmed, anti-Zionist, Orthodox Jews in Hebron during the week of August 23, 1929 were the result of false rumors and propaganda leaflets disseminated by the Mufti and his activist allies urging Arabs to “save” the allegedly endangered sanctuary.[7]


Clearly, the Jewish yearning to return did not begin with the rise of National Socialism and the Holocaust. It began almost at the moment the Second Temple was destroyed. It did, however, have an eschatological character, that God would answer Israel’s prayers for restoration in his time, not in theirs. What did change with the rise of modern anti-Semitism and the Holocaust was a sense of urgency and impatience. In the last decades of the nineteenth century some Jewish thinkers – the most important being Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) – realized that disaster lay ahead for Jews on the European continent and that prayer and patience alone could not avert the coming catastrophe.


Holocaust Denial


Holocaust denial has had widespread currency among thinkers, institutions, and some governments in the Muslim world and among their right-wing, extremist allies. An important motive why some Muslim leaders and opinion-makers deny that the Holocaust ever happened is because they claim that the “Zionists” have allegedly used the “myth” of the Holocaust to garner support from Germany and the West for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In reality, such claims are both ludicrous and obscene. To believe that the Holocaust was a Zionist hoax one must also believe that the governments such as Germany, Italy, France, Austria and many others lack accurate knowledge of what took place in the territories they governed during World War II. Holocaust denial ascribes a level of stupidity and ignorance to the governments of some of the most advanced countries in the world. As we note above, support for such a Jewish homeland existed long before the Holocaust. [8].


Jews and Premillenial Dispensational Fundamentalism


Let me now turn to another issue that in its own way is related to Israel’s future. The Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 2009, contains a series of essays by Jewish and Christian scholars on the subject of “Evangelical-Jewish Relations: Politics, Policy, and Theology.” The lead article, “The Odd Couple: Jews and Premillenial Dispensational Fundamentalism” was written by Martin Marty, Emeritus Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In it, he confesses a failure to understand “How can Jews wholeheartedly accept and honor groups whose vision of the outcome of history includes either the conversion or destruction (even in hell) of conversion resistant Jews.”[9]


I was invited to respond to Professor Marty. My full response has been posted in the Iconoclast section of the New English Review.[10] With respect to Professor Marty’s puzzlement that I would be willing to cooperate with a group that envisages the conversion or the destruction of my community in the end of days,

I referred to Pastor John Hagee’s comment in the Jerusalem Post on that very issue. The pastor told the Post:


I say to my rabbi friends, “You don’t believe it; I do believe it. When we’re standing in Jerusalem and the Messiah is coming down the street one of us is going to have a very major theological adjustment to make. But until that time, let’s walk together in support of Israel and in defense of the Jewish people, because Israel needs our help.”[11]


I commented on the pastor’s anticipation of the “major theological vision” one of us was going to have to make: “In the unlikely event that I behold the Messiah coming down the street, I will be the first unreservedly to acknowledge my error and confess Him as my Lord. Until then, I will walk together with Pastor Hagee and any other Christians willing to support Israel in what is, in reality, the struggle for its very survival.”


The key term in my response is survival. As I read the moral indictments of Israel for its alleged human-rights abuses of the Palestinian people by so many of the mainline Protestant denominations and other seemingly well-intentioned individuals and groups, I have the feeling that they are either unaware of or unwilling to confront the true complexity of the struggle between Jews and Muslims over the Jewish presence in any part of Palestine, a presence that radical Muslims characterize as “a crime that must be erased.”[12] At times, I also have a darker thought. The men and women who write boycott and divestiture resolutions for denominational approval are, for the most part, highly educated products of some of our best seminaries and universities. Could it be that they see the destruction of Israel as their “final solution” to the problem of achieving peace in the Middle East? Could this also be true of the President of the United States and his Secretary of State, now liberated from the constraints of serving as U.S. Senator from New York, with its large component of Jewish voters?  


Radical Muslims – and it is often difficult to know who is radical and who moderate – have been disarmingly frank about their “solution” to the Middle East conflict. They tell the world that the conflict is not about territory in which compromise is possible. On the contrary, they claim that it is about the alleged violation and forcible seizure of sacred, inalienable Muslim land (Dar al-Islam) by the most despised of unbelievers supported by an unholy “crusader alliance” of the United States and Great Britain. Regrettably, when I read much of the literature emanating from mainline Protestant sources, it seems that the fault lies only on the Jewish side. In partial answer to Martin Marty, if I must choose between working with religious groups that envisage the conversion or the possible destruction of my people at the end of time or with those who foster policies that, willy-nilly, will bring about either a second Shoah or a nuclear Masada that envelopes much of the Middle East in the foreseeable future, I would rather take my chances with the end of time.


There is little doubt that the media, the mainstream religious leadership, and the chanceries of Western Europe have become decidedly hostile to Israel. In a poll conducted by the European Union in April 2003, 59 percent of the respondents said that they deemed Israel as “the greatest threat to world peace,” far more than Iran, North Korea, or the United States.[13] Other polls conducted between 2003 and 2009 yield comparable results.


I should like to suggest that the turning point at which Europe began to develop its decidedly hostile attitudes toward Israel came during the Six Day War of 1967. On May 26, 1967, shortly before the war, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser declared in a well-publicized speech that in the coming conflict “our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.”[14] The leader of the PLO at the time, Ahmad Shuqayri, uttered a similar threat: “We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants. And as for the survivors – if there are any – the boats are ready to deport them.”[15]

As war clouds gathered, European public opinion was largely pro-Israel. Political scientist Joan B. Wolf points out that in a survey conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion during the first two days of the war, 58 percent of Parisians sympathized with Israel and only 2 percent with the Arab countries.[16] There was widespread apprehension that the world was about to witness a second Holocaust. Jews and pro-Israel non-Jews tended to identify Israel with the victims of the Holocaust and the Arabs as perpetrators, as was the case in Le Figaro, France’s most pro-Israel daily newspaper. [17]

Attitudes began to change when it became evident that Israel had won a sweeping victory with surprising speed. What did not change was the use of the Holocaust as a metaphor for the conflict. Taking note of the way the pro-Israel media used the memory of the Holocaust when Israel was perceived as weak, the Arab, Gaullist, and left-wing media understood that the memory of the Holocaust could be turned into a powerful propaganda tool against Israel. With Israel no longer seen as powerless, hostile propaganda depicted the Israelis as perpetrators and the Arabs as their innocent victims, implicitly identifying the Israelis as the new Nazis and Palestinians the new Holocaust victims. This identification was speedily to become explicit. Later on the Palestinians were to become a crucified Christ figure and the Jews their crucifiers in the cartoons of the European media. There is a subtext to such accusations: the Israelis deserve no better fate than Nazi Germany, utter destruction. This would allow anti-Semites something denied to them in the Shoah, genocide without guilt. It also permitted liberal elites to depict the Arabs as victims of a monumental historical injustice that had to be rectified, if necessary, through Israel’s obliteration.


This canard was reinforced by the claim that the Jewish settlement in Palestine was a settler-colonial occupation, the alleged tool of latter-day crusaders, with no historic connection to the land. The Palestinians characterize the military defeat suffered by the Arabs as al-Naqba, a catastrophe of a magnitude similar to the Holocaust inflicted upon them by a people they liken to Nazi Germany. This propaganda would be ludicrous were it not so vicious. The Jews of Europe did not go to war against Nazi Germany; the Arabs of Palestine did go to war against the infant Jewish State, openly promising that the fate of the Israelis would be the same as that of the Jews of Europe.


As the Israeli political theorist Shlomo Avineri has pointed out,

When Germany was defeated, in 1945, over 10 million Germans were deported – all of whom were civilians, woman and children, not only members of the Nazi party – from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. That is the terrible price that millions of innocent Germans paid for Nazi crimes. Nobody – not even Germany – petitions today for the right of return for these millions and their children, to the countries they were expelled from and where they and their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years.

A German government, that raises the issue of the right of return for these millions as a condition for peace with eastern European countries, will be perceived – justifiably – as neo-Nazi, and as trying to change the outcome of the Second World War. This is cruel and harsh – but the whole world, including the entire German political sphere, except for negligible margins, recognizes this.

Avineri concludes with the following admonition:

…with all the understanding for the suffering of fellow men, the truth must be told to our Palestinian neighbors: Just like Germany in 1939 went to war – and lost; just as in the German case, the fall was bound with much suffering; but just as Germany internalized the messages of the World War, in the same way – with all the pain and understanding – if the Palestinians want peace, they must take moral responsibility for the decisive outcome in 1948, to go to war, not just against Israel, but also against international legitimacy, which accepted the Jews’ right to sovereignty.

The problem with Avineri’s argument is that the neither the Palestinians nor the Muslim world has ever accepted the Jewish right to sovereignty or the outcome of the 1948 War of Independence as decisive. Moreover, at least in theory, Muslims never accept retreat from any territory lost in war as decisive. Land conquered by Muslims becomes a part of Dar al-Islam, the Abode of Islam. It cannot be surrendered to infidels. If Muslims are compelled to give up land, they are under a religious obligation to employ whatever means necessary to restore it to the Abode of Islam, whether the lost territory is the Iberian peninsula or the Land of Israel. That is why there was no peace treaty with Israel in 1948 and, save for Egypt and Jordan, no Muslim country ever signed such a treaty. On the contrary, the overwhelming effort of the Muslim countries has been to strip Israel of whatever legitimacy they can, an enterprise that has succeeded at least in the United Nations.

In 2009, a new American administration has devoted its energies to pressuring Israel to make territorial and political concessions for the sake of a dangerous and questionable peace with an unreconciled adversary while seeking to impose no realistic constraints on that enemy or on Iran as it develops the weapons of mass destruction with which its leadership has promised to destroy Israel.

I have often wondered why the secularized leadership of the West has consistently failed to understand the grave threat that it has inflicted upon itself by failing to understand Islam, especially the role that the religion of Islam plays in its conflicts with the non-Muslim world. This is especially true of the conflict over Palestine but it is also true wherever Islam confronts the non-Muslim world, whether along “Islam’s bloody borders” to use the late Samuel Huntington’s word or the Muslims within their midst.

Unfortunately, failure to understand or outright denial of the non-negotiable character of the religious element in those conflicts is a sure recipe for defeat no matter what compromises and betrayals the non-Muslim world is prepared to accept for the sake of a specious peace.  


[1] The proceedings of the conference are to be found in Charles Selengut, ed., Jewish-Muslim Encounters: History, Philosophy and Culture (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2001); also in Dialogue and Alliance, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Issue Theme: Jewish-Muslim Encounters).

[2] “The best peace deal he was ever going to get,” statement by President Bill Clinton reported by Michael Hirsh, “The Former President Says The Palestinian Leader Squandered A Chance For Mideast Peace,” Newsweek Web Exclusive, June 27, 2001,, accessed 26m June 2009.

[3] Rubenstein, “The Temple Mount and My Grandmother’s Paper Bag: An Essay on Inter-religious Relations,” in Selengut, Jewish-Muslim Encounters.

[4] In his speech the President said that America’s strong bond with Israel “is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” The President declared that the tragic history “culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust.” While entirely true, the Jewish yearning to return to Palestine is not based on the Holocaust as some of Israel’s adversaries claim but is two thousand years old. Moreover, American pro-Zionist sympathies are much older than the Holocaust. The President’s speech is to be found at “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” The White House, 4 June 2009,, accessed 26 June 2009. 

[5] With regard to the sacrificial offerings, Deuteronomy 12: 11 stipulates that “…you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name: your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, and all the choice votive offerings that you vow to the Lord.” There is a scholarly consensus that this passage mandates the centralization of the Judean sacrificial cult in one place, Mt. Zion, the site of the Jerusalem Temple. See Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Harper, 1987), pp. 176-184.

[6] This is Jon Levenson’s translation. Sinai and Zion, p. 179.

[7] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 113. .

[8] On 2 November 1917, Britain’s Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour issued a formal statement of policy known as the Balfour Declaration that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The text of the Declaration can be found at “Balfour Declaration 1917,” The Avalon Project of Yale University Law School,, accessed 26 June 2009. On 22 July 1922, the League of Nations confirmed Britain’s role as th Mandatory power for Palestine and stated that a principal responsibility was “placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home…”

[9] Martin Marty, “The Odd Couple: Jews and Premillenial Dispensational Fundamentalism.,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Winter 2009, 134.

[10] Richard L. Rubenstein, “Some Reflections on the Odd Couple: A Reply to Martin Marty,” The Iconoclast: New English Review, 12 April 2009, , reprinted by permission of The Journal of Ecumenical Studies.

[11] David Horovitz, “Evangelicals seeing the error of ‘replacement theology,’” Jerusalem Post, 20 March 2006,, accessed 28 June 2009.

[12] Osama bin Laden, “Why We Are Fighting You,” Letter to America, in Raymond Ibrahim, ed., The Al Qaeda Reader (New York: Broadway Books, 2008), p. 198.

[13] EU Poll Names Israel Greatest Threat to World Peace,” Deutsche Welle, 11 April 2003,,,1022127,00.html , accessed 28 June 2009.

[14] Gamal Abdul Nasser, “Statement by President Nasser to Arab Unionists,” 26 May 1967, , accessed 29 June 2009.

[15] Ahmad al-Shukayri, Friday sermon at Jerusalem mosque, June 1, 1966, in “Arab Threats Against Israel, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting In America, , accessed 29 June 2009.

[16] Joan B. Wolf, “Anne Frank is Dead, Long Live Anne Frank: The Six-Day War and the Holocaust in French Public Discourse,” History and Memory, Vol. 11. No. 1, 1999, 140.

[17] Wolf, ““Anne Frank is Dead.”

[18] Shlomo Avineri, “About the Naqba,” Yediot Ahronot, May 16, 2003, Shabbat Supplement, 22, , accessed 23 May 2009.

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