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.

[2] The atmosphere was relaxed and those who were willing to dialogue were more relaxed than they were likely to be thereafter.

Essay on Inter-religious Relations,”[4]  


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.

pean 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.

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.

tion of the Temple in 70 C.E., it became impossible to do so, although the obligation ordained in Scripture continued to rest upon them.

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.

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.




Holocaust Denial


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




[13] Other polls conducted between 2003 and 2009 yield comparable results.



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.

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., accessed 26m June 2009.

Essay on Inter-religious Relations,” in Selengut, Jewish-Muslim Encounters.

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,

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

placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home…” , reprinted by permission of The Journal of Ecumenical Studies.

, accessed 28 June 2009.

EU Poll Names Israel Greatest Threat to World Peace,” Deutsche Welle, 11 April 2003, , accessed 28 June 2009. , accessed 29 June 2009. , accessed 23 May 2009.

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