We Should Not Celebrate Dispossession

This month, Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary. American Jews will be invited to join in those celebrations. But, in refusing to recognize that its national existence rests on the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homeland, Israel fails to speak to Jews of conscience. Here is why I cannot join the celebration.

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was a seamstress. She was known for the loveliness of her embroidery. Before WWI, she had made a career of sewing flowers onto fine silk ball gowns destined to be worn in Vienna’s imperial palace, the Hofburg.  Eventually, her hands became too rough for the silk and she was fired. Thereafter, she raised three daughters in a one-room apartment in Vienna’s 2nd district, a Jewish neighborhood nicknamed “die Maztosinsel” (Matzo Island).  She supported herself by helping merchants at a nearby open-air food market clean their stalls at the end of the day.  In return for her labor she was given the half-rotted food that was no longer good enough for paying customers and, in this way, she was able to feed herself and her daughters.   But even in conditions of such dire poverty, she went on sewing and was known for the beauty of the embroidered quilts that covered her daughters.  I have always thought of her as my quilt Omi (an affectionate term for grandmother).

As time went on, political danger was added to economic privation.  By 1932, Austrians were living under a home-grown fascist regime.  My mother was fired from her job, but joined a youth group working to get children out of Austria. Then, in 1938,  Hitler’s armies annexed Austria.  Soon, Hitler came to visit the newest possession of the Third Reich. On a sleety cold day, the Viennese lined his parade route 10 deep for the 8 hours that his train was delayed, screaming themselves hoarse on “Heil Hitler.”  So my mother and her mother knew that they were living in a nation of collaborators.

One day, my mother came home to find her mother having coffee with the Christian lady who lived across the hall. For many years, the two old ladies had shared a bathroom and a water tap at the end of the hall, and whatever food they possessed.  Today they were sharing pastry and discussing the occupation.  When it came time to leave, my grandmother’s neighbor got up, but instead of going to the door, she walked behind the screen that separated the beds from the rest of the small room.  A minute later she emerged with all of my grandmother’s quilts piled in her arms.  Without shame or haste or apology she went to the door. There she paused and said to my Omi “Well, the Nazis will take these anyway, and I’ve always wanted them.” And with that, she walked out.

Sometime later, my mother was designated a chaperone on one of the last Kindertransport trains to leave Austria. But, while my mother was able to get to safety, my quilt Omi was denounced to the Nazis by one of her neighbors. She was arrested and shipped to the Warsaw ghetto, which functioned as a holding pen for Auschwitz. And there the trail ends. We have never known exactly how or when she died. Her unmarked death remains the great unhealed sore of my mother’s life in this, her 98th year.

So when Israelis claim to have created the Jewish state in my name, in the name of my quilt Omi, they speak less than the whole truth. They never say “to establish this state we took – and we continue to take – the beautiful embroidered quilts from Palestinians and, worse yet, the water from their land, and the olive trees from their gardens and indeed, the very roof over their heads.”  This, too, is Israel. So I must say NO. No, you may not use my name. No, you may not use the name of my quilt Omi.  We do not celebrate independence born of others’ ongoing dispossession.

EVE SPANGLER is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston College and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.


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