1648

Julian Resnick writes from Israel

In 2010 I was sent to NYC on a three-year shlichut on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

Not a bad posting I admit. If one must be out of Israel, away from the children for three years, why not New York City? It was not my first Shlichut working for Israel and the Jewish People. I had previously been to San Francisco and to London, and I knew the settling in routine; find a place to live, find the local equivalent of Pick n Pay, open a bank account, learn the best local route between home and the office, choose a local cellphone provider (in San Francisco it had been slightly different as it was pre-cellphones, so the last item was not on the list back then in 1980).

Fast forward to 1 November 2022, just a few days ago. Israel (we) hold our fifth election in just under four years. Do we just love voting? Revel in the mud-slinging and hurling of insults, making promises that everyone knows are not going to be kept, enjoy life without a national budget, crave the huge waste of money, like an extra day off work, or is there something else happening over here?

I knew that my next article was going to come a short while after the elections in Israel and, as I was pretty sure about the outcome (which I was dreading) and it turned out that my predictions were pretty accurate, I was going over the opening lines in my head and thinking about what the most appropriate opening would be.

Perhaps the neutral, A triumphant Netanyahu returns; or perhaps, clearly showing my political inclinations, The Beginning of the End of the Dream?; or with a South African reference, Does this remind you of days long-gone in South Africa?”; or, once again with my South African background coming through, Cry the Beloved Country.

Because I was a young adult when I left South Africa, I only voted once in a ‘general’ election (apostrophes, because how could it have been a ‘general’ election if most of the public was not allowed to vote?). I entered the voting booth in Sea Point and asked myself whether the thing to do was to vote for Colin Eglin, the candidate for the Progressive Party, or to carry out some act of defiance. I wrote ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ on my voting slip, and came out feeling that I had moved the revolution one step forward (oh, the innocence of youthful fantasy).

So, why did I begin my response to the results of the November 1st elections in Israel with a story, seemingly unconnected, about how one begins a new job in a foreign land? So, there is something I have not revealed yet about those early days in New York City just over twelve years ago in the beginning of September 2010. I consider myself a forward thinking liberal. A political progressive, a Zionist, a proud Jew, moulded by my early years of growing up in Somerset West in a small Jewish community while at the same time trying to make sense of all the contradictions surrounding me. I knew that something was a little off in my surroundings. I was aware of a growing confusion around the mixed messages of a liberal home environment (with of course three full-time servants plus a part-time cook), a conservative small town with the usual primary school for the white children (I did know that the other children went to a separate school, but it did not bother me initially at all, as that was the world I knew) and then, kaboom, the opening up of eyes courtesy of Habonim, youthful political activism (very much small fry in the world of political activism). Enough background; I am getting carried away.

Early September 2010, NYC. I decide to use Verizon as my cell carrier and I go to get an American cellphone. We work out the package, and as the final part of the deal, my new cell number is revealed to me. Until today, I remember the final four digits of the number and my shock when I saw them. There are ten digits in an American cell number. I do not remember at all what the first six were, but I will never forget the final four 1648.

What is so special about 1648 you might ask? And you are, of course, right to ask; as I am sure that for most of you it does not leap out of the page. If it had been, say 1652, some of you might have said, “Oh, Jan Van Riebeek arrives at the Cape of Good Hope.” If the numbers were, say 1967, some of you might have said, “Ah, the Six Days War.” But 1648!?

For me, as I was handed the phone, this forward thinking, free Jew, citizen of the world (and of the State of Israel), self-proclaimed liberal and political progressive, I see not only the numbers 1648, but also Cossacks bearing down on me (and I am on the Upper East Side of NYC, just off Lexington Avenue on 88th Street, and not on the Steppes of Russia or Ukraine, for heaven’s sake!!).

In 1648 in Ukraine, Bogdan Chmielnicki (sometimes spelled Khmelnytsky) led an uprising of Cossacks and peasants against the Polish rulers of Ukraine. During this uprising, hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed, and tens of thousands of Jews lost their lives. (Julian, that was 1648 and you are standing on the Upper East Side in 2010 and there are delis down the road, multiple synagogues a few blocks away and the 92nd St Y one of the hubs of Jewish intelligentsia minutes away. It is a phone number, just a phone number and these are random digits!! What are you? A prisoner of history?)

Yes. Yes. Yes.

I thought of that moment when the results came through a few days ago. Very soon, the predictable began to happen. My Facebook friends started throwing around the words and phrases I knew would soon be flooding digital media. ‘Fascists’. ‘Racists’. It is the end of the Israel we knew and loved. That’s it. I have to find a new place to live. This is the beginning of the end.” I would be less than honest if I did not admit that some of these thoughts crossed my mind as well. 

I am both pained by, and ashamed of, the rhetoric used by Itamar Ben Gvir, by Bezalel Smotrich, by Miri Regev, by Bibi Netanyahu. When I see Itamar Ben Gvir, I do see in my mind’s eye  people from another time and place wearing brown shirts. I shudder to think of what Avi Maoz of Noam, part of the Religious Zionist List of Ben Gvir and Smotrich, wants to do with respect to the LGBTQ community (for those not in the know, he is an extreme homophobe).

But I totally get why they are going to be in power. Many, many people in Israel good people, I know some of them, some of them are members of my extended family (some even grew up in Cape Town) voted for the extreme right because they too have what I will for a moment call, the 1648 syndrome.

They too, often totally unaware of it, vote the way they do, because of Bogdan Chmielnicki.

We are a wounded People. Many of the wounds are no longer open and in fact, with many of us, even the scar tissue has largely disappeared. But the wounds are still there, and when they are touched when those who know how to exploit the fear and anger manipulate these wounds, as those running for Knesset on the right did the old pain and anger surfaces. 

And then we vote as traumatised people.

Bogdan Chmielnicki 1
Theodor Herzl 0.

Julian Resnick was born in Somerset West and grew up in Habonim Dror. He studied at UCT, and made Aliyah to 1976. He’s conducted numerous shlichuyot and educational missions on behalf of Israel, to Jewish communities in England and the USA. He works as a guide in Israel and around the world (wherever there is a Jewish story). He’s married to Orly, and they have three children and six grandchildren and is a member of Kibbutz Tzora.

• Published in the December 2022/January 2023 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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