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An American Jew’s Conversion  
After a trip to Eastern Europe, our columnist had his religion reaffirmed  

    May 6 —  I had to go all the way to Eastern Europe to become a Zionist. Like many American Jews of my generation, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the State of Israel. Frequently, Jews like me can’t understand Israel—a sometimes-aggressive nation founded on an uncomfortable racial premise—or its citizens, a brand of uber-Jew quite different from the soft suburbanites and Yuppie professionals that make up the Reform congregations I grew up in.  

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  JEWS LIKE ME ALWAYS felt that America, not Israel, was the Promised Land, and that anyone still clinging to the notion of a Jewish homeland in Judea was merely a religious fanatic, a right-wing ideologue or a socialistic kibbutznik.

        My people know more about Pink Floyd’s “Wall” than the Wailing Wall. We are at home at Zabar’s, not Zion.
        But during a recent trip to Europe—where the omnipresence of anti-Semitism makes the Holocaust feel like a recent event— I found myself finally appreciating Zionism’s historical imperative.
        Naturally, those feelings were strongest during my visit to Auschwitz. I didn’t go there looking for slights, but they were all around me. Even though Auschwitz is the most-visited site in southern Poland, the Poles do everything they can to discourage visitors (our “official” guide actually steered others in my group to an underground salt mine, the region’s other tourist attraction).
        From Krakow, which is just 40 miles away, the only ways to get to the camp are a very sporadic train or a local bus that stops everywhere and takes two hours. And the Auschwitz bus stop is entirely unmarked. When you get close, the driver begrudgingly says, “Muzeum,” the local euphemism for Auschwitz (did I really expect him to yell out, “Death camp”?). There is no sign directing you to the camp. If it wasn’t for the Lonely Planet guide I’d brought from home, I might not have even found it.
        Once inside, the horrors of Nazi Germany are all around you—with a twist. The Poles downplay the slaughter of 1.5 million of Jews—and their own prominent role as enablers—by frequently reminding you that hundreds of Polish partisans were also killed by the Germans at Auschwitz, a “detail of history” if there ever was one.
        Some people have death-bed conversions. For me, I guess, Auschwitz was a “death-camp conversion.” Touring Auschwitz could make even the most peace-loving Jew angry. But, more important, the camp delivers a painful reminder of what happens to Jews when the forces of anti-Semitism get enough power to actually do something. You go there expecting a lesson in how Germany’s systematic bloodbath was a unique moment in history, yet you leave convinced that the exact same thing would happen if Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Saddam Hussein, the Al Aqsa Brigades or Hizbullah could only get their acts together long enough to pull it off. They don’t lack the will, just the talent.
        For thinking such thoughts, the world considers us Jews paranoid. But you’re not paranoid if everyone really is out to get you.
        But the death camps are just the beginning. The blood spilled there dried long ago, but its stench still covers all of Europe, where everyday acts of anti-Semitism—a synagogue defaced in France, a cemetery desecrated in Slovakia, a Jewish school attacked in Germany—actually do occur every day.
        In Slovakia, a cemetery just a few miles from where our group was staying was desecrated. Our tour guide didn’t consider it important enough to tell us about it.
        Throughout Europe, the writing is literally on walls: I spotted “Hitler was Right” on a wall in Poland. In Austria, swastikas are more common than sacher tortes. Friends who have recently been in France tell me that graffiti reading “In Paris as in Gaza—Intifada!” or “F—k your mother, Jews” are common.
        European hypocrisy towards Israel is becoming intolerable. The United States was hit by suicide bombers on Sept. 11 and responded militarily—with the world’s support. Israel has been hit by suicide bombers dozens of times (once, even at a religious ceremony!) in the last 18 months, yet when the Israeli army does to Jenin what the American army did all over Afghanistan, European governments squeal like a stuck pig and “peace activists” rush to Yasir Arafat’s side like he’s Gandhi in a keffiyeh.
        Even our own government, in the face of overwhelming evidence of Arafat’s criminal duplicity, is pressuring Israel to continue to negotiate with the Palestinian leader. Did we negotiate with the Taliban?
        It has come to this: The Jewish state is the only nation on Earth that is expected to turn the other cheek. (That may be in the Bible, but it ain’t in the Torah.) And how come when Europeans discuss stripping a Nobel laureate of his peace prize, the guy they’re talking about is not the man whose organization funds terrorists and smuggles arms, but the guy who tried to make peace with him?
IMG: Live Talk

        As I write this, I’m sitting in a pleasant, quiet spot in a corner of Vienna called Judenplatz (literally, Jew Square). At one time, the square was the heart of the Jewish ghetto. Now, it’s home to a memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust as well as a small museum. I’ve been sitting in the square for about an hour, just watching the armed guard pace quietly back and forth in front of the museum.
        Of course there’s a guard. There was a guard in front of every Jewish “site” I saw in my 12 days in Eastern Europe—cemeteries, synagogues, museums, embassies and even restaurants. These sites have been threatened and attacked long before the current Israeli-Palestinian flare-up and will be threatened and attacked long after it.
        In the Judenplatz, in addition to Rachel Whiteread’s controversial Holocaust memorial (controversial only because it took a decade for the notoriously anti-Semitic Austrians to allow it to be built), there’s a plaque on the side of a building marking a different Holocaust, a pogrom in 1421 that burned the Jews out of the ghetto.
        But it’s not a somber memorial like Whiteread’s; it’s a gleeful celebration of the blessed event. My Latin is a bit rusty, but the plaque reads: “By baptism in the River Jordan bodies are cleansed from disease and evil, so all secret sinfulness takes flight. Thus the flame rising furiously through the whole city in 1421 purged the terrible crimes of the Hebrew dogs. As the world was once purged by the flood, so this time it was purged by fire.”
        Also in Judenplatz is a statue of 18th-century Jewish writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who encouraged the leaders of his era to exhibit tolerance, albeit temporarily, towards Jews. The Nazis, naturally, pulled down the statue during World War II and, although Austria became a free state again in 1955, Lessing was not returned to his rightful place of honor until 1982.
        And even then, with substantial controversy.
        The overall effect of these disjointed images sharing the same space—the security guard, the controversial Lessing statute, the memorial to the Austrian Jews, the anti-Semitic plaque—is that for Europeans, the Holocaust really was a “detail in history,” as French election loser Jean-Marie Le Pen famously called it, a historical footnote that has occurred repeatedly over the centuries and will probably do so again.
        And when it does, well, they’ll just put up another plaque.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His Web site is at http://www.gersh.tv
       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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