DECEMBER 24, 2008
Counterfactuals are the inventions of logic or misery. The interest in an altered world is not born of contentment. But when the imagined improvement turns out also to be real—well, here is the most unlikely true story about Jews in modernity that I ever heard. It was told to me many years ago by a Jew, an American judge, who grew up in the Jewish community of Goa, in India. It happened during the partition riots in 1947. He related that rampaging gangs sometimes broke into his family’s house, armed with pistols and axes and torches, and of course with anger. “Are you Hindu or Muslim?” they demanded to know, in their hunt for the appropriate victims. “We are Jews,” the family replied. And the mob apologized! “We’re terribly sorry,” they said, and left the Jews in peace. For a long time I laughed heartily at the sublime absurdity, I mean by the tenebrous standards of the Jewish past, of this event. The story of the Jews of Bombay is also filled with sweet ironies: its first synagogue was built at the end of the eighteenth century by a Jew who was saved from the sword of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, when the tiger’s pious mother, who had read about Jews in the Koran, wanted finally to meet one, and in the nineteenth century Jewish culture in the city owed its small flowering to the hapless efforts of Scottish missionaries, who failed to impart Christianity to the Jews but did teach them Hebrew and a rudimentary knowledge of Jewish customs. But now I laugh no more. Whether the terrorists in Mumbai killed for Kashmir or for Waziristan, they nonetheless killed Jews, whose civilization developed in perfect indifference to Kashmir and Waziristan. Forgive the liberal heresy, but why are Jews never the inappropriate victims? (On each of the two days of the horror, reporters in The New York Times wondered whether “the Jewish center was strategically chosen, or if it was an accidental hostage scene.” The speculation was ignorant and insulting.) I cannot yet pick myself up from the image of the dying rabbi wrapping his dead wife in a prayer shawl, in a last fulfillment of tradition in a far corner of exile. The carnage at the Chabad house stimulated in me a grim and therefore classical sensation of peoplehood. When the fate of the Jewish hostages in India was first announced by the authorities in Israel, I thought: this is as it should be, it is the Jewish state that should speak for them. But I will not make too much of this nationalist quiver. It is sometimes a part of the problem.
Owing to the aforementioned allegiance, and also for more general reasons, I do not look kindly upon the delegitimation of whole countries and entire societies; and I do not yearn for a restoration of imperial order, even after all the post-imperial disorder. (Anyway, empires are not orderly.) For a long time I enjoyed a rich personal engagement with Pakistan. I recall fondly the many hospitalities of Karachi and Lahore. It would have been imprudent for a yehudi exploring the land not to have committed to memory the first verse of the Koran, but I encountered no hostility in my travels. In Karachi I was taken to see the shuttered synagogue, and met an extraordinary man who had known Mr. Abraham Reuben, the Jew who was once a prominent city official. I will not soon forget my morning of tranquil seclusion at the ancient Buddhist monastery at Jaulian, or the still, dustless lucidity of Lake Saif-ul-Maluk, high in the Kaghan Valley, which gave me the rare gift of an Emersonian exaltation. (All my life I have suffered from mystic envy.) In Lahore I was deeply stirred by its journalists and its democrats. So I do not want the following question to be mistaken by my Pakistani friends for another expression of American haughtiness—but how much peril, and for how long, will this tormented place inflict upon the world? Tormented often turns into tormenting; and Pakistan’s most significant export now is crisis. I leave aside the contributions to world peace of the national hero A.Q. Khan. But the tribal areas: will the medievalism of those mountains, the holy war that is practiced there and proliferated elsewhere, really go unmolested? I grant all the complexities: the failure of the Pakistani state to cohere (but no state can cohere that does not master its own borders); the nasty game that various governments have played with the savage theocrats in the west (there is no distinction any longer between “the problem of Afghanistan” and “the problem of Pakistan”); the shattering consequences for Pakistan of the Afghan war in the 1980s; the arduous struggle in Pakistani society to honor the tolerant and secular legacy of the founder of the Pakistani state; and so on. But still! Now I read that Asif Zardari, an old joke that is no longer funny, is on the enlightened side of all these matters, but I have no confidence in the principled nature of Bhuttoism. The truth is that every society must settle its character on its own. Neither its friends nor its enemies have the right, or the power, to do the work of its self-representation. I support the intelligent use of American force against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal areas—how can you infringe upon sovereignty where there is no sovereignty?—but only the Pakistanis themselves can end this suppurating historical scandal. Only they can determine, not without bitter internecine conflict, what kind of country they wish to be. Until they do, the global body count will rise.
On the second night of the atrocity in Mumbai I was hungry for news and turned on CNN. What I got was John Legend moving himself, and the audience, at something called “A Celebration of Heroes,” with a revoltingly sanguine song. It is called “If You’re Out There,” and it is one of those grandiose Quincy Jones-ish anthems to an easy eschatology. I expect to hear it a lot around January 20, when all will be put right. “If you’re out there/ Sing along with me/ If you’re out there . . ./No more broken promises/ No more call to war/ Unless it’s love and peace that/ We’re really fighting for/ We can destroy hunger/ We can conquer hate . . .”: that is what I heard while the Taj was burning. As dumb as the Youngbloods in my day, except for its groove. When trouble comes, these souls will be useless. I reflect now on the beautiful reliefs at Jaulian, which defeated the hordes of the White Huns in the fifth century when the heat of the fires that were set to destroy them turned clay into terracotta and preserved them. Toughness is the condition of a gentle world. There are all kinds of people out there, and a great quantity of fire.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
By Leon Wieseltier