• Viduy, or, Listening to Palestinians With My Mother

    Shalom Auslander Attends The Adelaide Writers' Festival

    I was on my way to the Adelaide Writer’s Festival when I first heard about The Palestinians.

    “We’re sure you have heard,” read the email, “about The Palestinians.”

    I hadn’t.

    Until recently, I hadn’t even heard of Adelaide.

    Adelaide is the capital city of South Australia, home to Adelaide Writers’ Week, one of the most distinguished literary festivals in the world. Every year, hundreds of writers come to Adelaide from around the world to read from their books, meet their readers, sign books, stay in hotels they could never otherwise afford and pretend to like each other’s work.

    But this year was not like other years.

    This year, the Palestinians were coming.

    The Australian conservative press was outraged. Jewish groups were outraged. Zionist groups were outraged. They were outraged that the Palestinians were outraged, and that in their outrage, they had expressed anti-Semitic sentiments and trafficked in vile anti-Semitic tropes. The Anti-Defamation League issued a loud denunciation, but that, I figured, is what the ADL always does. “Always Denouncing Loudly.”

    I didn’t want to take sides.

    I didn’t want to get involved.

    But in the back of my mind, as I read the report about the report of what the Palestinians reportedly said, I heard a voice in my mind, a voice that caused me to shudder, a voice from the Orthodox Jewish world of my youth: my mother’s. Over the years, through a combination of therapy, gin and various psychotropic medications, I have been able to control that voice, but the mention of Palestinians overwhelmed even prescription grade selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. I heard clear as day, as if she were standing right beside me.

    This is what she said about The Palestinians:



    Every year, on Yom HaShoah—Hebrew for Holocaust Remembrance Day—we were led from our classrooms to the yeshiva auditorium to watch terrifying newsreel footage of the German death camps: of Jewish corpses, of Jewish suffering, of Jewish genocide.

    Two weeks later, on Yom Ha’atzmaut—Hebrew for Israel Independence Day—we were led from our classrooms to the yeshiva auditorium to watch newsreel footage of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War: of Jewish soldiers, of Jewish strength, of Jewish survival.

    In 1978, when I was eight years old, a nine-and-a-half-hour miniseries named Holocaust premiered on NBC TV. I was a third grader in the ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva of Spring Valley. Our rebbeim—Yiddish for rabbis—ordered us to watch it.

    They also said it was forbidden to own a television.

    They did not appreciate my pointing out this contradiction.

    Holocaust follows the story of the Weiss family, a Jewish family in Berlin during Hitler’s reign. Karl Weiss, played by James Woods, dies in Theresienstadt. His wife Inga, played by Meryl Streep, is forced into sex. His sister is raped. His parents die in Auschwitz.

    But Rudi Weiss, Karl’s younger brother, fights back.

    Rudi slips past the Nazis. Rudi joins the Jewish resistance. Rudy escapes the Sobibor death camp. And at the end, we leave Rudi, smuggling Jewish orphans into Palestine.

    I wanted to be Rudi.

    We all wanted to be Rudi.

    I took karate. I lifted weights. I hid knives and throwing stars around the house. One Sabbath afternoon, as I was walking home from synagogue, my non-Jewish neighbors began calling me “Beanie Boy” and shooting their bb gun at me. Defiant, unbowed, Rudi, I stormed up to them, grabbed the gun and dared them—all of them—to fight me man to man. They didn’t.

    I wanted to be Rudi.

    We all wanted to be Rudi.

    But Nazis, I knew, were yesterday’s enemies.

    Today’s enemies were Palestinians.


    I first heard about the Palestinians from an email that Louise Adler, the director of the Adelaide Festival, sent out to the festival’s attendees. She informed us that the festival had drawn media attention for the inclusion of the Palestinians, and signed off with this admonition:

    “Adelaide Festival and Adelaide Writers’ Week,” she wrote, “do not tolerate racism in any form. We strictly adhere to a zero-tolerance policy regarding racism towards our staff, artists, audiences and the communities we serve. We do not permit commentary during our Festival that is racist.”

    Are Jewish and Israeli writers being attacked for being Jewish or Israeli? Or is it just a general concern that everyone will hate everyone?

    I was confused. Who were the hated? Who were the hating? Who were the racists? Which race was being attacked? Which race was doing the attacking?

    These are complicated times.

    “Are Palestinian writers being attacked for being Palestinian?” I replied. “Or are Jewish and Israeli writers being attacked for being Jewish or Israeli? Or is it just a general concern that everyone will hate everyone?”

    Louise did her best to explain. She said that some people were hating the Palestinians for hating the Israelis, and that the people who hated the Palestinians for hating the Israelis now hated her for inviting them. Other people hated Israelis for hating Palestinians, and they hated the people who were hating her. Furthermore, one of the hated Palestinians seemed to support the Russians, who hate Ukrainians.

    The Ukrainians who hate the Russians because the Russians hate the Ukrainians now hated that Palestinian, too, and so the Ukrainians, who hated Jews during World War Two, had now joined arms with the Jews, who hate the Ukrainians because the Ukrainians hated Jews during World Two, in hating the Palestinians.

    Choice C, then.

    Louise sent me a PDF of the Aussie Jewish News for further clarification. The headline on Page One screamed, “Extremists Platformed.” It called for the Palestinians to be removed from the festival. The headline on Page Two screamed, “Jews Voice Fears About Israel’s Democracy.”

    I didn’t want to take sides.

    I didn’t want to get involved.

    But as I read Louise’s impassioned email about freedom of speech, I heard my mother’s voice again.

    “We’re our own worst enemy,” she said.

    “I thought Palestinians were our worst enemy.”

    “Of non-Jews, yes,” said my mother. “But including Jews, we’re worse.”

    I told her that Louise is the child of Holocaust survivors herself.

    “Useful idiot,” said my mother.

    I told her that Louise wasn’t an idiot—that she was a graduate of Columbia University, that she held master’s degrees in both Art and Philosophy, and that she was a Teacher’s Assistant at that venerable university for years.

    “For who?” my mother asked.

    “Edward Said,” I said.

    My mother rolled her eyes.

    Nuch besser,” she said.

    Yiddish for Even better.


    The Adelaide Writer’s Festival takes place entirely outdoors, in a magnificent, green-grassed memorial park in the center of the city, with hundreds of white folding chairs arranged in neat rows before raised stages set beneath the cool shade of towering old-growth oaks. But despite the bucolic setting, there was a sense of tension, of foreboding.

    Some of the Ukrainian writers had dropped out in protest. There was talk of boycotts. Everyone was afraid of what the anti-Palestinians would do. Everyone was afraid of what the Palestinians might say. Everyone was afraid of everyone. I reside in Los Angeles, so on the plus side, it felt like home.

    To counter the attacks on the festival, Louise convened a panel on the subject of free speech which I was asked to take part in, presumably because all the other writers had already said no. As I sat on the stage, scanning the audience and waiting for the gunshots to ring out—I reside in Los Angeles—the moderator asked me about the attempts to silence the speakers, and I recalled a thought I’d had some years earlier when my own writing had been attacked.

    When someone tries to shut a speaker down, I suggested, it isn’t the speaker they are concerned about. Nobody protests a speaker alone in a room, shouting at the walls. What concerns the protestor is not the speaker, I said, but you—the listener—because the protestor thinks you’re a schmuck. That you can’t think for yourself as well as they can, that you can be fooled, manipulated, tricked, because you are just not as clever as they are.

    “Maybe they’re right,” I said. “Maybe you are all schmucks. I don’t know. But understand that a protest about a speaker isn’t about the speaker. It’s about the listener. It’s about you. They’re protesting you.”

    I was at a table in the Green Room afterwards, sitting with the other panelists, when I heard a woman call my name.

    “Shalom?” she said.

    I turned, and found myself looking up at a woman in her mid-thirties, with brown skin and piercing eyes. She seemed cautious, unsure about approaching me. She told me her name was Samah, that she was a playwright, and she asked if we could talk about the panel.

    “Sure,” I said.

    We stepped away from the table to a quieter space, where she told me that while she liked what I had said, she was upset that nobody on the panel was Palestinian.

    Fuck, I thought.

    I didn’t want to take sides.

    I didn’t want to get involved.

    I lived in Israel for a year-and-a-half when I was a teenager, during the early years of the First Intifada. I have relatives there. Most of wife’s family, immediate and extended, live there as well. We have Facetimed with her elderly mother as she hid in the bomb shelter of her apartment building in Tel Aviv, air raid sirens wailing in the distance. I am no stranger to this conflict. But like most people, I have given up. It’s pointless. There is no way forward. Attack. Blame. Admit nothing. Repeat.

    I was trying to come up with a way to extract myself from the conversation when Samah said, “My family lives in Gaza.”

    That last word caught in her throat, and her eyes filled with tears.

    “Crocodile tears,” said my mother.

    When I was a child and the news showed Palestinian mothers outside bombed-out buildings crying over their dead babies, I was told that they were faking. That they were doing it for the cameras. That Palestinians didn’t care about their children, they only cared about the press. That it was arranged, faked, set up. That in fact they had put their children in the line of fire to make Israel look bad. That as soon as the cameras were gone, they laughed at us.

    “Animals,” they said.

    Samah gathered herself. I wanted to ask her about her family, her life, but she had to go. She handed me her card, said perhaps we could meet later.

    “Come to the panel,” she said.

    “What panel?” I asked.

    I knew which panel.

    “Okay,” I said.

    Fuck, I thought.

    I really didn’t want to get involved.


    The crowd shifted nervously in their seats as The Palestinians mounted the stage. Security personnel took their positions around the perimeter, arms crossed, eyes scanning the crowd for protestors, agitators, violence.

    “Hello,” the moderator began. She is a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

    Ante-suhmitten,” said my mother.

    Hebrew for anti-Semites.

    Sitting beside the moderator was a Palestinian named Ramzy Baroud, the writer of many books about his childhood as a refugee, and the editor of the online Palestine Chronicle. Ramzy seemed a stoic, reserved man, a man of large build and fierce intelligence behind his round, John-Lennon style glasses. Across from him sat Randa Abdel-Fattah, an Australian writer of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage, her 14 books published in over twenty countries.

    “Fatah,” muttered my mother. “Of course.”

    Fatah is the Palestinian nationalist party headed by Mahmoud Abbas.

    “It’s spelled differently,” I said.

    “Hamas then,” said my mother. “Nuch besser.”

    “Hamas hate Fatah,” I said.

    “Good,” said my mother. “Let them kill each other.”

    On the large screen behind the panelists, joining the panel from New York, was Muhammad el-Kurd, a Palestinian poet from East Jerusalem, whose tweets and poems had so incensed the conservative and Jewish communities.

    “Let’s go,” said my mother.

    “I’m here to listen,” I said.

    “To what?” asked my mother. “Demonization of Israelis? To that son of a bitch call us Nazis?”

    “Shh,” I said.

    Ramzy spoke first. He was born in the Jenin refugee camp; he is a third-generation refugee, his daughter is fourth generation. He spoke of Israeli soldiers raiding his refugee camp, of killing his friends and family during the First Intifada, during the time I was there, eighteen years old, sitting with my friends on Ben Yehuda Street, eating pizza and flirting with girls.

    Randa’s father was born in 1945.

    “He’s older than the state of Israel,” she said, her voice defiant, “and yet he cannot enter his birthplace unless a young conscript at that border decides if he’s had a good day or a bad day, whether to grant my father permission to enter. And if he decides he can enter, he will decide, will it be for three days or seven days, or one month.”

    Muhammed, in contrast to the fury in his poetry, was soft-spoken, almost meek.

    “It’s not enough that I have lost my home to Israeli settlers,” he said. “It’s not enough that I lived and grew up as a refugee under military occupation. Those things are not enough. I need to be polite in my suffering. I need to be respectable.”

    And then something happened.

    I began, I confess, to doubt them.

    I have spent my life distancing myself from the teachings and people of my youth, unlearning what I was taught. I have left God (to some degree) and guilt (to a lesser degree). I left the world of shvartzas—Yiddish for African-Americans—and feigelehs—Yiddish for homosexuals—and shkutzim—Yiddish for non-Jews.

    As a teenager in Israel, I bristled at the color-coded license plates I found there: yellow for Israelis, green for Palestinians. My stomach turned to drive past gates and barbed wire that once imprisoned my people in Poland now imprisoning Palestinian people in Israel. What I arrived home, America was up in arms about Do the Right Thing, a film by Spike Lee (“Another anti-Semite,” said my mother). In the final scene, the main character, pushed too far, throws a trash can through a store window, sparking a riot. Here’s what I thought when I saw it:

    Bullshit. If I was black or Palestinian, throwing a trash can through a store window is the least of what I would do.

    And yet, as I sat listening to the Palestinians, the old hatreds slowly emerged. The old voices grew louder. As I sat and listened to their words—occupation and ethnic cleansing and pogroms and boycott and apartheid—my hard-earned liberalism weakened, and the seeds of hatred, planted so long ago, began to bear their bitter fruit.

    “Why are there no Israelis on the panel?” asked my mother.

    I thought she had a good point.

    “What about the dead Israelis?” she demanded.

    I didn’t know.

    “They couldn’t find one Palestinian to tell the truth about Hamas?”

    That did seem odd.

    I looked down at the business card Samah had handed me.

    I noticed that Samah backwards is Hamas.

    Were they playing me, manipulating me, laughing at me?

    “Slick talkers,” they were called when I was young.

    “Master manipulators.”

    “And the media,” I was told, “eats it up with a spoon.”

    And so when Ramzy was given the last word, and he begged, his voice wavering, “This should not be happening to us, it shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century. People shouldn’t be mutilated, killed, burned,” and when at last the words faltered and he began to weep at the thought of his family back in Jenin, this is what I thought:

    Crocodile tears.

    Not my mother’s voice.

    Not my rabbis.



    The Jewish concept of viduy, or confession, is rather different from confession in other religions. The confession itself doesn’t bring forgiveness. It simply marks a point in time, after which you will endeavor not to repeat the sin again. It remains to be seen, based on how you behave after you confess, whether you truly deserve forgiveness.

    The Palestinians met me at the hotel bar. Samah was the first to arrive; it was through her that our meeting had been arranged, the time and location negotiated back and forth over the course of the day.

    “Just so you know,” I said to her as we sat down, “I’m Mossad.”

    “Of course you are,” she said with a smile. “People think I’m a terrorist.”

    “Because you’re Palestinian?”

    “Because my name backwards spells Hamas.”

    “Ha ha,” I laughed. “People are so crazy.”

    Ramzy arrived soon after. He was reticent, guarded. We shook hands.

    “Nice to meet you,” he said.

    I offered to pat him down and search his bags to make him feel at home. He looked at me a moment, unsure of what he had heard. There was a pause in which it seemed the whole world, past, present and future, stood still—and then Ramzy laughed.

    He had a fantastic laugh.

    “Don’t be friends with her,” the teacher warned Samah. “Yehudi.”

    The three of us laughed a lot that evening. We talked about our children and our parents, we talked about hate and paranoia, about my life in an Orthodox community, about Ramzy’s life in Jenin, about Samah’s family in Gaza. When she was a child, she told us, her family moved to Saudi Arabia. Her family was secular, and she found herself a non-practicing stranger in a suffocatingly religious land. She was lonely, afraid. She finally made a friend in school when her teacher, a recent convert to Islam, asked the students to come up and point on the map to the place where their family came from. She and another girl, Sasha, approached the map at the exact same moment, and pointed to the exact same place.

    Sasha was Israeli.

    Samah was Palestinian.

    They became best friends.

    “Don’t be friends with her,” the teacher warned Samah. “Yehudi.”

    Hebrew for Jew.

    Samah and Sasha have remained friends to this day.

    We talked about books, and aging, and parenting and fatherhood. Mostly, though, we laughed. We laughed about the real terror of teaching our sons how to drive. We laughed about however hard peace might be, it’s nothing compared to keeping weight off after age 50.

    “Sure,” said my mother. “Laugh it up. You won’t be laughing when they wipe Israel off the map.”

    We laughed until they said it was time for them to go.

    As they prepared to go, not knowing if I would ever see them again, not knowing what kind of life lay ahead for them, I confessed.

    I confessed that there is, even now, a voice in my head, implanted decades ago, a shrapnel of hate, lodged in my mind that made me doubt them, suspect them, mistrust them. I confessed that it was there during their panel discussion. That it was my voice, none other’s. And I confessed that when Ramzy cried, the voice in my head said this:

    “Crocodile tears.”

    “Crocodile?” Ramzy asked.

    He had never heard the expression. I explained that whenever we saw Palestinian mothers and fathers on the news—their mothers and fathers, no doubt, crying for their dead children, their bombed-out homes, their miserable existence—we were told they were faking.

    “But why crocodiles?” Samah asked.

    I admitted that I until that afternoon, I didn’t know. I assumed it just meant fake tears. But after their panel, I researched it, and learned that the expression derives from the fact that crocodiles’ eyes water when they consume their prey. As if they are crying.

    “Ah,” said Ramzy.

    “Oh,” said Samah.

    “Yeah,” I said.

    A long silence followed, in which we seemed to share a degree of shame and regret for the hatred we’d known and felt and been made to feel.

    Here’s what else I learned about crocodiles that afternoon:

    Crocodiles are considered endangered.

    They are endangered because they have lost their land.

    We sighed and shrugged at the madness of it all. I shook Ramzey’s hand, and gave Samah a hug. They turned and left, and I watched them go, laughing and waving goodbye as they went.

    I wondered if we would ever see one another again.

    I wondered if we would stay in touch.

    And I wondered, as they disappeared down the street, if they were laughing at me.

    Shalom Auslander
    Shalom Auslander
    Shalom Auslander was raised in Monsey, New York. Nominated for the Koret Award for writers under thirty-five, he has published articles in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Tablet magazine, The New Yorker, and has had stories aired on NPR’s This American Life. Auslander is the author of the short story collection Beware of God, the memoir Foreskin’s Lament, and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is the creator of Showtime’s Happyish. He lives in Los Angeles.

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