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Joseph Levine: Moved by sad songs of exile

What do we leave? Nothing much.

Only Anatevka.

Anatevka, Anatevka.

Underfed, overworked Anatevka.

Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?

Anatevka, Anatevka.

Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,

Where I know everyone I meet.

Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place,

Searching for an old familiar face

From Anatevka.

I belong in Anatevka,

Tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka.

Dear little village, little town of mine.

(From “Fiddler on the Roof”)

As someone who grew up in the transplanted version of that life in the United States, I found much to identify with in the story. Some of the songs still bring tears to my eyes.

Case in point: “Anatevka,” sung while the villagers pack up, forced by an expulsion order from the Russian authorities to leave their home. They are victims of what we would today call “ethnic cleansing.” No one — Jew or non-Jew — can watch this scene without feeling the pathos, the heart-rending anguish suffered by people who have had roots in this village for many generations.

The lyrics, printed at the start here, perfectly express their feelings.

As I watched them singing “Anatevka,” I was mentally transported to a scene I witnessed in 1998, when I was living in Raleigh, N.C. I was standing on the lawn of the North Carolina Museum of Art, where inside there was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the birth of the state of Israel. Outside, where I was, 50 to 100 people were gathered to commemorate the Naqba, the disaster that befell the Palestinian people when around three-quarters of a million of them were expelled from their villages and towns to make way for the new state. There was a very large quilt displayed that contained a square for each village destroyed in 1948-1949 — somewhere around 400.

But what really got to me were the four older men, survivors of the Naqba, who simply told their personal stories. I don’t remember all the details, but there was one story that stuck with me.

This man had been 13 years old in 1948, and lived in the Ramle-Lydda area. When the soldiers arrived, everyone was rounded up and forced into either the church or the mosque at the center of town, depending on whether they were Christian or Muslim. After several days locked inside the church or mosque, they were let out and told to walk to the east, and keep going until they reached the forces of King Abdullah of Transjordan, in the West Bank.

It was July, so it was very hot. But they couldn’t stop anywhere there were Israeli soldiers, so they kept walking for days.

It’s common among apologists for the Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians to point to mitigating factors. Many Palestinians flourished in their new homes, as did my informant from Ramle-Lydda (though for the vast majority this was not the case). Others took up residence not too far from their original villages, so, it’s said, the loss wasn’t that great.

I imagine that Russian apologists could say something similar. Many of Anatevka’s residents immigrated to the U.S. (of course Anatevka is fictional, but I mean the real villages it represents), where they and their children flourished. Probably some moved to areas of Russia not all that far from Anatevka.

But of course these considerations are quite beside the point. As the song “Anatevka” so poignantly depicts, people are attached to their homes, their neighbors, their community, their church or mosque or synagogue, the familiar buildings and landscape. Forcibly evicting them and breaking the ties that bind them together is horribly traumatic. We feel the injustice visited on the villagers in “Fiddler” viscerally, as I felt the injustice of what happened to that boy and his community in Ramle-Lydda as I listened to his story some 15 years ago.

Here are two tragedies: Anatevka and Ramle-Lydda. Many tears have been shed for the former, but, I submit, not nearly enough, especially here in the U.S., for the latter. So next time you hear “Anatevka,” try substituting in your mind the name “Ramle.”

The resulting empathy may not translate into a solution to the conflict in Israel/Palestine, but it certainly can’t hurt.

Joseph Levine of Leverett is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Legacy Comments2

Professor Levine, A mental "search and replace" does not automatically lead to something meaningful or even true. Analogy devoid of context is less than a half-truth. "Anatevka" was an unwarranted act of ethnic hatred and a harbinger of a much greater tragedy. What happened in Ramle-Lydda was the aftermath of a double war: civil (Arabs vs. Jews) and international (7 Arab countries vs. Israel). A de facto population exchange took place - 600,000 Moslem and Christian Arabs left Israel, 850,000 Jewish Arabs left Moslem countries. You do not suggest we substitute Baghdad, Alexandria, Fez, Rabat, Beirut - all places Jews were forced to leave after 1948 - for Anatevka. One wonders why.

I write to offer appreciation for your encouragement of sympathy for those displaced by ethnically motivated imperialistic aggression, no matter where, no matter who the perpetrators, and surely including the refuges in Palestine, languishing in exile to this day. There are such raw feelings triggered in many by the mere suggestion that the Palestinian people are deserving of compassion that writing as you have, no matter how gently understanding is prodded, can yield a backlash often of fierce and personalized rage. And yet, the truth must be told. Thank you for telling it.

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