My dear friend Misha Pless is an amazing man. Raised in Bolivia by German-Jewish refugees, he was bilingual in German and Spanish before learning English impeccably and sailing into Stanford. He spent time in Israel, so he also knows quite a bit of Hebrew, and he picked up a good deal of Quechua, the language of the Native Americans of the Bolivian highlands, while scrambling around the Andes. He almost became a concert pianist before going to medical school.
Oh. Did I mention that he’s a professor at Harvard Medical School and Chief of Neuro-ophthalmology at the Massachusetts General Hospital? He’s also married to a physician, who is Swiss and Jewish, and they have four exquisite kids either in or headed for Jewish day school. When I visited him at MGH recently, he spoke passionately about them, music, medicine, Israel, and of course, Jewishness.
So I was sad to learn when he wrote me last week from Switzerland—he and his wonderful family visit his wife’s folks there yearly—that they ran into a nasty bit of old-fashioned anti-Semitism:
“Hello my dear friend,
“Again I find myself writing to you from the Alps…Out of the window right now I can see the Lake of Luzern…Old steamboats criss-crossing the lake in stunning glacier-cut landscape. Such a privileged landscape and such lucky people the Swiss in so many ways. But so many undescribable paradoxes still linger in the air here…I am back at
my in-laws after a week long sojourn in Pontresina, near St. Moritz. We rented
an apartment big enough for the 6 of us. Yes, hard to believe now I am in a
family of 6! The landlady was just charming and sweet as can be. The last day
before leaving, while sustaining pretty superficial conversation with her at the
small playground behind her century old mountain home, she mentioned she has to prepare the house for the next party of people coming up from the big city and she is particularly vexed. ‘Na ja, die sent Juden…’ (sic: oh, yes, they are Jewish…) Add the roll of the eyes to your visualization of such scene. My blood boiled. I said: ‘I don't know if you knew we are Jewish, too.’ She was caught off guard. Immediately she mentioned that what she meant was that the ‘lovely’ man (pater familias) called many times to make sure that the kitchen this or that, or that they could bring their own kitchenware, silver, etc. She didn't mention it ‘that way’…
“Mel, it just runs deep.”
When they left the place, Misha told her more fully what he thought of her remarks. She said Americans shouldn’t comment because we’re the bullies of the world. “It is a sad world out there right now,” Misha’s letter went on. Anti-American/anti-Israel feelings and anti-Semitism “are so alive and well in public opinion that the timid rapprochement in Europe (‘Deutschland Weg Nach Israel’) is about dead right now.”
Misha knows Europe much better than I do, but I have the feeling there is a split at the moment between “Germany’s Way toward Israel” at the government level and the word on the street. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Israel was certainly a good moment in which the privileged status of Israel was strongly confirmed.
She told the Knesset, “Every German government and every chancellor before me was committed to the special responsibility Germany has for Israel's security…This historic responsibility is part of my country's fundamental policy…for me, as a German chancellor, Israel's security is non-negotiable.”
Nicholas Sarkozy, who had a Jewish grandfather, is by far the most pro-Israel and pro-American French leader in decades, and French Jews feel close to him. He told the Knesset, “France will always stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel when her security and existence are threatened. I have always thought this, I have always felt it in my heart of hearts and I will never compromise on this. And those who call scandalously for Israel’s destruction will always find France in their way, blocking the path.”
Finally Gordon Brown just became the first British Prime Minister to address the Knesset. He talked about “the achievement of 1948: the centuries of exile ended, the age-long dream realized, the ancient promise redeemed.” He described his clergyman-father’s many trips to Israel, and his plan to teach his own sons, now just two and four, to love and admire Israel as his father taught him.
He said, “I am proud to say that for the whole of my life, I have counted myself a friend of Israel.” And, “let me tell the people of Israel today: Britain is your true friend…a friend who will stand beside you whenever your peace, your stability and your existence are under threat.”
These are the people democratically chosen to lead Europe’s three greatest nations. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that when (not if) push comes to shove, no one will really defend Israel except Israelis. And I don’t delude myself that classic European anti-Semitism died in a paroxysm of post-Hitler guilt. It’s quietly thriving and forging bonds with the virulent anti-Semitism seething among Europe’s Arabs.
I’m just saying it’s not all dark, and we have to follow the glimmers of light; Misha was right to be hurt and worried. But let’s not miss what is surely the best opportunity in decades to build new relations between Israel and Europe, even over the heads of millions of anti-Semites old and new. It wouldn’t be the first time a friend in the palace made all the difference for the Jews.