Nathan Berzok, son of Joseph and Mollie, was born in Odessa on October 7, 1905. A multicultural metropolis on the Black Sea, Odessa was home to some 138,000 Jews–and the site, eleven days after Nathan’s birth, of a four-day pogrom that took at least 400 of their lives. The Berzoks survived; Mollie
hid Nathan in a stove. But like many of Odessa’s Jews, they took the pogrom as a sign that it was time to pack their bags. On March 1, 1908, Nathan, his two older brothers and Mollie arrived at Ellis Island. Joseph was there waiting for them, having already left Odessa to scout out New York. When he spied his wife and three sons inside the immigration center, Joseph rolled them oranges under the railing–the sweetest of signs that they had permanently left Odessa and its pogroms behind.
Nathan Berzok was my grandfather. But it wasn’t until I had nearly finished Human Cargo, Caroline Moorehead’s book about contemporary refugees and migrants, that I even thought of these stories, which he told me while I was growing up. I hadn’t forgotten them. They just didn’t register as I read Moorehead’s harrowing tales of people fleeing persecution, warfare and destitution, traveling thousands of miles in search of a new and better life.
Despite the efforts of postmodern theorists to convince us that exile is the emblematic condition of modern life, when it comes to immigrants and refugees we still seem incapable of the barest gesture of recognition, much less empathy. We remember Oedipus Rex: lover of one parent, killer of another. We forget Oedipus at Colonus: exiled king who wandered twenty years in search of “a resting place” near Athens, “where I should find home” and “round out there my bitter life.” We feel Medea’s rage over Jason’s betrayal, driving her to kill their two sons. We scarcely notice her equally poignant–and more frequent–lament that she is “deserted, a refugee,” with “no harbor from ruin to reach easily.”
Even those of us who for reasons of personal background, religion or politics should be most sensitive to the suffering of refugees can be astonishingly indifferent to their plight. “Four hundred years of bondage in Egypt,” Cynthia Ozick has written, “rendered as metaphoric memory, can be spoken in a moment; in a single sentence. What this sentence is, we know; we have built every idea of moral civilization on it. It is a sentence that conceivably sums up at the start every revelation that came afterward…. ‘The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'”
Fine, even beautiful, words, both the original and the gloss. But where are we to find them in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, from the exile it thrust upon them in 1948 to the ongoing hostility to their return–or, for that matter, in Ozick’s anti-Arab fulminations? From one vantage, the story of Israel and Palestine can seem the most idiosyncratic of ironies: A people forced to wander thousands of years forces another people to wander for who knows how many years. From another vantage, the story is sadly universal: the refusal to see or imagine oneself in the pain of another, even–or particularly–when one has suffered a similar ordeal. If exile has any larger import, then, it is not that we all share in its status. It is that it occasions the most sacred and sublime of obligations–“love him as yourself”–and the most wretched of betrayals.