y grandfather was a German Jew who moved from a town in Lower Silesia to Toulouse, in southern France, immediately after the end of the Great War. He was an engineer who senses greater prospects in France than in economically ravaged Germany. He could not imagine, he told me as a boy, that two decades later, in spite of feeling not entirely at home in his adopted nation, he would join the Free French, or French Resistance, soon after the start of World War II. He could not believe that his France had capitulated so readily to the invading Nazis.
He served in the Resistance for three years, until the end of the war, mostly concocting makeshift munitions and determining just how great a charge was necessary to derail a train. After the war he received a medal that had been hastily designed by those who had served in the liberation movement. He was proud of this star-like medal, which he showed me while telling stories of his wartime adventures to which my father, his second son, paid little heed. “Ancient history,” he’d say aloud as Papone, “grandpa” in my family, told tales of derring-do. How accurate or precise they were, I will never know, but as an impressionable boy in the American Midwest, I swallowed them whole.
Papone has returned vividly to mind in recent weeks as Israel has plowed into Palestinian lands in much the same way the Germans zoomed cruelly through France. Buyer beware: I am not comparing the Israeli war efforts with those of the Nazis. I am a Jew. From my perspective, the current war is between two sides so enraged with each other and so desperate, each in its own way, that distinguishing between good guys and bad is a fool’s errand. From the Israeli point of view, Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza were no more than tenants in a building Israel saw itself as owning. These misbehaving tenants have finally ruined things to the extent Israel had no choice but to empty the whole building. And this is what they are doing, severing all old pacts to create a new and safer reality for all Israelis.
The view from the Palestinian side, and it is here I tap into Papone’s thinking, is possessed of considerable complications. Though Papone spoke proudly of how his resistance caused chaos behind enemy lines — occupied France — he complained that many of his fellow citizens resented, or even hated, these noble efforts. Many French, perhaps most, were at ease with their collaborationist choices. The anti-Nazi subversion merely unsettled their lives and too often produced reprisals against villagers and city people who had shown they had no wish to rock the Nazi boat. Liberation tactics were a thorn in their side. Though many claimed privately to loathe the Nazis, most said did not own up to it in public, having no wish to face their occupiers’ wrath.
This is where the Palestinian quandary kicks in. Many Palestinians work in Israel. Some live there. They think not in terms of tension but of livelihood. Now, as a result of attacks by a putative liberation organization, Hamas, many find their lives disrupted beyond recognition. Israel’s wrath has punished innocents in the way Nazi retaliations speared the civilian population to punish the Free French. This brutal game of psycho-military warfare has some Palestinians wondering if life wouldn’t be better without Hamas and its relentlessly provocative actions. It’s a fair question to ponder as Israel persists in its efforts to permanently divorce itself from Palestinians, whom Jews have come to consider criminals no matter whether they have any ties to Hamas.
Papone rued the ungratefulness of his collaborationist brethren. After the war, many were punished, humiliated, even murdered — a catharsis that also infected Belgium, Holland, Italy, Greece, and many other states under brief Nazi rule. The winners decimated those losers who had failed to stand tall and risk all under the Germans.
A similar kind of problem is likely to arise in the wake of this latest Middle East war. The comparison is by no means exact, but it holds water. How will post-war Palestinians behave toward semi-ruined Hamas? Will the Israeli action generate more recruits or find slim pickings among a traumatized Gaza population, soon to be under near-total Israeli control? Who will “collaborate” to revive some semblance of normal life, and who, against all odds, will try to revive a shattered insurgency? How many Palestinians, like portions of the French public, will turn away from any group that again threatens to provoke Israel and induce another raft of vicious reprisals? To what extent will the military and existential humiliation inflicted on fractured Palestine determine the future of a humbled people ever more desperate about the shape of the future? And can that future contain a reconstituted Hamas? And what about once-restive Arab states such as Egypt and civil war-wrecked Syria, not to mention Lebanon, Jordan, and the string of Mediterranean Muslim nations. Will they stand pat indefinitely?
Papone spoke of the many who had turned their backs on the resistance during the war only to exalt it when the Nazis were defeated and disgraced. Civilians, he said, lacked any allegiance outside the maintenance of their own well-being. They belonged to the nation who demonstrated superior force and the means both to impose order and lord over the populace.
So far, it’s the war that’s making headlines. Those words, whether they concern air strikes or alleged atrocities, are simple enough. But imagining the aftermath of the war is beyond the purview of even the most powerful oracles.
- Author’s note: My grandfather was born Konrad Ammenstein, a surname changed by my London resident Anglophone father to Amory in 1950.