Lost causes

Lost causes

Lost causes


he world we live in both is and isn’t connected.

We read the terrifying headlines and look at (or avoid looking at, because they’re too terrifying, and looking at them can’t help anyone) the photographs of the devastation in Turkey, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us feel very far removed from it.

That doesn’t stop us from wanting to help the victims. The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is working through the Jewish Federations of North America, at jfna.org, which began to raise funds almost before the ground finally stopped heaving and the buildings stopped falling.

But even though many of us donate, for most of us it seems far away.

The war in Ukraine, though, seems very close to home for many of us. Although most of us didn’t realize that the Pale of Settlement, where Eastern European Jews were allowed to live, included Ukraine, not Russia, and therefore most of us who thought our familes had come from Russia were wrong, until the war started, many of us knew that we had ties to the region. (Part of Ukraine’s problem is there; it’s in the way that Russia has blurred the lines between these two countries so that it can claim Ukraine as part of its territory, a subsidiary part of the Russian world. The Ukraine, like the Yukon. It’s not. It’s a separate country, connected to Russia but separate from it.)

When I listened to Alexander Smukler talk, I was struck by how similar the story sounds in some ways to our story here.

There are of course the parallels between strongmen and would-be strongmen there and here, between demagogues and antisemites and bigots of all kinds. But I’m thinking more about the feeling of being mistreated by history.

It’s funny. We Jews could feel that so very logically. We’ve been hated and harried and hounded throughout most of our millennia. But that seems to be taken care of with the old joke about the underlying theme of our holidays: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” That’s not to say that many Jews don’t harbor real loathing for the people — mainly eastern and central Europeans — whose parents caused or abetted the Holocaust, whose casual brutality killed so many of us. But that real animus seems to last only a few generations in its purest, most acidic form.

I’ve been thinking instead about the parallels between the Russians’ attachment to the Great Patriotic War and the South’s burning nostalgia for its Lost Cause.

There are of course major differences between those two feelings. The South lost the Civil War, and it deserved to lose. It was fighting for slavery, for the right to own other people and brutalize them. Stalin’s Red Army was fighting the Nazis — a very bad man fighting against a force of pure evil — and the right side won. (Not that we should whitewash Stalin, who was directly responsible for more than a million deaths, and whose disastrous rule killed millions more through famine, disease, forced labor, and other avoidable horrors.)

But the lingering mythology, the idea that the war isn’t over, and that they — the American South, and the Russians — somehow are its victims, remains.

As Mr. Smukler tells us, Russians learn about the war constantly. It remains alive for them; it is their last glorious victory (although that victory was accompanied by bloody, muddy death). 

Large parts of the South still remain convinced that the Civil War was fought not for slavery but for states’ rights (and probably, on some deep level, remain convinced that slavery wasn’t so bad). Alabama and Mississippi both celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but they pair it with another commemoration. It’s King-Lee day; the Lee, of course, is Robert E., the slave-owning Confederate general, who was a traitor who turned against his own country, the United States of America.

Tony Hurwitz wrote about it brilliantly in 1999, in his “Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War.” Little seems to have changed in the quarter-century since the book came out.

The lesson seems to be that just as papering over fissures in human relationships doesn’t work, because hearts can’t be mended with scotch tape and tissue paper, it’s not a good cure for societal problems either.

The South lost the Civil War, and it deserved to lose.

Russia won World War II, but it lost its empire because its vassal states wanted freedom, and it can’t just invade and kill to get them back.

Maybe, just maybe, if Ukraine wins the war; if it can get enough of what it needs quickly enough so that its Jewish president can lead it to victory, at least one toxic myth plaguing Eastern Europe can be exposed to the sunlight that’ll kill it.

We can hope, can’t we?


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