The curious case of Mx. Masha Gessen

The curious case of Mx. Masha Gessen

The writer gets it profoundly wrong in her condemnation of Israel’s Gaza thrust

Masha Gessen, right, with Heinrich Riethmüller, who presented them with the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding in 2019, at the Leipzig Book Fair. (Wikimedia Commons)
Masha Gessen, right, with Heinrich Riethmüller, who presented them with the Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding in 2019, at the Leipzig Book Fair. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes history just chugs along, apparently uneventfully, with gentle changes eventually adding up to sea changes. When we look back, we realize that life used to be different, but exactly when did that happen?

When, say, did everyone get a cell phone? When did everyone get a computer? When did being a smoker change from being glamorous to being smelly and gross?

And then there are sudden changes, the short, sharp shock that means that everything is different.

During the pandemic, which started as if a knife had cut our ties to the past, we used to talk longingly about the before times. But oddly enough, it ended muddily, with the before times swirling back. Time as estuary.

September 11 cut the world into before and after. Twenty-two years later, we can just begin to assess how that worked.

So did October 7. Three months out, we’re still in shock.

October 7 was a day of surpassing evil — not accidental, not a weather catastrophe or unavoidable accident, but planned evil — that ended the world as we had known it.

The barbarity brought the antisemitism that apparently had lurked underground all along up to the surface.

“We have all been witness to the seismic shaking-up of the Jewish community,” Alexander Smukler said. Mr. Smukler, who immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1991, just months before it fell, and by now a few years less than half his life ago, lives in Montclair. He analyzes the war that began when Russia invaded Ukraine almost two years ago, but now he’s talking about October 7 and its aftermath.

He looks at it through the lens of a childhood spent as a Jew in the Soviet Union, as well as an analyst who sees what he calls the “global game of thrones” changing the world’s power structure, which had been stable, or at least more or less predictable, since the end of World War II but is so no longer.

He remembers growing up in an antisemitic world, and he fears that we face such a world again.

“October 7 was a wakeup call for all of us, to understand where we are, what we have accomplished, what is ahead of us, and what kind of community and what kind of relationship with Israel we will leave to the next generation,” he said. “October 7 made me think about the environment that my sons and grandson will be living in for the next 20 or 30 years.

Alexander Smukler

“Reading and watching the news coming out of Israel, and the demonstrations in different cities, and the amazing move by the organized Jewish community to bring as many Jews as possible to Washington for the rally in November — this is obviously a historic moment for the Jewish world. And the center of this, of course, is Israel.

“I remember when I was a kid, 7 years old, my grandfather would lock himself in a small closet, listening to Kol Yisrael.” The radio news service that was the Voice of Israel broadcast abroad, at first in Hebrew, then in languages that included Russian.

“In 1973 I was 13 years old, already old enough to understand, and my grandfather for the first time took me into his closet, and we listened to Kol Yisrael together.

“That was the first time that I heard the news from the front lines. We would cry together when we thought about the casualties, and we would dance together when we celebrated victories.

“It was the only source of true information that got into the Soviet Union from Israel. I think that my grandfather was able to understand the Hebrew — his native language was Yiddish — but at that time they had a well-established Russian-language version.

“But the problem was that you could hear the program only with a short-wave radio, which the KGB was trying to block. It became almost impossible — you could hear only some words.

“Can you imagine? We were in a small closet, with no windows. My grandfather locked the door. He had a radio with a short-wave option, and he was sitting with a piece of paper, and basically he would write down the words that he heard. He could hear a few words in between the noise. So he wrote down the words, and then we assembled them, trying to learn what was going on in the front lines.

“For me, it was an amazing window, a little hole into a different world. I was so proud of being my grandfather’s oldest grandson, and that he was taking me to that little closet, that didn’t hold more than two people. No other family members.

“Obviously it was weird. Everybody knew that when my grandfather disappeared. It was obvious what he was doing.

“I am telling this story to remind you that we used to live behind the Iron Curtain, in a country that was an active enemy of Israel. A country that supplied all kinds of weaponry to every one of Israel’s enemies in every conflict in the Middle East. A country that not only was publicly antisemitic but had that as a priority in internal politics.

“Antisemitism surrounded us every day.

“And the situation now in the Galut” — the Diaspora — “and especially in the United States, is reminding me in certain ways of the time when I grew up, and my grandfather and I had to lock ourselves in a closet to hear the voices from the Holy Land. From Medinat Yisrael.

This is one of Mr. Smukler’s school photographs; here, Moscow School #518 celebrates its opening in 1974.

“Of course, in 1973 that voice, Kol Yisrael, woke up probably hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of Jews who lived silently in the Soviet Union, as what Elie Wiesel called the “Jews of silence.” It woke up inside of us something so strong, a spark that became a flame and that flame started an enormous movement of Jews. We woke up and stood up for our land, for our traditions, for our ancestors. It was the beginning of a huge aliyah to Israel, the mass movement out of a country that was so antisemitic, that kept pushing us away.”

The numbers are vast. “During those 50 years, more than 1.3 million people came to Israel as olim from the former Soviet Union, and 450,000 or more Russian-speaking Jews came to the United States. Most of them didn’t leave until after the Soviet Union collapsed, or when Gorbachev opened the gates wide open, but it was a long process, and it began when people started thinking about their roots, their identity, and the Jewish tradition. They prepared themselves to leave the country where they had been born and suffered for so many years.”

Although not all the immigrants went to Israel, the Jewish state was their inspiration and their north star. “L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim — next year in Jerusalem — was the movement’s slogan.”

The movement out of the former Soviet Union was an exodus, he said. “We weren’t slaves, but we felt as if we were second class, and we were treated that way.

“We used to live with enormous fear inside us. Fear of being Jewish. Fear of your neighbor knowing that you are Jewish. Fear of showing your identity to others.”

He compared it to the fear that members of the LBGTQ community feel before “they become brave enough to tell the people around them who they are.

“That’s what it was like to us, to come out and announce that you are Jewish, you are going to follow the Jewish traditions, and you support Israel. That you are a Zionist. That was the next level.

“You live with something that you try to hide, but at the same time the government made it impossible, because it is obvious to the people around you that you are hiding something. Your passport has your nationality — Jew — and your last name is totally different from other people’s. They don’t allow you to change your last name, although hundreds of thousands of people tried.” Some succeeded. “Since the October Revolution in 1917, people tried to change their last names,” Mr. Smukler said.

“There’s always that fear inside you. You’re always scared to wear a magen David. Of course you’re scared to wear a kippah.”

One of Mr. Smukler’s most scarring childhood experiences was summer camp, and “I had to go to the banya — the public bath — with other boys.” At his grandfather’s insistence, despite his parents’ reluctance, Mr. Smukler had been circumcised. “I did everything possible. I got sick. I ran away. I didn’t want to go. I knew I would immediately be the center of the jokes, the laughter.

“I didn’t understand until I was 13 or 14 why all my friends had been laughing at me. Nobody in my household except my grandfather ever wanted to talk about anything. My parents tried to be as assimilated as possible. My mother was a hardline communist.

“My secret was my fear. I was ashamed. I remember thinking about what I could do to not be a Jew.

Vladimir Putin

“That’s why I joined a street gang,” and that’s how Mr. Smukler comes to understand Vladimir Putin, less than a decade older than he is, a street kid growing up in a communal building in St. Petersburg as Mr. Smukler was a street kid in a communal building in Moscow, as a gang leader. “I wanted to be like them. I wanted to prove that I could fight like them. That I knew their rules. I wanted to be a bad boy, like them.

“That changed for me in Crimea” — sort of like a Russian Catskills, a vacation area where the rules were relaxed and Jews could be more or less themselves — “when I saw young people wearing magen Davids openly. That’s when the fear started leaving me.

“I’m explaining all this. It’s a sensitive issue to all of us who left the Soviet Union. But now I live in a country where I am afraid that my children and grandchildren will have the same fear inside them.

“We know that today Israel is struggling and fighting again, as it has many times before, with evil. We have to defeat that evil. For me, as a person who used to live in a very antisemitic environment, unconditional support of Israel is a pillar of my self-identity.”

Although he’s concerned about antisemitism in general, he said, as a Jew, and based on his experience in the Soviet Union, he chooses to fight specifically against the antisemitism coming from other Jews. “In the Soviet Union, there were Jews who took anti-Israel and even antisemitic positions. They thought that they would betray their traditions, their genetic memories, for better causes. They became well-known politicians or journalists, and they betrayed their families. We always condemned them, opposed them, and tried to defeat them publicly.

In 1983, the Soviet Union’s Central Committee of the Communist Party created the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public. “Ninety-nine percent of its members were important and famous Jews who supported Soviet propaganda and its position toward Israel,” Mr. Smukler said. “There were a number of petitions that they signed in support of supplying the weaponry its enemies used against Israel. They signed petitions condemning Israel.

“And right now I see history again repeating itself.

“I see that among us, here in the Jewish community, we have an enormously deep crisis in Jewish leadership and in the organized communal Jewish world. There are among us a number of distinguished members of the intellectual elite who are Jewish by blood but betray their Jewish roots and Jewish family. These people require our attention. We need to defeat their positions in the public discussion and on the public stage. We have to explain their mistakes and the lies they spread about Israel to the younger generation.

“Israel is the center of modern Jewish life, and Israel’s existence is the guarantee that we will never again live with the fear of being Jewish inside us. As long as Israel exists, I will never again be a scared Jew. Nobody will call me a dirty Jew the way they did in school every day.”

And that brings him to the subject of Masha Gessen, the Russian-American journalist whose essay, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: How the politics of memory in Europe obscures what we see in Israel and Gaza today,” was published on December 9 in the New Yorker, where Mx. Gessen is a staff writer.

Masha Gessen, who was born in 1967, seven years after Mr. Smukler, grew up in in Moscow, as he did. But the Gessen family was so elite that the ordinary rules that applied to Jews did not apply to them.

“They went to one of the most elite schools, School #57, in Moscow, and they were surrounded by the most intellectual group of people in the former Soviet Union,” Mr. Smukler said. Mx. Gessen, who lived for years as a lesbian, since has come out as gender nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns.

Hamas hands over 11 Israeli hostages to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza City, Gaza on November 27, 2023. (Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The Gessens immigrated to the United States in 1981. In 1996 Masha went back to Russia with their wife and children to work as a journalist; in 2013 they came back to the United States, because Russia was threatening to take away the children of same-sex families.

“Masha probably had the same fear that I had growing up, but it was different,” Mr. Smukler said. “They had the fear of being gay. Now Masha is open, but it was their immigration to the United States that gave them the freedom to be openly gay. When they talk about the gay experience, or about adoption — they’ve adopted a child — or about breast cancer — which they’ve had — they’re an expert on them, and I would never argue with them about it.

“But when Masha is talking about Jewish issues, Masha is my enemy, because Masha doesn’t understand what it means to have that fear.

“They probably always concentrated on gender issues more than on being a Jew, and now they are criticizing Israel, even though it’s among one of the most welcoming countries to LGBT communities in the world.

“And I would like to remind Masha that they came to the United States using Israel. I was a refusenik — I received my first visa refusal in 1980 — but Masha’s parents were able to immigrate at the most difficult time, when few families received permission. They left the Soviet Union in 1981 with an Israeli visa. They stopped in Vienna, and then went to Italy, where they waited for six or eight months for permission. They forget that without the Israeli letter of invitation they would never have been granted permission to immigrate.

“The reason why they grew up here, the reason why they thrive in the free world, the reason they became such a successful and well-known journalist, is because of Israel.

“In their essay, Masha compares Gaza today to the Warsaw and Kovno ghettoes. They are talking about things that they have no idea about, and they have no right to make that comparison.

“I also feel sick, I feel enormous pain, when I see children dying because of the IDF’s military action. I have no idea how many children died — I don’t trust the numbers from Hamas and the Gaza Health Ministry — but the death of even one child is terrible. But I am not a miliary expert, and I cannot criticize the army trying to defeat terrorists and release the hostages in a complicated antiterrorism operation. So I’m not the one who will take the responsibility of telling people what should be done to defeat Hamas and provide safety and security not only for Jews but also for the Arabs who live in Gaza. And I do believe that Israel has no intention of taking over Gaza or pushing the Arabs out.

“But I do want to remind them, Masha Gessen, that unfortunately during such operations there are lots of casualties among civilians. For example, we already have forgotten that when the United States started its operations in Iraq after September 11, 150,000 civilians died. We destroyed Iraq, we created ISIS as a result, but nobody wants to remember that. Nobody is held responsible for it. Nobody brought us to the International Criminal Court.

“Everybody forgets that when Putin was fighting against Chechen terrorists, there were Russian hostages in a theater and Putin used gas.” That was in 2002; of the 850 hostages, 172 died. “He killed the terrorists, but the Russians forgot to bring any antidotes and so hundreds of people — not terrorists — who had been in the theater died. Nobody talks about that.

“When Masha uses the term ghetto to compare the situation in Gaza with Warsaw, I must tell them I am sorry, but you have no idea what you’re talking about. People who do that are denying the Holocaust.”

His grandfather was able to save his family by running away from Babyn Yar, Mr. Smukler said. “And my wife’s great-grandfather, the rabbi of Gaison, was buried alive. Ghettos organized by the Nazis are nothing like Gaza. Nobody in the ghettos was able to resist and fight against the Germans and leave the ghetto to fight off the Germans and cut off the heads of women after they rape them and kill babies. They never did that. They lived in the ghettos and a train would leave every day, four days a week, with 800 people loaded onto it, and it would go to Auschwitz. There was only one way out of there — the gas chamber.

“That is not like Gaza.”

Mr. Smukler knew Mx. Gessen slightly. They met first when they were a small child in Crimea with their parents. “It was a little place called Koktebel, a little like upstate New York. It’s where all the Jews from Moscow went for the summer. Because her family was elite, everyone wanted to sit next to them.”

He met them again when they were a journalist. “We met many times, but we never have been friendly.

“Masha is a person who probably should have been born 100 years earlier. They should be wearing a black leather jacket with a huge revolver, and they should become the commissar of the Red Army.” They remind him of Trotsky. “Remember the story when a group of rabbis came to Trotsky to ask him to stop a pogrom. And Trotsky said, ‘I am not a Jew anymore. I am not one of you. I am not Jewish. I am a Bolshevist and a Communist.’

“Trotsky became a communist because he didn’t want to be a Jew. He was trying to erase the fear of being Jewish. But at that time there was no Israel. Israel made me a proud Jew. Trotsky chose a different path.

“Masha reminds me of that. When a person condemns Israel after what Hamas did, when a person who is a distinguished leader of the LGBTQ community supports a terrorist organization that denies that community its right to exist, that is absurd.

“And it is a disgrace.

“Remember how Putin called Zelensky” — that’s the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish — “a ‘disgrace to the Jewish people’? To me, Zelensky is a hero of the Jewish people. He fights against tyranny and dictatorships, and he heads a non-Jewish country in this enormous fight.

“Masha and people like them, taking the side of people criticizing Israel — they are the real disgrace to the Jewish people.”

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