“Dear Alvin, I tried to tell you something, but it is very hard for me to write about this all…There are such a lot of questions in my life that have no answers. I sometimes give it completely up. You asked about grandmother — she died in the first month of the German occupation. About my family, I don’t know anything, I don’t think they are alive. I don’t need anything specially, but when we meet I will ask you for something.”
That’s part of a letter Alvin Sloofman — my uncle and my mother’s oldest brother — received on June 14, 1945, a little over a month after WWII ended in Europe and about six weeks after Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in their bunker as Soviet troops rolled into Berlin.
I got a copy of the letter from Alvin’s daughter, Pam, a few years ago, at a family reunion in St. Louis organized by my mother. People came a long way for the reunion, including a number of relatives from Buenos Aires, where relatives had fled before and after World War II.
Tragically, a child of one of those relatives was killed during the “Dirty War” conducted by the right-wing Argentine junta that ruled — with extensive support from the U.S. government — between 1976 and 1983. The young man who was killed was a leftist activist who the Argentine junta “disappeared” during the so-called “Dirty War.”
Jorge Werber, a second cousin who I met at the family reunion and who I spoke to on Monday night, told me that to the best of his knowledge, the young man — his first name was Oscar — was kidnapped from a café, while he was having a meeting with companions. He was ratted out by someone who had been kidnapped earlier and revealed Oscar’s identity under torture.Oscar’s body was never found and his family never learned exactly what happened to him, though they spent many years pursuing the case in Argentina and in the United States.
As to that letter to Alvin, it was written to him by a cousin and delivered to a U.S. Army camp in Italy, where Alvin fought during the war. The letter writer was then in Egypt after having fought against the Nazis as part of the Jewish Brigades, which were part of the British Army.
The letter closes with these words: “In a short time I will go on leave to Palestine to saw [sic] aunt and then I shall probably see you. I have written today to your family too. Write me again soon!”
The letter writer’s signature is illegible. Alvin, who died about a decade ago, never met him and many members of family — including my mother — never heard from him again or knew what became of him.
I think about that letter a lot and found myself reading it over and over again after recently returning from a trip to the Middle East, where I spent a great deal of time with members of Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, and in Lebanon, with friends who support and fight for Hezbollah, the militia of Lebanese Shias led by Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s religious leader.
The Kurds are the primary military enemy of ISIS in Iraq, and Hezbollah is ISIS’ main military foe in Syria. Interestingly, the Kurds are an official American “friend” and Hezbollah is an official “enemy,” which U.S. governments have shunned for decades and written off as a “terrorist” organization, when in fact it is a social, political, cultural and religious group with deep roots among Lebanese Shiites. Hezbollah’s armed wing is effectively Lebanon’s primary army.
As a journalist, I believe in talking and listening to all sides, and I try to understand and accept conflicting points of view. As a human being, I am not nearly as tolerant.
I first traveled to Lebanon a decade ago and this was my third trip. I’ve always been warmly welcomed by Hezbollah officials and people on the street—primarily Shias, as I especially love being in the Dahieh, Beirut’s predominately Shia southern suburb. I have never encountered any hostility toward me as a Jew, though I have occasionally encountered some serious misperceptions about Jewish people. Instead, I found deep appreciation that I had come to Lebanon to spend time with Shias and Hezbollah, and to listen to their points of view.
‘Even though we chanted “Death to America” today, you are always welcome in our home.’
During this last trip, I spent five nights at the home of my best friend in Beirut, Mostafa Nasser. His mother is buried in the same graveyard as Hadi Nasrallah—the eldest son of Hassan Nasrallah—who died in 1997, during an operation in which Hezbollah fighters killed about a dozen Israeli soldiers in a town in southern Lebanon.
During my first trip to the country, Mr. Nasser took me to hear Nasrallah speak during Ashura, the highest religious holiday for Shias, and introduced me to his family a few days later at his mother’s apartment. This was on the closing day of Ashura, when Nasrallah had also addressed a multitude of supporters in the Dahieh. At one point, Mr. Nasser’s sister joked, “Even though we chanted ‘Death to America’ today, you are always welcome in our home.”
I can understand why Lebanese Shias—and most of the country’s population—detest Israel for its repeated invasions of Arab land, and especially of Lebanese land. But I also support a Jewish state in the Middle East, which is a subject I discussed frequently during my recent travels with Hezbollah.
Much of the American media’s coverage of the Middle East is simplistic and boring, and is naively sympathetic toward one side or the other. Among the most awful of all reporters covering the Middle East—and naturally among the most successful—is Jeffrey Goldberg. During the run-up to the Iraq War he authored a series of highly influential and resoundingly inaccurate pieces, which made and advanced the Bush administration’s case for invasion.
(I’m not the most impartial analyst of Mr. Goldberg’s oeuvre. Over the years, I’ve written about his excesses and distortions for various news outlets. In response, he has, among other things, derided me as “ethically challenged” because I once went undercover to pose as a foreign businessman who was seeking to hire a lobbying firm in D.C. to see how far—and how low—major D.C. lobby shops would go to secure a lucrative contract from a dictatorial regime. Short answer: Very far and very low.)
Mr. Goldberg strenuously sought to tie together Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and he also fabricated a “moral” case for invading Iraq on the grounds that Saddam was nothing less than a latter-day Hitler. Not only did he air the unconfirmed WMD allegations of Ahmed Chalabi as unassailable inside intelligence, he also propagated as gospel the ravings of a Kurdish prisoner who claimed to have proof of the Saddam-Al Qaeda link. But unlike some reporters—for example, Judith Miller, who covered Iraq for The New York Times—Mr. Goldberg never faced a moment of pundit reckoning. Instead, he’s failed steadily upward, gliding seamlessly from The New Yorker to Atlantic Monthly and now writing for a variety of publications. In writing about the Middle East, Mr. Goldberg has consistently served as a mouthpiece for the Israeli point of view.
It’s worth examining a two-part series Mr. Goldberg wrote for The New Yorker in 2002 when he traveled to Lebanon and elsewhere to report on Hezbollah. His resulting lurid two-part series won a National Magazine Award—a distinction that now looks like the journalistic equivalent of Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the first of the two stories, very little happens. Mr. Goldberg travels to the land of the hijab to meet a shadowy Hezbollah operative who allegedly kidnapped Americans 20 years ago. He never did meet the operative, but he stared down a “stiff and unhappy-looking man” whom Hezbollah had sent to “assess my intentions.” Our hero then returns to Beirut after downing three Pepsis at a café.
In the second story, Mr. Goldberg followed his terrorist quarry back to the New World, seeking evidence of Hezbollah sleeper cells in America and Paraguay. He found very little to support his thesis. Mr. Goldberg’s most sensational revelation concerned a Hezbollah cell in Charlotte, N.C., led by a Lebanese immigrant named Mohamad Youssef Hammoud. “In the course of a year and a half [the cell] sold $7.9 million worth of cigarettes illegally in Michigan and sent some of the profits to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Mr. Goldberg reported. What he didn’t note was that of that money, a paltry $3,500 was sent to Lebanon. Hammoud said money he helped send to Lebanon went to support Hezbollah’s efforts to distribute books at schools and improve public water systems.
Mr. Goldberg closed his story with this chilling discovery:
“Investigators in North Carolina found anti-American propaganda among the belongings of several of the cell members … [and] a series of photographs taken in Washington, D.C. In one of them, a member of the cell stands in front of the Washington Monument, smiling. In another, two members are posing in front of the White House.”
Probably half of the American population has similar photographs taken during trips to Washington. An astute analyst of Middle Eastern affairs will recognize, however, that Arab-American cigarette smugglers don’t smile while standing in front of monuments unless they’re planning to blow them up. (The case went to trial soon after the 9/11 attacks. Even at this moment of maximum public alarm, a North Carolina jury was deadlocked on the charge that Hammoud actually lent material support to a terrorist group. It came back with a conviction only after the judge ordered jurors to keep deliberating. Hammoud is still serving time but maintains his innocence. (His brother, Chawki Hammoud, was found guilty of charges that included cigarette smuggling and racketeering.)
More than a dozen years later, Mr. Goldberg remains a respected commentator on the Middle East. It’s a pity, because his work obscures rather than illuminates, and in fundamental ways.
* * *
Last August, it looked like ISIS would roll through Kurdistan in northern Iraq and then proceed to Baghdad virtually unopposed. But the Peshmerga halted the Isis advance. While ISIS still controls a large chunk of Iraq, it never did get to Baghdad, and the Kurds stopped them 35 kilometers outside of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region. Had Erbil fallen, U.S. government personnel would almost surely have had to evacuate Iraq en masse and U.S. national security strategy for the entire Middle East would have unraveled.
Meanwhile, it is Hezbollah that has halted ISIS’ advance in Syria. Without its sacrifice the current Syrian quagmire would be far, far worse. And last week, Vocativ reported that Hezbollah fought alongside Iraqi security forces to retake the city of Ramadi from ISIS, using Abrams tanks supplied to Iraq by the U.S. military.
Curiously, there are some distinct similarities between Peshmerga and Hezbollah, among them that the former, in Kurdish, means “Those who face death for their country” while Hezbollah, in Arabic, means Party of God, which for Shias must mean roughly the same thing.
I was in Beirut for about a week, and didn’t interview any government officials or senior religious or business people. Instead I roamed across the city and occasionally beyond, and met with people from diverse backgrounds.
It is hezbollah that has halted isis’ advance in Syria. without its sacrifice the current Syrian quagmire would be far, far worse.
One especially interesting person was runs a beautiful gift ship in the Gemayze district, which is mostly Christian. Julien told me that he had never knowingly spoken to a Jewish person before, which was common among Lebanese. He told me he was surprised that I was able to meet with people from Hezbollah so easily and that they accepted me so naturally, and vice versa.
Julien also told me about the nearby Maghen Abraham Synagogue, the last remaining synagogue in Beirut. It is not open — for services or to the public — but it can be seen in Beirut’s old Jewish district of Wadi Abu Jamil. In 2006, after Israel invaded south Lebanon, Nasrallah sent Hezbollah militia to protect the synagogue amid fears it would be desecrated. In 2008, an Israeli government report concluded that the short 33-day war was “a big and serious failure” and had undermined Israel’s military deterrence. According to a story in the Washington Post, 119 Israeli soldiers were killed during the fighting and more than 1,000 Lebanese died, most of them civilians. (If you divide Nasrallah’s name into two parts it becomes Nasr Allah, which in English means the Divine Victory of God.)
Different people told me different things about how many Jews remain in Lebanon. I heard estimates ranging from zero to about 3,000. According to Aznoury, no one knows for sure—he estimated at the high end of that range—but said Jews in Lebanon pretend to belong to other religions even though it seems obvious that they are in fact of Jewish origin. For example, he cited the case of a Muslim man named “Israel Israel.”
Among Hezbollah supporters, I encountered no direct hostility to me as a Jew, though it clearly must exist. I spent much of my time in Beirut at a shisha bar just outside the Dahiyeh, with a wonderful group of young men who are staunch Hezbollah supporters. The evening I left Beirut I took a number of them gifts, including a photograph of Nasrallah, which they put on the wall.
I bought the photograph during a trip to the Resistance Museum, in Mleeta, a small town on the border with Israel. According to the museum website, it gives “people the chance to be acquainted with the style of the unique experience of the Islamic resistance against the Israeli enemy, since its occupation of Beirut in 1982.”
I was driven to Mleeta by a man who told me he was a notable local member of Hezbollah, though he was murky about his precise role with the group. He did say that his normal job duties did not involve chauffeuring journalists to visit museums.
The sprawling Resistance Museum has indoor and outdoor exhibits as well as a gift shop. The outdoor exhibits include Israeli military equipment destroyed by Hezbollah in 1985, the year it liberated numerous Lebanese villages from Israeli occupation. You can also walk through tunnels where Hezbollah mujahedeen—suicide bombers—had previously walked, on their way to their deaths. Oddly, the museum has the feel of the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument. It’s a popular tourist spot where families go, and on the beautiful sunny day I was there, dozens of laughing children ran through the tunnels and other sites.
As I did on many days, I respectfully discussed my feelings about what I saw with the man who drove me to the Resistance Museum. I told him that I understood well—and supported—Hezbollah’s tactics against Israel when liberating Lebanon from occupation. Obviously, Zionists had used similar tactics when fighting for their own homeland, and in my view Israel is far and away the biggest obstacle to peace with its neighbors, and its treatment of Palestinians is vile.
However, I still support a Jewish state in the Middle East, which I think my hosts—and Hassan Nasrallah—can well understand. I lost roughly half of my family in the Holocaust and that’s something I can never forget, even if I can now forgive Germans for the crimes they committed against Jews, and millions more, during World War II, because in the end most Germans took responsibility for what they did to my people.
* * *
And that brings me back to the letter written to my Uncle Alvin.
What I’ve learned during the past few weeks — based on talks with members of my family and, through them, discovering relatives I didn’t even know existed — is that the letter writer’s name was Itzhak Shlufman.
I learned much of this last Friday, when I called Rosa Shlufman, Itzhak’s daughter, who it turns out has lived in Miami the past fifteen years. I got her number from Pam, my Uncle Alvin’s daughter. Itzhak was my mother’s cousin and her father’s nephew. (I never met my mother’s father, Harry Sloofman, who died before I was born.)
Itzhak was the only member of my mother’s family from Poland who wasn’t murdered by the Nazis. After the war he retuned to Palestine — Rosa tells me he that in those days he was a friend of future Israel prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1995 was assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist terrorist named Yigal Amir — and later moved to Buenos Aires, which then had a large Jewish population and was a magnet for European Jewry. Itzhak moved there because he had a brother there who had left Poland soon before Hitler triggered World War II by invading Poland.
In Buenos Aires, Itzhak met his future wife — a Polish Jew named Kina Welt, who had spent years at the Tschenstochau concentration camp. Kina survived only because her father, a tailor, made clothes for German troops. (According to this article, about 2,000 Jews were killed in the ghetto during September and October of 1942, and 40,000 were deported to Treblinka. About 5,000 “highly skilled Jews were isolated in the northeastern part of the former ghetto to work at various labor camps.”)
Soviet troops liberated the survivors during the latter days of the war. Kina and her surviving family members moved to Buenos Aires because her father had a sister who moved there before the start of the war.
And below is a part of the letter to my Uncle Alvin than resonates with me, because what it says, as I read it, is something that I believe strongly: People make mistakes, but mistakes — at least some mistakes — can be rectified if people take responsibility for their actions, admit guilt, and accept what they have coming. In killing himself, Hitler cheated the world out of what should have been his end, death by hanging at Nuremberg.
“There was one sentence in your letter that provoked a rather queer feeling with me. You write that, now, as the war in Europe is finished, you hope to go soon back to the states and, as I understand, to continue your pre-war family-life. Believe me, Alvin, there are moments when I don’t remember what family-life is, and there are others when I think that everything was just a dream. When I was 18 I left the family because of those who then ruled the world and who now run around as poor devils that are not to blame for anything — those blasted Germans.”