As chief historian at Yad Vashem from 2011 to 2021, and now the institution’s senior academic advisor, Dina Porat has the chops—the moral authority, if you will—to poke into dark and troubling corners of the Israeli national psyche. Porat’s book Nakam: The Holocaust Survivors Who Sought Full-Scale Revenge, published in Hebrew in 2019 and in English last fall, tells the virtually forgotten story of a group of Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters who, in the chaos immediately following World War II, plotted to take revenge on Germany by poisoning the water supply in several German cities—though the plan was never carried out. Since October 7, Israelis have been gripped by emotions almost impossible for outsiders to grasp—horror, anguish, rage. Do they also see themselves as engaged in a war of revenge? Porat seemed like the right person to ask. She spoke with Moment Opinion and Book Editor Amy E. Schwartz.
Is the Israeli public thirsting for revenge?
No. Not at all. The mood is completely different from that. I’ll tell you a story. I just got off a three-hour Zoom meeting talking about the events of October 7 with five members of several of the kibbutzim that were hurt the worst. The meeting ended with the reading of a prose poem by a member of Kibbutz Be’eri, where 115 people were either kidnapped, murdered or are missing. The author writes that his father, who was murdered, “would not have liked to have his name on a rocket that goes to Gaza.” And he goes on to say his father would not want the words “God will avenge him” put after his name, as so many are saying now, but rather, “May his memory be for a blessing.” And then he uses a bit of wordplay in Hebrew: “We don’t say ‘Nekom,’ Hebrew for ‘Let us take revenge,’ but ‘Nakum,’ ‘We’ll get up.’ We’ll get up on our feet and we’ll go on.”
A lot of people contact me because they read my book on revenge, Nakam. But what the book actually says is that the Jewish people after the Holocaust, after the six million dead and all the tortures, et cetera, did not take revenge. The group of would-be avengers I write about had a burning desire to take revenge, but they didn’t. At a key moment, Abba Kovner, the much-admired resistance hero and the leader of the plot, was on a ship heading to Europe having obtained the poison, but he was about to be arrested by the British because of a false document, so he threw the poison into the Mediterranean. Had he really wanted to carry out the plan, a person of his stature, an educator, a leader, he would have found some way to go through with it.
We speak about it, we pray for it, we urge God to do it. But the Bible says that it is God who should take revenge.
In the book’s introduction, I quote Aharon Appelfeld, the famous Israeli novelist, who says, “Revenge is not in the Jewish DNA.” We speak about it, we pray for it, we urge God to do it. But the Bible says that it is God who should take revenge. It’s not in the hands of a flesh-and-blood person—unless you hear God personally, and he tells you to kill all the Midianites or the Amalekites, then maybe. But not otherwise. The Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel says, “Had revenge been our goal, the people who came out of Auschwitz would have turned the whole world upside down.” It’s to the credit of the Jewish people that instead of looking only backward, they looked forward. The survivors wanted a new family and a new community, to have new children, to live in a Jewish state or at least among Jews.
What is revenge? Revenge is what the Bible says, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It means something commensurate, and this we cannot do. We’re not up to opening the bellies of pregnant women and killing their babies. You know that they burned babies alive in front of the mothers? Are we sending our soldiers to do that, an eye for an eye? No. You can never really take adequate revenge for what happened. I would say the war is seen as a punishment and a warning. Revenge looks backward, but punishment looks forward and says, “Don’t try that again.” There’s a real desire to have Gaza rebuilt under new management—Arab management, of course, but not Hamas—and have a real arrangement with them and start afresh.
Is there Israeli rage directed at other places, like their own government?
Of course. There’s a great difference right now between the government and the population. The civil society is splendid, and it gives us a lot of pride and hope. But we have our eyes open now. Some on the left who dream of peace will go on dreaming. But most of us understand now that these neighbors of ours in the Gaza Strip, or at least the people in charge there, just want to kill all of us. You have to understand it and you have to act against it. We know now that many Gaza citizens burst into the kibbutzim on October 7 along with the Hamas members. We can change our government, but we cannot change the neighbors.
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