I have been trying for a while to write something about my uncle, Moishe Eisenstadt. I never knew him well. He was sort of a second cousin, the son of one of my grandfather’s brothers. He was the kind of relative you only saw at big family gatherings, where there were plenty of relatives you really didn’t know. He attended my Bar Mitzvah. If he had been living in the United States, I’m sure my mom would have insisted that he be invited to my wedding. He was somewhat reserved, at least when I saw him. He was a natty dresser, and the only conversation I remember having with him, sometime in the late 1960s, was telling him I thought, with his pencil mustache and rather swarthy complexion, that he looked a little like Adam Clayton Powell. He was not flattered by the comparison. I don’t want to defame him, but I believe (though I am not sure) his response was to furrow his brow and reply, “that schwartze?” (He was making a joke, but I wish I had a nicer anecdote. Anyway, it captures for me the rough way Jews of his generation often spoke.)
He was born in 1914, I’m not sure whether in Belarus or in New York. He was called Morris on official occasions, and in Israel he was Moshe, but to his friends and family he was always the Yiddish Moishe. (One syllable, extended dipthong.) He came of age during the Depression. Most of my father’s side of the family had a difficult adjustment to the United States, with more than the occasional schmazel and lost soul among them, along with a smattering of Communists and a Zionist or two. I don’t know that much about his life, but he did better than most of my relatives. I think he owned a small shop, maybe a candy store, in Brooklyn. Sometime in the late 1970s, he and his wife, Fay, made aliyah to live near their daughter. He was a decent man, a good man.
We lost touch. Then in 1994 we learned the startling news that he had been murdered. He lived in K’far Saba, near the Green Line. One afternoon, while reading a book, someone came up behind him and split his head apart with an axe. The murderer was caught. He was from Gaza, a member of Fatah, in his mid-30s. He was one of the prisoners released recently in the first round of prisoner releases from Israel, intended as a gesture to help thaw the peace process. Ever since I learned this, I have been thinking a lot about my uncle. I know the name of his murderer. Its easy enough to look up, but I will not give it any further attention. May his name be erased from our memory, the Torah says. Nineteen years is not enough time for what he did. I am an unbending opponent of the death penalty, but if there ever was a prime candidate for the gallows, or whatever it is they do in Texas these days, it’s the monster who killed my uncle.
I’ve hesitated writing about it, because I really don’t know what to say. The comments about the prisoner release fall into the usual divisions. Conservative defenders of Israel say—“look at these Palestinian animals, they make axe murderers into heroes. How do people expect Israelis to live with them?” I certainly agree that while Israel has committed a lot of injustices against the Palestinians, keeping this animal in jail for nineteen years was not one of them. And if I was Abbas, trying to decide which prisoners to ask to be released, this guy would not have made the A-list.
And then those on the hard left have said, “please spare us your tears and double standards. Do you know how many Palestinians rot their lives away in Israeli jails for what amounts to misdemeanors, if that? And how many Israelis ever served nineteen years in prison for killing a Palestinian?” And that’s largely true, too, I suppose.
And then there’s the people of good will, who say, “look, both sides will need to learn to feel the pain of the other if there is ever is to be peace, and break the cycle of violence. We need to rise above our personal hurts, and not feed and cultivate them. Let them go, and learn how to listen to the other.” That’s certainly true as well, though the murderer of my uncle can keep his goddamn “narrative” to himself. I certainly won’t be listening.
I wish I had a grand point to make. Revenge, I know, is not justice. You can’t have both. And the recent history of the Jews, and of the Palestinians, is filled with passionate people who want both and usually end up with neither. All I can say is that if the release of the murderer of my uncle helps bring about the desperately needed rapprochement between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, it was worth it, as part of the bleak utilitarian calculus that holds that private suffering must make way before the greatest good for the greatest number. If it does not, and if Bibi and Abbas negotiated the release of this fiend for nothing, then both sides have the blood of Moishe Eisenstadt on their hands. As some commentators have said, I wished Israel had agreed to a comprehensive settlement freeze rather than this questionable prisoner release. For some reason, it is easier for Israel to release a vicious murderer than not build another thousand new housing units in East Jerusalem. But at the same time, never having been subject to Israeli military authority, I suppose it’s difficult for non-Palestinians to understand that because of the nature of the conflict, all Palestinians in Israeli jails are imbued, legitimately or illegitimately, with the aura of political prisoners.
But I have come to neither condemn the prisoner release nor to praise it. I just wanted people reading this to learn something about my uncle, Moishe Eisenstadt. He is now just a grim statistic, another casualty of the endless conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and his death is viewed, by all sides, through the lens of their biases and preoccupations. But I remember him. And he did not deserve to be slaughtered and die like a dog.