The stark images of Muammar Qaddafi being dragged through the streets of Sirte this past week reminded me of the hour I spent with him during his last visit to New York City a couple of years ago.
As a bonafide "Cold War Brat", this past week was not the first time I saw graphic images of a brutal, delusional dictator meeting the summary justice of his former subjects. Watching Nicolae Ceaucescu's execution 20 years ago on TV brought back memories of my childhood stay in Bucharest, surrounded by banners with his face, on every major street.
When our small delegation visited Qaddafi in his country's UN mission in Manhattan, we were continuing a dialogue on matters Israel and Jewish, which had even included visits to Libya -- though this was my first (and now, last) foray.
The scene was ad hoc and even surreal. The street outside was sealed off, and the entrance to the building was shrouded by scaffolding. In the lobby, behind a makeshift partition, we sat on cheap-looking, oversized sofas, while senior Libyan diplomats were perched on the arms. Halfway through our audience, the President of a major African nation arrived for his own meeting with Qaddafi, and rather than dismissing us, Qaddafi convinced his counterpart to join us, sandwiched meekly for another 25 minutes among a few American Jews.
The whole time, Qadaffi sat alone on a love seat, poised and comfortable and in a dark mock turtleneck. He spoke in subdued tones about the need for Jews to recognize that the Palestinians in Gaza were undergoing a Holocaust, just as the Jews had before them. The only solution would be his "Isratine" (i.e., Israel and Palestine), one nation for two peoples.
Qaddafi told of his Jewish friends who visit him on "Shabbat", who smoke on the Jewish Sabbath and who don't speak Hebrew or put on the "straps" (and he motioned around his arm). His challenge to us: Why draw a line between Jews and Muslims in Israel/Palestine if Jews aren't even really Jewish anymore -- is there anything left that's so important for us to have our own separate country?
A bit later in the conversation, it was my turn to speak. I opened respectfully, with some of my leftover Arabic, telling him that I do keep Shabbat and that I speak to my kids in Hebrew, and that they even watch me when I put on my tefillin in the morning (i.e., "straps"). There is a whole generation of Jews who are true to their Jewish faith, and I would be happy to show him in person -- whether in the United States, or Europe, or elsewhere -- so he might "update" his thesis.
I felt proud in that moment -- proud of my atrophied Arabic, proud that I stood up for Jewish pride, etc. But I also knew in my heart that most young Jews today reflect Qaddafi's narrative more than they do mine. Most Jews today are not speaking Hebrew to their kids because they don't know Hebrew. They don't observe Shabbat because it means nothing to them.
While in Qaddafi's presence, I never forgot for a second that he was a ruthless dictator, and no friend of Israel or of the Jews as a people. But his blunt and precise observation testified to the fact that our enemies know us -- and our weaknesses -- better than anyone else.
Jews have a crisis of identity, and it's not because Israelis can't agree on whether to build more housing units, settlements or "neighborhoods" over the pre-1967 Green Line. It's because most Jews no longer subscribe to Judaism as a central, unifying language and culture. If they did, we wouldn't have to keep coming up with new campaigns like "birthright", "peoplehood", and all the rest.
Qaddafi was definitely crazy, including in ways only evident in face-to-face conversation. But he was no idiot, and he had a point. Or, at the very least, he raised questions we're afraid to ask ourselves.
[Also see March 1, 2010: "Qaddafi's Quran"]