As the destruction of Gaza unfolds day after endless day I find myself thinking about my late friend Otto Schnepp. Otto and I served on the board of directors of the local Democrats’ club for eight years and became good friends. Of all the Jewish friends, colleagues, and acquaintances I have had over the years, Otto was the one who had personally suffered the most from the Holocaust. He was a skinny 13-year-old when the Nazis invaded Austria, where he lived with his parents and older sister. His grandmother devoted her savings and the last of her life to getting them out of Vienna; his sister went to South America and Otto and his parents went to Shanghai, one of the few places accepting Jews fleeing the horrors of Europe. Otto’s beloved grandmother didn’t make it out of Austria and he never learned what happened to her. I spent an afternoon with him searching through newly digitized lists of Europe’s concentration camp inmates and we could not find her.
One would think given his story that Otto would be a staunch supporter of the creation of Israel, where he eventually taught college chemistry for more than a decade before settling finally in Southern California, where he taught chemistry at USC until his retirement. But he was not. He questioned the theft of Palestinian lands to create Israel in 1947 and scoffed at the notion that Jews had a biblical right to those lands; over the centuries both Jews and non-Jews have claimed that blood-soaked land as their own. Otto also understood that once Israel became its own country it became a political entity as well as the spiritual home for the world’s Jewry. In his mind supporting Jews and supporting the State of Israel were two very different things.
Why Otto felt that way is complicated. Why didn’t he choose a Netanyahu-like scorched-earth world view, instead opting for peaceful co-existence with Palestine’s former residents, ironically dubbed Nazis by Netanyahu? Perhaps it was because Otto was a highly educated scientist, rational by both nature and training. Or perhaps it was because he was also a student of history; the many columns I edited for him over the years thoughtfully examined the evolution of Israel beginning with its creation after the Second World War.
I think it was because he had lived through war himself, experiencing its violence, cruelty, and dislocation as an impressionable young man in Vienna. Some emerge from such circumstances determined to do unto their enemies what had been done to them, a well-trod route to madness and mutual destruction. Others, like Otto, viewed current events as pieces in an historic continuum and take longer views. He had lost his youth, his family, and his country to live as a poor refugee in the slums of Shanghai – a stranger in a strange land – yet he did not pollute his own pacifistic world view with vows to destroy those who would destroy him.
Netanyahu called the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel “Israel’s 9/11,” but pointedly ignored its lessons. All of America’s military might and treasure, which together played a major role in destabilizing the Middle East, did not turn Iraq and Afghanistan into representative democracies. When the U.S. inevitably decamped and went home, those countries went right back to what they were before the much-ballyhooed “War on Terror,” sort of like a river that quickly closes over a rock thrown into it. Worse, it predictably spawned a new generation that hates the U.S., home to the world’s most powerful war machine, which hypocritically calls itself “the world’s greatest democracy.”
America’s embrace of Israel’s current aggression as its own (“war” assumes roughly equal combatants) fails the most basic litmus test of engagement. If a country is unwilling to sacrifice its own children to a fight, that fight should not be fought. So far, if the media can be believed, the U.S. has only a smattering of “boots on the ground” in Gaza. (Remember those military “advisors” before the escalation to total war in Vietnam?) And there was that recent exuberant group of young Jewish American men eager to join the fight, cheering and high-fiving each other aboard an Israel-bound plane. They looked like college students en route to a homecoming game. What they could possibly contribute to the ranks of Israel’s army is a mystery to me, but that’s a topic for another day. What isn’t a mystery is that, among everyone I know personally and professionally, not a single person has contributed a child or grandchild to the fight. Supporting the carnage in Israel – 12,000 dead Palestinian civilians and counting – is all fine as long as you’re watching it on CNN from the safety of your comfy armchair. Even Netanyahu’s 32-year-old son has taken a pass, blogging and hanging out in his Fort Lauderdale home while soaking up the Florida sun.
A hopeful sign is that America’s young people have awakened to the slaughter in the Middle East and overwhelmingly oppose supporting it. This growing trend could cost Biden a second term as the youth vote, reliably Democratic in recent decades, votes for somebody else; shouldering decades of student-loan debt, which their government has been unable to reduce, young people understand that their struggles and concerns do not align with their country’s expensive international military adventures.
If Otto were alive today he would be demonstrating for peace, not war. Unlike the rest of us, he understood war’s true cost and would not have wished it upon anyone: Jew, Arab, or otherwise.