Tel Aviv — Usually it’s been some act of violence — war, intifada — that has brought me to Israel as a reporter. This time, the purpose is cultural, and even singular — namely, to attend the opening night of a play. The life story of a long-standing friend by the name of Agi Yoeli is the subject of this play. Well known in artistic circles, she is a sculptress and ceramicist whose work has a fantasy and humor all its own. But there is a lot more to it than that.
Born in Berehovo, a small town in the Slovak part of Hungary, Agi grew up speaking Hungarian and Czech, in the course of events adding German, French, English, and Hebrew. She played the piano well enough to plan on a musical career. During World War II she married Laczy Leichtman from Budapest. He was soon conscripted into a labor battalion. After the Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944, she, her sister Ilu, and her parents were deported to Auschwitz. On arrival, the parents were murdered. Agi thinks she may have caught one last glimpse of Laczy, deported separately to the camp. She was expecting a child, and when the baby was born an SS woman killed it in front of her. A slave laborer, she was put to work making fuses for rockets. After liberation, she was waiting for a train when she saw, passing herself off in the crowd, the SS woman who had murdered her baby. Instead of having her arrested, Agi went into the stationmaster’s garden and either picked or pulled up flowers there.
One brother of hers, Feri, was the only surgeon in a local hospital when the war began. While shaving, he was listening one day to an announcement on the wireless guaranteeing that the Germans would not invade — when he caught sight in the mirror of German tanks rumbling up the road. His hospital would now serve German soldiers. The nursing staff warned that nobody was available to replace Feri and that his deportation would mean the closure of the hospital. He was already locked in the transport to Auschwitz when the SS hauled him out, saving his life for their own purposes. Another brother, Gabi, escaped death when two SS teams each thought the other had searched the house in Budapest where he was hiding.
Agi and both brothers reached Mandated Palestine in 1947, in time for Israel’s War of Independence. Agi was to marry Pinchas Yoeli, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, the commanding officer of her unit, and eventually a university professor.
Almost invariably, Agi refuses to talk about wartime experiences on the grounds that to do so puts a burden on the listener who can do nothing about it. A relation of hers by marriage, Naomi Yoeli, is a stage director with an established reputation. She had the idea of obtaining the text of the play by allowing Agi to speak for herself in interviews over a long period of time, leaving herself in the role of narrator. Reluctant to impose emotional burdens, she refers to the ordeal she has survived only at the very end of the play, and then only to be making light of it. “I hear you were in Auschwitz,” she quotes some fatuous Englishman saying to her in his own language. “What was it like?” To which she replies in her special vein of humor, “Not very nice.”
The State of Israel depends on the central proposition that Jews are able to lead productive and creative lives if only they choose to live there. Rescue from extremes is the lot of pretty well the whole population, and Agi’s play makes a fable of it. The theater critic of Haaretz, a most influential man with a column in the country’s most influential newspaper, treated it that way in a rave review, which he followed up the very next day with a half-page article to the effect that the country needs more of Agi and Naomi.
The trouble is that at the moment things in the Middle East are not very nice at all. Irrational but historic forces are in play. Unable over centuries to enter into some sort of balance or equitable relationship, Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam are poised to do great damage to each other. In the recent past, one or another external power obliged Muslims to keep the peace. The United States alone is in a position to fulfill that role but declines to do so. The current administration hedges its bets by supporting the Sunnis a little and the Shiites a lot, creating uncertainty about its objectives and so obtaining the worst of everything.
American diplomacy bewilders many if not all Israelis. President Obama’s policy may be to put in place the missing balance between Sunnis and Shiites, but the conception is utopian. How is it possible, Israelis want to know, to concede so much to an Iran that has the worst record of human rights — that is engaged in several military adventures, deceptions, and the crudest anti-Americanism? Does Obama realize, they go on to wonder, that he is responsible for the reelection of Prime Minister Netanyahu as a realist able to get the better of a dreamer? The handling of Iran’s nuclear development conveys a moral vacuum that a death wish is steadily filling. Ari Shavit has claims to be the foremost journalist in Israel, and in a recent op-ed for Haaretz he expressed the general fear: “Only a last-moment awakening of public opinion in the free world in the face of Iranian audacity can stop the most abject march of folly of our time.”
Ron Tira is a strategist with a background in intelligence. According to him, 2010 or 2011 was the right time to bomb the Iranian nuclear plants. Netanyahu maintains that his senior advisers have opposed what would certainly prove a high-cost mission. But look at the instability already afflicting the Middle East. Whim and prejudice predominate. In a short space of time, Iran and Turkey have switched from friendship with Israel to hostility, although no clashes of interest are involved, merely the ideology of the rulers. To prevent Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt (and perhaps the Islamic State too) from getting their hands on a nuclear bomb, Ron Tira advocates a first strike on Iran now. Destruction of 20 percent of the Iranian program is feasible and sufficient, though of course repairs would oblige Israel to an open-ended series of strikes. Impossible given the distance, said the senior diplomat with whom I tested out this scenario: Arab countries might turn a blind eye to Israeli over-flying once but not twice.
A play that makes a fable of rescue is indeed timely.