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A boy’s impression of 1956 crises

Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B´nai B´rith International. (R. Marsh Starks/Las Vegas Sun)

Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B´nai B´rith International.

(R. Marsh Starks/Las Vegas Sun)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (JTA) — Fifty years ago this month, I experienced my first awareness of the world around me. It was the vague awareness of a 7-year-old in a household that had only a radio — we didn’t get a TV until two years later — but which did have two parents who avidly followed world affairs. Their attentiveness to such matters made me recognize, even as a small child, the importance of a world far beyond my day in school and the inevitable pick-up baseball and football games that followed in the afternoon. Each morning my father stopped at the newsstand at the train and bus depot in the center of our New Hampshire town to pick up a New York Herald Tribune. Our local radio station was a CBS affiliate, so the voices of Lowell Thomas, Charles Collingwood or Dallas Townsend reporting on some major world event was for me the news and information equivalent of Muzak. Evening table talk often would be about Eisenhower administration policy in the Middle East. We have family in Israel, and in the state’s early days my parents worried a great deal about its precarious existence and its future. October 1956 was one of those tumultuous months that are studied as important guideposts to understanding intractable foreign-policy issues in the current era. I recall being made aware of two major events at the time whose impact and reverberations are still being felt today. In my mind’s eye, I can still hear the radio newscasts about the Hungarian uprising against Communist rule that began Oct. 23. What I recall best is hearing that young Hungarians were throwing Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest. “What’s a Molotov cocktail?” I remember asking my parents. On Oct. 29 the Suez Campaign began, in which Israel joined Britain and France in an assault on the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal. The British and French were eager to turn back Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal; Israel was responding to incessant Palestinian terrorist attacks originating from then-Egyptian occupied Gaza. What a 7-year-old remembers! I was amazed when my father read aloud from the newspaper that “the Israelis had captured 40,000 Egyptian army blankets” as a result of its successful advance in the Sinai. More to the point, we worried about our relatives in Israel, and much of the discussion I heard focused on this important family concern. Other important world events were raging that October: The first Algerian civil war, for example, was in its third year with no end in sight. I don’t recall this conflict being discussed much, but it must have made an impression, since I can remember the radio reporting daily on the casualties on both sides. And, yes, October was World Series time. I didn’t become a full-fledged Yankees fan for another two years, but it’s worth mentioning that in 1956 they defeated the Dodgers in the fall classic, the Dodgers’ last appearance in a World Series in Brooklyn before heading west to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. Fifty years later, as an adult, I certainly follow events much more closely. Israel and Hungary still are making news; many of the courageous Budapest street fighters of 1956 lived to see a free and democratic Hungary emerge from decades of communism in 1989. Recent street demonstrations against the government now are considered a normal democratic right, but one that carries a heavy burden of responsibility. It has been jarring to see the inexplicable anti-Semitic rhetoric from some of the protesters this week. It’s a chilling specter for a nation that has now achieved membership in both NATO and the European Union. While the Suez Canal remains nationalized, Israel still is fighting a war on terrorism that has seen no respite over these many years. Who knows, had the international community taken a less-equivocal stand then, the increasingly bloody terrorist acts of the 1960s and later might not have reached the level we see today. Acceptance of Israel in the international community might have come far earlier, without the terrible toll of a series of wars. Turning back the clock is a wonderful exercise in nostalgia, but regrettably it can never change the course of history. A pity, because we’re always that much wiser after the fact. Maybe we need to make a real difference while we can, so that 50 years from now today’s 7-year-olds will not be lamenting, as we do, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Daniel S. Mariaschin is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.

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