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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On the Holocaust and a Kosher Cafeteria

     By chance my senior seminar on global ethnic conflict ended our class discussion on Alan Rosenblum’s book Is the Holocaust Unique? a day before Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, which was commemorated world wide last Wednesday (April 18). Concluding the debate on that book we moved along with our syllabus to discuss Peter Univ’s book on the 1994 Rwanda genocide Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda.

     I usually schedule one or two seminar meetings to discuss an assigned book. But Rosenblum’s reader, which compares the Holocaust to other genocides and mass killings of ethnic or racial groups, generally provokes an arousing debate, and this time was not different. It took nearly three sessions, and it could have been potentially longer. I usually begin the discussion on the book by asking my students whether we need to know that the Holocaust was unique. If so, why do we need to know that?

     I have been teaching this seminar for sometime. Usually my students agree that each genocide we study was unique, and that each was distinctive to the ethnic group that had endured it.  Still, the Holocaust was different on a number of levels, including its magnitude, the creation of a sophisticated killing technology, the level of participation of ordinary Germans, or the fact that the Jews had been completely assimilated into the German society and having made no threatening nationalistic claims against the Germans.

     The nature of the debates in this multiethnic, multicultural seminar often depends on the makeup and chemistry of the students, making each semester different from one another even though the subject matter is the same. But this semester I heard statements from some of my students I had rarely heard in my classroom.

     It began with the question some students posed, why the Holocaust is commemorated while other genocides are not. I reminded them that the Armenian, Greek, and Rwandan genocides have been commemorated as well.

     Why then is the Holocaust talked about more than any other genocide, a student wanted to know. “Because the Jews control America!” another student exclaimed. “What do you base this statement on?” I asked. “The Jewish Lobby,” the student replied.

     I responded that while no one can dispute the strength of the pro-Israeli or Jewish lobby in Washington, it was still a myth to believe that the Jews control American politics. I then offered students extra credits to write an extra research paper, comparing the influence of the Jewish Lobby to that of the Cuban Lobby, the Big Pharma Lobby, the Big Oil Lobby, the Financial Lobby, the National Rifle Association, or the mining and defense industries lobbies.

     “What are you talking about,” another student lashed at me with visible anger. “You even have a kosher cafeteria here in Queens College. Why don’t we have a vegetarian cafeteria?” “It’s a business decision,” a Jewish student answered excitedly before I had a chance to answer. “We have a Sushi place and a Chinese place, and you can get vegetarian food in every cafeteria,” yet another responded to the remark that seemed to have anti-Semitic undertones.

     At the end of our debate over the Holocaust I fulfilled my promise to share with my students my experience when I had visiting the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in the summer of 2010, an experience I wrote about in my essay “A Knock at the Door in the Darkness of Night,” published in Lilith (Volume 35 No. 3, Fall 2010) and extracted from my memoir War Widow.

     “Nothing I have studied, read, seen, not Yad Vashem, not even my previous visit to Terezienstadt, prepared me for Birkenau and Auschwitz-for their enormity and for the efficiency with which the Nazis ran their death-oiled industry.

     What shocked me was that not even the minutest detail was left to chance: not the place where the trains would first stop, where victims would initially be "selected," where they first undressed, where they were first disinfected and shaved, their hair used by the Nazis to manufacture fabric; not where they were disinfected for the second time, where their clothing was first fumigated, where their clothing was fumigated for the second time, where their clothing and belongings were collected, sorted and stored, where they would die by Zyclon B poisoning gas, where their corpses would be burned.  It took merely twenty-five minutes from the time the human cargo arrived to Birkenau, selected to die and turned into ash.”                 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Slavery and Freedom

     During our Passover Seder last Friday, as our family and guests finished reciting those portions of the Haggadah that narrates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their regained freedom after four centuries of enslavements, I felt compelled to bring up the story Jim Yardley had written in The New York Times only for days earlier (April 4th). In it Yardley revealed the plight of a thirteen year old maid who had been practically enslaved by her captors, both doctors, who had bought her from a job placement agency, which in turn had bought the girl from her uncle.

     In the article, Yardley tells about the growing problem of child labour in India, caused by an expanding middle class, a development that has created a greater demand for a cheap domestic labour force that include children between the ages of five to fourteen, who are usually sold by poor families to those who can pay.

     “Debbie Downer,” two guests cried simultaneously, referring to the former Saturday Night Live character that used to habitually interrupt a pleasant group conversation with depressive comments, bringing down the group’s mood.

     But I insisted that we recite the Haggadah not only to retell the story of the Jewish People’s exodus from Egypt, but also to apply our own historical narrative to current world events. As I was doing that I looked across the table at my beautiful grand children, a girl age seven and a boy age four, thankful for their relative safety, and comparing their sense of security to the predicaments of the girl in Yardley’s story, and that of other  girls or boys like her.

     My insistence to apply the Jewish People’s saga to today’s world brings symmetry with my introduction to a Haggadah that I had edited a decade or so ago for our own use in our Seders. In those passages I paid homage to oppressed minorities who yearn for freedom, tolerance, dignity and the preservation of the human spirit; as well as the many men, women and children who are denied basic human rights, and Peoples who have suffered the indignities of prejudice and persecution, impoverishment and landlessness.

     Yardley’s story was published a week or so after Rod Nordland’s piece, also in the New York Times (March 29), telling the sad story of jailed Afghan women, ages fifteen to thirty-six, whose only crimes were reporting their own abuse, mostly domestic violence. I was thinking about those women too, as I was sitting safely in my Upper East Side apartment, looking at my elegant Passover tables, with their white table cloths, fine china, and beautiful flowers I had so carefully arranged.

     I did not always feel so safe. As a child of four and then twelve, and as a young woman, I personally suffered the consequences of war. I tell about my experiences in my memoir War Widow. But my experiences, harrowing as they were, were distinct from the experiences of the young girls and women in both Nordland’s and Yardley’s stories: Unlike those girl and women, I was surrounded by a loving family, and I had choices and conveniences those females did not have.

     I do not have the answers of how to solve the problem of Afghani women, Indian girls, or other women and girls around the world—as-well-as boys--who are sex slaves or are victims of other abuses. There are numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations that have resources and skills to deal with these problems. But as an individual and as an educator I feel I have the moral obligation to raise the consciousness of those around me concerning the plight of those who are less fortunate. And if each of us who are privileged enough to live in places where we can speak out will do just that, we can help address the problem.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

On Terrorism Part II

     When we spoke, Hava was a 67 year-old widow. Her husband Menachem, an internationally known history professor, was killed in June 1989, by two Palestinian Arabs, who committed their murderous act to assure an induction to their terrorist cell. 

     A retired teacher who had become an editor, Hava spoke poetically about her childhood in the lush, green fields of the Jordan Valley. It was a happy and fearless childhood until the breakout of the 1939 Arab riots. She was eleven.

     At eighteen, following "Black Saturday,” she joined Palmach, the elite fighting force of the mainstream Jewish underground in Mandatory Palestine. “Black Saturday” was a Sabbath day in June 1946, when the British authorities arrested a large number of Palestinian Jews, accusing them of clandestine activity.

     At twenty four she married Menachem, whom she had met at Hebrew University when both were students there. In time, they had a son, three daughters, and six grandchildren. A seventh grandchild was born three months after Nenachem's murder.

     Menachem was born in 1925 in Poland. In 1938 he immigrated with his parents to Palestine, escaping the Nazis.

     Believing that his best ideas came to him while walking, Menachem walked each morning from his home in Emek Hamatzleva (Valley of the Crucifixion) to Israel’s National Library at the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. It was on his way there that he was murdered. Through her living room window she showed me the spot where he had been killed, covered by then with newly grown trees. Her friends had suggested that she move to another part of the city, but she loved the valley and the apartment, where she had hoped to grow old with her husband.

     As a historian Menachem was concerned with the rise of extremism among the Israelis and Palestinians alike. Yet, the optimist that he was, he enthusiastically supported peace between the two communities, predicting that they would come to an agreement. But he did not live to see the day when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) took the first step toward peace (defunct now) when they signed the Oslo Agreement in 1993.

     Like Menachem, she supported peace with the Palestinians. Recognizing their suffering, she believed that most were decent human beings who desired peace. But she could not view Menachem's murderers as humans. And even though she generally supported the release of Arab political prisoners, she agreed with the Israeli government’s decision not to release prisoners whose hands were stained with blood; for, their acts did not constitute freedom fighting but acts of a vicious murder. And while she acknowledged that such thinking might appear to be influenced by Menachem's murder, she insisted that in reality it reflected her own sense of justice.

     While Hava realized that all conflicts had casualties, she could not accept victims of terrorist acts as casualties of war, for to her murderers were not warriors. And even though her opinion on that matter was similar to that of the right-wing Association of Terror Victims, she insisted that her view was removed from the vision of that organization, which vehemently opposed peace with the Palestinians.

     In spite of the fact that she was born into the reality of a bloody conflict on the eve of the 1929 Arab riots, and even though her generation, like mine, was raised to believe in the idea of sacrificing one’s life for the sake of the state, like Bat-Ami, as told in my last blog, she valued human life over all else, believing that life must be sanctified for the sake of life itself.

     She was prepared to capitalize on her status in order to influence public opinion in favor of peace with the Palestinians. But she realized that some terror victims could be the first to oppose peace with the Arabs. And even though for her there was no alternative but peace, she understood that like all historical processes the peace process would be long, with up and down cycles; and yes, common memories of past violence cold serve as a tool for reconciliation.

     She confessed that her friends wondered why she was still so hopeful about peace with the Palestinians after the murder of her husband. But she did not equate all Palestinians with Menachem's killers. That was why she disapproved of collective punishment; and that was why she deplored the demolition of houses belonging to the families of Palestinian terrorists.
     For few days in the autumn of 1994, Esther was seen by millions of television viewers around the word, when she was desperately trying to secure the release of her son Nachshon from the hands of Hamas militants who had kidnapped him on his way home from a one day-training course in northern Israel.

     We met in her family’s home in the Ramot section of Jerusalem sixteen months after the loss of her son. Her story was that of dismay, hope, desperation and agony.

     She was born in Germany to Holocaust survivors, who immigrated to the United States when she was two and a half.  She described her upbringing as Zionistic and religious, bestowing upon her the values of love for her People, the Land of Israel, and the Torah.

     Her studies at the Teachers Institute for Women in Yeshiva University granted her a stipend to study in Jerusalem. Those years in Jerusalem convinced her that Israel was the place where she wanted to permanently live and raise a family.

     A year after she had met her husband at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, they got married. They had seven sons, the oldest of whom was twenty-four at the time of our conversation; the youngest were nine year old twins. Nachshon, her third son, had served in an elite commando unit, following in the footsteps of his two older brothers.

     She described Nachshon as an average child, outstandingly happy and easygoing. Unlike most of his commando friends, he was thin and small. On Sunday, October 9, 1994, at a busy intersection in central Israel, while trying to catch a ride back to Jerusalem, he was kidnapped by Hamas militants. Dressed up like orthodox Jews, displaying a Hebrew prayer book on the dashboard of the car they drove and playing Jewish music, he believed them to be friendly and entered their car for the ride. After they had captured him they threatened to execute him the following Friday, unless their demands for the release of their spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and two hundred others prisoners, were met. On that Friday, October 14, 1994, Nachshon was killed during a failed military rescue attempt.

     Aside from her devastation over the loss of her son, she felt deep anger at the Israeli government for not negotiating with her son’s captors. She thought, too, that the Army should have delayed the rescue mission, giving its planners more time to adequately prepare for it.

     In her opinion the Army had made a grave mistake. But as a believing woman she accepted her son’s fate; and, she trusted that the mission his soul had had on this earth was fulfilled.

     She alleged that because of the heavy human cost Israelis had paid in their repeated wars with the Arabs, the Israeli population had become accustomed to an impossible situation. They had become immune. They had become entranced with some sort of a mass hypnosis, a force for which she had no name.

     She never believed Nachshon’s life was sacrificed in the name of Israel’s values. On the contrary, had the government negotiated with her son’s captors rather than trying to rescue him in a failed military mission, things might have, or should have ended differently. Military people in her opinion have had a narrow way of looking at options, limiting their decision-making spectrum. And they were inconsistent. In Nachshon’s case they refused to be blackmailed by a terrorist group and release prisoners to save the life of one soldier. But two weeks later they were willing to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners when no one’s life was on the balance (it is worth nothing here that in October 2011 Israel freed 1,027 Arab prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hamas militants, keeping him in captivity for five years).

     Esther did not think that common experiences among women on both side of the conflict could lead to reconciliation. On the contrary: Because she believed that children were influenced by their parents, she had no doubt that the Palestinian mother, whose son was killed because he was holding Nachshon as a hostage, was an integral part of her son’s actions.

     Besides, Esther was distressed with the Palestinian side. She understood that countries make peace with their former enemies, and that Yasser Arafat was the person with whom Israel had to negotiate. But she could not accept him as Israel’s peace partner. In her possession she had tapes of speeches that he had made, not in Israel or Washington, but in Gaza and Jenin. In those speeches, which he made for the consumption of his own people, he repeatedly referred to Palestinian suicide bombers who had blown up buses with women and children, as holy martyrs. She could not imagine any other country negotiating with those who seek its destruction at the same time they were signing a peace treaty.

     She thought that women were certainly able to transform their personal experience into political power. In fact, various political parties in Israel had pursued her. But she believed that joining a party would diminish her credibility as well as her voice. 

     She knew that people were influenced by her experience. In spite of losing a child she maintained her composure, symbolizing strength and reason rather than emotion.