Tag Archives: genocide

Walking Over to the Other Side of the Pro-Peace Debate

By Scott Fox

Soon after I sat down at my table at a fundraiser sponsored by the local Justice in Palestine chapter, the elderly woman sitting next to me said, “I see you crossed over to the other side.”

What she meant was that I had crossed over to the St. Olaf side of town for the event. Northfield, Minn., has two liberal arts colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf. Carleton is on the east side; St. Olaf is on the west. Even though the two institutions are only a 20-minute walk from one another, it is not too often that students from each school interact.

I could not help but see a parallel between Carleton and St. Olaf and the difference between my beliefs and those of Justice in Palestine. In other words, I could see where they are coming from but it still feels like crossing over to an uncomfortable side.

I am a member of J Street. The conditions in which Palestinians have lived are unacceptable. I even believe that Jerusalem should be divided, as long as Jews have access to the Western Wall. However, when I first found out about Northfielders for Justice in Palestine/Israel, I was hesitant to sign up for the group’s email list. Even though they also advocate a two-state solution, I assume that groups like these are tinged with anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, or just misinformation. Thinking I was possibly being too biased against them, I decided to go to their Palestine Gala Dinner to gain a better understanding.

When I entered the church lobby for the event, I encountered a barrage of posters and pamphlets that were mostly biased in favor of the Palestinians. One poster was calling to “break the bonds” and have the U.S. divest from Israel. One brochure read, “Israel is actually involved in an unremitting and merciless vendetta against the subjugated Palestinian people in order to expel them and acquire their land.” The same brochure did make it clear that not all Israelis felt this way and that people should seek out left-wing Israeli opinions. Overall, the display in the lobbying felt off-putting.

Inside, it was much warmer. The sold-out function had brought in much of the Northfield community, though most of the attendees were gray-haired. Carleton’s Arabic professor and his friends provided Oud music. St. Olaf students dressed in full traditional garb performed dabke dances. Before everyone could eat the delicious spinach pie and mujaddara, Christian, Jewish and Muslim blessings were said. The affair raised money for Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a Christian charity dedicated to helping all Palestinians in the West Bank.

Many of the people there had prior awareness of the complexities of the situation in the Holy Land. At my table, a Lutheran pastor who had led an English-speaking congregation in the Old City of Jerusalem sat next to me. Two young women who had spent a year doing missionary work in Bethlehem sat across from me. The pastor was distressed with Netanyahu but did not place sole blame on any government. He recalled how there was so much optimism for peace when he was in Jerusalem during the 2008 U.S. election. Three years later, he feels that hope has been totally crushed. Feeling the communal spirit and compassion of the people around me, I gained more respect for the group doing what it could to help the oppressed Palestinians.

But the main speaker of the evening, Jennifer Loewenstein, Associate Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, made the event take a negative turn. I supported her fight for human rights but felt she was unfairly harsh and incorrect in characterizing the Israeli government’s policies.

Loewenstein described the situation as a “brutal, sadistic occupation” where Israelis are starving Palestinians, applying a divide and conquer strategy that isolates West Bank towns. She called Israel’s actions genocidal. With walls around Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel limiting what food can be shipped into Gaza, conditions may be terrible but not genocidal when the Palestinian Arab population is growing at a faster rate than that of Israeli Jews.

Loewenstein also presented a skewed view of Israeli history with less than accurate statements that emphasized Jews taking Palestinian land without mentioning any reasons for why a Jewish state was necessary such as rising anti-Semitism. She stated that the Arab population rejected the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan not only because they felt Jews were taking land that belonged to them but also because they got the worse half of Palestine, describing their portion of the partition as unfertile desert. Actually, the plan gave Palestinians most of the more fertile Northern Israel. Most of the Jews’ portion of the land was in the Negev Desert.

Loewenstein cast blame on Israel’s extremely irrational fear of being driven into the sea even though the Israeli mainland had never been attacked by a foreign enemy until 2006, and its armed forces have always been superior to those of the Arab states combined. But she appeared to forget that Israel’s neighbors invaded the land on its first day of existence, and that Israel frequently faced the threat of attack ever since, and was not always as sure of its military might as it is today. Although Israel has made preemptive strikes in some of its fighting, it was because the threat of an attack was imminent.

“When looking at the conflict, it is two countries saying how much they want peace. But those two countries, the U.S. and Israel, are doing anything in their power to stop it from happening,” said Loewenstein, citing a “military-industrial based economy” in which the U.S’s of high-tech weapons to Israel is extremely beneficial to both countries.

From talking to a few people, it appeared the crowd primarily did not have as extreme views as she does. However, when asking the two young women at my table about whether Loewenstein’s denunciation of Israel was a little too harsh, she said that she was just “preaching to the choir.” At least some of the room supported divestment from Israel, a diplomatic tactic that I feel breaks apart the needed U.S.-Israel dialogue on how to attain peace.

I left feeling a little better about Justice in Palestine groups but remained worried that Loewenstein’s lecture could cause some of the crowd who did not know as much about the situation to leave misinformed. But crossing over to the other side of your beliefs or your town often brings something new.

Yizkor Education

By Adina Rosenthal

British historian Sir Ian Kershaw famously wrote: “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference,” a sentiment that provides much rationale for solid Holocaust education today.

However, despite its clear importance, Holocaust education is not always the norm in schools. In 2007, a controversy erupted over Britain dropping required subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from History curriculums due to fear of Muslim discontent. But the study citing Muslim opposition was debunked—only a small number of teachers at two schools involved in the study reported incidents—and the British have rebounded since the incident.

In a recent article, the Jerusalem Post reported that British teachers have been brought to Israel as part of a three-week course on making the Holocaust more accessible to students. Funded by the Holocaust Education Trust, a UK-based organization that aims “to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today,” twenty teachers from across the UK participated in this ten-day course at Yad Vashem that include seminars and workshops on anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish life between the World Wars, and the Final Solution. Speaking on the importance of Holocaust education, one participant stated, “Historical truth has to be the foundation of what we do and facing up to the truth is the best defense against those who would deny it or passively accept that it happened without learning anything from it.”

Not all countries require Holocaust education as part of the curriculum. In the United States, the states, not the federal government, determine what is taught in public schools. According to a 2004 Holocaust Task Force report, while most states have created social studies standards for the classroom and about half the states have explicitly mentioned the Holocaust in these standards, only ten percent of states have a legislative mandate to teach the Holocaust in the classroom.  Though there have been some improvements, including Virginia calling for teacher manuals on the Holocaust and Maryland establishing “a Task Force to Implement Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance Education in the state,” few states have updated their legislation since the report was issued. Even if imperfect, in the West, education on the Holocaust, genocide in places like Rwanda and Darfur, and other worrisome situations evolving around the world, has been largely admirable.  Not so in the Middle East.

According to Hannah Rosenthal, the United States’ Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, “One of my primary goals this year is to address the issue of intolerance in textbooks and in the media in the Middle East,” which included meeting with Saudi religious and education scholars about the importance of teaching the Holocaust. Most Middle Eastern countries do not teach the Holocaust, and, according to one article, “Some even include verses from the Quran that they use to justify intolerance and violence against non-Muslims, primarily Jews and Christians.”

In Gaza, the tension concerning Holocaust education has also been mounting. According to an Associated Press article, the United Nations is launching a plan to teach Holocaust education in Gazan schools this September, despite promises by Hamas to block such an initiative and the West Bank and PLO’s disapproval. According to the article, many Palestinians are loath to recognize the Jewish tragedy because they fear it will minimize their own suffering. “Views range from outright denial to challenging the scope of the Holocaust.” Schoolteachers also expressed hostility toward teaching about the Holocaust, with one teacher warning, “The [United Nations] will open the gates of hell with this step. This will not work.”

But proponents of such an initiative see the lessons from the Holocaust as an especially important educational experience for the Arab world. “Instead of pre-emptive accusations, it is important for Palestinians…to fully understand the tragedies and suffering that happened to all people through generations, without divvying up facts and taking things out of context.” Moreover, in a recent New York Times piece, the authors write, “If Arabs knew more about the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, perhaps Arab voices would be more forceful in trying to stop similar atrocities.”

As Holocaust survivor Estelle Laughlin best stated, “Memory is what shapes us. Memory is what teaches us. We must understand that’s where our redemption is.”

Bosnian Jews and the Siege of Sarajevo

By Symi Rom-Rymer

People have wrestled with the question of what drives human beings to commit genocide since the end of the Holocaust.  Less often considered is the flip side: Why do some societies subsumed by violence not lead to genocide?  A paper recently presented at the annual Association for the Study of Nationalities conference, held at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, examines two cases of recent genocides in which two different religious minority groups not only abstained from the mass killings, but actively tried to help those who were under threat.  The instance most pertinent to this forum is the case of the Sarajevo Jewish community, who in the midst of the Bosnian War (1992-1996), rescued, fed, and even educated those who were attempting to escape the military onslaught.

The Jewish presence in Bosnia dates back to the 16th century.  Chased out of Spain and Portugal, Jews found a welcoming haven in the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  For nearly 500 years, Jews flourished in Bosnia, settling primarily in Sarajevo, the capital city.  Under Josip Tito, the prime minister and later president of Yugoslavia from 1943-1980, the Jewish community in Bosnia subsumed their Jewish identity and heritage into a larger Yugoslav identity, like many Jews did elsewhere in Communist Eastern Europe.   Francine Friedman, the author of the paper, explains that the multiethnic mix of Bosnia before the war resulted in widespread intermarriage between all the major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Many Jews were assimilated into the larger culture and considered themselves to be Yugoslav first and Jewish second.

The Bosnian war of the early 1990s, however, smashed that secular-religious construct.  Since the war hinged not only on a nationalist, but also religious, identification, Friedman argues that it was impossible for Jews to continue to maintain their pan-ethnic Yugoslav identity.  On the other hand, they could not consider themselves Serbs, Croats, or Bosnians since each of those ethnicities was closely aligned with specific religious beliefs, even though many individuals in each of those groups were secular.  There was very little choice then but for Jews to reengage with their Jewish identity.  In fact, one of the unexpected by-products of the Bosnian war was the discovery of just how many Jews lived in Sarajevo.  As Sonja Elazar, the wartime president of Bohoreta, the Sarajevo Jewish community women’s association, described to Friedman, “We had more and more members [coming to us] all the time….I was so surprised when I even saw some people [at the Jewish community building] from my company, people who had worked with me on the same floor,” but had not previously publicly identified themselves as Jewish.

The Bosnian war is one of the few European ethnic conflicts of the 20th century that did not target the Jewish community. Even the propaganda that preceded the ethno-religious conflict did not reference Jews or the Jewish community.  As the animosity among the Serbs, Croats, and the Bosnian intensified, Jews were left in a unique position. Independent from each of the warring factions—they were even offered an opportunity to leave Sarajevo at the beginning of the siege of the city—the Jewish community had access to food, medical supplies and other goods during the war that were unavailable to the rest of the population.  Although some did leave (primarily women, children, and the elderly), most stayed and offered assistance to Jews and non-Jews alike.  They set up pharmacies and soup kitchens at different points in Sarajevo. Through these actions, the Jewish community of Sarajevo kept, in a small and ephemeral way, the multiethnic experiment that was Yugoslavia alive. Ivan Čerešnješ, president of the Jewish Community in Sarajevo and later president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina (1988-1996), poignantly summed up the Jewish response when he said, “I am proud to affirm that we Jews are faithful to our country, Bosnia and Herzegovina….In these horrible times, when our brothers and sisters, relatives and friends are exterminating each other we have been working especially hard to keep our doors open to everyone to provide sanctuary, help, and friendship.”

So why did the Jewish community actively take steps to help those who were at risk?  Friedman hypothesizes that the secular nature of the Jewish community, with its belief in a multi-confessional Yugoslavia and a strong leadership that advocated policies of non-political engagement during the war, were key factors in this particular conflict. In all of the discussions about genocide and its causes, it is easy to overlook examples that offer a sliver of hope amidst the darkness of war. We may not yet understand why some are able to resist the lure of violence but studies such as this one is an important step towards discovering that elusive answer.