The speaker did not give his name, but he was apparently a well-known member of the Hebrew University academic community in Jerusalem. He was a sociologist who started his presentation by pulling up his sleeve and showing the numbers tattooed on his arm. He was a Holocaust survivor who had immigrated to Israel from Poland. He reminded everyone in the room that he had spent his entire professional life on the subject of the Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
His opening point was that violent experiences in life shape individual behavior, stressing the fact that upward of 30% of children who are beaten severely by their parents grow up to be child-beaters when they become parents. He went into statistical and anecdotal evidence backing up his claim, noting how the memories of being beaten cause many to repeat that practice when placed in positions of authority. His examples included severe cases of “cycles of violence” when abused people vented their violence on others. The main argument was that the practice of using brutal force used against people can actually become part of a culture.
Then he made the statement that angered nearly everyone in the classroom: “What the Nazis did to us, we are doing to the Palestinians.” The reaction was immediate: one metal lunch box was thrown, several cups and plates and a half-eaten orange landed near the speaker. From that point on the presentation was a free-for-all with shouts of denunciation in several different languages. I tried to approach the speaker, but he left the room quickly as people made threatening gestures. I listened to the comments from others milling around; they were all negative. I can remember an older woman saying over and over, “How could he say that?” Others questioned whether he really had been in the death camps. I didn’t hear or see anyone who supported his assertions about the treatment of Palestinians. I wondered at the time if there was any validity to the charge, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone in that room.
Months later, when I returned to the United States, I was interviewed by a reporter from our local newspaper. The journalist was a young man who was looking for an interesting insight into the current conflict in Israel. I recounted the story about the Israeli sociologist. The newspaper handled it very carefully with quotation marks around the charge about the Nazis. I had no idea that the story would be considered controversial. But two days later I was visited in my home by two very nervous rabbis. They began the conversation by saying that they knew many people who said they had known me for more than twenty years but didn’t realize I was “anti-Semitic.”
I was shocked by this reaction. I couldn’t imagine that repeating the story from the Hebrew University in Israel would make me anti-Semitic. I called attention to the quotation marks, but the rabbis were undeterred. They said just repeating such a story was proof that “I was anti-Semitic.” At this point, I became angry and asked for a chance to come to the synagogue to explain the situation. The older rabbi said it was “out of the question,” that I was not Jewish and therefore could not address the congregation. I insisted, saying I had a right to defend myself from those who thought I harbored prejudice. I raised my voice, asking – then demanding – that I had a right to tell my side of the story. Finally, the younger rabbi acknowledged that maybe there would be an interest in hearing the whole account of what happened.
On the next Friday evening my wife and I went before a congregation of about eighty people. The men were on one side of the room and the women were all on the other side. I didn’t detect any positive response from the men as I recounted the story; they all sat there with their arms folded on their chests. On the women’s side there were a few that gave me the impression that they were there to listen, not to condemn.
Here I was a Gentile standing alone, speaking to a group of Jews about Israel and a very unpopular analysis set out by a Jewish sociologist who survived the Holocaust. My knowledge of Jewish history was sketchy at best, but I do remember saying that the Jewish people (because of their history) should be more sensitive than anyone to violence and discrimination. I tried to be objective and provide some understanding of why there was so much emotion on the subject. I could tell by the body language in the room that I was not succeeding.
Several men in the back interrupted me, making very negative statements about “Palestinian terrorism,” and why it was necessary for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to use strong-arm tactics. That brought an equally strong response from several women on the other side of the room, charging that the IDF was betraying Jewish values. There were tears in the eyes of some women as they pleaded for a less aggressive approach on the West Bank.
A highly-spirited, unregulated debate ensued between several angry men in the back yelling at the women in the front. After a few minutes, no one seemed to pay any attention to me. Unknowingly I had activated tempers on both sides of the controversy. After about ten minutes of a free-for-all, one of the rabbis thanked me for coming to the synagogue. I left the room as the discussion continued.
It has been said of the Holocaust that, “All the victims were not Jews, but all the Jews were victims.” The horrific experience of the Holocaust did, in fact, make an impact on Jews all over the world; they did identify with the victims, and they still do today. One cannot visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, without coming away with images of utter cruelty and mass genocide that was visited on the defenseless European Jewish community. There are displays of the artifacts left behind by the children – their drawings, letters, diaries, and toys. Words cannot describe the account of how six million people were murdered because of their ethnic, religious heritage.
Perhaps the one unifying factor of the Jewish people is that they all feel the heartbreaking history of the Nazi gas chambers as helpless victims were led to their deaths. “NEVER AGAIN” says it all. The echoes of that pledge are still heard loud and clear, but the discrimination continues. Anti-Semitic behavior is actually increasing in many parts of the world.
The memory of the Holocaust illustrates that Jews have a split personality that represents both the powerless and the powerful. First there is the account of how six million Jews were herded into railroad cars, sent to the death camps and massacred without mercy. On the other hand, Israeli Jews today have one of the best trained armies in the world. It is though they are making certain that they will never again be led to their deaths as a powerless people.
Nearly everyone in Israel serves in the military. Guns are everywhere. It is as though each Israeli is repeating the phrase “Never Again” as they go about their daily routine with an assault rifle slung over their shoulder. They don’t seem to be boisterous about their weapons; it is more a matter of a resolute, personal necessity to survive in a nation surrounded by unfriendly neighbors. Yes, all Jews were “victims.” And that status is always in their minds.
Bill Meulemans is the author of a forthcoming book, What Makes the Left and Right Tick.
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