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Article 13
Daily Freeman, Kingston, N.Y. Sunday, October 5, 2003

The Holocaust in a wider context
John J. Neumaier

The exhibition commemorating my mother, a Viennese-born opera singer who was killed at the Majdanek death camp near Lublin, Poland, will open next week in Minnesota. I will attend and will again be speaking about my experiences as a survivor of that horrible period known as the Holocaust. I have written about these experiences and the atrocities committed by Hitler and the National Socialist fascists in several past columns.

Some people have questioned why the Nazis' systematic assassination of some six million European Jews continues to be commemorated, as if this must detract from the terrible truth that throughout history many other ethnic populations have been victimized by genocidal wars, persecution, and most cruel oppression.

As an American, I have been appalled by the historical record of the slaughter and brutal suppression of native Americans (misnamed "Indians" by the newcomers from Europe). It is a barbarous history about which many of us are still ill-informed. There is also limited understanding of the gruesome deaths of uncounted millions of African men and women on the slave ships and their terrible fate after they were forced into slavery in the Americas. Their unspeakable sufferings did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. It took the eloquence and courage of people like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and many others, to achieve the beginnings of redress of the gross economic, social, political and other social injustices against African Americans. Other peoples have experienced prolonged discrimination and suffering, in their lands and in our own country – Asian, Latin American, Arab, European – and one looks with hope for the time when there will be increased understanding and appropriate commemoration of their worth and contributions.

The abuses and horrors that my family and I experienced in Nazi Germany for the crime of having been born Jewish have had a far-reaching effect on my life and have deepened my sensitivity to the injustices committed against any group of people persecuted because of race, religion, national origin or other irrational reasons.

However, attitudes toward the Holocaust vary among Jews as well as among non-Jews. Even though the vast majority of Jews do not question the importance of remembering the millions killed by the Nazis, there are differences as to how Jewish people, with their diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, feel about and commemorate the Holocaust.

For most Jews, the centuries of persecution and the culminating horror of the Holocaust have made the continuing and violent conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians a great and often very emotional concern. But sometimes misleading media publicity makes it appear as if there is unanimity of Jewish views regarding the conflict. Of course Jews the world over are concerned with the safety of the Israelis, who now live facing the daily fear of the frightening terror directed at adults and children alike by the Palestinian suicide bombers. But it is equally true that the worsening conflict between the two largely Semitic peoples is of desperate and constant concern to Palestinians, far more of whom have been killed in retaliatory attacks, and had their homes destroyed, than Israelis. (Some 2400 Palestinians and 800 Israelis have been killed during the last three years.)

One of the reasons for bringing up the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict in connection with the Holocaust is because of the significant role that the Holocaust played in winning approval for the founding of the state of Israel, and because over the decades it has continued to cast its shadow on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Because of the Holocaust history, many Jews are fearful about the ultimate survival of Israel. This does not mean, however, that Jewish people, whether or not they are Zionists, all hold the same views about these issues, any more than people in other nations or groups agree about all issues affecting their societies.

I am one of the many Jews who do not believe that people who are critical of Zionism are therefore to be automatically labeled anti-Semites. True, there are anti-Zionists who are also virulent anti-Semites; some of them can be found among the people who continue to deny that the mass murder of Jews even occurred or among those who laud Hitler for his genocidal treatment of Jews. But it is a tragic mistake for friends of Israel to use the Holocaust or accusations of anti-Semitism indiscriminately, sometimes to intimidate those who condemn the Israeli occupation and view it as a violation of international law.

Although the controversial history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict involves complex issues that cannot be discussed here in any depth, I have in a previous column reviewed possible approaches to mutual reconciliation. I was then accused by a reader of having been too partial to the Palestinians' cause by emphasizing their enormous sufferings as a result of the continuing Israeli occupation of their lands since the 1967 war. The complainant alleged that I showed insufficient understanding of the attitudes and sufferings of Israeli Jews. Actually, the column left no doubt that I consider the lives and welfare of Israelis and Palestinians as equally precious, a conviction which I share with peace-minded people on both sides, as well as with Jews and non-Jews throughout the world. How can any of us be indifferent to the killing of little children and other innocents, whatever their national, ethnic, or religious background?

One need not be an expert on the Middle East conflict to recognize the almost inevitable tendency of both sides to exaggerate the merits of their own side and the culpability of the other. And, yes, I regret that the U.S. government is not playing a more positive, balanced, and compassionate role in seeking to strengthen the influence of peace-oriented Palestinians and Israelis, and to help them prevail over those partisan warriors who pursue war and total victory over an equitable peace. Such mediation would have a far greater chance of helping to end the murderous Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis and the deadly retaliatory strikes carried out by the overwhelming military forces of Israel (the only nuclear power in the region). Some of the preconditions of peace and a better future for both peoples are the abandonment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, the formation of a viable Palestinian state, and Arab recognition of the state of Israel together with full guarantees for its security.

Unfortunately, competing claims are exacerbated by extremists on both sides. Anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli hatred is matched by anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab hatred. The one feeds the other, making conciliation ever more difficult. Opposed to them are courageous Arabs and Jews, Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and others, who have shown by word and deed their dedication to peace, some even at the sacrifice of their lives.

A consistent defense of the rights of all human beings to live a decent life and a recognition of the humanity of all peoples, not just of those with whom we have a special affinity, will help achieve security and happiness for our children and our loved ones. Indeed, empathetic concern for our fellow human beings – and actions to back it up – is the only way for humankind to survive the nuclear age. It is with this commitment that I continue to commemorate the life and death of my dearly beloved mother, my other relatives, and all the Jewish and other people who have been killed in the Nazi Holocaust and in other Holocausts.

Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-1972 and of Moorhead (Minn.) State University from 1958-1968. He is philosophy professor emeritus of Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month, and is broadcast by short-wave station Radio for Peace International.