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.