Acts of violence, acts of peace

I was listening to NPR the other morning and heard an interview with a former jihadi, an Indonesian extremist who after serving 10 years in jail for an attack in 2003 that killed 12 and injured 150, laid down his rifle and went to work at a restaurant.  He said that he had no regrets about his participation in the extremist group, that he believes that he was defending the Islamic way of life. The only thing he regretted was that he had lied to his parents about where he was going and what he was doing.

What made this man turn around?  It was the insight and actions of another former terrorist, a man named Noor Huda Ismail. He has created a social network that recruits and productively employs ex-terrorists based on the belief that rehabilitation is more effective in containing violent jihadi networks than punishment. And I find it completely encouraging that under a regime like Indonesia’s that is not inherently repressive, it is possible for a man like this to create opportunities for bringing members of jihadi networks back into the realm of productive society.

In the same hour of NPR, there was a story that described both the widespread sexual violence that has become common in Egypt and the prevailing attitudes that have allowed men to commit such acts with impunity. Public figures, members of the parliament and preachers opine that if women would stay at home then they would not be attacked. Even women who are appalled by the violence and protest against it will sometimes blame the victim, saying that rape is something that will never happen to a woman who is “honourable.”

Violence against women is so widespread in the world, that when I went online to search for references  I was overwhelmed and almost wished I had not gone there.  We all know about this: it happens in countries that are represented in the UN, that are bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and there is no consequence to them.  Even in the United States we are not immune: as I write, the Violence Against Women Act, first passed in 1994, has not been renewed.

These two reports highlight how the leaders of a society determine public discourse and, with that discussion, influence the actions that are taken to prevent and contain violence. In Indonesia, jihadi violence is condemned, and the attitude that is fostered creates opportunities for men like Noor Huda Ismail to develop alternatives to violence. In Egypt, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, powerful voices condone violence against women despite the existence of laws designed to punish it, and the average person on the street is conditioned to accept rape as simply a regrettable incident to be blamed on the victim.

It would have been easy to hear these two stories in isolation and not notice how they were connected.  And this is the overriding message of this blog: take the time to notice how speech in the public domain influences the behavior of entire societies, both for the good and for the bad.  To be ignorant or complacent about such speech may determine both our present and our future.

Yahrtzeit

On this day, March 19, in 1943, the “German Master Race” overcame yet another obstacle in its quest for “Lebensraum” [living space] when Jewish residents of the town of Krasny, northwest of Minsk in Belarus were exterminated. Among the “defenders of the city” was my father, Yosef Baran, 55 years old and my sister Musia, 15. Thousands of “Jewish warriors” finally succumbed to the might and glory of the “superior race” as envisioned by their fuhrer in his dream of establishing the thousand year Reich.

The scene of the last march of the defeated was described to me, my daughter, and my two grandsons in August of 2010 when we retraced my roots.  An historian of the town of Krasny, Chariton Alexander, described the events of that final “battle” as viewed through his then twelve year old eyes.  The day before the Germans had ordered the residents to lower the shades and not to look out of the windows.  But curiosity prevailed, and Chariton Alexander and other members of his family saw the march of thousands of “ghosts” who, after languishing for months and years in the Krasny ghetto — isolated, starved, sick, hopeless and forlorn — were led on this winter day to the army barracks across the street from their house.  A German soldier with a bucket was standing at the entrance to the barracks collecting any valuables the wretched skeletons might have carried.  Once in the barracks they were stripped, shot, loaded on trucks and transported to a structure outside of town.  They were unloaded and the structure was set on fire. The stench of the burned bodies lingered in the air for weeks.  The Germans tried various methods to eliminate the stench but to no avail.

In August of 2010 my family stood near the spot where the ashes left on that day are concealed by the earth, and where there is now a monument to the memory of those who perished. The monument is enclosed by a wrought-iron fence and is well maintained by the local authorities.

Today is the sixty-eighth anniversary of that event, and I will once again say Kaddish for my father and my sister and for all those who no longer have anyone to say Kaddish.  And we are again in the midst of a hate campaign against the Jewish people, but thanks to the internet, this time it is worldwide, not restricted to the whims and limitations of a single madman.  The tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is being used in the Muslim world to accuse the Jews not only of the Newtown murders, but by implication of genetic mental illness that causes them to harbor murderous intent against non-Jews.

By coincidence, today also marks the publication in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle of a guest column I wrote about the Newtown tragedy titled “Lies That Never Die”.  The death of my family was a direct result of hate speech that became action, and the inspiration for this blog.  For me, to do nothing has never been an option.  I encourage all of you to avoid being complacent: this is once again a time when tolerance of hate speech could lead to violence, and we should all be working to foster the awareness that may prevent it.

The Good Times

As history and tradition teaches us, Jews and Muslims are “children of Abraham” and in certain periods of history have enjoyed a harmonious coexistence. Tragically in the 20th Century and 21st Century, the events have turned ugly and are going from bad to worse. In the shocking and painful video I posted several weeks ago, Mr. Morsi is repeating a statement used quite frequently in the Islamic world, “the Jews are descendants of apes and pigs.” The most shocking message is to teach your children to hate Jews, and Morsi repeats it twice.

As a holocaust survivor, Morsi’s message takes me back to the 1930s when the same language of hate was used by Hitler’s propagandists, Streicher and Goebels. If the Bible and the Koran say that we are all children of Abraham, how can Jews be described as apes and pigs? This is the premise of this blog: hate blinds, hate corrodes the soul, hateful words lead to hateful acts and hateful acts lead to atrocities.
Fortunately, not everyone in Egyptian society agrees with Morsi.  This video has been widely viewed and debated in the Egyptian press, and others are speaking out against the sentiments that Morsi expresses. Thomas Friedman highlights one such voice in a New York Times article titled “Backlash to the Backlash” from September 26, 2012:

“The Egyptian comedian, Bassem Youssef, wrote in Al Shorouk, translated by Memri, on Sept. 23: “We demand that the world respect our feelings, yet we do not respect the feelings of others. We scream blue murder when they outlaw the niqab in some European country or prevent [Muslims] from building minarets in another [European] country – even though these countries continue to allow freedom of religion, as manifest in the building of mosques and in the preaching [activity] that takes place in their courtyards. Yet, in our countries, we do not allow others to publicly preach their beliefs. Maybe we should examine ourselves before [criticizing] others.”


The emergence of voices questioning the conventional wisdom in Egyptian society is a new phenomenon.  I am hopeful that this will not remain an infrequent event, and that others will join the lonely voices currently speaking out against hateful speech.