A Ray of Light

As I surf the internet searching for inspiration for my blog, I run into an avalanche of lies, falsehoods, distortions, incitement, wild accusations and hate speech. Some examples cited at the Lantos Archives of MEMRI.org:

Suddenly I saw a headline: “Clerics Have Corrupted The Mind Of The Youth With Violent And Bloodthirsty Ideology”

I reminded myself that the Saudis have been the main source of resources for establishing madrasas (Islamic religious schools) throughout the Arab world. And here was an article by columnist ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Samari published in Al-Jazirah, a Saudi daily newspaper that seemed to attack the school system for teaching extremist views! Surely this was not a good thing.

As I read past the headline, it became clear that the author actually had much bigger fish to fry. ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Samari’s main interest was in pointing out that over the last several decades, Saudi society (and Arab society in general) had developed a culture that discouraged individuals from thinking for themselves, and from forming opinions on topics beyond their immediate area of expertise. He points out the subtle discouragement of a question he is often asked when he writes about such topics: ‘Brother, why don’t you write about things you know, and not about things that are in other people’s domain of expertise?’ About this he says: “By this question, they mean… to deny the other’s right to think [for himself] and to debate any public matter, in any domain. [But the fact is that] anyone has the right to write and voice his opinion about any public issue, and anyone has the right to voice the opposite opinion, without constraints, as long as he refrains from harming those he is opposing.”

This is why this article is such a ray of light. ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Samari, a respected Saudi columnist, is openly challenging not just a few subjects that are taught in schools, but the entire culture of an Arab world that encourages people to refrain from challenging statements of violence supposedly based on the Qur’an. He writes:

“…Some of the responsibility [for this situation] lies with the Education Ministry. Its officials must develop the curricula, curb the extremist and exclusionist tone that exist in [our current] curricula and which opposes the humanist approach, and usher in a new era in which pupils will learn to respect other cultures. In addition, I charge certain clerics who until recently preached extremism to apologize to society for the extremism they championed in the last decades. [For years] they corrupted the minds of our youth with violent and bloodthirsty ideology. Then they left the circles of extremism and gained honor and glory, without being held accountable for what they had done to our religious thinking. In addition, it is important to publicize [cases of] incarcerated extremists who have renounced [their extremist views], so that society as a whole will know about this [phenomenon] and lend it a cultural dimension, as happened in Egypt, where [this phenomenon] yielded books and dialogues that greatly affected the [extent of] extremism in Egyptian society.”

As if additional proof of what hateful speech and teaching can lead to is needed, yesterday on a London street in the light of day, two men with kitchen knives hacked to death a British soldier, later declaring to passers-by “By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah and we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.”

I have asked myself many times “Who are the people who are indoctrinating young men with these violent ideas? Why are they never taken to task? Why are the masses of Muslims who do not agree with these violent interpretations of the Qu’ran not speaking up to disown such acts?” Because of one courageous Saudi journalist who is willing to challenge an entire culture, we now know a small piece of the answer.

Memories Revisited

It is Monday, April 28, 2013 in Washington, DC, and we are approaching May 8, the 68th anniversary of the end of the war.  The Holocaust Museum is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its opening. I am attending a salute to the veterans of WWII and Holocaust survivors, a gathering of more than 4000 people, among them 900 survivors and 150 veterans. We are assembled to witness the presentation of the flags of the American divisions who entered concentration camps in Germany and Austria.  The Army orchestra plays as each unit enters with its flag and a voice announces the camps they liberated.  Those who are present rise and applaud, my face and those around me flooding with tears of sorrow and pain mixed with tears of joy and pride in those who finally destroyed the beast of the 20th century.  President Clinton, Elie Wiesel, teachers and students who are engaged in preserving the memory of the Holocaust are sharing their experiences.

As I stand there, my memory takes me back to January of 1945 when the Second Russian Army, of which I was part, moved west to seal the fate of Hitler’s thousand year Reich. We drove over recent battlefields where the remnants of vehicles were mixed with the remains of bodies.  It takes me back to the summer of 1944 when the Russian army, after several years of fighting German hordes, advanced to the west and liberated Belarus and entered Poland.  I was part of the resistance that was sabotaging the communications of the occupying forces.  I remember the day in 1942 when I stole weapons from a German warehouse, escaped from the forced labor camp where I had been imprisoned for six months, found a group of local Jews who had sought shelter in the surrounding forests and swamps and joined the resistance.  I recall the horrible time in the fall of 1941 when the Germans ordered us out of our ancestral homes and herded 300 families into 15 homes, separated by barbed wire from the rest of the town and guarded around the clock, deprived of access to food, water and basic necessities. There we waited knowing that we are doomed, trembling at the sound of mechanized vehicles that might signal the arrival of our fate.  From behind the barbed wire we watched as our former neighbors went about their lives assembling in the church across the street to pray after they had been preying on us, performing weddings accompanied by the sound of music.  My mind goes back to the good old days prior to 1939 when under Polish rule, in the midst of a Belarusian minority, we enjoyed a naively tranquil life in the shtetl, a village of 300 families, a rabbi, a Hebrew day school, a bank, a free loan association, and volunteers who cared for widows, orphans, and those just passing through.  That all came to an end when the Red Storm from the east and the Nazi hell that eventually engulfed all of Europe from the west converged in our place.

I move back towards the present, recalling a visit to an extermination camp in Poland in 2004 accompanied by my son-in-law Paul and grandsons Yossi and Boaz. After stepping out of the barracks where we saw compartments with childrens’ shoes, clothing, and luggage marked from various countries, Paul went outside, sat on the steps and burst into tears.  He cried and cried, lacking words, and expressing in the only way he could the despair that he felt.

What is the responsibility of those of us who survived, and those who witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps?  It is to share our memories with as wide an audience as possible.  We are the last of those who can tell the story in the first person, who can bear personal witness to the destruction of an entire culture.  It is painful for us to reach the point in life where the world is so unsettled, where killings and bombings are a daily occurrence.  We hoped that WWII would be the end of all wars, but today we live in a world where the institutions of peace are paralyzed and where war is an everyday event, an unremarkable item in the news over which we shake our heads.

In the great economic turmoil of the last few years, there is one bright spot.  Israel, the bright and beautiful  child of the tragedy of WWII, the dream of a people who were nearly destroyed, has emerged unscathed, one of only five countries that continued to grow and prosper during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. We pray and hope that the example set by Israel will serve as a beacon to humankind.