On Words and Bullets

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year.  It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”  (From the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific”)

I recently had the experience of being invited  to a meeting at Oakland Catholic High School.  A group of girls attending a party had worn t-shirts displaying swastikas and shared photos of themselves on social media.  Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai who has been teaching Judaism at the school for the last eleven years asked me to meet with the girls involved and with faculty members.

The school was in an uproar because of this incident.  The girls were suspended for three days.  They explained that when they wore those shirts, they had been under the influence of alcohol.  Each one of them wrote a statement expressing their remorse for such unthinking behavior. Rabbi Gibson asked me to share with the girls what it meant to me, as a Holocaust survivor, to see the swastika.  I gave them a short and vivid review of my experience since I first encountered the swastika in my hometown at the age of twenty-one when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. One of the first things they did was decree that Jews must wear the Star of David.  We could not walk on the sidewalks.  The local rabbi and some of his associates were made to drag a cart with flour from the local mill as if they were horses.  On a rainy day the Germans ordered all of the men to assemble in the marketplace, sit on the ground, and pull weeds from between the cobblestones. All of these acts were intended to deprive us of our identity as a person and instill the idea that any resistance would be futile. Jews were forcefully isolated in a ghetto, and eventually the entire community was annihilated.

When the girls realized what the swastika really meant for someone who had experienced it, they expressed verbally how sorry they were.  Each of them turned to me and apologized individually and personally for their behavior.  My final words to them were “Now that you have learned this lesson, you have a mission.  The mission is to share your experience with others.”

What is important about this is that the girls were probably pre-disposed to use this symbol.  They didn’t just invent it, and the alcohol didn’t just bring it into their minds.  It had to be there already as a powerful symbol that they had been taught.

Two years ago when I started this blog, I did not realize that eventually words would become bullets.  Atrocities in San Bernardino, Charleston, and more recently the massacre in Orlando prove that I was not pessimistic enough. Messages of hate permeate our media.  The internet has enabled instantaneous and world-wide delivery of the words that become bullets.  Our young people are absorbing these messages, and some of them are moved to translate the words into violent acts.

The voices of hate amplified online and delivered directly to young people have the potential to override the messages and influences of parents and teachers.  The teachers at Oakland Catholic are saying “This is the opposite of what we teach!” Yet these children, in an unguarded moment, exposed what had implanted itself in the deepest recesses of their souls.

I often go out speak with students and tell my story under less stressful circumstances.  And these children and young adults respond by writing to me.  Here are some of their letters. Reading them gives me hope that words can heal as well as kill.

“Your story inspired me to reflect upon my life and reconsider things I take for granted. Never in my life have I experienced anything emotionally traumatizing. I really respect and admire your courage to speak publicly about dark times. You have taught me valuable lessons and have given me a new perspective on the most despicable acts in modern human history. Thank you for sharing your time with us.” – J. W.

“Thank you for coming to speak for our high school. I really appreciate that you can speak about your experiences in such detail for us. I find it very admirable that you speak about it, even though you’ve been through such hard times. Your presentation has changed my outlook on the world. I will stop taking life for granted so much. Something like the Holocaust really opens your eyes and makes you appreciate life. Thank you once again.” – E. S.

“You taught me very good life choices toward living and what to do in life. I learned to treat life with care because you only get one. I think its amazing that we got to meet you and I think God blessed you so you could escape that hellish place. I am sorry to hear about your wife and your family. You are a teacher and your lesson is your life and I appreciate that. Thank you for teaching me.” – J. D.

Civility in Politics

As I read the letter to the editor from Norman Sherman, former press secretary to Hubert Humphrey, in the NYT on Feb 15 entitled “Civility in Politics” I could not but reluctantly reflect on the lack of civility in the current presidential campaign. With the exception of several candidates who have now dropped out of the race, the lack of civility is overwhelming.  These are the people who pretend to represent the US to the world and, no less important, to our youth.

In his letter, Norman Sherman recalls a time in the recent past when politicians disagreed on issues, but were personal friends. This is no longer true. If there is civility in politics, it is not reflected in the mass media.  On the other hand, uncivil acts and statements tend to dominate the news.  Bad news sells, and scandal sells even better.

Fortunately there are still a few politicians who understand that civility and even more, empathy, is in our best interests.  In his new book “United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good” U.S. Senator Cory Booker writes “I’ve learned that we must be more courageous in the empathy we extend to one another; we must shoulder a deeper responsibility for one another, and we must act in greater concert with one another…It is a refrain I have heard, time and again, and come to revere: the lines that divide us are nowhere near as strong as the ties that bind us; despite our very real differences, we share common interests, a common cause, and, incontrovertibly, a common destiny.” To this, all I can say is “Amen!”

In the current presidential campaign, candidates are in the habit of “tweeting” unkind and often untrue snippets about those whom they see as their enemies. Their goal is to have an impact, to influence others to their own way of thinking.  In contrast, my wife Malke survived the Holocaust and emerged as one who was very sensitive to the potential violence of language.  In her life she strove never to speak a harsh word about another person, and she did not tolerate anyone else speaking in this way either.  A few weeks after her death, the director of the hospice service that cared for her called me to share the enormous impact that she had on their entire staff. “What did she do?” I asked.  “Nothing,” she replied.  “She was just herself.”

I recommend being oneself to all of you.  The impact could be enormous.

 

The Consequences of Tolerating Anti-Semitism

An article titled “Syrian Dissident: ‘Europe’s Reaction to anti-Semitism Encouraged ISIS” originated in Jerusalem Online on November 18, 2015. Mr. Aboud Dandachi in his interview gives a deep and thorough analysis on the issues that lead to the rise of anti-semitism historically and the present time.

There is hardly anything that one can add to what he is saying. Those of you who are regular readers of my blog may recall previous discussions about the complicity of bystanders: when bystanders witness acts of hate and violence and do not react by condemning it, they are complicit as the violence spreads. Aboud Dandachi particularly emphasizes that when Europeans tolerate anti-Semitic acts, it prepares the atmosphere for violence that follows.

As always, failure to act is not an option. Forwarding this article to as many recipients as you can would be a good beginning.

Deeds That Heal and Deeds That Kill

A number of Syrian families have settled in Toledo, Ohio.  An NPR reporter went to visit one of them.  He found that when the family arrived, they discovered a furnished apartment and neighbors who volunteered to help them with their needs:  shopping, caring for the children and so on.  How ironic!  The family arrived from a refugee camp in Jordan facilitated by Hayas, a Jewish organization, and the apartment was furnished and the volunteering initiated by local Christians.  And the family is Muslim.

This is the nature of America.

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The Make A Wish Foundation has been granting the wishes of seriously ill children for 35 years.  They ask “If you could be anything, go anywhere, or meet anyone, what would you wish for?” Last year they granted over 14,000 of these wishes.

When I saw the “60 Minutes” article on this organization, I was impressed and elated to see so many people volunteering their time and money to meet the wishes of many sick children who would otherwise never have a chance to live their wish. This is the essence of a deed that heals.

This, too, is the nature of America.

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After the Second World War there were many trials of former members of the Nazi party and SS troops.  At one of the trials, three SS men were questioned about why they did what they did.  The first one said that he had orders and had to follow the orders.  The second said that if he didn’t follow the orders, his comrades would kill him.  The third one said that from his early childhood, he was taught that the Jews are the enemies of the German people, enemies of humanity, they are polluting German culture and exploiting Germany for their own purposes, that they were a lower race and they should be separated from the German population. And he said that this motivated him to do what he did without hesitation.

Something similar is happening in our generation.  Children in some parts of the Muslim world are taught that Israelis and the Jews who support them are threatening the rights of Palestinians by depriving them of their land.  A vivid example of this shows a preschool child with a knife in her hands saying that she would like to stab a Jew with a knife “because he stole our land.”  And the adult who is filming her praises her strength and says “God willing, my dear.”

This frightens me.  When the minds of children are poisoned like this, those who teach children to hate an entire people and to kill them in the name of their god should be charged with crimes against humanity. If we continue to allow this to happen, I fear for the future.  If hatred towards “the other” is the prevailing lesson taught to children, they are robbed of their childhoods, they are robbed of their futures, and then the entire future of humanity is uncertain.

Let us not be complacent. Let us keep ourselves informed and make everyone in our circles aware.  And let us all speak our wishes for peace at every opportunity.

This, too, is the nature of America.

Harvest of Hate

At the present, there is a former S.S. “man” on trial in Germany. His name is Oscar Groening, a 93-year-old former guard and bookkeeper in Auschwitz. He is on trial for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. He was witnessing the arrival of thousands to Auschwitz, and their selection process. Among them was a mother with an infant. In order to be included in the able-bodied people, she dropped her baby. And this “man” was there, as one of the S.S. trampled the baby until it died (“Holocaust crimes still matter,” Leonid Bershidsky, Pittsburgh Post Gazette 4/24/15). 

Don’t anybody tell me they “understand” how the mother felt. Just as you wouldn’t dare to say you understand when my neighbor, Mrs. Zukerman refused to part with her children during the selection at the liquidation of my hometown ghetto and joined them on the truck leading to their incineration, as did my teacher Mr. Lipschitz (as was witnessed by the able-bodied survivors, and told to me later). 

What leads a being – I hesitate to call it a man, or a person – to thrash an infant to death? All one needs to do is look at the history of hate education in Nazi Germany with the rise of Hitler, where the Jews were portrayed as the enemy of the people, as polluting the German culture, and as a lower race. The Jews were accused of dominating German business, banking, and art. The Jews were 1% of the German population, which was 60, 600, 000. 

Stop. Don’t look for a rationale in hate.

In a similar way, but not to the same degree, the Soviet Union’s young people were indoctrinated to hate the so-called capitalist world and internal enemies. Likewise, China under Mao brainwashed the youth in animosity toward the rest of the world. Currently, North Korean children are being taught hatred of the U.S. in school. 

At the present time, in some circles of the Muslim world, the same hate education is practiced with relation to Jews and the rest of the world. Ironically, some Muslim groups are considered enemies of Islam in these circles.  

Recently, there was a video aired by ISIS showing how a child is trained to behead a traitor. A recent interview on 60 Minutes described children in Gaza, who naturally are traumatized by the events of war, and how they express their feelings through drawings. Among other depictions was a drawing of a suicide bomber’s belt and the desire to be a martyr (). 

I consider the term suicide belt to be a faulted term – you use it to kill others; it is a homicide belt. 

In totality, this is what I call the harvest of hate. Unfortunately, there are some schools in the United States producing the same hateful mindsets, too. 

Hate is used as a vehicle for those who put themselves above the law to poison the minds and attract followers. Jewish law is based on the principle that law is above man, and so is the American judicial system. This stands in the way of those whose ambition is to rule the world. 

Don’t Ask Why

If you did not read this article entitled “Here There Is No Why” by Roger Cohen of the New York TImes, please read it…and read it again. If you did read it…read it again.

As a Holocaust survivor I am deeply troubled by the latest atrocities against civilians. Unspeakable acts of barbaric cruelty are being perpetrated and the sick drama is playing out in front of our eyes on live television.

We are living in a world where beheadings are aired and hailed as directed by Allah. In his NYT article, Roger Cohen quotes Holocaust survivor Primo Levi as he recounts ​the cruelty of a Nazi guard​ who prevented him (Levi) from quenching his thirst with an icicle.​ ​Levi asked the guard one simple question: “Why?”

“‘Hier ist kein warum,’ (there is no why here)” ​was the guard’s response.​

I fear that these words are as applicable today as they were when Levi first heard them. There is no “why” in “bin Ladin-ism” and its offshoots. Their aim is world domination and asking “why” elicits a blank stare since ​they believe that their methods are ordained by Allah. Hitler, in his time, claimed that his acts were done in the name of Jesus.

Those of us who have experienced the insanity resulting from Hitler and his global ambitions know that it did not end when the war was declared over. The beheadings are only the most recent horrors deriving from the same root. If we do not recognize what is happening now and take action​, as the world powers are only now beginning to do​, it will be too late to stop it.

The essence of the matter

In a recent radio interview on NPR’s “Here and Now,” David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent based in New York, discussed the difficulties of reporting the news from the Middle East. He points out that coverage is “incredibly fraught…It goes back decades…on back to the Bible for many people. I think it is also essentially seemingly insoluble…Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth. You’ve got two enemies which seem inclined not only to not want to strike a decent bargain, but not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other in doing so. So the coverage of this means that….the idea of fairness…kind of goes out the window: it’s two competing narratives which are irreconcilable and therefore a strict adherence to what you can prove and show and facts on the ground is probably the safest bet for reporters there.”

In describing problems that reporters face in covering the news, Folkenflik may have unwittingly brought to light the words that highlight the existential essence of the conflict: “Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth.” I wonder, when the cry is raised for Israel to “negotiate a truce,” what exactly is it that they might be negotiating about? Funeral arrangements?

My blog is dedicated to the idea that words are important, that words can heal and words can kill. Folkenflik emphasizes that reporters should report only what they see. But often this is not so simple. If a reporter is on the street and sees two people wrestling, one on top beating one on bottom, what does he report? When bystanders rush in to intervene, the reporter watches and later interviews them. One of the interveners says “Oh, the guy on the top, he was brutal, beating the guy on bottom! So unfair, that man was clearly weaker than he!” Another says “The guy on the bottom — I saw the whole thing, he started it when he attacked the other guy with a knife! It was just out of the blue, he was walking by and pulled a knife on him. It was a miracle that he didn’t kill him!” The words the reporter uses to tell this story can leave the reader clueless as to the context, and helpless to resolve the conflict.

Often reporters in war zones are young, and have never focused intensively on the background of the conflicts they are covering. They go in “tabula rasa,” clean slate, with the intention of being impartial, reporting only facts. But facts do not make good radio or television or even good print stories. And without the understanding that a deep knowledge of history of a conflict conveys, the “human element” that every reporter adds to his or her stories strikes the reader “context free,” leading them to believe that a story rich in detail is also rich in context.

So this all leaves me wondering: does Hamas really represent the average Gazan? Dr. David Pollock, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently commissioned a poll of Gazan residents. To his surprise, the poll reported that the average Palestinian family man was interested in peace and a steady job in Israel. This is some solid context demonstrating that extremists who manage to grab power and headlines are not necessarily representative of the people they purport to represent and defend. And often those average people are the ones who pay the price of extremism.

(This posting received special assistance from my executive editor, Cindy Harris)

What a World!

The sound that broke the barrier of segregation: Today is the anniversary of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. From the day that the DAR refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall until this day much progress has been made, and much still needs to be done. There is always tension between the forces of progress and those who would try to retard progress by any means.

Because bad news about Israel reaches the world media so quickly and good news comes out so slowly (and sometimes not at all), I would like to introduce you to a source of good news from Israel: Michael Ordman’s “Good News From Israel” blog. Here are some recent examples from his site:

Freedom of education is the norm: Dr. Qanta Ahmed, an Arab physician visiting Technion University where Muslim students study alongside Jews, speaks out against those who would say that Israel discriminates against Arabs.

The University of Ariel in the West Bank, not recognized by the outside world and by some Israelis, has 600 Arab students, about 20% of the student body. And they are in the process of setting up a Muslim prayer room to accommodate those students.

A former Egyptian diplomat, Gamal Bayoumi, recently spoke out in favor of normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel. And a Syrian opposition activist, Kamal Al-Labwani, is also making the case for peace with Israel.

In the same world, a British MP recently stated that “Zionist gunmen and Ukrainian Nazis are intimidating Jews into settling in Palestine.”

An Egyptian actor recently recommended that people read “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (an anti-Semitic hoax from the Czarist era purportedly describing how Jews rule the world) and stated that Benjamin Franklin warned that Jews should not be admitted to the US, citing the oft-debunked “Franklin Prophecy,” a speech attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but almost certainly written in the early 20th century.

Mighty lies ride high in the world of hate. And so we must work to seek out the sources that provide facts to highlight the real world, where truth drives out the darkness of hate.

Familiar Words and Sounds

 It is 2014. I am in my 90’s. So why do I hear words and sounds that remind me of the words and sounds I heard in the 30’s in Europe? As an eyewitness to history, I feel compelled to share my memories with you, my readers.

It all started with words. Hitler declaring that German-speaking Austrians are thirsting to unite with Germany. After immense pressure on the Austrian government, Hitler got consent for the Anschluss (unification). Then followed Czechoslovakia, where allegedly the Sudetendeutschen expressed their desire to unite with Germany. Then followed the Munich agreement with Chamberlain, who accepted the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the most democratic country in Europe at that time. Said Chamberlain upon his return from Munich “I believe it is ‘peace for our time. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” I don’t know about the British, but I am sure that Hitler had a good night’s sleep after listening to this.  And he woke up with an appetite to incorporate eastern Prussia into Germany, and for that purpose had to attack Poland, which had a corridor leading to the Baltic Sea.

We all know the rest of the story.  Hitler’s pact with Stalin included a secret agreement to divide Poland. When Hitler attacked Poland in September, 1939, half of Polish Jewry fell under the control of the Nazis.  Eighteen months later, in June of 1941, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, and within a few days the Germans arrived in my hometown in the vicinity of Minsk, the capital of Belarus.  This was the beginning of “hell on earth” for my family and for millions of other Jews, a time in which I witnessed acts of cruelty that are so inexplicable that when someone today says “I understand,” I can only respond that the experience of those who were witnesses is completely beyond human comprehension.

There are so many familiar words and sounds resonating in the present situation that I have become alarmed. I am in no way implying that the current Russian government can be compared to the Nazis. These are different times. But one would expect a member of the UN Security Council to avoid creating flashpoints such as the situation in the Ukraine. It seems to me that Russia is failing to live up to its leadership responsibilities and contribute to peace.

There is no substantive evidence that Russian-speakers are being harassed or discriminated against in Ukraine. Words of hate and fear lead to death and destruction. I hope and pray that sanity will prevail, that we will remember the lessons of history, and that there will be a truly peaceful resolution to this crisis.

Don’t Blame the Children

The three episodes I am introducing in this post happened in three different times, places and situations.  But they have one thing in common: they deal with the education of young people. Bear with me for a few moments as we walk through this important issue together

The first item is titled “Muslim Cleric Praises Tsarnaev Brothers As Models For Muslim Children.” It advises young Muslims to follow the example of the two brothers who executed the Boston Marathon tragedy, justifying their act by claiming that Muslims are under attack by America in their own homelands. For the record, there ARE Muslims who deplore the Boston Marathon bombing and fatwahs have been issued against it. But when a meeting was called in Canada by a group that is opposed to such violence, only 24 people showed up.

In the second item, Yair Lapid, currently the finance minister of Israel and the son of Tommy Lapid, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, speaks before the Hungarian Parliament. He recounts his father’s life story, and the story of the demise of the Hungarian Jewish community with active cooperation of the population in the six months following the occupation of Hungary by the Nazis.

The third item is called “The Mandate Video” and makes the case for Holocaust education in Pennsylvania schools. Only two college students out of 31 asked about events that took place during World War II and the Holocaust were able to answer coherently, and those two both attended high school in states where Holocaust education was a mandatory element of the curriculum.

Hitler indoctrinated young people in Nazi Germany, conditioning them to believe in the superiority of the Aryan race, and the idea that all other races were subhuman. The result was the Holocaust. Some Muslims are educating their young to view all non-Muslims in a similar fashion, and even going so far as to hold up those who act violently as examples to be emulated. In Hungary even adults whose parents lived through the time of the demise of the Jewish community needed to be reminded of those tragic events in part because of the rise of anti-Semitic parties.

These three episodes chart for us a course of action: reach out to the young. How could they possibly know about the Holocaust if they know nothing even of the historical events of World War II? We must make our young people aware to beware of any attempt to instill hateful or even intolerant thoughts. This is the least we can do. And only by such education will we have any hope of preventing future atrocities.

In my frequent visits to schools I am confronted with the question “What can we do to prevent another Holocaust?” I regret to have to reply that we are powerless to prevent the current atrocities in foreign lands but we surely can influence events in this country starting from our own neighborhoods by being involved, aware, caring, speaking up against injustice, racism and violent behavior. Before we attempt to change the rest of the world let us change our immediate world for the better. The time to start is by educating our young people starting right now!