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.

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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.

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.

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!

Old Lies Never Die

On August 17, Al Jazeera commentator Gamal Nassar said “Al-Sisi [chief of staff of the Egyptian Army and former Muslim Brotherhood official] is Jewish, implementing protocols of the Elders of Zion in Egypt.”

On August 14 a spokesman for the Egyptian Association for Change claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood implements the methods of the Jews.

On August 20, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Reccip Tayyip Erdogan, said “Israel is behind the coup in Egypt, we have evidence.”

These are only a few examples of age-old lies which in the past were used by the Czarist regime to deflect the ire and discontent of the masses from the real problems of the day. They were used by the Nazis to further their claim of Jewish quest for domination of the world. In recent years, these lies have seen a resurgence, particular in the Muslim world, in mosques, and in the media, which are convenient tools to reach people who have no other way of learning the truth.

We know what happened in the Czarist era: pogroms. And we know what happened in the 20th century: the Holocaust. And I believe that the current barrage of falsehoods can easily lead to violent acts and eventually to genocide in our own time.

Meanwhile, Michael Ordman writes “Good News From Israel”“:

  • Dr Leslie Lobel of Ben Gurion University has identified antibody clones from patients who have recovered from Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) infections
  • The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Pillcam SB 3 – Given Imaging’s latest internal intestine camera – for monitoring sufferers of Crohn’s disease and other intestinal problems. Its use has already changed the treatment of 62 percent of Crohn’s patients.
  • The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem is to support a post-traumatic center for children deeply impacted by terror. The center is in Shiloh – the 3400-year-old site of the biblical Temple. Children are rehabilitated using art, music, movement, plus interaction with animals.
  • In September, leading experts from the USA, Spain, Australia and the Netherlands will join Israelis for the International Symposium on Quality of Life and Well-being of People with Disabilities.

While the hate speech targeted against Jews and Israel goes on, Israelis and Jews worldwide continue their lives, consistently contributing to the well-being of all mankind. My wish is that we can all be aware of both the dangerous hate speech and the ongoing contributions of the people who are being so maligned, and to share what we know with those who are less well-informed.

Fuming against fumes

Several days ago as I approached the building I reside in, I heard the sound of a lawnmower. “The gardener is here,” I thought. As I got closer I smelled the cut grass, a pleasant aroma to me. But after a few breaths I was assaulted by the gas fumes from the leaf blower. To me this was the perfect example of the price society pays for making life more convenient. It might offend some readers if I say that when I see some runners on a busy thoroughfare inhaling the fumes of heavy traffic I am “fuming.” Think about trying to stay physically fit while jogging on a busy thoroughfare and inhaling fumes. I will spare you more examples, but by now I hope you got the message.

At MEMRI.ORG I recently saw the transcript of an interview with Khaled Al-Zaafrani, founder of the Egyptian Justice and Progress Party, that aired on HAFEZ-TV May 12, 2013. He blames the Jews for the First World War, the Second World War, and claims that Jews cannot live without instigating conflicts. This is poison in the air. It appears on television nearly a year after a democratic revolution that we called the “Arab Spring,” and is fed to masses who are not used to seeking out neutral sources of information. And it makes me fume.

Recent events have moved me from fuming to screaming. In Nigeria, a school was attacked by militants, a dormitory set afire with gasoline, and 29 children and a teacher trying to escape were either incinerated or shot to death. And their only sin was that their parents sought for them a Western education.

The children, the children! How can we forget the faces of the children in the refugee camps in Jordan, fleeing from their homes in Syria, torn apart from their families. I am speechless in the face of my helplessness, my inability to do anything about this. All this is done “for the benefit of the people” by a corrupt government, supported by world powers in the UN Security Council who cannot seem to unite to prevent a petty tyrant from causing such unspeakable misery.

The late Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the US House of Representatives, once said “We must remember that the veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are like guardians and we can never rest.”

Language That Kills

As I was browsing the internet the other day, I stumbled across this article:

Egyptian newspaper publishes TWO articles saying Jews drink gentile blood on Passover

Reading it, I was reminded of the times between the First and Second World Wars when I was growing up in Poland and Belarus. In many towns after the Christian congregants would leave the churches following Christmas and Easter services there would be pogroms, attacks on the Jews. These attacks were always justified by saying that the Jews killed Jesus. After the war in 1946 in the town of Kieltz, 46 Jews were killed in a pogrom after rumors were spread that a child had disappeared and the accusation was made that Jews had stolen the child so they would have blood for Passover rituals.

I’m deeply hurt to think that in this day and age, the same rumors continue to be spread, and there are still people who accept these libels as fact. And this article is only a fraction of the orgy of hate in the media. Are we going to be complacent, hoping that it will go away? Words of hate are merely a prelude to hate action.

Inaction is not an option. Any suggestions?

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.

A Way of Life?

On April 8 we memorialized the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. On May 8 we will mark the 68th anniversary of the end of World War II which resulted in 25 million civilian casualties.

Did I say “the end of the war”? In fact, the war never ended. It has been followed by localized conflicts in which civilians are being targeted, killed, and displaced, their lives disrupted, thousands of women widowed and thousands of children orphaned. As I write this post war is raging in Syria, there are daily bombings in Iraq and elsewhere, and the victims are mostly civilians.

I was shocked to hear one morning on the radio a famous psychiatrist stating that the bombings in Boston and elsewhere were to be expected, that they have become a way of life. This is shocking. Are we really resigned to the fact that this is “the way of life” in the 21st century? Are all the institutions created after WWII to promote peace in this troubled world paralyzed?

And now the heinous act of violence in Boston. I shudder to think that this is a domestic act of violence, of the nature of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The motto of this blog has been since the beginning that language can heal, and language can kill. As of this writing there is no hint of who committed the dastardly act in Boston. But someone, somewhere has heard the person responsible uttering words of hate. It is our responsibility as individuals to react to this, not to ignore it.

Yes, I know that the free speech argument comes into play, that in the United States we do not censor speech. But those who spread hate speech should be considered potential killers. They should be exposed, ostracized, and brought to the attention of organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and other local human rights organizations. The biggest tragedies in our lifetime started with hate speech. I remind you of Hitler and his Nazi movement, and in our time elements in the Islamic world who openly and unashamedly encourage killing in the name of God. How obscene!

The Holocaust left an indelible stain of tears and pain, blood and shame on humanity. The Boston massacre and the acts of violence perpetuated daily are adding another layer to the stain. Do not be complacent! It is our duty to be aware and beware of the roots of such violence and do everything we can to avert it.