Some want it darker – a plea to stop politicization of the Holocaust
Israel’s Declaration of Independence has no legal standing in Israel, but nonetheless, this brilliantly crafted document has always served as a statement of intent and a beacon for direction.
The document provides the basis for establishing the legitimacy of Israel’s existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people. When it was drafted 71 years ago, Israel was about to face a battle for life or death – and yet, the founders of Israel deemed it necessary to assert that Israel was committed to democracy and full equality for all of its citizens, even knowing that some of them would be Palestinian Arabs.
Not only did the document affirm Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, it provided the wisdom for determining Israel’s democratic character by basing it on the prophetic vision and inspiration of the Prophets of Israel. Israel’s Jewishness is inextricably linked to its democratic character and values – and that, as the vision, should be Israel’s foundation and its constitution.
There is no doubt that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the failure of the peace process; the need to confront the ongoing threat of terrorism and violence; the occupation of the Palestinian people itself; and the existence of a significant 20% Palestinian minority of the citizens of the State of Israel, have made Israel a “challenged democracy”.
The challenge to Israel’s democracy has been ongoing, with significant improvements as well as infringements of civil rights happening throughout its history. Overall, despite the rise of nationalism and racism in recent years, Israel has remained a thriving and kicking democracy (within the Green Line pre-June 1967 borders only). The balance between Israel’s Jewishness and its democracy has always been difficult; the judiciary has often had to step in when the executive or legislative branches crossed redlines. At times, the judiciary failed as well. OVERTIME THE struggles for freedom, democracy and equality all around the world confront nationalism, racism and chauvinism. This is happening in Western Europe, which is being challenged by waves of immigration from the Middle East and Africa. In Israel post-Arab Spring, the benefits of Israel’s democracy have been ever the more apparent to its Palestinian citizens. But the country’s right-wing government and legislators compete for public attention from their base by a stream of proposed laws that impact directly on shrinking Israel’s democracy, and are an affront against its Palestinian citizens.
They may think that they are strengthening Israel’s Jewish identity, but only those who are not confident of Israel’s legitimacy as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people find a need to over compensate by legislating anti-democratic laws. One such law is proposing to legalize ethnically homogenized residency rights as a means of preventing Palestinian citizens from living in Jewish communities. Some of its advocates have justified their positions for preserving Jewish majority rights by invoking the old and wrong slogan “separate but equal.” They forget that the US Supreme Court had determined decades ago (albeit in a different context) that separate is not equal.
It is time that we all face what Israel needs to become to genuinely define itself in the world of 2018 – Israel must become the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people AND all of its citizens. A country which identifies itself as democracy cannot accept a set of laws which defines citizens’ rights according to ethnic, religious or national attributes. ALLOW ME to revisit a not so well know part of Israel’s history. In 1954 the leftwing Hashomer Hatzair movement created the Arab Pioneer Youth Movement. The APYM was established as part of the struggle for democracy in the young State of Israel. In a pamphlet explaining the movement they wrote: “These youth aim at leading the struggle of the Arab youth in Israel for the removal of the Military Administration, the modernization of the Arab village... the lifting of the shackles of economic stagnation, the establishment of a progressive Arab society founded on relations of brotherhood and equality with its Jewish neighbors, the development of the concept of cooperation and the introduction of the pioneering socialistic spirit in the new Arab generation.” By 1957 there were 700 members.
Shortly afterwards, the movement died and disappeared. I searched very hard to understand why this successful movement perished so suddenly. When I first began to examine this part of history I thought that perhaps the APYM might have become too nationalistic, turning into a group like Al-Ard, an Arab political movement which was considered anti-Israel and which the Israeli government later outlawed.
I discovered, however, that what primarily undid the APYM was that the Arab members were too successful in absorbing the values and principles of the socialist-Zionist Youth Movement, Hashomer Hatzair. When they completed high school and went on to university or to the working world, they wanted to become members of kibbutzim. In their minds, this was a fulfillment of the values they were being taught. The kibbutzim in question – the Kibbutz Artzi–Hashomer Hatzair movement – had no intention of having Arab members in their closed communities.
After being rejected by the kibbutzim, some members of the movement decided to try and form a kibbutz of their own, for graduates and activists of the movement. But they soon learned that the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency would not offer them land or any other support for this idea. The movement fell apart amidst its own hypocrisies. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, with the exception of the “reservations” established to concentrate Bedouins off of their land, no new Arab communities have been built in the state.
The currently proposed national law, which attempts to maintain the right and legitimacy of segregated communities, is an anachronism. Israel is a shared society of Jews and Arabs, and within each of those communities there are many sub-groups. Creating partnerships for building a shared Israeli society across cultural, ethnic, religious and nationalist lines will not diminish the Jewishness of the State of Israel. Legal segregation will do great harm to Israel in the eyes of the world’s nations and will not strengthen Israel’s Jewishness in the eyes of its own citizens. As Israel’s founders understood, building Israel as a society shared by all of its citizens will strengthen Israel and its legitimate right to be the nation-state of the Jewish people.
The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine was published by Vanderbilt University Press. 6997. That is the number that was tattooed on the forearm of my late beloved mother, Sabina Skorecki (née Silberspitz). She was 15 on Friday September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Between that day and her eventual liberation from Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp by Russian troops in 1945, she had experienced the horrors of the Bochnia Ghetto, 22 months at Auschwitz, the death march of January 1945, and the loss of her entire family.
My late beloved father, Elias Skorecki, 13 years her senior, was a “graduate” of Płaszów and Mauthausen before being liberated by American troops at Ebensee. He lost his first wife and two small children during the Nazi liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto between the 13th and 14th March 1943.
My parents married in Krakow on July 7, 1946, and lived in communist Poland for five years after the war. My father witnessed the trial and execution of the Płaszów camp commander, Amon Leopold Göth, whose evil image is portrayed in Schindler’s List.
I was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1953, an only child, and engraved in my very earliest memories are tales of these horrors. I wondered why, unlike others in my kindergarten, there were no grandparents or close family members. In time, I grew to admire my parents’ resilience despite the scars of their six years of suffering Nazi atrocities. While they related in great detail all of the horrors they experienced, they were punctiliously careful in pointing the blame where it most belonged. Both my parents, who had experienced Polish gentile antisemitism growing up, insisted on not conflating the brute evil and genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany with the wrongdoings and shortcomings of any other nation during that darkest period in human history.
Long before the controversial “Polish Death Camp” law, my parents corrected me if I were to inadvertently use this term, insisting that Poles were not active as guards or as systematic collaborators in the mass murder of Jews, and pointing out that a correct term would be German Nazi death camps in Poland. Nazi Germany preferred cruel murderous accomplices and executers from other nationalities, and didn’t trust Polish gentiles in the Nazi mission of exterminating Jews. There were many acts of betrayal, some under unimaginable duress, and others gleefully perpetrated by Polish gentiles. There were also many known and untold acts of heroism. As pointed out in a recent article by Marc Santora in The New York Times titled “Poland’s ‘Death Camp’ Law Tears at Shared Bonds of Suffering With Jews,” Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, recognizes more than 6,700 gentiles in Poland as “righteous among the nations” who risked their lives during the war to save Jews – more than from any other European nation.
My father was far more anguished by the collusion of some Polish Jews with Nazi atrocities than he was with that of Polish gentiles. He viewed the most despicable, cruel and heinous crime of the Nazis to be that of murdering the soul of those Jews who were coerced to serve as kapos and police operatives. Given the duress of their plight, he did not stand in judgment, but rather considered them to be the most mutilated victims of Nazi barbarism.
Eventually, more than 20 years ago, while still embracing Canada as the most wisely tolerant country on the planet, we moved to Israel. I visit my parents’ graves just north of Haifa, every month, and recall these many lessons.
While it seems incongruous to us that freedom to study the true facts of Polish involvement in the Holocaust could be curbed by restrictive legislation, this is a separate issue of infringement on freedom of speech and democracy. Poland is showing deference to Israeli and Jewish sensitivities in the current still-controversial proposed amendment, which reduces conflation of Polish involvement with Nazi atrocity from a criminal to a civil offense. The Polish reactive outcry at being put in the same basket as the ultimate evil of Nazi Germany with terms such as “Polish death camps” should be understood, most of all by Jews.
There are fewer and fewer survivors, but the six million who were exterminated cry out for truth and justice. Such truth cannot be achieved by misappropriating the source and perpetrators of ultimate evil, nor by turning a sacred memory into a blame-and-victimhood competition. It is time to honor the memory of six million people who were murdered only because they were Jews, in a way that is respectful of truth and avoids grandstanding and distortion.
As if it wasn’t dark enough, it seems that some “want it darker” by politicizing the Holocaust. As Elie Wiesel put it, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” This is why I feel the need today to bring the firsthand testimony of my beloved parents, which may shed a different light on the painful, but sacred search for truth.
When Poland amends the Holocaust law, the only child of Holocaust survivors brings the firsthand testimony of his parents.
WHAT KIND of society are we? A man surfs near the mostly Arab area of Jaffa.