I’ve been more affected this year by Holocaust Memorial Day because of my increased availability. I found the Podcast below when I looked on the Radio 4 Thought for the Day site on the weekend. On 23/01/2015 – Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism. What she said was “This week, the echoes of history reverberated off the walls of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I was privileged to lead prayers at an event marking Holocaust Memorial Day next week, which commemorates the Holocaust and other recent genocides, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. At the ceremony, awards were given by the Israeli Ambassador to families of three rescuers referred to as “Righteous among the Nations”, people who defied the hatred, hostility and widespread indifference during the Holocaust. At great risk of death, they saved lives.
One of these rescuers whose life we honoured was Elsie Tilney, a Christian missionary from Norwich, who saved a one-year old Austrian toddler, Ruth Buchholz. The other two rescuers were Vanda Janaviciene and her son, Kazys Janavicius. They were Lithuanian, like my family was. They gave their neighbour, Lilly Winterfield, a false birth certificate, and hid her until the war was over.
The world’s leading Jewish demographer, a survivor himself, was at this event and told us that he had researched the question of whether there is a rescuer type. The answer was no. People who risked their own lives for others had no particular common trait. I hope that in similar circumstances, these words from the Talmud would move me to take the risk they took: “In a place where no one is behaving with humanity, be a human being.”
We witnessed the same, seemingly random spark of incredible humanity two weeks ago in Paris, when a Muslim shop assistant, Lassana Bathily, rescued Jews at a kosher grocer. He hid them in a freezer and helped police free the other hostages. Born in Mali, he’s twenty-four years old and a shy, unassuming man. He showed the same breath taking, brave spirit as those Righteous among the Nations whose lives we commemorated. Rescuers are ordinary people, like you and me. If we elevate them to some other, superhuman status, we avoid having to ask the question: “What would I do?”
With the shooting at the kosher grocer in Paris still fresh in our minds, British Jews are currently engaged in feisty and very public debate about anti-semitism. There are real concerns: real fears. We know the situation for Jews is a benchmark for freedom across the whole of society, and that reports of anti-Semitic hate crime have been up in the last year. Yet, anti-Semitism in Britain remains the lowest in Europe – and I believe this country is generally a safe and wonderful place for Jews. By hearing and retelling stories of Righteous among the Nations, and other rescuers, we become active witnesses to those events – and help ensure their memory echoes from Warsaw to Whitehall, across history and across nations.”
On Holocaust Memorial Day 27/02/2015 I listened to Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis on the Program. He said “I have visited many European sites where millions were murdered during the Holocaust. For me, the site that, more than any other sends a chill down my spine is the Wannsee Villa in Berlin. It is an elegant country villa on the shore of a beautiful lake. At this picturesque spot, top Nazi officials planned how to wipe out the Jewish people. The official invitation to attend was sent by the Deputy Head of the SS. It read: The Chief of the Reich Main Security Office, Reinhard Heydrich, cordially invites you to a discussion about the Final Solution to the Jewish problem. Breakfast will be served at 9.00am. Over a tasty meal, fifteen men sat down to determine the fate of the Jews. No one present questioned their mission or its justification. After cognac they began their work to annihilate my people.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. As we remember the fate of 6 million Jews and many other victims, we owe it to those who suffered to ask: Have the lessons of the Holocaust been learned? The first essential lesson is the need for education lest people forget. Our children need to know the truth in order to ensure that the brutality of the Holocaust will not stain the world again. Secondly, we must teach compassion, kindness and selflessness. We must learn to practice loving acceptance of all people created in the Divine image, recognising that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and expression. Thirdly, open-mindedness will not suffice. Tolerance without boundaries – in particular tolerance of cruelty, falsehood and intolerance – has proved fatal to liberty. A free society must respond courageously and emphatically when faced by forces of evil that seek to destroy our civilisation.
Since Holocaust Memorial Day last year anti-semitic incidents have increased sharply in many parts of the world, including the UK. Recent events have shown the extent to which the civilised world today is threatened by the malign intentions of would-be mass murderers. Our situation is not nearly as grave as the 1930’s but the lessons learned from then remain true today. Early signs of the breakdown of constructive co-existence must never go undetected. If they are ignored, disregard for human life, lust for power and self-righteous cruelty can simply spin out of control. On this Holocaust Memorial Day, we must dedicate ourselves to education and develop the courage to protect our society from purveyors of hatred and terror. Let us remember the past for the sake of a peaceful and secure future.”
I attended a Holocaust Memorial Ceremony in Hackney which I found moving and immensely sad. I was impressed by pupils from a Primary School Choir in Stanford Hill and 2 Secondary School pupils who spoke about visiting Auschwitz in the last year and how the experience affected them. Two adults from the local Jewish community spoke about their experience, one about his father’s escape from Poland at the start of the Second World War to join the fight against the Axis powers, the other about her experience of being in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp with her mother, sister and brother.
She spoke about their survival in such adversity and the need to recall their experience which was impressive. She was still very angry with Germany and hadn’t been able to recover from her experiences. For me there were parallels between her views and my visits to Israel over the last year when I felt Israeli’s were still stuck in victim mode which prevents them engaging fully in any peace process with Palestinians. This is because in the process they’ll have to consider Israel’s oppression of Palestinians which has similar characteristics to Nazi anti-Jewish policies. I’ve referred in previous posts to the trauma from the Holocaust which is still transmitted to new generations and is a barrier to peace. When the Israeli psyche shifts from victim to survivor a new potential for peace can be established. Time is of such importance because of Middle Eastern political instability, if there is no change Israel will find itself having to deal with groups like IS which make Hamas seem moderate. From outside people who support a peaceful solution to the Palestine Israel problem need to find a way to support and persuade a new generation of popular leaders to start negotiations with each other.
The woman’s passion and anger reminded me of my most recent Palestine visit when the Nablus governor spoke with similar passion about life and the challenges of living under Israeli occupation. What was different was that his approach was as someone who has survived and has moved beyond the oppression he experiences. I Nablus he leads a self-governing city where a democratic civic society is being established and is a model for future Statehood. He strongly believes that Palestine’s struggle to achieve nationhood will be successful.
What I’ve been thinking after the ‘official’ Holocaust memorials was how they focussed on the Jewish experience and only referred briefly to other 20th Century genocide. Only at the Hackney event did a disgruntled audience member ask why there’d been so little consideration of Nazi killings of people with disabilities with which the Hackney Council Speaker struggled to respond. Both Rabbis were focussed on recent events in France. I didn’t feel that they’d considered that the majority of victims in France weren’t Jewish. I thought the presence of the Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism with the Israeli ambassador showed the links between a representative of a UK Jewish community with Israel, which could be interpreted as an example of how Jews, Israel and Zionism are now interconnected. I was concerned that neither Rabbi raised concerns about Israel’s violence against Palestine in their broadcasts when they referred to other countries where genocide has occurred since the Second World War which in my view reflects the general position of UK Jewish communities where any criticism of Israel is muted. This contrasts with my experience as a young man in South Africa I persuaded a Rabbi in my community to make a powerful critique of apartheid in a sermon. In the UK it’s to his credit that the previous Chief Rabbi Lord Sachs was on occasions very critical of Israeli policies.
On Friday night of last week I attended a Sabbath family home service and meal with my Reformed Jewish Congregation which I found interesting because of the conversation which took place after the meal finished. People there were interested in my experience in Palestine over the last year, what I found encouraging was that there was agreement that Israel needs to change its relationship with Palestinians to agree a peaceful, harmonious plan a process for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Over the dinner table we also spoke about the effects of recent attacks by Muslim extremists in France, with the first consideration being risks of further attacks in London and on our community.
Quite clearly security is now a serious issue which needs consideration. What concerns me is that a possible assumption that Muslim communities in our area pose a risk which prevents us establishing positive relationships with them. My view is that we need to be brave and start meeting with them at this difficult time which I think will enhance our security, establish new links and make us feel safer. I think that the focus on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe since the attacks on France has been manipulated by the Israeli government to persuade communities which feel threatened here to emigrate to Israel. I oppose this option because of the long proud record of integrated Jewish communities being involved in the struggle for democracy in Europe. As the continent becomes more conservative and inward looking our presence here is vital to assist others in protecting our rights. Jewish communities in France in particular are being targeted by Israel to move there and there needs to be a more robust critique of this approach. With the largest Jewish community in Europe I think that France can use the recent events there to address the issues which caused the attacks and encourage Jewish and Muslim citizens to challenge their extremists and remain where they are.
Importantly the Independent I on Saturday had an article on Page 2 which described where in 2013 the Bradford Council for Mosques came to the rescue of the Jewish community’s Grade 11 listed Synagogue, saving it when dwindling funds put its future in danger. A spokesman said “The local Muslim community has been an unfailing partner in the fight to keep the building open and flourishing.” Rudi Leavor, Synagogue Chair recommended that Jani Rashid, Bradford Council for Mosques Chair be added to the Board which was accepted unanimously by the Committee. I find the example so reassuring because it shows how away from the media spotlight 2 religious communities have established mutually supportive relationships in an environment when fear and prejudice against ‘others’ is more usual.
Last but not least I wanted to refer to the questions I was asking myself at the end of my most recent post. My view remains that there’s a chance of Israel unilaterally deciding its border, based on where it was after the 1967 War, an expanded Jerusalem and the existing settlement blocs. I’ve only managed to check this one person who lives in Palestine whose view is that the main threat at present is Israel deporting the Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem to Palestine. I hope to meet the Palestinian ambassador soon and will ask him for his views. I’m asking myself whether there’s a proactive way to clarify whether the threats above are real. I’m going to stop now, once again any responses to the next post will be gratefully received.