Holocaust and other reflections 2 February 2015


Hi There,

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.




6 thoughts on “Holocaust and other reflections 2 February 2015

  1. Gwyneth Boswell

    Thank you for your long and thoughtful piece, Steve. It put into words much of what I have been thinking about Holocaust Memorial Day and associated events. The Israeli bandwagon reaction really has done nothing to alleviate the anti-semitism problem and, indeed as you say, has served to mask other very real historic and current oppressions, not least its own. I also found it sad to hear the otherwise admirable Maureen Lipman saying that she no longer felt safe in the UK, but heartening to hear the equally admirable Esther Rantzen saying quite the opposite. Likewise it was heartening to learn from you about the Bradford situation, where Muslims and Jews are being mutually supportive. It is clear that this is the only approach which will come anywhere near solving the seemingly intractable situation in Palestine/Israel. Do let us know how you get on with the Palestinian Ambassador. Cheers, Gwyneth

  2. bp.dorrity

    Hello Steve

    Thank you for your post. I am a believer in ‘ordinary people’ speaking with each other. I am heartened by the amount of links between ‘ordinary’ Palestinians and Israelis such as via the Bereaved Parents Forum through which families from both communities bereaved due to their conflict meet and form mutually supportive relationships: amazing and inspirational.

    While their respective governments (and those backing them!) need to pull their fingers out and negotiate with real commitment for a lasting peace – which will mean both sides compromising painfully, I believe initiatives such as the BPF and their like should not be dismissed as mere ‘normalisation’ and ignored/overlooked. All positive steps forward need support in my view. In SW we employ a variety of methods, don’t we?

    At Limmud conference 2014 I heard again from a Palestinian speaker, member of the BPF – who chose to learn Hebrew and cross bridges despite his loss. I hear over and over that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians just wish for peace.

    I’m a SW with 40 yrs experience. My dad was a Jewish Polish Kindertransport refugee who married a German Catholic (oi vey Maria!) he met post-war while in the British occupying forces. All their 4 children worked in the public services: co-incidence?

    My parents’ ability to see ‘the other’ as simply human beings definitely led me into SW as a career. His parents were murdered in 1942. In 1948 he married my mother: also orphaned young (though from natural causes). Their marriage lasted til my Dad’s death aged 66 in 1991.

    I hope the PAL-UK SW group will eventually take my message + that of the BPF and similar others on board. I also think that Guy needs to think long and hard about his stance and make crystal clear to BASW members that while PAL-UK SW Netwotk is supporting those against what they portray a normalisation, there are other approaches.

    I have incidentally discussed this with Mohammed Amin, colleague in the Manchester Muslim Jewish forum. He confirmed my viewpoint – presumably that’s why he’s s MJF member.

    With all best wishes Barbara Dresner Ps I’m now retired – my last post involved home visiting Jewish Holocaust survivors in northern UK and Wales.

    stephenmendel posted: “Hi There, 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 Ra”

    • Dear Barbara,

      I’ve already written about Israeli groups which oppose their governments policies and admire them for what they do. What concerns me however is how they can prevent themselves being used to bolster Israel’s democratic credentials internationally. I went last night to Jewish Book Week to hear Jonathan Freedland and Peter Beinart speaking on Israel and the Diaspora sponsored by Yachad. What I thought is both of them are only credible to the Israeli government because they support the country as a Jewish state. I thought the majority of the audience had the same view which in my view stilted the debate. Questions about Palestinian rights weren’t fully answered. When Peter Beinart was asked to defend his view that a trade boycott against Businesses and trade in the Settlements he justified it by referring to the Settlements as being a non-democratic zone on occupied land. He doesn’t support a boycott against democratic Israel which I question. I like to hope that there’s a peace route that will emerge for Israelis and Palestinians who support it, however we’re not there yet and I’m unsure what’ll persuade the Palestinian and Israeli leaders to become partners in a just peace process. Time is of the essence because the extremist groups developing in Israel, Palestine and the Syrian Civil War could cause further conflict which will threaten the very existence of Israel.



      Dear Barbara, 19 February 2015

      Thanks for the information and the post and emails you’ve sent me in response to my blog. I hope to have some time in the next week to respond to what you’ve written.



      18 February 2015 Information about Yachad:
      Hi Steve
      This is one of the dialogue groups I’ve mentioned to you and Guy,
      Dear Barbara,
      I’d like to draw your attention to a number of our upcoming events. Discussion and debate are integral to Yachad’s work. We believe that education and advocacy go hand-in-hand, which is why we are committed to providing the Anglo-Jewish community with cutting edge educational content that puts new issues on the agenda. I hope you will be able join us at one of the following:
      Monday 23rd February, 8pm: Peter Beinart will be in conversation with Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi, JW3. As you may know, Peter became central to the American Jewish debate on Israel with his essay, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, in which he accused the American Jewish leadership of forcing the community, particularly the next generation, to choose between their liberal and Zionist values. Together with Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi, he will discuss the role that diaspora communities and activists can and should play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
      Sunday 1st March, 7.30pm: Israeli lawyer Nery Ramati will be in conversation with Danny Friedman QC, Hampstead Town Hall. You may have seen that several weeks ago a group of young Yachad activists launched the Kids Court in Conflict campaign, raising money to fund a lawyer to defend Palestinian children prosecuted in the Israeli military courts in the West Bank. Nery Ramati is a leading Israeli human rights lawyer who works defending Palestinians, often minors, in the military courts. The event will be an opportunity to meet with Nery and find out more about the military courts and what practical impact Kids Court in Conflict is likely to have.
      Sunday 22nd March: We Believe in Israel We Believe in Israel is organising a national conference in London to bring supporters of Israel together. Yachad will be running three of our own sessions as well as participating in a number of panel discussions. By participating we can ensure that the voices of our supporters are central to the debate around Israel advocacy in the British Jewish community. To find out about participating, click here.
      If you are in Israel this Pesach please join us for a day trip to the West Bank: Monday 6th April: South Hebron Hills day trip We will be travelling to the southernmost tip of the West Bank, the South Hebron Hills, with Breaking the Silence, a group of veteran IDF soldiers. More details here.
      Wednesday 8th April: Seam Zone day trip We will be travelling to the seam zone in the central West Bank – the area between the Green Line and the Separation Barrier, with Machsom Watch, a group of female Israeli activists. More details here. I hope to see you at one of our events.
      Best wishes, Hannah Weisfeld.

      Dear Barbara, 11 February 2015

      Great to receive a further response from you and thanks for your reply. It’s hard to be between combatants in any conflict because they will criticise the peacemakers. In Israeli there’s a small number of brave people who reach beyond their communities in the search for peace. The trouble is that the focus in Israel is the conflict and there is no united view about any solution. The dilemma for Palestine supporters is that their numbers in Israel are so small and they must not be used to justify continued negotiations with Israel which is in my view a flawed democracy.
      I’d like to include your further response and my reply on my blog, is that OK with you?


  3. Well written, Steve. You seem to have covered so much so well. I write as a caring practising Christian. I find the word antisemitic is bandied about rather without definition. Some of my dearest friends (some Palestinian Christians) are wrongly branded antisemitic, and I fear recently proposed legislation. “we refuse to hate” is their position. Same as Stephen Sizer.

    Recently I have been reading Norman Finkelstein’s ” The Holocaust Industry”, and some Chomsky and Ilan Pappe. I think we must remember that for Palestinians, their Holocaust/Nakba actually dates back to late 1947 and through 1948- early 50s, and recognition of their right of return is crucial – recognition of Zionist “transfer” policies, ethnic cleansing in today’s terms, (not actually to say slow genocide) which because of the “demographic problem”, and clear Israeli colonisation plans ( and wanting the oil off the coast), continues quite sadistically, and with significant racial hatred fed by the Israeli version of remembering of the Holocaust, with youngsters taken on trips to Auschwitz and being taught “it’s not just then, it’s now; it’s what Hamas want to do to you.” In fact Hamas has repeatedly shown its willingness to be pragmatic in peace negotiations. I do not believe the US/Israeli powers have any interest in making peace, and they have repeatedly blocked it over so many years, manipulating the media to blame the Palestinians, just like our people have been manipulated to blame the poor and disabled for their plight in this country.
    Manuel Hassassian was very clear about his position at the recent PSC AGM.

    Things are in chaos since the breakdown of Kerry’s so called peace process. Israeli is spooked by the unity of Fatah and Hamas and are no doubt trying to break it up. Palestinians are absolutely desperate and are being constantly attacked, killed or incarcerated (kidknapped), not to mention the situation of kids in Gaza. Mustapha Barghouti – and Omar Barghouti are worth listening to.

    The double standards amongst the powers that be are scandalous, and shameful.

    • Dear Roger,

      Thanks for your reply which as I’ve written previously is a check for me on whether my views are accurate. In yesterdays post I wrote how affected I was about the Israeli book theft and the concept of cultural genocide. I think I’ll have negative responses because once again I’ve linked Israeli and Nazi Germany in their policies regarding relics from their Jewish and Palestinian victims. I’m shocked what Israeli school children are told at Auschwitz, linking the Holocaust with threats from Hamas. It must also be hard for Christians like you to take a position on anti-Semitism because the meaning of the word has been so degraded by Israel which associates most criticism with anti-Semitism. I think the Jewish Socialists in the UK have an excellent article where they distinguish between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.

      I admire Mustapha and Omar Barghouti on Palestine-Israel issues, its sad that nobody seems to be listening to them. I’ve read that Israeli government representatives meet regularly with Mustapha Barghouti in prison. It’s a tragedy for Israel and Palestine that he hasn’t been released.



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