Sunday, February 27, 2011

WWII Survivors and their Descendents Oppose Israel's Treatment of Palestinians

*Trigger warning for psychological after-effects on war survivors

As I allude to in this blog's description, I am a woman of multiple causes, one of them being the Israel/Palestine conflict. As a result of being pro-Palestinian, I inevitably discovered Norman Finkelstein, and I have read several of his books and have attended two speeches. It would take an entirely different post to detail my respect and admiration of this man, but that's for another day. I frequent his website and there is an excerpt of a political memoir he's writing. The excerpt focuses on his mother, who survived the holocaust. For the sake of brevity, I have placed in ellipses those parts not relevant to what I want to discuss.
Every night as we watched the news on television my mother would avert her eyes and raise her hand to block the screen when scenes from Vietnam flashed across it. After a few moments the question would invariably come: "Is it over yet?" Not at all given to self-dramatization, she simply couldn't endure the scenes of destruction and death. ... My mother's whole being revolted against it. ...

My mother would often exclaim that the United States was "worse than Hitler." ...I'm not sure whether my mother meant literally the comparison between the U.S. and Hitler or she was simply straining to convey the magnitude of the Vietnam War's criminality. Having internalized my mother's indignation I became nearly insufferable whenever the subject of Vietnam would come up. After forcing my high school economics class to listen to passages from a book graphically depicting U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, I remember my shock and disgust that nobody else was physically wrenched. ...

It was no mystery from whence my mother's impassioned response sprang. The devastating firepower of the Americans, on the one hand, and the utter defenselessness of the Vietnamese, on the other; the indifference or, at any rate, scandalously incommensurate response, of the rest of humanity to the ongoing genocide: it was the Nazi holocaust all over again. And such was her exceptional humanity that my mother literally couldn't bear for anyone to suffer as she had. ... I once had dinner with two Unitarian friends, both married to German-born women who had been in the Hitler Youth. The subject eventually came around to the Nazi holocaust, and one of the wives whined, "How much longer must we keep hearing about it?" "My parents lived with the Nazi holocaust until the last day of their lives," I coldly thought, "so you can live with it until the last day of yours."

When our neighbors reacted in horror to rumors that the city was putting up a homeless shelter nearby, my mother retorted: "You never know where you will be tomorrow." I knew exactly what she was thinking: one day hers was the carefree cultured life of Warsaw's middle class, ice-skating after school and attending a concert of classical music in the evening; the next day she was reduced to a state of stink and filth in the ghetto. ...


Unsurprisingly, the war has become the primary point of reference not just in my political life but in the trivia of my daily life as well. The image having been planted in my mind of camp inmates lunging for a scrap of vegetable or meat in the soup cauldron, I always cut up a scallion right to the root's edge and devour even the marrow in a steak or chicken bone.

It's poignant for me. My Nana was not a holocaust survivor, not even close to it, but she was a WWII survivor. I think of my Nana describing to me one of her earliest memories, that of the red sky over the blitzing of Belfast. She was less than two at the time, and her mother was holding her and said, "Look, Stephanie; Belfast is burning!" My Nana suffered from recurring nightmares in her youth and all the way into her twenties, that she was standing on a bridge and above, a burning plane filled with screaming people was falling, and she couldn't get away in time. I don't mean in any way to compare the experience of my Nana in Ireland to that of Finkelstein's mother in Majdanek, but while my Nana lived a life of relative ease during the war (amidst racism, religious hatred, rationed food, fear, danger, and terrible rumours), they came away with similar feelings about war in general: that it should not happen.
I recall that we were watching television one night and an Israeli man on the news was singing, "Give war a chance". My Nana said nothing, but only slowly shook her head. I asked her about it, hoping for her to tell me about her reaction, but she assumed I hadn't heard the man, and only repeated, dryly, "Giver war a chance." I didn't ask further since in truth I knew why she had shaken her head. War had been given plenty of chances, far too many, and she couldn't bear for war to be justified in any way. She, in fact, could hardly bear any violence at all. She was strongly against corporal punishment and she opposed the death penalty of the US to the south, saying that violent criminals should simply be taken "away from society". She absolutely refused to watch movies or television shows depicting violence unless it was relevant to the story and represented as wrong (and if it wasn't represented as wholly wrong, then there had to be a very, very good reason), and even then it was often difficult to convince her. Valuing books over television and movies, she could stand written violence better in some instances, unless it was gratuitous.

Growing up, it was difficult for my brother and me to understand. We knew that actual violence was obviously wrong (though even then, we felt there could be exceptions), but what was wrong with just showing it? It wasn't real after all. But it was for her. Power Rangers was one among the many shows we weren't allowed to watch because of all the buildings that were destroyed. "What if there were people inside?" For my brother and me, the answer was obvious: of course there weren't any people in the buildings, or the power rangers would save them. But to her, the answer was equally as obvious; she had lived through a time during which, when buildings were destroyed during a battle, people were inside, there were no superheroes to save them, and those people were often injured or killed.

I don't know when she learned about the Israel/Palestine conflict, but it must have come as a shock to her, that a people who had so recently undergone such a terrible ordeal would now inflict so much on another people, not even out of revenge since it was not the Palestinians who carried out the holocaust, but simply out of power, like a person raised in an abusive household who then decides to take it out on hir innocent children.

As it relates to feminism, it's been oft said that although men start and fight wars, women are often the primary victims. On this I find no evidence to contradict. Indeed, even long after WWII had ended and after her death was Finkelstein's mother subjected to a horrid accusation of being a Nazi collaborator. Amidst those so willing to turn a deceased holocaust survivor into a nonperson and a tool solely to hurt her son, it is important that we listen to the women who have suffered through war (and those who continue to); it is important that we hear what they think about war. I believe one will find that for most women who have survived war, the answer is largely the same: it should not happen.

The point is that whether one agrees with Israel's policy toward the Palestinians or not, one simply cannot label everyone who opposes Israel's actions as anti-Semites. There may be some who oppose Israel simply because they hate Jews, indeed I've accidentally come across such a site, but the main difference there was that they did not once speak of Israel's crimes against the Palestinians, but rather of Jews inflicting themselves on the world or some other such bullshit. Of those who oppose Israel for its human rights violations, some of us do so because we have relatives, women, who lived through the horrors of war. In other words, some of us oppose Israel's actions because of, not in spite of, World War II and the holocaust.

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