Monday, February 14, 2011

The witness of Yad Vashem - how we treat the different other

For me, the consideration of culture, of human social life, normally includes questions of "self" and "other," and how they relate (questions which Miroslav Volf considers in Exclusion and Embrace). And how (and why) people build barriers between themselves and others, and how in certain situations those relationships become characterized by hostility and dehumanization (the depths of the "polarization" / "defense" reaction to difference, in the middle of Bennett's "ethnocentrism" in the DMIS). With that as context, I share a reflection on Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

I hesitate to write about my experience of Yad Vashem. To me it as a sacred place, a place that bears witness to an almost incomprehensible experience of suffering by one group of people at the hands of others. I feel, when I walk through the memorial, that I am walking among the wounded souls of a people. I ask God, whenever I visit, to touch my soul with the anguish of the Jewish people, reflected in the pictures and quotations, in the art and the exhibits. And I ask God to show me what this means for me as a fellow human being of those whose suffering is represented in this place.

The memorial is full of powerful images and striking quotations, many which scar one’s emotions, and others which lift one’s spirits.

“slay them not [the Jews]…scatter them abroad” (Augustine)

“where books are burned, human beings are also destined to be burned” (Heinrich Heine)

“the personification of the devil, as the symbol of all evil, assumes the living shape of the Jew” (Hitler)

“a country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates” (Kurt Tucholsky)

The exhibits bear witness to a feeling and perception of Christian ambivalence toward Jews and Judaism, and traces the attitudes and events in Hitler and Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jewish people:
The concept of German vs. Jewish “blood”
The so-called “Jewish question” and “Jewish problem”
The policy of Aryanization and discrimination
Anti-Jewish racial laws
Economic boycott
Stripping of civil rights
Forced registration and wearing patches
Vandalizing and expropriating of Jewish businesses
Flight, creating a refugee problem (no one wanted them)
The destruction of a whole Jewish way life
Experience of terror, jail, humiliation, abuse
The burning of synagogues
Confiscation of homes, real estate, factories, businesses, artistic and cultural treasures
The creation of ghettoes – incarceration behind fences and walls, large numbers of people being restricted to small sections of a city (as an interim measure to eventual total removal)
Resettlement, deportation
The final step in dehumanization and demonization of a people – the “final solution” – total annihilation, with gas chambers, and plans to murder 11,000,000 Jewish people

And the fact that (for the most part) fellow citizens and other nations did not notice, did not care, did not take action, or in some cases, acted as accomplices, directly persecuting Jews or taking advantage of their suffering and loss.

It is too much to take in.

“the world is divided [for Jews] into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter” (Chaim Weizman, 1937)

“all of us, dying here amidst the icy artic indifference of the nations, are forgotten by the world and by life” (Avraham Levite, Auschwitz, 1945)

And after the war, the fact that most Western countries did not want, would not accept, Jewish refugees.

There is a small bright spot in the witness of Yad Vashem, the testimony to those called “the righteous among the nations,” non-Jews who saved Jewish lives, people it says were (are) “a model of heroism, humane and moral behavior, and the preservation of the sanctity of human life.”

“God created all of us in the same image…everyone has the right to live” (Mary Szul, Poland)

“I do not know what a Jew is, we only know what human beings are” (Pastor Andre Trocme)

"I know that when I stand before God on Judgment day, I shall not be asked the question posed to Cain -where were you when your brother's blood was crying out to God?" (Imre Bathory, Hungary)

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
(Martin Niemöller, a German pastor and theologian)

And the reflections after the war, after the Holocaust, of a world lost:
“an entire Jewish world that existed and was destroyed”

“their dear ones had been murdered, their culture crushed, their homes ravaged, and they had been torn from their childhood places of origin – persons without a homeland, categorized as ‘displaced persons’”

“all is imprisoned within the cell of memory” (Itamar Yaoz-Kest)

“my people is no more” (Yitzhak Katznelson)

And praised. Auschwitz. Be. Majdanek. The Lord. Treblinka. And praised. Buchenwald. Be. Mauthausen. The Lord. Belzec. And praised. Sobibor. Be. Chelmno. The Lord. Ponary. And praised. Theresienstadt. Be. Warsaw. The Lord. Vilna. And praised. Skarzysko. Be. Bergen-Belsen. The Lord. Janow. And praised. Dora. Be. Neuengamme. The Lord. Pustkow. And praised… Amen.
(an excerpt from the book The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart)

How does one internalize such a witness? How does one answer the question that was ringing in my head as I tried to comprehend such large scale inhumanity, “how should we then live?”

I ask God to help me to understand, to give me sympathy for, the suffering of the Jewish people. And not to contribute to it. And Yad Vashem helps me to understand, in a small way, the importance of the nation of Israel to the Jewish people - having a place, a home of their own, a refuge. And the mentality that I think I see, of fear, acting like a cornered, threatened animal, striking out because of the spectre of being struck again, of annihilation as a people. I ask God to help me understand.

I can’t help but think – visiting Bethlehem and Ramallah and Hebron and Jerusalem – of the current experience of the Palestinian people, their suffering, their loss. And to think of the words I have heard so often (including from Jewish Israelis), of the tragedy of the abused becoming the abuser, the victim becoming the victimizer.

And I wonder what the lesson of the Holocaust and of Yad Vashem should be to us, all of us? Can Yad Vashem be a witness for peace?

Is the message, “never again will we (the Jewish people) allow this to happen to us”?  Or should it be, “never again will we (all people) allow this to happen to any human beings, and never – by God’s grace – will we (any of us) be the perpetrators of dehumanization and villianization of other human beings”?

May God allow us to internalize the witness of the many Muslims, Jews and Christians I have met in Israel and the Occupied Territories whose message is that we must treat every human being we meet as our brother, our sister, our friend, ourselves with a different language or religion or ethnicity, and that we must stand and work for societies, and a world, where every human being is treated with respect and dignity, their rights and humanity protected.

This, to me, is the message of Yad Vashem.

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