A major step towards lifting the Israeli Taboo

It’s not without irony that Brandeis University, founded in 1948 as a nonsectarian university under the sponsorship of the American Jewish community, is fast becoming a beacon of enlightenment and open debate with regards to Israel and the Palestinian situation.

In January, Jimmy Carter was invited to give a speech about his latest book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid,” which urges Israel to turn away from a policy of creating “Bantustans” on the West Bank.

Carter, who took questions from the audience and promised to answer those unable to deliver their own, was given a standing ovation when he concluded his speech. Following the event, a number of pro Zionist donors declared that they would withhold donations (totaling 5 million dollar) to the university in protest over Carter’s appearance. It appeared as though this would stifle any further such discussions, but fortunately, this effort has proven fruitless because the university had since attracted new donors.

Last Thursday, Brandeis hosted a panel called “The Public Framing of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: How the Holocaust Underlines Realities of Fear, Intimidation, and Denial”.

Here are some quotes from the summary of the panel discussion . I highly recommend reading it. As you will see, the conclusions were not only highly insightful, but also inspiring. It is enormously refreshing to hear from people directly affected by the Holocaust, speak of the event and it’s consequences so frankly and without the emotionally charged atmosphere it typically attracts.

Roy, whose parents are Holocaust survivors, said her parents “stood as a moral challenge among us.” But, she said, “Zionism has denigrated” the memory of the Holocaust. Roy, arguing that the Holocaust should be used to promote morality and justice, relayed her mother’s story of liberation from the concentration camps. According to Roy, after her mother and sister were liberated by the Russians, the prisoners were given free range to exact revenge upon the prison guards. However, Roy’s mother resisted the temptation to “ravage the guards.” Instead, Roy’s mother said, “we cannot do this. We must seek justice, not revenge.”

Roy also addressed the issue of intimidation and accusations of anti-Semitism. “Why is it anti-Semitic to argue against the misuse of the Holocaust? Why is it anti-Semitic…to defend the dignity and rights of all human beings? Why is it anti-Semitic to envision a future…that allows both peoples to live with dignity, equality, and peace.”

Rothchild followed Roy’s speech. “We’re all searching for meaning in the tragedy of the Holocaust,” she said. “How do [victims of the Holocaust] get to a place where they can do this to another people?” Rothchild asked. Moreover, “the Holocaust undermines and distorts the realities in the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

Rothchild then discussed issues of determination. She explained that “evoking the Holocaust” is a tool often used by what she deemed “right-wing” groups. As examples she pointed to the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership. According to Rothchild, the David Project has equated the threat of a nuclear Iran with Hitler’s Final Solution and the current times with the 1930s.

Rothchild then referenced the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which she accused of employing similar rhetoric. Then, in particular reference to Brandeis, Rothchild cited the alleged loss of five million dollars in donations from Brandeis alumni as a result of Carter’s visit to campus. These acts of intimidation, Rothchild asserted, “muzzles the academic community” and the Jewish community in general.

Beit-Hallahmi gives a fascinating account of the notion of victim hood.

Last to speak was Beit-Hallahmi, who discussed at length the culture around victimization. “We all want to be victims,” he explained, “because it gives us the moral high ground.” In actuality he argued, “suffering does not ennoble anyone.” Moreover, he said, “being a victim is an objectionable reality. Victims should not be idealized or romanticized.” “We have to recognize that there are many victims,” Beit-Hallahmi argued that “victims should be given their rights without idealization or romanticization.”

Beit-Hallahmi commented that Jews have little reason to feel like victims in current times in light of the prominent positions to which Jews have risen. “There is a psychological gap between reality and a tradition of insecurity.” He then addressed the concept that Zionism came out of the Holocaust. This is the not case, he said, as “Zionism…was around long before the Holocaust.” He also discussed the need for changes in thinking. “Changes in consciousness come slowly…but they’re coming [in Israel]. Changes come about because of many, many small struggles.”

And from all Panelists.

The discussion was then opened to questions. The first came from a man who said “even paranoids have enemies.” He then asked how Israel ought to deal with “avowed enemies of the state.” All three panelists agreed that “the occupation” is responsible for violence. Beit-Hallahmi said “the rules of the game create oppression…it’s not surprising that you have resistance.” Roy commented, “we are occupying another people. We have engaged in a process of oppression that is quite severe…there is a humanitarian denial of a people. If you take away all possibility…what do you expect…giving unabated oppression?” She added, “allow people to live as we live…then the violence will stop.”

Another audience member asked, “how do we break through the Holocaust inflected barrier?” Rothchild explained, we must “constantly challenge stereotypes and reframe issues. We must get people to ask different questions.” Moreover, “we must humanize the other…we must try to reproduce the situation for students…give it a context that is denied. De-educate, re-educate.”

Beit-Hallahmi said, “you can see a lot of movement [in opinion in Israel] even if the government is not.” There is a recognition that the “present situation is too costly.”

Such openness would have been unthinkable a decade ago. This surely signals a new era in discussion over the subject of the Israeli/Palestinian problem.

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