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Category : In the News

This Day in Jewish History / Kalisz Statute gives Polish Jews landmark civil rights protections

Haaretz, By David B. Green, September 8, 2014

Charter issued in 1264 has been described as one of the first attempts at delineating ‘human rights’ in the modern sense of the phrase.

Great Synagogue in Kalisz known as Wielka Synagoga, 1914Photo by Wikimedia Commons

On September 8, 1264, Boleslau the Pious, duke of Greater Poland, issued the General Charter of Jewish Liberties. Better known as the Kalisz Statute, the charter contained a set of 36 conditions mandating the rights and privileges of the Jewish community of Poland.

Boleslau (born about 1224, died 1279), was the son of Wladyslaw Odonic, who, together with his brother Przmesyl, gradually reconquered the lands lost by their father, and between 1257 and 1273 was the duke of Greater Poland and Poznan. During his reign, parts of Poland were invaded – and despoiled – by the Mongols. The duke invited Jews and others from Germany to Poland to help rebuild it. His charter can be seen as part of an effort to make the Jews feel welcome and secure, at a time when such forces as the church were looking to limit their ability to integrate into society.

Nonetheless, the Kalisz Statute was far-reaching in the guarantees it offered the Jews, and has even been described as one of the first attempts at delineating “human rights” in the modern sense of the phrase.

Although based on similar charters that had been issued in the recent past in Austria (1244) and Bohemia (1254), the Kalisz Statute was the most far-reaching. Its 36 points, presented in Latin, guaranteed Jews the right to govern their own internal affairs, and to adjudicate matters in Jewish courts, except in cases that involved Christians and Jews, which were to be heard in a royal tribunal rather than an ecclesiastical court. Someone who murdered a Jew would be subject to “the proper sentence,” plus confiscation of all his property, and “wherever a Jew shall pass through our territory, no one shall offer any hindrance to him or molest or trouble him.”

Not only that, but Christians were forbidden from vandalizing synagogues or Jewish cemeteries, and faced punishment if they did. And if a Jew were to cry out for help in the night, and his Christian neighbors failed to come to his aid, “or heed the cry, every neighboring Christian shall be responsible to pay thirty shillings.”

‘Refrain from the blood’

Other clauses dealt with the conditions under which Jews could make loans, and the measures they could take when a loan went unredeemed. Another forbade Christians, “According to the ordinances of the pope, in the name of our Holy Father,” from accusing Jews of killing Christian children for their blood, “since according to the precept of their law, all Jews refrain from any blood.” Anybody who did wish to make such an accusation was obligated to produce three Christian witnesses and three Jewish witnesses to the crime for it to be proven.

The terms of the Kalisz Statute were confirmed by subsequent Polish kings into the 16th century, and served as a basis for Jewish privileges in Poland and Lithuania until the end of the 18th century. They also led to backlash by church officials, who in various periods and towns tried to impose different restrictions – e.g., segregated housing, wearing of identifying clothing or symbols, prohibition on the holding of public office – but generally with limited success.

In the 1920s, the artist Arthur Szyk, a proud Polish Jew, created a series of illuminated miniature paintings depicting Jewish life in Poland, accompanied by the text of the Kalisz Statute, in seven languages. Today, the originals of the miniatures are in the collection of the Jewish Museum, New York.

Child Holocaust survivors. (photo credit:REUTERS)

The Jerusalem Post, By Dr. Efraim Zuroff, September 6, 2014

Child Holocaust survivors. (photo credit:REUTERS)

The good news since the end of World War II is that, so far, the Holocaust has not been repeated, although unfortunately many other terrible events have occurred.

This week we mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the beginning of World War II, the most lethal war in human history. Approximately 50 million people lost their lives in World War II – the majority of them were not combatants, but rather innocent civilians.

The conflict included the Holocaust, the worst case of genocide in the annals of mankind, and the tragedy has become a symbol of “man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.”

The war is often perceived as a struggle between the epitome of evil and those who fought the immoral monsters of the Third Reich and their Japanese and Italian allies to save democracy. In reality, the historical situation was more complicated. The German regime was defeated by a coalition of genuine democracies and the totalitarian Soviet Union. The threat to the future of Europe and Western civilization justified cooperation with Stalin, despite his terrible crimes and abuse of human rights.

Revelations of the true scope of Nazi crimes and the Holocaust in particular fed a determination in the US and its Western European allies to ensure that such atrocities would not be repeated. To that end, the United Nations was created, the Nuremberg Trials were conducted and the Genocide Convention created.

A slogan which reflected that determination – repeated ad nauseam ever since – was “Never Again.” The meaning of the slogan obviously depended on who used it, but it is generally assumed to mean that, in the future, no other group should suffer the fate of European Jewry under Nazi rule.

The good news since the end of World War II is that, so far, the Holocaust has not been repeated, although unfortunately many other terrible events have occurred.

Some of them are more or less similar to the Holocaust, although none of them actually replicate the original sin of decimating European Jewry during the Shoah. Biafra, Cambodia and more recent cases like Rwanda and Darfur, to name just a few, evoke memories of the Holocaust, and demonstrate the Western world’s failure to live up to the noble intentions embodied in the slogan “Never Again.”

A case could be made that part of the failure stems from insufficient efforts to bring those guilty of the earlier crimes to justice. In fact, only a small percentage of people who committed Holocaust crimes were ever investigated, let alone prosecuted and punished. The same applies to the perpetrators of crimes in succeeding tragedies. Had it been otherwise, perhaps subsequent atrocities could have been avoided, or at least confined to a smaller scale. We will never know for sure, but it is absolutely clear to me that the deterrent effects of properly administered justice must be strengthened through more effective implementation.

In recent years, the subject has gained ever greater exposure. There has been an enormous upsurge in Holocaust- related activities, as more people study the Holocaust at different educational levels, and many countries made Holocaust study a required part of the school curriculum.

Two other innovations contributed to Holocaust awareness: the 2005 UN resolution to designate January 27 as an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, and the establishment of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to promote Holocaust education.

The delegitimization of Holocaust denial in mainstream Western society has been important. Progress in this direction is based on revelations and documentary proof of Holocaust crimes, thanks to decades of research by dedicated historians, investigators and archivists who gathered information and made it available to the wider public in museums, on the Internet, and in an enormous number of books, movies, articles and plays devoted to the subject.

In short, the fact that more people are currently being educated about the Holocaust than ever before suggests that the likelihood of genocide and anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice would be lower than ever.

Sadly, this is definitely not the case. As recent events in Europe and elsewhere have show, overt anti-Semitism is on the rise. It takes more violent forms and comes with lethal threats.

When demonstrators yell “Jews to the gas,” they obviously are aware of what happened during the Holocaust, but draw none of the lessons we expected to follow exposure to that tragic reality. In that respect, Holocaust consciousness simply boomeranged, to the detriment of those it was supposed to protect.

Many of the demonstrators calling for Jewish blood are Muslims who come from a sociopolitical milieu replete with Holocaust denial of the worst kind. Propaganda for this hostility to Jews is sponsored by governments and preached by religious leaders.

So when we mark the anniversary of World War II and contemplate where we stand 75 years later, it is painfully obvious that “Never Again” is at risk of becoming a hollow slogan. Unless some way is found to communicate the appropriate lessons of the Holocaust to European Muslims and, hopefully, even to the predominantly Muslim world, we may again face a tragedy of the type the world swore in 1945 to do everything possible to prevent.

The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office. His most recent book, Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, deals extensively with the ongoing failure of the Baltic countries, and especially Lithuania, to bring to justice un-prosecuted local Nazi war criminals and honestly deal with the complicity of their nationals in Holocaust crimes.

Monument Seeks to End Silence on Killings of the Disabled by the Nazis

New York Times, By MELISSA EDDY, SEPT. 2, 2014

BERLIN — The first to be singled out for systematic murder by the Nazis were the mentally ill and intellectually disabled. By the end of World War II, an estimated 300,000 of them had been gassed or starved, their fates hidden by phony death certificates and then largely overlooked among the many atrocities that were to be perpetrated in Nazi Germany in the years to follow.

Now, they are among the last to have their suffering publicly acknowledged. On Tuesday, the victims of the direct medical killings by the Nazis were given their own memorial in the heart of Berlin.

A 79-foot-long wall of blue tinted glass now stands at Tiergartenstrasse 4, the site where dozens of doctors plotted and carried out the killings of patients arranged through medical channels under a program known as “operation T4.” Before the program was halted in 1941, some 70,000 people had been killed in the first gas chambers at six sites across Germany. The Nazis’ early success paved the way for mass slaughter that would later be carried out on an even larger scale against Jews, Roma and others in the death camps.

In a country where commemoration of past crimes holds such a prominent place in the national debate that it can seem to border on obsession, some see adding a fourth major memorial to Holocaust victims in Berlin — there is already a monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, and in the city’s Central Park, the Tiergarten, one honors the Sinti and Roma and a second pays tribute to deported gays — as excessive.

But for those families whose relatives were singled out for death because doctors said they could not contribute to the Nazi war machine, the newest monument rights two wrongs: the crimes committed against the ill and defenseless, and the long postwar silence about their slaughter. Few of the doctors involved in the operation were convicted, and families have never been eligible for any form of postwar compensation.

For years, the site at Tiergartenstrasse 4 was a bus stop, with only a plaque testifying to the suffering plotted there.

“We wanted this site to be more visible to the public,” said Sigrid Falkenstein, who helped mount a crusade to create a memorial. Now, the blue glass wall jutting out from a grassy bank beside the city’s landmark yellow philharmonic orchestra hall is visible from the sidewalk and the park across the street.

When Ms. Falkenstein first learned in 2003 that an aunt who she had been told had simply died young was in fact among the Nazis’ first victims, she took up the cause to memorialize the victims and inform the public of their suffering.

After countless letters, extensive lobbying and meetings with victims’ families and other groups, the German Parliament voted in November 2011 to erect the memorial at the location where the villa that was the birthplace of the program of direct medical killings once stood.

“Every human life is worth living: That is the message sent out from this site,” Monika Grütters, the German minister for culture, told a crowd gathered for the opening ceremony. “The ‘T4’ memorial confronts us today with the harrowing Nazi ideology of presuming life can be measured by ‘usefulness.’ ”

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Tens of thousands of other psychiatric patients — including children, as well as people with disabilities deemed severe enough to prevent them from contributing to the work force — were killed through 1945 by starvation or drug overdose. Their families were issued death certificates with the cause of death falsified.

The memorial’s long stone informational tablet includes portraits of 10 victims, among them Ms. Falkenstein’s aunt, Anna Lehnkering.

A quiet, helpful girl to her family, Anna was sent to a school for special needs and was trained for work. But in 1935, doctors said she had a hereditary disease, grounds for forced sterilization. One year later, Anna was sent to a psychiatric institution from which she never returned.

Only when her niece, Ms. Falkenstein, found her name on a list on the Internet and began researching her history did her fate as a victim of the Nazi doctors become known.

In addition to the glass wall, the memorial includes information about the so-called euthanasia program and a bench for reflection. Extra care was given to ensuring that the site was accessible to wheelchairs, and all text is boiled down from complex, academic German to very basic, simple words and sentence structure that people with learning disabilities can understand. There is also video for the deaf and audio for the blind.

“The stigmatization of people with psychological illnesses and intellectual disabilities did not end after 1945, which is certainly a reason why the public acknowledgment of these crimes has remained so difficult to this day,” said Gerrit Hohendorf, a historian at the Technical University of Munich involved in research for the memorial. “We have sought to counter this discrimination by making the memorial fully handicap-accessible.”

Hours after the construction barrier had been removed on Monday, the first tourists and passers-by stopped to read some of the tragic stories. But not all thought it was effective.

“I am skeptical whether this is really a good idea, or just instrumentalizes the crimes of World War II in a suffering of yet another group,” said a retired history teacher who would identify herself only by her first name, Marianne. “In the last decade we have seen so many memorials spring up across the city, but I am not sure they are able to communicate the information to those who have no knowledge of what happened then.”

If the memorial spurs people to learn more about the Nazis’ medical killings, it is serving its purpose, Ms. Falkenstein said.

“Through this site, Anna and the other victims have been returned part of their dignity and identity,” she said. “And part of the second debt to the victims who were forgotten for so many years has also been resolved.”

This Day in Jewish History / Israel enacts Holocaust commemoration law

Haaretz, By David B. Green | Aug. 19, 2014

Halfway through WWII, the catastrophe to Judaism was clear and the need to commemorate it was also clear to one kibbutznik in Israel
Haaretz, By David B. Green | Aug. 19, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama visiting Yad Vashem, March 22, 2013. Photo by Emil Salman
On August 19, 1953, the Knesset passed the Yad Vashem Law, by which it established the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority to oversee Holocaust commemoration in Israel.

The idea for a memorial in Israel to the Jewish victims of the Nazi regime was first raised officially in 1942, which was not only a half-dozen years before Israeli independence – but also a time when most of those victims were still alive.

The proposal came from Mordechai Shenhavi (1900-1983), a Russian-born founding member of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek (although in 1942, he was living at Kibbutz Beit Alfa). He brought it up at a meeting of the board of the Jewish National Fund in September 1942.

Even at that early stage, almost two years before World War II was to end, Shenhavi saw a need to create an institution in Palestine that would, in his words, “perpetuate the memory of the century’s greatest catastrophe within the framework of our Zionist enterprise.” He also saw the institution he proposed as answering an important challenge facing the JNF, which he noted at the time, “needs a new cause that can turn into a pipeline for large sums,” as quoted by Tom Segev in his 1993 book “The Seventh Million.”

A monument and a name

The name “Yad Vashem” (“a monument and a name”) was taken from Isaiah 56:5, in which God makes a promise regarding “the eunuchs that keep My sabbaths … and hold fast by My covenant,” saying that “unto them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off.”

Rather like eunuchs, who were denied the opportunity to bear children, the six million victims of the Holocaust were at risk of being “cut off” from Jewish history. In fact, since the beginning Yad Vashem has had as one of its goals trying to collect and make known the name of every Jew murdered by Hitler.

To date, it has reached some 4.3 million names, all of which are accessible via a database uploaded by Yad Vashem to the Internet.

Vast complex versus forest

According to Segev, the JNF did not respond with great enthusiasm to Shenhavi’s idea, which envisioned a vast complex, to be situated in the Upper Galilee, including a memorial forest, cemetery, research institute and museum, plus resort and sports facilities. Rather, it came up with a proposal of its own for a Jerusalem “Martyrs’ Forest,” with seedlings dedicated in the names of Holocaust victims, and “memorial huts” where survivors could contemplate those they were mourning.

Shenhavi succeeded in having the JNF limit itself to a forest, with no huts. He also came to a compromise with a proposed Shoah memorial in Paris, which agreed that the Israeli institution would be the exclusive repository of victims’ names.

By 1950, Shenhavi also came up with the idea that the young state would grant retroactive citizenship to all the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The Yad Vashem Law of August 19, 1953, does indeed have a clause that offers those “members of the Jewish people who perished in the days of the Disaster and the Resistance the commemorative citizenship of the State of Israel,” but this was never realized in a collective manner.

Yad Vashem opened to the public in 1957, on a section of Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl that was dubbed the Mount of Remembrance. From early on, it included a museum and a research institute, and over the years added a children’s memorial, a monument to Righteous Gentiles, an art museum and many other departments. In 2005, a completely new museum, designed by Israeli-American architect Moshe Safdie, opened to the public.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

Book Portrays Eichmann as Evil, but Not Banal

New York Times: Books, By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER SEPT. 2, 2014

More than 50 years after its publication, Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” remains enduringly controversial, racking up a long list of critics who continue to pick apart her depiction of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann as an exemplar of “the banality of evil,” a bloodless, nearly mindless bureaucrat who “never realized what he was doing.”

Bettina Stangneth, the author of “Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,” published in an English translation this week by Alfred A. Knopf, didn’t aim to join those critics. An independent philosopher based in Hamburg, she was interested in the nature of lies, and set out around 2000 to write a study of Eichmann, the Third Reich’s head of Jewish affairs, who was tried in Israel in 1961, in light of material that has emerged in recent decades.

Then, while reading through the voluminous memoirs and other testimony Eichmann produced while in hiding in Argentina after the war, Ms. Stangneth came across a long note he wrote, dismissing the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, that flew in the face of Arendt’s notion of Eichmann’s “inability to think.”

“I sat at my desk for three days, thinking about it,” Ms. Stangneth said in a telephone interview from her home. “I was totally shocked. I could not believe this man was able to write something like this.”

Ms. Stangneth’s book cites that document and a mountain of others to offer what some scholars say is the most definitive case yet that Eichmann, who was hanged in 1962, wasn’t the order-following functionary he claimed to be at his trial, but a fanatically dedicated National Socialist.

If previous researchers have seriously dented Arendt’s case, Ms. Stangneth “shatters” it, said Deborah E. Lipstadt, a historian at Emory University and the author of a 2011 book about the Eichmann trial.

The facts about Eichmann in Argentina have been dribbling out, “but she really puts flesh on the bones,” Dr. Lipstadt said. “This was not a guy who just happened to do a dirty job, but someone who played a crucial role and did it with wholehearted commitment.”

While Ms. Stangneth maintains that Arendt, who died in 1975, was fooled by Eichmann’s performance on the stand, she sees her less as a foil than as an indispensable intellectual companion.

“It wasn’t my plan to write a historian’s book, just arguing against Arendt with historical facts,” Ms. Stangneth said. “To understand someone like Eichmann, you have to sit down and think with him. And that’s a philosopher’s job.”

Bettina Stangneth, author of “Eichmann Before Jerusalem,” says documents show that Eichmann was an enthusiastic Nazi. Credit Eva Haeberle for The New York Times

“Eichmann Before Jerusalem,” based on research in more than 30 archives, certainly contains plenty of eye-opening facts, including the revelation that in 1956 Eichmann had drafted an open letter to the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer — discovered by Ms. Stangneth in a trove of Eichmann’s papers held in German state archives — proposing that he return to his homeland to stand trial.

Ms. Stangneth also describes the sometimes surprisingly open postwar networks that protected Eichmann, as well as the reluctance of West German officials — who knew where Eichmann was as early as 1952, according to classified documents published in 2011 by the German tabloid Bild — to bring him and other former Nazis to justice.

Such revelations drew headlines when Ms. Stangneth’s book appeared in Germany in 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, contributing to renewed debate about whether Germany’s postwar government had made a complete break with the past. (The full 3,400-page file on Eichmann held by the German intelligence service, the BND, has yet to be declassified.)

But the core of “Eichmann Before Jerusalem” is a detailed portrait of Eichmann and the circle of former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers surrounding him in Argentina, based largely on materials previously available to scholars but never, Ms. Stangneth said, fully or systematically mined.

“We waste a lot of time waiting for spectacular new material,” she said. “We haven’t sat down and taken a very close look at the material we have.”

In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Hannah Arendt, above, argued that Eichmann didn’t realize what he was doing as he organized and carried out the Holocaust.CreditTyrone Dukes/The New York Times

That material forms a veritable mountain. Eichmann’s testimony in Jerusalem runs to thousands of pages of transcripts, notes and handwritten texts, including a 1,200-page memoir he produced after the trial.

Ms. Stangneth, building on the work of others, has also pieced together the so-called Argentina Papers, a tangle of more than 1,300 pages of handwritten memoirs, notes and transcripts of secret interviews of Eichmann in 1957 by Willem Sassen, a Dutch journalist and former Nazi living in Buenos Aires.

The Sassen transcripts, scattered across three German archives in incomplete and confusingly paginated copies, have long been known to scholars, and small portions were submitted as evidence in Eichmann’s trial, where he dismissed them as loose “pub talk.” (Two brief, edited excerpts also ran in Life magazine.)

Ms. Stangneth uncovered hundreds of pages of previously unknown transcripts in mislabeled files. She also found evidence that the Sassen circle included more people than scholars had previously recognized, among them Ludolf von Alvensleben, former adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, whose participation in some of the interviews, she said, had gone undetected.
Together, in Ms. Stangneth’s depiction, these men formed a kind of perverse book club, meeting almost weekly at Sassen’s home to work through the emerging public narrative of the Holocaust, discussing every volume and article they could get their hands on, including ones by “enemy” authors. Their goal was to provide material for a book that would expose the Holocaust as a Jewish exaggeration — “the lie of the six million,” as one postwar Nazi publication in Argentina put it. But Eichmann had another, contradictory goal: to claim his place in history.\

Adolf Eichmann in a prison yard in Israel in 1961.CreditJohn Milli/Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images

The facts and figures confirming the scale of the slaughter piled up as Eichmann recounted the rigors of what he called (without irony, Ms. Stangneth notes) his “killer of a job.” Ms. Stangneth quotes a long Eichmann tirade on his “duty to our blood” — “If 10.3 million of these enemies had been killed,” he declared of the Jews, “then we would have fulfilled our duty” — that left his sympathetic listeners unnerved.

“I cannot tell you anything else, for it is the truth!” Eichmann said. “Why should I deny it?”

For the Sassen circle, Ms. Stangneth writes, this tirade marked the end of the fantasy that Eichmann would help them defend “pure National Socialism” against the slanderous charges of its enemies. For Eichmann, the Sassen conversations were good practice for Jerusalem, where his Israeli interrogator, Ms. Stangneth writes, noted his facility in answering historical questions, although in service of a very different image of himself.

If Arendt, like many others, was taken in, some historians say, his performance still led her to valuable insights about the mentality of many of those who carried out the killing on the ground.

“She had the right type but the wrong guy,” said the historian Christopher R. Browning, the author of “Ordinary Men,” an influential 1992 study of a German police battalion that killed tens of thousands of Jews in Poland. “There were all sorts of people like Eichmann was pretending to be, which is why his strategy worked.”

Listening to Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt saw an “inability to think.” Listening to Eichmann before Jerusalem, Ms. Stangneth sees a master manipulator skilled at turning reason, that weapon of the enemy, against itself.

“As a philosopher, you want to protect thinking as something beautiful,” she said. “You don’t want to think that someone who is able to think does not also love it.”

Moral Emptiness of Holocaust Survivors Who Took on Israel: The True Face Behind a New York Times Ad

Forward, By Alvin H. Rosenfeld, August 28, 2014

Surviving: Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, 85, attends a protest with fellow activists in Cairo on December 28, 2009 against Egypt’s refusal to allow a Gaza solidarity march to proceed.

Given Hitler’s voluminous rants about Jews, it is not surprising that one aspect of his obsession is less known: the pleasure he took in the spectacle of Jews deriding and defaming other Jews. Hans Frank, one of Hitler’s top aides, quotes him as saying:

“I am an innocent lamb compared to revelations by Jews about Jews. But they are important, these disclosures of the Jew’s most secret, always totally hidden qualities, instincts, and character traits. It isn’t I who say this, it is the Jews themselves who say it about themselves, about their greed for money, their fraudulent ways, their immorality, and their sexual perversions.”

Hitler’s words about the denigrating things Jews say about themselves came to mind as I perused an ad published in the New York Times on August 23 by IJSN or International Jewish Solidarity Network. Tellingly, the very same ad appeared in the British Guardian on August 15, under the imprint of IJAN, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. For an American, and especially the New York readership, the crafters of this hostile statement must have figured it best not to make explicit their true credentials as anti-Zionists. Its signers display no interest in the misdeeds that Hitler ascribes to the Jews but focus their anger on today’s target-of-choice for Jew-haters everywhere: Israel.

Most Holocaust survivors, like most Jews, are Zionists and are strongly devoted to the welfare of the State of Israel. The IJSN/IJAN group is exceptional in its fierce opposition to Israel and is hardly representative. That fact, however, did not keep the BBC from quickly publishing a story with the title “Holocaust survivors condemn Israel.” The impression conveyed is seriously misleading.

Headlined “Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors and victims of Nazi genocide unequivocally condemn the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza,” the Times ad lashes out at Israel from the first sentence to the last, repeatedly condemning the country for acts of colonialism, racism, and genocide; it associates unnamed “right-wing Israelis” with Nazis; and, in a full-throated voice of protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza, it angrily calls for a “full economic, cultural, and academic boycott of Israel.”

It aims, therefore, not just to censure but to punish. And as a special touch, it attacks a fellow survivor, the most famous one of all: Elie Wiesel. Why? Because Wiesel recently published an ad of his own in American newspapers, including the New York Times, criticizing Hamas for some of its brutal ways. IJSN pulled out all the stops in going after Wiesel, expressing “disgust” and “outrage” over Wiesel’s “abuse of our history” and “manipulation [of] the legacy of the Nazi genocide” to justify the unjustifiable: “the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people.”

Israel’s war with Hamas has exacted many casualties, but nothing remotely like “genocide” is taking place in Gaza. Why, then, charge Israel with a crime of this kind and magnitude? Those who are on to the rhetoric of “anti-Zionism” will instantly recognize this language for what it is: a collection of familiar political clichés employed time and again by the purveyors of anti-Israel vilification.

What makes the IJSN statement noteworthy, therefore, is not the litany of emotionally-charged accusations against Israel but the identities of those making these accusations. They present themselves as “Survivors,” “Children of survivors,” “Grandchildren of survivors,” “Great-grandchildren of survivors,” and “Other relatives of survivors.”

They total 327 people. Who are they, and what importance, if any, should attach to their proudly proclaimed pedigrees?

If we take their self-descriptions at face value, some (a small number) had been in the Nazi ghettos and camps or claim to have been resistance fighters. Others had been children spirited out of Europe on the Kindertransports or were hidden by Christians during the war. Some say they are “cousins of survivors,” or “friends of survivors,” or “relatives of victims,” or “relatives of many victims,” or the “spouse of a hidden child,” or grandchildren and great-grandchildren of “refugees.” One identifies herself as “the great niece of an uncle who shot himself”; another as a “3rd cousin of Ann [sic] Frank and grand-daughter of NON-survivors.”

The distance from Auschwitz and Treblinka grows as the list grows and, with it, the credibility of those on the list plunges. Nevertheless, all claim some special connection, however remote, to Jewish suffering during the Hitler era, and they expect others to recognize their anti-Israel diatribe as the product of unique insights they now possess by right of such suffering. Invoking the historical and moral weight of the Holocaust by speaking “as Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors,” they apply their presumed authority to the present war between Israel and Hamas and “unequivocally condemn” Israel.

Two thoughts come immediately to mind: Whenever someone begins a sentence with the words “as a Jew…,” what follows is likely to be full of political posturing and should be met with skepticism. The same often holds true when someone opens a sentence with the kindred formula, “as a Holocaust survivor….” On hearing those words, one no doubt is inclined to pay attention to what follows; but as IJSN’s ad demonstrates, the status of Holocaust survivor, let alone the status of the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other assorted relatives and friends of survivors, carries no special entitlement to superior ethical insight or elevated political awareness.

The signatories to IJSN’s ad, however, invoke just such an entitlement as they ostentatiously pull rank as Holocaust survivors in condemning Israel. In inflating and exploiting a status they regard as privileged, they are guilty of doing precisely what they falsely accuse Elie Wiesel of doing: “manipulating the legacy of the Nazi genocide to justify the unjustifiable.” Their abuse of Jewish suffering for contemporary political ends comes especially to the fore whenever they proudly parade forth their pedigrees as survivors to defame Israel. Some have been doing so for years — way before Gaza. To reflect briefly on just two of them:

Hajo Meyer, whose signature is the very first on the list, is the author of a book entitled “The End of Judaism: An Ethical Tradition Betrayed,” which argues that Zionism and Judaism are radical opposites and incompatible with one another. Meyer equates Zionism with “fascism” and “criminality” and believes that Zionists “have given up everything that has to do with humanity.” “As a confirmed atheist,” he boasts that he “has never been a Zionist.” And as a Holocaust survivor — he was in Auschwitz for 10 months as a young teenager — he is certain that Israelis “have no idea about the Holocaust. They use the Holocaust to implant paranoia in their children.”

In innumerable speeches and interviews (the words quoted here are from interviews on the websites “Intifada: The Voice of Palestine” and the “Electronic Intifada”), he charges Israel with all of the sins that are now part of the standard package of anti-Zionist accusations: the carrying out of willful massacres, ethnic cleansing, racist and apartheid policies, and other “blood and soil” nationalistic actions (“just like the Nazis”). He is so convinced of Israeli wickedness that he can “write up an endless list of similarities between Nazi Germany and Israel.” And what if other Jews object to his smearing the Jewish state with the Nazi brush? Meyer considers it a “high honor” to be put in the company of Jimmy Carter, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and other prominent opponents of Israel and even jokingly says that he is “very proud” to be called an anti-Semite.

Hedy Epstein, who has also signed on to the Guardian statement, likes garnering public attention as a “survivor,” although whether she is one is debatable. Like Meyer, she was born in Germany in 1924, but she left the country in 1939 on a Kindertransport and spent the war years in Great Britain. Since coming to America in 1948, she has thrown herself into political activism, often on behalf of such celebrated Palestinian causes as the 2008 “freedom flotillas” that were meant to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the “Gaza Freedom March” in Cairo in 2009, and various anti-Israel activities on the West Bank and elsewhere sponsored by the radical International Solidarity Movement.

Like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who inevitably show up at high-profile rallies organized by others, Hedy Epstein “marched” in St. Louis in mid-August, 2014 to demonstrate her solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. When stories broke headlining “Holocaust Survivor Arrested in Ferguson Protests,” it was a foregone conclusion that it was Hedy Epstein. She seems to thrive on flashing her dubious credentials as a “survivor” and, even at age 90, will step forward to join protests, especially if they are against Israel.

It’s hardly new that there are Jews who lend their endorsement to causes that prove harmful for most other Jews. There is a long history of such betrayal and the damage it has caused within Jewish communities, so what we are seeing today has an unhappy lineage that dates back over many centuries. One thing, however, is new:

The endorsement of the most reckless charges against Israel — e.g., Israelis are like Nazis and are carrying out a genocide against Palestinians — by members of a people who themselves were victims of the twentieth century’s most determined attempt at genocide is unprecedented and can be hugely harmful unless it is seen for what it is: an unseemly exercise in the spread of propagandistic lies.

Sanctioning such propaganda by stamping it with the moral authority that supposedly belongs to Holocaust survivors does not turn these lies into truth. What it does instead is expose as fraudulent the claims of certain Holocaust survivors and their kin to possessing an enlarged moral and political consciousness. In fact, it is unlikely that many people emerged from Hitler’s camps ennobled or enlightened. To believe otherwise and to arrogate to oneself as a “survivor” or a relative of a “survivor” some special access to wisdom and virtue is, as IJSN’s ad shows, little more than moral pretense.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is a professor of English and Jewish Studies and director of Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.

Education Ministry expands Holocaust study in schools

Israeli teens on the March of the Living in Poland. Photo by Moshe Milner/GPO

Haaretz, By Or Kashti | Aug. 27, 2014

Prof. Hanna Yablonka: ‘For the students, history begins and ends with the Holocaust.’

As part of Education Minister Shay Piron’s new “national program for significant learning,” it was recently decided to expand the portion of the school curriculum devoted to the Holocaust. History classes are to focus more closely on the World War II era and its impact on the Jews, without reducing the amount of time devoted to these topics in other classes. History teachers say that as a result the emphasis will be on study of the Holocaust, at the expense of other topics.
Holocaust historian Prof. Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University was critical of what she described as the educational and historical conservatism of the new plan. “For the students, history begins and ends with the Holocaust,” she said.
The curriculum changes were drawn up about four month after the Education Ministry, in cooperation with the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, unveiled a mandatory program to teach the Holocaust starting in kindergarten.
The “significant learning” program gives elementary schools greater educational and administrative autonomy and institutes far-reaching changes in high schools. It eliminates the bagrut matriculation exams for 10th-graders, and stipulates that 30 percent of each student’s final matriculation grade is to be based on criteria other than the standardized test, such as independent study projects or final exam grades. Seventy percent of the subjects on the matriculation exam will be mandatory, while the remainder will be subjects that will be explored in depth based on curriculum developed by the staff from each school.
“The subject of anti-Semitism, World War II, totalitarianism and the Holocaust have been chosen to be a subject for in-depth study and choice,” Orna Katz-Atar, the Education Ministry official responsible for history instruction in the state school system, wrote to teachers recently. And despite the reference to a number of major school subjects in her letter, she then addressed only Holocaust instruction.
Under the heading “Considerations for Subject Selection,” with regard to the topics that are up to the individual schools to choose, Katz-Atar wrote that Holocaust instruction in the school curriculum “’corresponds with’ and complements” high class trips to Poland that are organized by a large number of schools. “Such a special program will enable schools to create points of interface between the community-school trip and what is studied in class,” she said, adding that the process “corresponds” with social involvement programming for the students and students can be “recruited” to help Holocaust survivors in particular and the elderly in general. “Holocaust instruction entails instilling Jewish and humanistic values,” Katz-Atar said, and will provide an opportunity to teachers to emphasize the values that they find particularly important.
“In recent years, we have had a great deal of positive experience in teaching the Holocaust as a school program,” she stated. “We have a range of excellent teaching materials at our disposal prepared by various entities including institutes for the teaching and remembrance of the Holocaust, academic institutions, and of course the teaching staff themselves.”
In addition to the “significant learning” Holocaust studies, as part of the regular curriculum on the Holocaust and on anti-Semitism and World War II, three curriculum material units will be released within the next several months providing an overview on the period of the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany, the early war years, and the period from 1941 to 1945. They will be part of the 70 percent of the curriculum that is mandatory for the schools to teach and will be tested on the matriculation exams, Katz-Atar stated.
The subjects available for more intensive study include 41 subsections that teachers can use to build their own program for the school and the community, she added, of which the teachers must choose at least six. Most of the subsections, about two-thirds, relate directly to the Holocaust. The remaining ones, dealing with the war more generally in chapters about the characteristics of a totalitarian regime, the Nazis’ use of terror, the establishment of concentration camps, actions taken against the regime’s opponents and the extermination of the Gypsies (or Roma as they are commonly referred to now) are the exception. The largest number of chapters fall under the heading “World War II and the Final Solution from the Summer of 1941 to the German and Japanese Surrender in 1945.” Of this chapter, about 80% relates to the Holocaust.
These are not new subjects in the curriculum but rather a new format through which they are being taught, but they are also expected to increase the portion of history studies devoted to the Holocaust.
“It’s a declaration of principles on the part of the Education Ministry,” said one teacher who asked to remain unidentified. “It’s a clear message that only the subject of the Holocaust is ‘significant,’ while all the other subjects are less so. Up to now, the Holocaust was studied in 11th grade, but many schools will start the “significant learning” program in the 10th grade. The result will be that from the students’ standpoint, a substantial portion of history in general and Jewish history in particular will consist of the Holocaust. We are raising generations of students with a victim’s consciousness. It’s irrational.”
For her part, Yablonka, the Ben-Gurion University history professor, who is a former chairwoman of the Education Ministry’s professional advisory committee on history instruction, expressed disappointment over what she said was the conservatism of the program and its “disconnect from any social context in which it appears.” Racism in Israeli society is apparent to everyone, she claimed, at least within the past couple of years, if not before. “But the program doesn’t deal with it. It’s a wonderful bubble,” she said.
The program also doesn’t provide a format to ask questions such as what obligation the Jews have as a result of their being victims of the Holocaust. “I think more than anything the Holocaust requires me, on a daily level, to look inside of myself, and at the society that I am living in and the actions and words of the politicians,” Yablonka said. “The school system has never dealt with questions like these. And when you don’t ask questions, the result is that Israeli society is growing in a sort of ghetto in which the world is against us, always persecuting us, and always will be, and where this hatred is our sorry fate. It’s a post-Zionism conception because the essence of Zionism is taking our fate into our own hands.”
When asked about the contention that the Holocaust as a subject in the “significant learning” program meshes with the social involvement project, particularly with respect to helping Holocaust survivors, Yablonka responds as follows: “We don’t need to recruit the students to help the survivors. Rather we need to listen to them,” apparently referring to the survivors themselves. “Most of the survivors are well provided for, having established generations of successful children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and having seen the fruits of their lives as people and Israelis. They don’t need charity. Instead of wallowing in catastrophe or cycles of revenge and destruction, the survivors have chosen to rehabilitate themselves and create life. The message is being a winner rather than a wretched soul. The memory of the Holocaust needs to be taught as an empowering human and moral experience instead of an experience encouraging despair, cultivating hatred over being a victim, which alienates Israelis from any one who is not like them.”
Prof. Moshe Zimmermann of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who specializes in German and Holocaust history, had his own take on the curriculum changes, stating somewhat sarcastically: “It reinforces the trauma of the Holocaust and deepens a consciousness of the purported connection between the results of the Holocaust and the need for a strong Israel, of the type that doesn’t pay attention to marginal subjects like justice and law.”
Zimmerman also said he totally disagrees with the assumption that it is only the “significant learning” program that relates to the high school trips to Poland. “There are things related to World War II that don’t belong to the Holocaust, but it appears that in the curriculum, the war is only a mantle for the story of the Holocaust.”
Although asked for comments, the Education Ministry did not respond for this story.

A Debate Over Tiananmen Finds Echoes in Germany’s Fascist Past

Ney York Times, By Didi Kirsten Tatlow, August 27, 2014

Army tanks hold positions on an overpass in Beijing on June 6, 1989, two days after the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. VINCENT YU / ASSOCIATED PRESS

The military suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in June 1989 was a ‘‘one-off’’ in China’s recent history. Its leaders lost control of the situation. China is freer today than in 1989. Its people have the right to forget.
That was the gist of recent articles by Frank Sieren, a Beijing-based German media consultant and columnist for Deutsche Welle, a German state-run broadcaster, the first of which ran on the station’s website on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the killings in Beijing.

They prompted outrage among Chinese political exiles and rights activists in Germany, and an impassioned exchange ensued on the broadcaster’s website between Mr. Sieren and Chang Ping, a Chinese journalist.

The dispute raises questions that go to the heart of ideas of historical crimes and responsibility: Can a massacre and its aftermath — hundreds, possibly thousands, died in Beijing — ever be explained, even excused, in this way?

‘‘The massacre of June 4, 1989, was no one-off,’’ ran the headline of Mr. Chang’s first retort. Mr. Chang is a former editor at a Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekly, and his writings have been banned by the authorities.

Instead, the killings showed a ‘‘systematic continuity’’ in the nature of Communist Party rule that persists to this day, he wrote, citing the state’s vast ‘‘stability maintenance’’ program, which snares common criminals, justice-seekers and political dissidents alike.

Censorship means Chinese are not allowed to remember what happened, Mr. Chang wrote: How can they have the right to forget, if they don’t even have the right to remember?
Germany is proud of how it has dealt with its own troubled history, a process known as ‘‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung,’’ or ‘‘coming to terms with the past.’’ Its historians track such issues closely. Some historians see in the debate over Tiananmen echoes of Germany’s struggles with fascism and Communism.
Among them is Marion Detjen, an author and researcher who specializes in contemporary history at Humboldt University in Berlin. To her, to describe Tiananmen as a one-off is ‘‘outrageous.’’
‘‘It’s morally and intellectually totally unacceptable to describe crimes as ‘one-off’ events, to relativize and excuse them,’’ she wrote in an email.

‘‘The crime happened,’’ she wrote. ‘‘Why and how it came to that is remembered, and demands a historical coming-to-terms. The fact that it happened is enough to make clear it is a symptom and an expression of problems in the political culture.’’
Describing Tiananmen, which he made clear he views as a tragedy, Mr. Sieren used a historically loaded term used by some postwar historians to explain Nazism: Ausrutscher, or ‘‘one-off,’’ ‘‘lapse,’’ even ‘‘blooper.’’ China’s government, some Chinese and some foreigners, particularly those with business interests in the country, have long explained Tiananmen as a necessary response to an emergency.

It’s treacherous territory, Ms. Detjen said.
‘‘The idea of a ‘one-off’ has strong connotations in German history,’’ she said. ‘‘Until far into the 1960s, Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust were seen as a ‘one-off’ within Germany’s otherwise positive history and tradition,’’ she said, citing the historians Hans Rothfels and Friedrich Meinecke.

There was an expression for it: the ‘‘little man from Mars theory,’’ as if Nazism had occurred randomly, without connection to the German social or political context.

That view changed only as society began to accept that there was more to it, that Germany had within itself certain elements that had made fascism, and the pogrom against Jews, possible.

Mr. Sieren said he was unaware of such connotations of Ausrutscher, and had not heard of its use to describe the Nazi era. ‘‘If it were of any importance I would have heard about it,’’ he said in a telephone interview in Beijing.
Instead, his aim had been to highlight that Tiananmen ‘‘happened only one time, in the 1980s. It never happened again, which is a fact. They never used tanks against their own people again.’’

‘‘I think it’s very bad that the government puts people in prison,’’ he continued. But it isn’t true to say, as Mr. Chang did, ‘‘that nothing has changed.”

Who is a Holocaust survivor — and does it matter?

JTA, by Talia Lavin, August 21, 2014
When she was arrested earlier this week during a peaceful St. Louis demonstration against police actions in Ferguson, Mo., Hedy Epstein grabbed national attention.
That was partly because, as a 90-year-old white woman, Epstein was not the typical advocate for a young unarmed black man killed by the police. But her Holocaust past — she fled Nazi Germany as a child — arguably played an even bigger role.
Nationwide news sources — including JTA — focused not just on her age, but her background: “Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein arrested in Ferguson protest,” read Newsweek’s headline, and images of Epstein, clad in a black T-shirt that read “Stay Human,” and gazing steadily at the camera while cuffed between two burly policewomen, instantly went viral.
While some pundits might disagree with Epstein’s politics — in addition to police brutality, she has also spoken out against Israeli treatment of Palestinians – other critics went further. Recognizing that much of the attention drawn to Epstein’s arrest hinged on her status as a Holocaust survivor, something she publicizes on her website, some commentators went so far as to question that status itself. Ultra-conservative publication Frontpage Mag called her a “fake” Holocaust survivor “desperate for attention.”
The attacks on Epstein’s status as a Holocaust survivor point to a significant phenomenon: the moral gravitas we tend to accord Holocaust survivors. Surviving Auschwitz — coupled with his extraordinary skills as a speaker and writer — lent Elie Wiesel the authority to serve as a voice for world Jewry, and raise worldwide consciousness of Nazi atrocities. With the exception of Holocaust deniers, few people question the unique power that survivors, as victims of a morally indefensible atrocity, have to command attention for the political and moral causes they embrace.
So it’s not surprising that Epstein’s critics would question her Shoah bona fides. (Indeed, her Holocaust survivor identity has come under fire before.) As the years since World War II pass, and the number of living witnesses to its horrors dwindle, the question of who “counts” as a Holocaust survivor — whether the term can be applied to refugees and hidden children or if one has to have spent time in concentration camps or ghettos — has achieved greater import.
There is much at stake. Beyond the concrete legalities of reparations and social programs, there is a wide spectrum of who is considered a Holocaust survivor, and the whole question — with its often unseemly judgments about how much suffering is required for one to earn the title – has spawned complicated debates.
At the more inclusive extreme is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which defines a Holocaust survivor as “any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945… includ[ing], among others, people who were refugees or were in hiding.”
On the opposite end is Czech-Israeli Holocaust expert Yehuda Bauer, who defines Holocaust survivors solely as “those people who were physically persecuted by the Nazis or their cohorts,” in ghettos, concentration camps or labor camps. Some survivor counts include only those persecuted by Nazis in continental Europe; other estimates encompass all who were subject to discriminatory laws under Nazi satellite governments in North Africa and elsewhere.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, acknowledges this ambiguity in its Shoah Resource Center, admitting that “it is difficult to define the term Survivor” – and leaving it at that.
By necessity, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which distributes monetary compensation to Nazi victims, has a highly specific approach. Its tiered system entitles those “who fled Nazi invasion or lived under curfew” to a one-time “Hardship Fund” payment, while ongoing pensions are reserved for those who “were interned in a concentration camp or ghetto, performed forced labor, or lived in hiding or under false identity.”
But beyond the distinctions necessitated by reparations, are strict requirements for claiming a Holocaust survivor identity necessary?
Hedy Epstein’s story is instructive.
Epstein was 8 and living in Freiburg, Germany when Hitler came to power. A year after Kristallnacht, she was sent to England in a children’s transport. Like many others sent on the Kindertransport, Epstein never saw her family members again.
The flight, trauma and loss Hedy Epstein experienced as a young woman undoubtedly changed her perspective on the world. Is that enough to garner our respect – that and the fact that, at age 90, she’s still showing up for protests? Given that an increasing proportion of the Holocaust witnesses who remain alive were children during World War II, and thus less likely to have made it through the concentration camps (where those too young to work were usually killed immediately), folks like Epstein will soon be all that’s left.
Whether we call refugees and hidden children “survivors” or something else, the fact is they still have been shaped by their experiences and often have an important perspective to add to global discourse.
And even they won’t be around all that much longer.

Ignoring pleas of local Jews, Greece swears in anti-Semitic minister

Makis Voridis Photo by Makis Voridis’s Facebook page

Haaretz, By Danna Harman | June 9, 2014

A lawyer by training, the 49-year-old Makis Voridis went into politics in 1994, founding the far-right Hellenic Front party – its motto was ‘Red Card to the Illegal Immigrants.’

Ignoring the pleas of Greece’s 5,000 strong Jewish community, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras promoted far-right politician Makis Voridis to his cabinet Monday as part of a re-shuffle intended to shore up support for his precarious government. Voridis, who is said to consider France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen a mentor and friend, is known for promoting anti-Semitic views. He has publicly questioned the authenticity of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and suggested “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” should be studied by historians. He will be sworn in Tuesday as the country’s new health minister. (more…)