Category Archives: Genocide

Yom Hashoah: A Day to Affirm Universal Human Rights

I can think of no more powerful meditation for Yom Hashoah 5770 than this Huffington Post piece written by Steven Gerber and Rabbi Michael Schwartz, both of Rabbis for Human Rights.

An excerpt:

It is interesting to note how two very different sets of “responses” to the Shoah are heard frequently amongst Jews here in Israel and around the world. These two different responses reflect a shared sense of urgent necessity in responding here today because of what happened there then. At the same time they demonstrate almost opposite worldviews and understandings of Israel’s purpose, and lead toward totally inverse political perspectives and often contradictory activist involvements.

One response is that, essentially, Israel must do anything it wants or needs to do in order to defend itself from hateful enemies set on perpetrating a second holocaust by destroying both the Jewish State and the Jewish People along with it.

The other response is that precisely because of our experience as Jews in the Holocaust and through our history littered with injustice and tragedy, we ourselves must make sure that Israel of all places is a nation that stringently safeguards human rights even in the most difficult of circumstances and establishes, in the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a nation that “foster[s] the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; [a nation] based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

Indeed, both the physical and spiritual security of the Jewish People and the State of Israel is best guaranteed by the strength of Israel’s democracy and the rule of just law, its commitment to human rights, and – ultimately – to the achievement of peace.

On this day in which we recall the Jewish people’s loss of human rights, let us ensure that the Jewish state embodies these rights on behalf of all its citizens.

On this day in which we remember the tragedy of our people, may we redouble our efforts on behalf of all people who dwell on earth…

Elie Wiesel Can’t Have it Both Ways

Elie Wiesel has long walked the tightrope between pious pronouncements of universal Jewish conscience and unabashed political advocacy. He’s been trying to have it both ways for years, but it seems to me that his balancing act is becoming more and more transparent.

Last week, as Wiesel unveiled an anti-Ahmadinejad ad with other Nobel Prize laureates, he blasted the Goldstone report, calling it “a crime against the Jewish people.”  Leaving aside the issue that he took this opportunity once again to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish people, I’m still somewhat staggered that Wiesel, of all people, would use such charged Holocaust rhetoric in such a patently political manner. (I think Richard Silverstein at Tikun Olam hit it right on the head when he asked, “What was the last event in world history you can recall being a ‘crime against the Jewish people?'”)

If this wasn’t enough, now I read on Max Blumenthal’s blog that Wiesel’s foundation received $500,000.00 for one speech he delivered at the church of fundamentalist Christian Zionist John Hagee (whom he referred to as “my dear pastor.”) Yes, this is the same John Hagee who publicly sermonized that Hitler was sent by God to create the Holocaust so that Jews would emigrate to Israel.  It’s simply astonishing to me that so many Jewish leaders are perfectly willing to cozy up to the likes of Hagee even after it has become so patently clear that his views are way off the rails. (That’s Wiesel, above, with Hagee, right, and Israeli minister Uzi Landau, left).

As far as I’m concerned, Justice Richard Goldstone is precisely the kind of courageous Jewish moral hero that Wiesel himself purports to be: someone committed to advocating for universal human rights even when doing so might mean holding our own community painfully to account.  As for Wiesel, I’m finding his words and actions increasingly craven. No one begrudges him his opinions – but it’s time he dropped the pretense that he’s somehow beyond the political fray.

Playing Politics at Yad Vashem

This is what I call cynically using the Holocaust for political purposes: Netanyahu recently used the opening of a new exhibit at Yad Vashem as an opportunity to denounce the Iranian regime, saying:

There is a new call to destroy the Jewish state, it’s our problem, but not only our problem. This is a crime against the Jews, and a crime against humanity, and it is a test of humanity. We shall see in the following weeks whether the international community deals with this evil before it spreads.

When I read this report, it sounded vaguely familiar – then remembered blogging about a similar comment Netanyahu made three years ago. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Clearly Ahmadinejad’s murderous rhetoric toward Israel cannot and should not be taken lightly, and we should never minimize the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But we must also be very clear about what we are suggesting when we compare Ahmadinejad to Hitler and present day Iran to Nazi Germany. For what it’s worth, consider me to be one member of the organized Jewish community that finds this comparison unhelpful – and the prospect of an American or Israeli attack on Iran truly horrifying to contemplate.

Apropos of Netanyahu’s most recent comments: Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric toward Israel is definitely hateful, and is clearly designed to bait Israel and the West – but I can’t see how it possibly constitutes a “crime against humanity.”

Netanyahu’s Yad Vashem rhetoric certainly seems to indicate he’s itching to take the bait. Let’s hope the international community will see past his dangerous, wrongheaded invoking of a “second Holocaust” and deal with this crisis with intelligence and moderation.

Miep Gies and the Power of Human Decency

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, on last week’s Torah portion:

How moving it is…that the first recorded instance of civil disobedience – predating Thoreau by more than three millennia – is the story of Shifra and Puah, two ordinary women defying Pharaoh in the name of simple humanity. All we know about them is that they “feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded.” In those words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.

I’m thinking of these words in particular this morning as I hear the news of the death Miep Gies – an ordinary woman who defied the Nazis in the name of simple humanity.

In his dvar, Sacks’ discusses the age-old debate: were Shifra and Puah “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews?”  His answer – it doesn’t matter:

The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people they belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a “crime against humanity, and they refused to do so.”

This is perhaps Gies’ most important legacy to us today. Like her Biblical forebears she reminds us that basic human decency is a universal form of resistance – and still the most powerful.

Iran: Setting the Record Straight

brant-ayatollah1

I’ve read and heard about some silly misinformation being spread around regarding my trip last year to Iran – and I’m thinking it might behoove me to set the record straight.

I will say at the outset that I gave a Yom Kippur sermon on this topic and I blogged extensively from Iran. If you haven’t read these posts yet, please do so. They will give you a pretty good sense of the why, what and how of my Iran experiences.

Right off the bat: I did not meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now that I’ve gotten that straightened out, I’d like to address one particular quote of mine that’s being bandied about out of context:

While I prefer not to weigh in on the rhetorical hairsplitting debate on [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s notorious 2005 threat to wipe Israel off the map, I’ll only suggest that our attitudes and foreign policy must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.

I still think this quote should pretty well speak for itself, but apparently I need to explain further.  I know of at least two instances in which this quote was used to somehow imply traitorous intentions on my part – i.e., that I prefer not to “weigh in” on the serious threats posed by Iran toward the Jewish state.

To those who doubt where my ultimate loyalties lay, I was actually referring with this quote to the rhetorical debate over the actual Farsi meaning of Ahmadinejad’s words from this oft-quoted speech. There has been an important ongoing debate as to whether these words were intended as a threat of genocide against the Jewish state or a predication of the eventual dissolution of the “Zionist regime” from within.

A recent blog post by Juan Cole represents this point of view well:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did quote Ayatollah Khomeini to the effect that “this Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” (in rezhim-e eshghalgar-i Qods bayad as safheh-e ruzgar mahv shavad). This was not a pledge to roll tanks and invade or to launch missiles, however. It is the expression of a hope tha the regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. It is not a threat to kill anyone at all.

As I myself am not a scholar of Farsi, I don’t consider myself qualified to weigh in on this debate, but I do believe that “our attitudes and foreign policy must be based on real intelligence and understanding, and not fear-based, knee-jerk assumptions.” I continue to stand by this assertion – I’m simply not a fan of fear-based foreign policy.  I am well aware that there are those who will say, “maybe Iran does intend to destroy Israel or maybe it doesn’t, but can we really take that chance?” I’m more inclined to say it this way: “when we jump to conclusions and base our reactions on fear rather than true understanding, we may ultimately cause our deepest fears to actually come true.”

By the way,  I encourage you to read Cole’s entire post, entitled “Top Things You Think You Know About Iran That Are Not True.” Whether or not you agree with his analysis, I believe his perspective provides a thought-provoking corrective to so many of the fear-based assumptions currently being bandied about regarding Iran.

Here are a few excerpts:

Belief: Iran is a militarized society bristling with dangerous weapons and a growing threat to world peace.

Reality: Iran’s military budget is a little over $6 billion annually. Sweden, Singapore and Greece all have larger military budgets. Moreover, Iran is a country of 70 million, so that its per capita spending on defense is tiny compared to these others, since they are much smaller countries with regard to population. Iran spends less per capita on its military than any other country in the Persian Gulf region with the exception of the United Arab Emirates.

Belief: Isn’t the Iranian regime irrational and crazed, so that a doctrine of mutually assured destruction just would not work with them?

Actuality: Iranian politicians are rational actors. If they were madmen, why haven’t they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The US elite was once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is a form of racism.

PS: By the way, did I mention I didn’t meet with Ahmadinejad?

Guest Posts from Rwanda

There have been several instances on this trip in which smaller groups have opted for side trips separate from our main itinerary. I’ve asked two participants to share their experiences with you – our first report comes from JRC member Rich Katz, who visited a Rwandan organic farm with fellow JRC’ers Ray Grossman and Jonathan Nachsin (above). Here’s Rich’s report:

“It’s Milk – Not Meat”

One of the best examples of a grass-roots effort to improve the lives of poor and low-income families and individuals in Ruanda the work of Richard Munyerango, the Managing Director of the GAKO Organic Farming Training Center just outside of Kigali. We first met Richard when he participated in the Earth Box training session we conducted at the Remera Center earlier in the week. At that time, he invited us to his farm and training center to see what he is doing to promote more nutritious diets for the people who cannot afford them.

The Center was started to help the widows of genocide and children who are heads of households, and it has expanded since. By working with local associations who suggest the names of participants, he invites eighty people at a time to his training center for a month to learn organic farming techniques.

It is his opinion that people will be able to reduce the expense of their medications if they eat better food, which they can grow locally without the use of expensive chemical fertilizers. In addition, he sends trainers to each province of Rwanda to work through the local health agencies to promote organic farming practices. Since its inception, the Center has trained over a thousand people all over the country.

Richard’s farm consists of two small plots of land, gently sloping down a verdant hillside. At the upper end, he has built a modern classroom building and two dormitories for men and women. We were most impressed, however, with the number of small demonstration/experimental earthen mounds that he developed, each of which is devoted to growing a particular fruit or vegetable. We saw mounds that were growing cabbages, leeks, strawberries, spinach, kale, peppers and so much more. There were also small areas devoted to growing corn and bananas.

At the lower end of the property, Richard has a demonstration project for training people how to use cow manure and other animal products to produce compost, which he uses to amend the clay soil that is so prevalent here in this part of Rwanda. It is this composed material that makes the mounds so productive. He derives the compost from cow manure (hence the title of my post).

We learned so much from Richard about his method of organic farming, and at the same time we were pleased to be able to help him better understand the process we use in the States (using earthworms to create compost). He appeared to be very interested and excited about the possibility of adding this practice to his already considerable the curriculum. We also mentioned the nascent practice in the US of developing farming co-ops to connect growers and buyers, so that the farmer has a reliable source of capital and owners/consumers have a reliable source of organic produce. All in all, this was a very valuable and mutually beneficial experience.

Our second report comes from Kelsey Waxman, who attended a yoga group (above) run by WE-ACTz at the Remera center while the rest of the group went to the Nyamata genocide site. She was joined by two other JRC members: her mother (and inspired trip organizer) Elaine along with Beth Lange.

Here’s an excerpt from Kelsey’s travel journal:

We were then dropped off a Remera again: me, Mom and Beth for the afternoon yoga class. We went out on the cement porch with ten women, all chatting giddily in Kinyarwanda. They all had on African print fabric yoga pants and there was much disputation about when to start.

Two women led the class through a basic primary Ashtanga set, and the women laughed, chatted and helped each other through the entire thing. It was apparent that some of them had done this before. Some were more flexible than anyone I’d ever practiced with.

After quite a few laughs, they asked us to teach them some poses. My mom, being an experienced yogi, led them through some crazy poses like pigeon, headstand and the boat. The faces of agony and hilarity some of the women made during the boat pose were so funny and the faces of the other women made those imitating them sent us all into giggle fits. More and more people came around and either watched or participated, laughing along with us,

It was the end of the class, during Shavasna, corpse pose. You’re supposed to be completely quiet…like a corpse, but everyone chatted like little girls through the entire ten minutes. It was so funny, everyone pouring through the doors, sharing laughs and yoga mats. After, Beth pulled out the camera and we took many, many pictures with our new yogi friends.

Kaddish at Nyamata

In my previous post I mentioned an emotional visit to Kigali’s public hospital – that actually doesn’t even begin to do justice to the intensity of our experience. Mardge Cohen arranged the visit for us, to give us a better sense of the Rwandan health care system. Until this visit, we had only seen privately funded clinics, not actual hospitals used by large numbers of Rwandans.

A local doctor gave us a tour of different wards, including the pediatric care unit. For privileged Westerners socialized who take a certain standard of medical care for granted, it was a sobering experience to say the least: beds crowded together, patients and family members thrown together in a jumble in decrepit room after room. Most of us like to talk about the ways our own American medical system is broken, but the brokenness of public health system in Rwanda is truly difficult to fathom. The public hospital doesn’t supply patients with food or bedding; these items must be provided by individual families. We also learned that when hospital stays are completed, patients are expected to pay in full. Unbelievably, those who cannot pay must stay in the hospital until they are able to pay their hospital bills.

Private medical insurance is available in Rwanda, but it is obviously beyond the means of most Rwandans. There is also a national system known as “Mutuelle,” which is less expensive, but the social safety net system here overall is close to non-existent. It’s just so overwhelming to see the sheer number of people holding on for dear life or simply falling through the cracks.

On Friday our group split up into groups. One visited a WE-ACTx supported maternity clinic in rural Nyacyonga and the rest of us accompanied WE-ACTx social workers on their home visits to families. Our group visited the home of Beatrice and her 14 year old daughter, Leontine, both of whom are infected with HIV. We visited with them for close to two hours, sharing our stories and learning as much as we were able about one another.

Beatrice was infected by her husband, who later died – and she passed the HIV on to Leontine when she was pregnant. With disarming frankness, Beatrice told about how angry and depressed Leontine became when she first learned how she contracted her illness. She was near suicidal when they discovered the children’s program at WE-ACTx. Today Beatrice is a happy and confident teenager and a leader in the program. (We’ll get to see her perform with the children’s dance troupe this Sunday).

Our final visit of the day was an excursion to Nyamata – a rural village which is home to an infamous genocide site. In April 1994, a mass of Tutsis attempted to find sanctuary inside the church. 2,000 were eventually slaughtered inside and 10,000 were killed in the surrounding area.

The inside of the church remains much as it was during the actual genocide – the sanctuary itself is filled with the bloodied and torn clothing of the victims. The basement of the church and an underground crypt outside essentially serve as mass graves, filled with row upon row of human skulls and bones.

Incongruously enough, as we emerged from the crypt, the air was filled with the joyous sounds of Afro-Pop filling the air. A local church was celebrating a “Festival of Hope” just down the road. For many of us, the paradox of the moment was just right: in a sense we were experiencing both the horror of recent Rwandan history as well as the hope of the Rwandan present.

Even so, the visit shook our group to the core. Before leaving for Kigali, we gathered together for Kaddish (above). During the drive back, the sun set over the green hilly countryside. Rwanda is just such a beautiful country in so many ways. Looking out at this gorgeous, tranquil landscape, it is impossible to comprehend the sheer hell that was unleashed just fourteen short years ago.

PS: Our visit to the Kigali Genocide Museum was featured on the Rwandan news yesterday…