Saturday, March 07, 2009

From Warsaw Ghetto to Gaza Ghetto

A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man’s revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds.

You will, I am sure, recognize yourselves (I said to my Israeli audience), the remnants of European Jewry in Israel, in the man who jumped from the blazing house. The other character represents, of course, the Palestine Arabs, more than a million of them, who have lost their lands and their homes. They are resentful; they gaze from across the frontiers on their old native places; they raid you stealthily and swear revenge. You punch and kick them mercilessly; you have shown that you know how to do it. But what is the sense of it? And what is the prospect?
--Isaac Deutscher

Israeli Apartheid Week wrapped up at Carleton University this evening with a two-person panel discussion under the heading of this post. The speakers were Suzanne Weiss, a Holocaust survivor, and Samah Sabawi, a Palestinian Canadian born in Gaza. Marie Ève and I were in attendance.

What follows are a few impressions and observations. And by the way, not to keep anyone here in suspense, I don't approve of the Warsaw-Gaza comparison.

To begin with, it was a pretty tame affair, and my co-blogger and I agreed that we didn't learn much new information. Indeed, for all of the frantic machinations by B'nai Brith and various politicians and university officials to shut IAW down and call us all a bunch of raving anti-Semites, it was a pretty uneventful week, at least in Ottawa.

The audience was fairly large, but there was a lot of unanimity about the Palestinian cause and Israel--too much, I thought. Indeed, it was like old home week for me, which I found vaguely bothersome. I was hoping, if not for fireworks, at least for some spirited debate, given the topic at hand.

We heard from Suzanne Weiss first. The comparison of the two ghettos is, as it turns out, a bit of a set speech for her. And it did sound that way--a collection of assertions, with phrases like "the Zionist Final Solution" that frankly chilled my blood. I don't buy the refutations of the "Engage" crowd holus-bolus, but I do believe that we need to take considerable care in our political uses of analogies. David Hirsch, from whom I borrowed the Isaac Deutscher quote above, makes a few good points in response to the charge that Israel's methods are Nazi-like. And his "Engage" colleague Mira Vogel urges a different and more humane kind of engagement.

But I want to make one point in her defence. Weiss, I think, is a Jew speaking to other Jews first and foremost. I sense that she wants to awaken consciences, to say to her community: "We're better than this." Two kinds of people emerged from Auschwitz after liberation, she said: those who said "Never again!--for Jews" and those who said "Never again!--for anyone." She made reference to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their lands, their sequestration in open-air prisons like Gaza, and a host of other observable violations of human rights by the Israeli state, and then made a comparison between this and Nazi policies towards the Jews. The comparison is meant to be inflammatory; it is meant to say, "We must not subjugate and mistreat other peoples as was done to us. Stop! Reflect!"

Nevertheless, for me, at least, it didn't come off. Her use of the word "Zionist," for example--as though there is only one Zionism--seemed facile. The word does not always equate to "ethnic cleansing," although it can and has. There are socialist Zionists, right-wing Zionists, even fascist Zionists. The word refers, quite simply, to a kind of nationalism, in fact several kinds--from expansionist to simply communitarian.

She did offer one original thought, however. Contrary to the usual anti-Semitic notion that Harper and his ministers are controlled by Jewish organizations, she asserted that the opposite was true: Canadian Jewish organizations, she said, are being set up by the Conservatives and used as pawns in an imperial game being played out in the Middle East.


Samah Sabawi spoke from both heart and brain. There was a humane depth in her words, as she spoke of her relatives trapped in Gaza during the bombardment, and being forced to see this night after night on the 11:00 news. She didn't spend any time on dubious comparisons between Nazis and Zionists.

Within the context of the banned IAW poster, she recounted a story about a child of hers in Grade 12 in an Ottawa school, who had composed a moving poem about her feelings during the assault on Gaza. She had received permission to read the piece aloud at a school assembly, but the school principal, at the last minute, told her that she had to excise any mention of Israel. (What would she have preferred? "The Zionist entity?") Sabawi visited this official, and found that she was utterly terrified of a backlash if the reading had gone ahead.

Such is the atmosphere in Canada today, where Opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, in an intellectually incompetent and dishonest op-ed, joins with the likes of Conservative Jason Kenney in denouncing any substantive criticism of Israel as "anti-Semitic," where universities seize posters because they supposedly might incite violations of the Human Rights Code, where organizations like B'nai Brith demand that Israeli Apartheid Week be banned, and where a schoolgirl is prevented from reading a poem aloud because it might upset somebody.

In any case, I was first up at the mic, for the simple reason that people seemed reluctant to engage to begin with. I asked the panelists if they really thought that comparing the
Gaza ghetto to the Warsaw Ghetto (a holding tank for the Auschwitz death-camp, to which Roma and Jews rounded up elsewhere were added in their tens of thousands) was helpful in our fight for the Palestinian cause. Weiss and two or three people in the audience drew some comparisons--the restriction of humanitarian supplies, the extermination of Gazans with experimental weapons, even Gaza as another holding tank, being largely composed of the descendants of dispossessed Palestinians from elsewhere. One person stated that analogies didn't have to be exact, which is true--but there are good analogies, after all, and bad ones.

Yet I observed that the audience didn't really want to pursue this line of discussion, moving quickly instead to one about the use of the word "apartheid." There were some excellent interventions made, including one from a Jewish friend of mine who went on at some length and very lucidly about the core similarities between Israeli and pre-Mandela South African policies, and then stated his uncertainty about whether the use of the term, even if justified, was constructive.

For me, the apparent unwillingness of the crowd to address the ostensible theme of the evening was grounds for optimism. I wonder, in fact, if there would have been any interventions at all about the Warsaw-Gaza comparison if I hadn't raised my question, which seemed to call forth a less-than-wholehearted rebuttal.

We felt more comfortable, I think, dealing with the familiar and defensible positions regarding Jewish-Palestinian ethnic relations, oppression and the brutality of occupation and displacement. And, while this is within my own comfort zone, for what that's worth, I would have been interested in some real contestation even there. It's too bad that our opponents chose instead to try to shut us down, harass us or simply lie about us--and saddening that their slanders, rather than the future of the Middle East, became the media story of Israeli Apartheid Week.

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