Thursday, August 7, 2014

Watching the dust settle on Operation Protective Edge

Damage to a house in Rafah refugee Camp
Looking back at my article from 2012 , "As the dust settles: In the aftermath of Pillar of Defense", I realized how little has actually changed.  With only changing years, names, and some details, the essence of my post still stands: not much has changed from two years ago, and I could probably just copy and paste it again right here in August 2014.

In 2012 I argued that while both Israel and Hamas will claim victory, no one actually won.  Once again, I stand by this statement.   Israel will say it weakened Hamas: after all, our goals weren't to destroy Hamas nor to reoccupy Gaza,  but simply Bibi's vague notion of "weakening" them and destroying tunnels.  On the other side, Hamas will also claim victory.  They're still here, and they've succeeded in bringing fear to Israelis and turning the IDF around and out of Gaza. They'll claim more and more Gazans will turn to terror and support Hamas, and that in fact we haven't found all their tunnels or destroyed all their rockets.

And just like I said in 2012, while both sides claim victory, there are no winners.  It certainly wasn't the
Israeli children take cover in a playground during a red alert siren
citizens of the south, who for one month lived in fear of constant rocket attacks and from fear of terror tunnels.  Nor was it the families of 64 soldiers, sitting shiva for some of the best boys our country had to offer.  And there is no victory for the citizens of Gaza, who will now return to their pile of bricks, their neighborhoods in ruins, and with too many of their family, friends and neighbors dead.  Once again, used as collateral damage by their own leaders.

And just like in 2012, we'll now return to normal. We'll turn to the good ol' status quo.  Hamas will begin to rearm.  More rockets will be made, and smuggled in, preparing to kill innocent Israelis.  In 6 months time, another tunnel will be built, (with all that aid money the world will now send to Gaza) preparing to kidnap one of our soldiers.  And the blockade will resume, crippling Gaza exports, essentially stifling their chance at business and prohibiting them from fishing on the coast. And Gaza economy will continue to crumble, bringing resentment to the hearts of the next generation. Back to normal. Back to quiet. Until the next time where we play our little game of war, destruction and death.

I don't want to argue on the justness of the war, and I don't want to argue on the necessity of the war.  I'm not a military expert or a lawyer versed in the international laws of war.  We've been told a lot of stuff by our leaders on those two points in the last month, and not everything has made 100% sense to me, and not everything has logically connected.  But that's because they're not just leaders, they're also our politicians, with their own goals and their own future in mind.

What I do want to argue on, is the exact same thing I argued in 2012, something that we didn't take advantage of within this time.  In the past two years, we had a chance to solve the real problem instead of putting a bandaid on it's symptom.  In 2012, I argued that the only real solution to Gaza lies in the West Bank.  The creation of a diplomatic peace solution with moderate forces.  In 2012, Abas claimed he would make sure there would be no third Intifada, that the solution could only be found through the diplomatic creation of a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel.  Then, in what I found to be an incredible revelation, he admitted that he was waiting to visit his hometown of Safed, not as a citizen, but as a visitor, in essence relinquishing the Palestinian right of return.  In my last article, I claimed that this statement, though small, was an incredible breakthrough on the Palestinian narrative of the right to return.  It's affirming Israel's right to stay Jewish, by admitting that it's unfeasible for scores of Palestinians to return to Israel proper, therefore drowning the Jewish majority.  To me, it was a sign of readiness to make peace.  Yet, what happened in those two years of opportunity?

In a recent Op-Ed the Times of Israel editor, David Horowitz, wrote an article titled "Netanyahu finally speaks his mind".  Here he argues that in a recent press conference, Bibi finally speaks his mind on the two state solution.  He says, "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan." For anyone unsure, this means, no full Palestinian sovereignty.  What happened to those two years of opportunity? For Bibi, it was never an opportunity he was willing to take advantage of.

Meanwhile, a few days ago, Abbas had another interview, once again like in 2012, on Channel 2, which slipped through the cracks of mainstream Israeli discourse. (It wasn't only aired on Israeli network but also Palestinian, for the Palestinian people as well)  He said that the Palestinians made a mistake 1947, by refusing the UN partition plan which split the land into two states, one for Jews, and one for the Arabs.

This is huge.  The current Palestinian narrative focuses on victimhood. They were victims of Jewish immigration to Palestine, victims of the colonial powers, victims of the 1948 war that made them refugees (known to them as Nakba), victims of occupation, victims of consistent occupation and Israeli aggression.  Abbas' statement shifts the narrative.  It complicates the narrative of victimhood, and carries implications that they made a mistake, and that they need to take some responsibility for this mistake.  To me, it's another hand for peace.  It's saying, we made a mistake in 1948, but today, in 2014, we realize the power of the diplomatic process and are willing to fix this mistake through compromise.

Israeli narrative is also heavily reliant on victimhood.  We were victims of antisemitism in Europe, (and still are) we were victims of Arabs in Palestine, we were victims of the entire Middle East, we were victims of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. We are victims of terrorism, and we are occupiers because we are victims of continued Palestinian terror, that we cannot allow to kill our children.

I'm not denying that either groups aren't victims: both narratives hold truth.  However, the story of the past is much more complicated than a string of victimhood. Both groups have acted in ways that have casted them as perpetrators and agents of their own future.  Both sides have made mistakes, and both sides need to make hard compromises.  Etgar Keret in his recent article in the LA times, says that we should stop calling it peace, and start calling it for what it truly is: compromise.  He writes, "That's why the first step might to be stop using the debilitating word "peace", which has long since taken on transcendental and messianic meanings to both the political left and right wings, and replace it immediately with the word "compromise." It might be less rousing word, but at least it reminds us that the solution we are so eager for can't be found in our prayers to God but in our insistence on a grueling not always perfect dialogue with the other side."

Because compromise means not only hard decisions, but also a compromise in our world view, in how we see and define ourselves and how we see and define the other.  It's a compromise we have to make, and that they have to make.

It's time we made a choice.  We can continue to live in our cycle of violence.  We can make ceasefire after ceasefire with Hamas, only for it to be broken.  Only for us to forcefully go back in, with gun in hand to bring back our quiet, bring back our status quo.  Until the next time of course.

Hamas is a crazy terrorist group, we can't negotiate with Hamas nor can we empower them.  But every time we make ceasefires, we empower them.  We tell them that their violence paid off. We affirm their narrative of victory.  And so instead, we must turn east, to the West Bank, to the PLO, to Abbas. They aren't perfect, they've made mistakes, and will probably make more in the future.  But when we turn inward, we realize that neither are we, neither have we been, and neither will we ever be.

Compromise is a process.  Peace can't come overnight. It will be a long hard road.  But it needs to start somewhere, sometime.  But broken peace talks that take us back to status quo will never secure our future, they'll only drag us into cycle after cycle of violence, like the one we just ended.  And only when will we begin to demand from our leaders that they take this road, can we repair the real problem, can we stop fear from dictating our future, and stop the never-ending cycle.  Because if not, in 2016, 2017 or maybe 2018, I'll be writing this same article, all over again.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Information Regarding the Refugee Situation in Israel: Staying Informed and Understanding the Situation

Many people have been asking questions and wanting more information on the Refugee Situation here in Israel at the moment.  We've put together an information leaflet in order that people can refer to it and find more information. 
Please share with anyone who has questions and needs more information.


Shallya and Hailey

Who are the Israeli Asylum Seekers?

Asylum seekers are African refugees fleeing from persecution mainly from Eritrea or Sudan, and asking for asylum in Israel.  They have found physical safety in Israel.

Why are the people fleeing Eritrea?

Eritrea is a dictatorship and is known to be one of the most oppressive regimes in the world today. The government destroyed the free press in 2001 and it controls all TV, radio and newspapers. All government opposition is suppressed. Internet access is limited and internet users are closely monitored. There are four recognized religions in Eritrea: Sunni Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical (Lutheran) Church of Eritrea. An adherent of any other religion is subject to arrest, can have their businesses confiscated, and faces threats and imprisonment. Since 2002 Eritrea uses mandatory "National Service" as a tool of oppression. Citizens are conscripted for most of their working life, forced to work 10-12 hours a day and paid low wages: an amount which is difficult to survive on.  Females face a high level of sexual abuse. Additionally, Eritrea commonly uses severe forms of punishment including torture. Due to severe economic problems exacerbated by droughts, there have been reports of food shortages yet these claims were denied by the government. Humanitarian organizations are not allowed into Eritrea although they do receive certain funding from UN run projects.1

Why are people fleeing Sudan?

Sudan, ruled by the National Congress Party (NCP) is fraught with a number of different conflicts. Since South Sudan's independence in July 2011, the two countries have been in conflict over the border, oil production and debt. Since the beginning of 2012 there have been cross-border attacks and armed clashes leaving many people displaced. There is also fighting between government forces and rebels in the Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile States, forcing many people to flee. Although an agreement was signed in the Darfur region in 2011 between Sudan and a Darfur rebel group, security in the region still remains problematic. Not all rebel groups were agreed to the agreement and so fighting in the region continues. The government continues to deny United Nations-Afican Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) access to many parts of Darfur. UNDAMID reports on arbitrary arrest and detentions. The ongoing conflict has disrupted the supply of humanitarian assistance, exacerbating the flow of refugees. Despite International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants which were issued in 2005, against six individuals (including President Omar al-Bashir) Sudan has not cooperated and denies all responsibility. Student led peaceful protests which were conducted in various towns in late 2011 and 2012 were met with severe violence, mass arrest, detainments and torture. People who are perceived to be a threat to the government are arrested and face harsh treatment.  Opposition to the government has been banned and free press is heavily censored.2

Citizens of Sudan and Eritrea may have fled for a variety of different reasons. They generally arrive in Israel via Egypt having crossed the Sinai Peninsula, sometimes being shot at by Egyptian soldiers, or after being released from kidnappers in the Sinai. (where their families were forced to pay a ransom and they were held against their will) They then arrive in the first safe country: Israel.

Does Israel have an obligation to help these Asylum seekers?

In 1951, Israel signed and ratified the UN refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol (together the "Convention") Under this Convention, we obligated ourselves to accept and assess the claims of refugees asking for asylum.  As a nation of refugees, emerging from the consequences of extreme antisemitism, this was an important moment that defined what kind of state we were to be: a beacon of social justice that champions freedom, equality and human rights.

Who is a refugee under the convention?

According the Refugee convention, a refugee is someone who  "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."3

What right are refugees entitled to and do they have obligations?

Among the rights enshrined in the Convention is the right of non-refoulment, (Article 33), according to this a person should not be sent back to a place where he faces fear to his life or freedom, the right not to punished for illegal entry in to country (Articles 31), the right to work (Article 17-19). A refugee is also obligated to abide by the laws of the host country.

Why should we grant asylum if they already passed through Egypt, why can't Egypt be responsible, not us?

According to the Convention the first safe country is responsible for the asylum seekers. Egypt is not considered 'safe' for asylum seekers.

Why doesn't American, Canada or wealthy western country take them?

As stated above, the convention says that the first safe country that the asylum seeker arrives at, is the one which has the responsibility to assess their claims. As Israel is considered "Safe'' other countries are not willing to take/resettle our asylum seekers.

How do we know who is a refugee and who isn't?

We don't. Netanyahu and Gideon Saar have been telling the public they know that they are migrant workers but they have no data or facts to back their statements.  According to the Convention, Refugee Status Determination ("RSD") is the process that will determine their status.  The process should ideally be individual in nature, procedures should be fair and efficient and asylum seekers should be given the right to appeal. In Israel, the RSD process is not transparent, very few claims have been examined and very few answers have been given. Until now Sudanese and Eritreans have been given "Group Protection", according to which they would not be sent out of Israel, but they are also not recognized as refugees.

Until a few years ago, the UN in Israel had the responsibility to check the appeals from the asylum seekers.  However, Israel asked the UN to step aside to begin the process of RSD themselves.  However, since the process was switched from the UN to Israel, very few cases have been checked and none have been answered.

We need to demand from our government to begin checking their claims so we can see who is a migrant worker and who is a refuge.

What percentage of Asylum claims are recognized in other countries?

According to HIAS, in other countries 80% of Eritreans have been confirmed refugees, and 35% of Sudanese

But if we give them refugee status, they'll stay in Israel. We are a small Jewish country, how can we integrate such large numbers of people who will threaten the Jewish character of our state?

First of all, let's put the numbers into perspective. There are right now about 53,000 asylum seekers. After we assess their cases as asylum seekers, the number will decrease. (Not the full number will be found to be a 
refugee under the convention)

Secondly, the current figure is only 0.6% of our population. That's hardly an overwhelming number.   Every year, Israel provides and integrates for the duration of their visas about 70,000 foreign workers, who do menial jobs Israelis won't do. That number isn't overwhelming us nor hurting the nature of our Jewish state. The government could lower the number of foreign workers to accommodate the refugees.

Many of the asylum seekers are educated yet are willing to work hard at menial jobs especially in the hotel and food industry and construction (where the majority are employed). They have proven to be dedicated workers, many employers including the CEO of Isrotel has spoken out in their defense.

Lastly,  according to the Convention, protection does not need to be permanent. A person will cease to be a refugee once the situation in their home countries improve and the basis of their refugee status no longer exists. It may also occur if refugees VOLUNTARILY return to their home country. Many asylum seekers want to return home- but not while 
their lives and rights as human beings are being threatened.

Have you stepped into south Tel Aviv and seen them there, do you not care about the residents there?

I have been to south Tel Aviv. There's a problem there, this we cannot deny. What I'm looking for is a solution.  Once they came into Israel from the Sinai, Israel jailed them in detention centers. Once released they were either dropped off or handed a bus ticket to south Tel Aviv, without any other support. The government has further exasperated the problem by making it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to work: therefore increasing the rate of unemployment. This has caused an increase in crime. Like any group of people, including Israeli society, there are criminals among them, however this is not representative of the whole population.  

It should also be noted that the crime statistics have been exaggerated by the government ministers. According to data represented at the Knesset's committee meeting on Migrant Workers in March 19, 2012 the crime rates for foreigners stood at 2.24% in 2011, while the crime rate among other populations in 2010 stood at 4.99%. The reported increases in crime where also explained by Police commissioner Yocahanan Danimo as crimes of desperation who advocated for asylum seekers to be allowed to work. 

The first step to helping the residents in South Tel Aviv is to face the problem by first assessing who has a claim as a refugee. Once we know who to grant refugee status to they will be granted the right to work. We can help relocate them to other parts of Israel that require menial workers. 

But if we are nice to them, more will come into Israel?

Last year, only 12 asylum seekers came into Israel because we built a fence over the border. This fence is what is preventing people accessing Israel.  Right now, we have essentially frozen the number at 53,000. 

Why have there been protests the last few days- why now?

The protests and the national strike has erupted for two main reasons. The first is that the government passed an amendment to the Anti Infiltration Law, (the "Ammendment"). Under the Amendment, asylum seekers can be sent to the "detention center" in the south called Holot. They can be sent there without any judicial process, and without judicial representation. (They have no right to a lawyer) The center is run by police. The prisoners need to be present three times a day for roll call. Upon entering Holot, they are given a number instead of their name. They can leave the jail in the day, but if are away for more than 48 hours, the police can arrest them and bring them back. There is no work in the area. No Israelis are allowed to enter the center. This is a jail, let's not kid ourselves.   When over 100 prisoners of Holot last week marched to Jerusalem in protest, they were arrested and returned to Holot.

This Initial draft of the Anti Infiltration Law was struck down by Israel's Supreme Court as unconstitutional for violating basic human rights. The Amendment will be discussed by the Supreme Court soon.

The second spark was a comment by the government that they will no longer be renewing visas. Right now, asylum seekers are provided a visa, valid only for 3-5 months, under "group protection". This visa, although not a work permit, insured that they will be allowed to stay in Israel. The government has had a policy of turning a blind eye to illegal employment, although it has recently threatened to enforce it as well. Every few months, asylum seekers hold their breathe in fear their visas won't get renewed as they jump through bureaucratic hoops. This time, they worry that their visas won't be renewed. If they have no visa, they can be arrested and taken to Holot.  Additionally they risk losing their jobs if they don't have a valid visa.

The Interior Ministry has limited the places, times and dates of when they will renew the visas.  For example, the office in Jerusalem will not hand out renewals anymore.  In the offices that are open, it is only twice a week for two and half hours.  Not having a valid visa is cause for being sent to Holot.  

Further, those that have been granted a renewal in their visas in the last few days, have been receiving "invitations" to Holot. This "invitation" declares that after the new visa expires (most of these renewals have only been one more month) they must go to Holot.  If they do not go to Holot, they will be arrested and sent to Holot.

Is Holot a good solution?

Holot construction and upkeep this year alone has cost Israeli taxpayers NIS 440 million dollars. Couldn't this money have been better used? Not just to help socially with the refugees, but even with other social issues within Israel?

Further, the detention center can only hold about 3,000 people. Is this Israel's solution? That still leaves 50,000 refugees. We've built a detention center to abuse the rights of 3,000 refugees without a humane and realistic solution to the problem. As discussed above refugees are not allowed to be punished for their illegal entry into the host country.  (Please note: That there are closed detention centers at the border also used by Israel, for example Saharonim, which can fit another 2,000 refugees.  It's likely that Israel will expand both facilities.) 

Aside from it's restriction size and it's drain on Israeli economy, Holot tramples on human rights.  The Israeli government has called it a "detention center" but according to the description above, it is clearly a jail.  Without any chance of a trial or legal representation, the asylum seekers' freedom as human beings is being threatened.  Additionally, indefinite detentions violates international norms. 

So if you demand one thing from the government what would it be?

The government should stand up to its international obligation and examine every case. Those who are deserving of refugee status should be given it. We should not be ignoring our legal and moral obligations.

Why do you support this cause, rather than other problems in Israel? Like poverty in Israel or disease?

My support for this cause doesn't negate my support for other causes. But I see a problem here. I see human rights being abused. I see freedom being taken away. I see racism.  I see Israel ignoring international law it agreed to. Because of this, I can't stand by and be silent. All we need are voices to encourage our government to listen: hear their cases. Assess their claims. After this, I'm open to debate about the next step. But right now the solution is to follow the law of the Convention.

Disclaimer: Please note that I am aware of the complexities of international law and the challenges Israel faces, I intend this information to be a starting point for further conversation, feel free to do your own research as well.  You can email either me or Shallya and we will try our best to answer questions and update the fact sheet.  

Also helpful is HIAS FAQ, which can be found here. And another page of information from ARDC, which can be found here

Written by Hailey Dilman and Shallya Scher 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A reflection on Nelson Mandela's Memorial and why I'm choosing to feel Canadian

Last night I went to bed after reading two articles regarding Nelson Mandela's Memorial service in South Africa.  The first was published by The Globe and Mail, and summed up how Canada's current and past Prime Ministers were all traveling together to South Africa, to pay tribute to Mandela.  Together, the mixed political batch wanted to honour the memory of Mandela, what he stood for and what he fought for.  The article focuses on the idea that despite past animosity, these leaders put it aside to reflect on Mandela and the positive force he exerted on our present world.  I smiled as I read the article. It ends with the words of  former Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean.  She says,  “To see representatives of all political families together going to South Africa to pay tribute to Mandela is totally in the spirit of the man, So I’m proud of us.”

And in that moment, I was proud to be Canadian too.  These leaders aren't enemies, nor were they ever.  But neither were they best friends.  The article isn't a heavy political piece that makes any kind of strong statement, except to show us, that even in death, Mandela is bringing peoples together.   And today, after following the ceremony, we see how true that is.  Obama shaking Raul Castro's hand,  Obama and Bush sharing a plane together, and world leaders, who may never have shared a stage together, all huddled under the rain to pay tribute to Mandela.  

Just as Jean said, it seems fitting and in the spirit of the man.

Yet, as an Israeli, I feel differently.  I feel embarrassed.  Our two leaders: Bibi and Peres, were notably absent.  I can forgive Peres due to age and heath... but Bibi?  Bibi citing that he cannot attend because of monetary issues only makes the entire situation so much worse, especially in light of all of Bibi's recent frivolous spending on ice cream, private jet bathrooms and scented candles.   (There really must be a lot of crap coming out of him)  Which brings me to the second article I read yesterday published in Haaretz by Bradley Burston.  Burston too criticizes Bibi's abrupt decision to not attend the ceremony.   Every decision he makes, sends a message, and for Burston that message is all too clear.  He writes, "His message is clear: My Israel, which spends untold tens of millions on such matters as bolstering and protecting settlement construction during peace negotiations with the Palestinians, or erecting detention facilities for African asylum seekers rather than formulating coherent and just refugee policies, has nothing left over for this man Mandela."

What was it after all that Mandela stood for? Set aside his position on Palestinians and Israel, and look at what he really stood for: justice, peace, and equality for peoples, regardless of colour and race.   He was a man who fought for a better Africa, and a more just word.  Last night, when I was teaching English to a mixed group of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees I was trying to explain to them the meaning of the words "motivation" and "inspiration".  Without my prompting, they just kept saying, "like Nelson Mandela- the peacemaker."  That's who he was.  And in some sense, this memorial was the world tipping their hats to a man who fought for everything each and every person in this world should strive to be.  It's a memorial for the man, but also to his ideals.  To stand by what he stood for, and take responsibility to carry those ideals with us, for our shared futures. We all want to be an inspiration, to motivate.  To make the world around us a better place.  Obama said today at the memorial, "And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us."  

It was only last night that Israel even put together a "last minute delegation".  I'm happy there was an Israeli presence, but embarrassed that while the world sent it's most important representatives, ours were notably absent.  

Today, I woke up to this article: the Knesset approves Infiltration Prevention Bill.  It's really great to see that while the world is paying tribute to a man who fought for equality and justice, Israel is approving to jail African asylum seekers for up to a year without trial, and stop them from finding employment in Israel. (And as a sidenote- over one 100 million dollars has been allocated for this bill, much more money it would have cost to send Bibi to South Africa today) Our stance is clear, and our message is clearer.  In this sense, Burston's article rings even more true.  Our money is better placed tarnishing justice and equality, rather than standing by world leaders paying tribute to those very ideals.  

And that's why today, I'm choosing to feel Canadian.  I'm usually proud of both my countries, proud of the country I was born into, and proud of the country I choose to call home.  Israel has many times over proven it is a beacon of hope, democracy and equality to the world, but other times it has fallen short of such a title.  Today is one of those days.  Today, the Israel I believe in, has embarrassed me.  I've come to terms with Israel's imperfections.  Almost everyday there is a policy, or a person that stands against what I believe Israel should stand for.  Yet, I fight for Israel because at it's core, I believe we are a democracy that wants to be better.  A democracy that is struggling for a future that is just and equal.  That's why today, my I'm proud to be a Canadian: a country which came together in the spirit of Mandela, while Israel stood against it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

75 Years from Kristallnacht: Commemoration and Meaning

On November 9-10th 1938, the largest pogram in Germany broke out on the streets of Nazi Germany and Austria.  Yesterday marked the beginning of the 75th anniversary of the program, otherwise known as Kristallnacht, or "night of broken glass".

Quickly to summarize, Kristallnacht was a government organized pogram against Jews in Germany and Austria. This included mass destruction of Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes. Further, about 30, 000 Jewish men were arrested all across Germany and sent to concentration camps. Up until that point, these camps consisted of political enemies, homosexuals, Jehovah witnesses, Roma and Sinti. Therefore Kristallnacht tipped the balance of inmates, the numbers now reflected a larger number of Jews. Nazi propaganda explained the incident as a “spontaneous outburst of public rage”- in response to the assignation of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in the embassy in Paris.  He was murdered by Herschel Grysnszpan, a 17 year old Jew on November 7th, 1938 who was angry about the deportation of his parents back to Poland from Germany.  Poland refused to accept his parents, and so they, along with approximately 12,000 other Jews were stranded between the two borders.  

A few things:

First, we know that Kristallnacht was not spontaneous because lists of Jewish men were created by the state in advance.  Nazi SS officers sought out these men between November 9-10th, crossing them off their lists and sending them to concentration camps.  Vom Rath's murder was simply a pretext or catalyst.  

Second, most ordinary Germans did not participate in the pogram.  It was mainly perpetrated by Nazi party members, police officers and the SS.  Most Germans were embarrassed by the pogram.  Unfortunately, not because violence was directed against Jews, but rather because of the mess it left on the streets of Germany.  This is one of the only instances that "messy violence" graced the streets of Germany. (Most of the "dirty work" was done in Poland and Eastern Europe, away from ordinary German eyes)  

Third, this is the first time Jews are arrested for one reason only: because they were Jews.  This to me, signifies a major turning point in the events of the Holocaust.  German Jews prior to the pogram could convince themselves that if they stayed political neutral, and under the radar, they could potentially pass unscathed during Hitler's reign.  After Kristallnacht, Jews saw the real danger of Nazi Germany: you could no longer deny it.  

Last, those Jewish men who were arrested and put into concentration camps, had the option of leaving, IF someone could provide for them, a slip of immigration to another country.  Of course, this was easier said then done, but many men did leave the camps and immigrated out of Germany.  This tells us that the German goal vis-a-via the Jews in 1938, was still unclear.  Murder was not at the top of the list, if immigration was encouraged.   

But, what does Kristallnacht mean? As in, why do we commemorate it every year?   There are many milestones during the Holocaust, but aside from National Holocaust Remembrance day (commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz) and Yom HaShoah (commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), this is one of the most popular commemoration dates.

Historically I can tell you this was a turning point for Germany's Jews.  This event made it almost impossible to deny the threat of the Nazis. German Jews, even those most integrated and assimilated, finally began to properly reevaluate their own future and safety in Germany. (Of course, not in a mass murder sense, because who can "guess" that)  However, between 1933 and 1945, I can list you hundreds of other turning points and milestones, that do not get commemorated on a yearly basis.  Why Kristallnacht?

I think it's because of what Kristallnacht represents within Jewish history (not just modern or Holocaust history) and how it can be utilized today. Kristallnacht says, in a much more tangible sense than other event, that Jews can never be safe on their streets. (outside of Israel)  That every Jew is a potential victim of antisemitism, for one reason only: being Jewish. (religiously, culturally, or accidentally)  Historians attribute approximately 2, 000 deaths to Kristallnacht, (including those in the concentration camps) which in comparison to the overall (6 million) or those in Treblinka, (870, 000) or Auschwitz (1 million) or perpetrated by the Eizengruppen in Eastern Europe (1 million), is a drop in the bucket.  Not to deny that every death isn't meaningful, (because in my opinion, individualizing or humanizing our understanding of the Holocaust through individuals and stories is integral to commemoration) but it reflects how important meaning becomes in commemoration.  "How can we use it" becomes key.  Kristallnacht says, we can politically claim the fragility of Jews or Jewish communities outside of Israel, because even when they think they are safe, or secure, or that antisemitism is a passing phase, we've seen what the potential threat can be.  We can look what happened to those 'well meaning assimilated Jews' and even more powerfully, we can point to what it led to.  Kristallnacht isn't a turning point in the decision towards the Final Solution, but rather Jewish perception of their own position within Germany.  Therefore, within the context of Jewish history, it can be used as another reminder to Jews today, that only within Israel, can we truly be safe, and can we truly be Jews.  Like it or not then, Kristallnacht is the commemoration that says, "no matter how safe, or integrated you think you are, there's always a threat outside of Israel."  It's the model argument for Aliyah and American "illusion" of safety.  (Of course we'll hear, in light of the recent Pew Report)

The question is therefore, what should commemoration be?  Of course this taps into a much larger debate on the bias and influence of commemorations, that is outside the scope of this blog post.  

I will say, the last time I posted about Kristallnacht in this blog, in 2009, I asked people to see Kristallnacht, not by sucking away it's own meaning by using it as a political lesson for an interested future but rather as a tragic event within the Holocaust.  To look at testimony, and stories, with the intent to remember victims of the event, and how it affected their own personal lives.  Alternatively, using it as a larger warning against racism and the dangers of exclusion within our own cities. (rather than only antisemitism)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Yom HaZikaron as an Olah

When the sirens sound through the silence of the night, everyone at the ceremony stands.  Yet, despite the standing, bodies begin to slump forward, their gazes staring holes in the ground.   Minds race as the one minute siren continues to encircle the space around us.  When the sirens stops, it's silent.  The only sound is the wind hitting the plastic blue and white flags that have been strung across the courtyard. 

When people sit back down, their eyes are wet. 

I made Aliyah almost 3 years ago.  This is my third Yom HaZikaron in Israel: only my third.  And every year, I always feel the same: like I'm an imposter.  Like I shouldn't really be here. 

My strongest memory of Remembrance day in Canada is that all the students used to be herded into the school gym- we'd sit quickly on the white plastic chairs that were lined up along our usually empty gym.  Teachers would stand before us and say something about the bravery of our soldiers, some student would recite "In Flanders Field"  and to end it, our music teacher would play "Last Post" on the trumpet- while we stood in our moment of silence.  I never remember feeling emotional.  I remember being happy to be missing class.  It was only something we did- not something we felt.

When I was in University, they would set fake tombstones along the sports fields.  People would come by and lay wreaths.  I would walk through the field, between the stones, thinking.  I have a connection to this day.  My grandfather fought with the Canadian forces in Italy- he was a part of the invasion of Sicily.  He was injured in the war, and sent back to Canada: never the same as he was before.  Yet, I never remember crying on Remembrance day.  I know I have some sense of pride to be Canadian- but I never feel emotional enough to feel it.

But every year on Yom HaZikaron, I cry.  I get sad.  I get emotional.   I cry for soldiers who died before I was born.  I cry for victims of terror I never met.  I cry for soldiers who are fighting today- the 18 year olds I don't even know.  And every year, I feel a sort of shame.  Like my tears aren't real enough- my emotions can't be justified because I'm new: I'm an Olah.  My neighbor who stands beside me, maybe they went to the army, maybe they know someone who died, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe.  This is their country from day one.  This is mine from three years ago. 

The Israeli flag blowing in the wind creates the only sound echoing through the courtyard.  It's not the flag that stood throughout the streets when I was growing up.  But it's the flag that hung in my home.  It's the flag that hung in my school.  It's the flag that we ran up the flagpole every morning at camp. 

Today, I'm realizing this day isn't about me- and it's never been.  It's not about my neighbor either.  It's about something more.  I may have grown up in Canada, but I've always been connected to this land- to this people.  I realize that the ground below my feet is steeped in their blood.  All year round we tip toe around it, but on Yom HaZikaron, we cry about it- we remember it, we thank it.  On Yom Ha'atzmaut, we celebrate it.  We cry, because we've lost.  But we celebrate because we're here.  We're here-despite it and because of it.  At the Chuppah of a wedding- we smash a glass- remembering the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.  Even in simcha: we remember.  And so here it is again with Israel- before she turns 65, we bow our heads to the loss, and we remember.  But tonight we will turn our heads up: we'll gaze at the thousands of flags strung around our city- and those flags we've carefully hung from our balcony. 

And this is something I can feel a part of.  This is something I am a part of.  And that's why I'm emotional.  Because at the end, while everyone stands for HaTikva- the Israeli national anthem, and everyone sings the words: I realize I never remembered learning these words.  They are words I've always known.  It's a poem written in 1877- before the declaration of the state of Israel.  It's a poem that reflects the Jewish yearning to return to the Land of Israel; a reality I'm going to celebrate tonight.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

As the dust settles: In the aftermath of Pillar of Defense

Last night at about 9:00 pm, Israeli time, after 8 days of rockets being fired into Israel, and Israel targeting Hamas terror sites,  a cease fire was accepted between Israel and Hamas. (Despite Hamas still firing rockets into Israel after the agreed upon time)

Israelis take shelter after a rocket was fire from Gaza
Today, the dust has settled, and quiet has finally been achieved.  The lull has provided a moment for both to step back and see the results of the Operation.  As usual, both sides are claiming victory.  In Gaza, Palestinians crowded the streets in a show of victory, claiming that they brought fear into the hearts of Israelis  and that they "changed the rules of the games" because Israel did not invade Gaza, as they did last time during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.

Israel is claiming victory because they targeted all possible terror sites within Gaza. 

So who did win?  It was certainly not the citizens of the south of Israel, who for over 8 days have been running in and out of bomb shelters, every time Hamas, and other terrorist groups within Gaza fired a rocket into Israel.  And it was not the citizens of Gaza, who suffered from Israeli targeting, just because Hamas placed their terror sites within civilian populated areas.  A cease-fire is not a peace treaty, and it's not the end of a war, rather- it's a temporary fix in the context of a much larger problem.  And within this temporal moment- no one wins. 

During Operation Cast Lead, which saw more causalities on both sides, there was also a cease-fire.  Just four years later, we have found ourselves in the same situation.  We're participating in a circular dance, that cannot be fixed with a piece of paper that guarantees some quiet, for some time.  Hamas, a classified terrorist group, has no intention of making peace with Israel.  According to Hamas'scharter, the only solution for "peace" is by militant Jihad.  Therefore, Israel has no partner for peace in Gaza.  Therefore, for the past four years, Israel has ignored Hamas.  As long as the number of rockets fired into Israel was kept at a low, Israel ignored it.  Only when the number of rockets escalated last week, did Israel target Ahmad Jabari, the second in command of Hamas's military wing, and began Operation Pillar of Defense.  Between the two Operations, Hamas and other militant groups have had enough time to amass enough rockets, even those big enough to reach both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  Will this time be any different?  In another few years, when the number of rockets fired into Israel, reaches an unacceptable level, will Israel begin another Operation?  Is this just more time for Hamas to reload?  

Where is the solution then?  

Perhaps the solution can be found on the other side of the country: in the West Bank. Just before tensions rose between Hamas and Israel, Palestinian President of the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas, stated in an interview with Israel's Channel 2 on November 1, that as long as he was President, there would be no third Intifada: Palestinians would achieve a two state solution, not through violence, but rather by diplomatic and peaceful means.  Abbas, a refugee from Safed, in the north of Israel, also stated that he would like to return to his hometown, not as a resident, but as a tourist- therefore hinting that he is willing to compromise on the Palestinian Right of Return, a huge point of contention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In essence Abbas is reaching his hand to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Instead, Netanyahu looked the other way- down south, where the situation is much simpler to deal with.

For Israel, Gaza is black and white.  There is no negotiating with a terrorist group that is trying to destroy Israel.  There are temporary lulls, but there is no long-term solution that doesn't include complete defeat for Israel, or the re-occupation of Gaza: both options the Israeli government would not consider. So, Israel, destroys it's terrorist cells, and then backs away, so that there is relief from rockets in the South of Israel. Therefore, the circular dance has no way but to continue.  However, the situation in the West Bank is different: the conflict  in relation to the PLO is multicolored: it's layered and complicated.  The PLO is a  potential partner in peace; Israel can talk to the PLO as it has in the past.  Yet, this option means compromise- for both sides.  It means making hard decisions, that are likely to be unpopular.  It means, potentially hurting oneself politically, something that Netanyahu may not be quite ready for, just before an election, or perhaps ever.  

However, if  a two state solution is reached, and the Palestinians finally had self-determination, at least in the West Bank, it would cause Hamas to be irrelevant. It would prove diplomacy and peaceful deliberation is the answer.  International, Israeli and Palestinian pressure could help free the citizens of Gaza from Hamas, and perhaps bring peace there as well.  However, while Israel continues to not turn all their efforts to Abbas and the peace process, Hamas causes both Abbas and the PLO to be irrelevant.  It proves that both diplomacy and peaceful negotiations can do nothing to help the situation.  It reinforces Hamas's argument that violence and Jihad are the only answer- and it continues the cycle of violence and hate.  Therefore, as long as there is no progression in the peace process, we will find ourselves right back where we are today- Israel being attacked by rockets, and Israel going back into Gaza to destroy terrorist cells that will only build themselves back up once there is another cease-fire.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Back to the Old Country Part V: There are still Jews in Poland?

Photo Credit: Alexandria Fanjoy
If Poland to Jews around the world represents one big Jewish cemetery, it goes without saying that for them, Jewish life in Poland is dead. Then, how can there still be Jews in Poland? After the Holocaust, after the 1948 Kielce Pogrom, and after the 1968 Jewish purges? It follows, that there must not be any Jews left in Poland, it only makes sense.
Yet, one thing I discovered in Poland- there are Jews, and even more, it’s not just an old survivor based community- there are young Jews, there are Jewish communities, there are secular Jews and there are religious Jews. There is a rich Jewish community and culture developing in Poland today, something that is incredibly admirable. I was at the Nozyk synagogue in Warsaw for my second Shabbat in Poland, and me and my friend Alexandria were standing in the hallway, when we heard a group of girls behind us, looking like very religious Jews, speaking in Polish together. Polish! They should be talking English, Hebrew, Yiddish, but Polish?
The current Jewish community is carving out their own space within Poland, they are creating a new Jewish culture, that combines elements from the past, but has the mark of a new generation. They are creating Judaism in Poland, a place where even after the darkest chapter in Jewish history, being a Jew was dangerous, and unstable.
Interwar Poland saw the outburst of the Jewish question, and even more than this, the development of the Jewish identity. Jews were playing with concepts of nationality, some that saw Poland as their future, or those whose nationalist feelings turned to Zionism and Palestine. But there were others, Jews who defined themselves purely religiously, those that assimilated, those that wanted to acquire autonomy based on culture. The Jewish question in Poland allowed for incredible Jewish creativity, such creativity that spilled over into America, and now Israel. Yet, the Holocaust decisively killed this Jewish creativity in Poland, and then communism froze any hope of a continuation of the debate. But, in the 70′s when underground independent intellectual groups began to pop up in Poland, a Jewish one started to flourish. Calling themselves the “Jewish flying university“, a mixed group of Poles met. At first, it was awkward, none of them had ever discussed Jewishness in public, some not even admitting their own Jewishness. Many were from assimilated or mixed backgrounds, who knew almost nothing about their Judaism as a religion or culture. But slowely, they began to piece together Jewish past in Poland, and discover who they were, and what kind of future could be for Jews in Poland.
Since the fall of communism, there has been a slow Jewish revival in Poland. On a Friday night dinner, I sat listening to the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Shudrich explain at a community dinner at Nozyk, about the community. He addressed the locals, and also visitors, like myself, who needed a place to eat for Shabbat. He told us of people who were returning to Judaism, who had pretended to be Catholic after the war, because it was safer, but discovered they were Jewish, many through weird customs or a Jewish artifact. He told us of a female who lit candles on Friday night, not knowing why. Someone who never ate milk and meat together. Someone who found books in weird writing in their attic. Jews were slowly discovering Jewish roots, and once discovered, flourished within this identity.
My group visited the JCC in Krakow, and they too boast a Friday night dinner every week. As we sat in the largeJCC, in the middle of the historical neighborhood of Kazimierz, we were told that everyday the JCC signs up new members. People who have discovered that someone in their family was Jewish and who want to be involved with the Jewish community. When we were in Bialystok, we met with the head of the Jewish community, and as she served as coffee and cookies, she explained that her Jewish community regularly meet, and hold cultural events. When we were in Warsaw, we met at “Tel Aviv“, one of the hip kosher restaurants, with a Jewish community leader that told us about Jewish daycare, Jewish trips to Israel, and Jewish cultural groups that meet. She insisted that antisemitism was low, and that for the first time in a long time, Jews were proud to be Jews, and walk proudly on the streets as such. All these people would laugh, if someone were to insist that there are no Jews in Poland, or more that Jewish culture was over in Poland. For them, it’s thriving.
It’s true that the Jewish community in Poland today is small in comparison to what it used to be, however this should not allow us to ignore what is developing there. Perhaps it will never be what it was, but I think that’s ok. It makes me happy to know that there are Jews in Poland. They are carrying on the legacy of the past, and adding something new and special. They may live in a country with concentration and death camps, but they don’t allow this to define who they are, and where they are going. They represent life, and they are following in the Jewish tradition that has defined Jews throughout Jewish history: we can continue, and we can go on; to create and grow.