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.