One of its greatest anomalies is that while leaving no stone unturned in the effort to make the world realize the suffering endured by the Jewish people in and as a result of the Holocaust, Israel to this day refuses to recognize the Armenian Genocide as more than a massacre.
In many circles, the reason attributed to this head-in-the-sand attitude is politics. Israel does not want to offend the Turks. But that is ridiculous. Just as Israel acknowledges that the Germany and Austria of today are not the Germany and Austria of the first half of the 1940s, the Armenians are equally aware that Turkey of today is not that of the Ottoman Empire of more than a century ago.
Equally curious is the fact that while both Israel and the United States do not officially recognize the Armenian Genocide, the media in both countries make reference to it year after year – and no one stops them.
As it happens, the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide this year coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a number of Israelis of the Jewish faith attended Armenian memorial events in Jerusalem, which is home to the Armenian Church and to the honorary consul of Armenia, Tsolag Momijian.
An event that took place on Monday at the Jerusalem Nature Museum was attended by Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former government minister and a highly respected interfaith and intercultural activist who seeks to promote understanding and harmony between people of different faiths and different cultural and social backgrounds. Melchior told Channel 1 that “it is our obligation as Jews who have suffered atrocities to recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
Every nation and every people that have suffered huge losses, not only in human terms but also territorial, need understanding and empathy. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to accept their narratives. What needs to be accepted is their pain.
On Tuesday evening there was a memorial event at Belgium House on the Hebrew University’s Edmond Safra Campus in Jerusalem’s Givat Ram. This event was organized by HU’s Institute of Asian and African Studies – The Program in Armenian Studies, the Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine and the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention. The keynote speaker, Prof. Stefan Ihrig of the University of Haifa, sounded a warning in the title of his address, “The Armenian Genocide and the World We (Still) Live In.”
Even though Israel fails to recognize the Armenian Genocide, it is not illegal to talk about it, write about it or commemorate it. But talk about the Nakba – that’s another ball game. Just as one man’s meat is another man’s poison, so Israel’s victory in the War of Independence was what the Arab residents of this country, not to mention our Palestinian neighbors, continue to regard as a catastrophe. While the majority of Israelis might reject the Arab narrative, there is no reason to reject their pain. How can we ask them to respect our pain, if we can’t respect theirs?
■ SO FAR 46 American states have recognized the Armenian Genocide, and there is no doubt that after US Ambassador-designate David Friedman presents his credentials on June 15, local Armenian representatives will try to impress on him the need to convince President Donald Trump.
■ FRENCH AMBASSADOR Hélène Le Gal attended the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day event held in the Roglit Forest in the Eila Valley by the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France.
While French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen denies French responsibility for what happened to French Jews during the Holocaust, Le Gal thinks otherwise. On July 16 and 17, 1942, French officials ordered Jews to be rounded up, and 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children from Paris and environs, were deported. Not a single one of them returned, she said. The roundup is documented in French history as Velodrome d’Hiver. In July 1995, then-president Jacques Chirac apologized for France’s role in the persecution of Jews and its complicity in sending 76,000 French and foreign Jews to the Auschwitz death camp. Chirac had called it a stain on the nation. Only 2,500 returned, said Le Gal. The French authorities of that time betrayed the Jewish community, she charged, emphasizing that not a single German soldier participated in the crime of Velodrome d’Hiver.
Referring to those French citizens who continue to defend French values and ideals, Le Gal said that the only ones who deserve that honor are the Righteous Among the Nations.
Le Gal also spoke of the challenges of perpetuating the memory and lessons of the Holocaust, especially now with the resurgence of antisemitism. In this context, she emphasized the importance of teaching from a very early age. Another challenge, she said, was completing the work of restitution and to return property owned by Jews before the war.
Also participating in the ceremony were famed Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld who have documented many aspects of the Holocaust in their writings. Serge Klarsfeld is president of the association, which he helped to found.
■ WITHOUT MENTIONING her name, President Reuven Rivlin on Monday night lashed out against Le Pen at the closing Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot. Rivlin pointed to the emergence of a new form of Holocaust denial. The prevalent message arising from recent political statements is uniquely disturbing, and in every place that message is the same, he said, citing several examples that boil down to: “We are not responsible for the Holocaust. We are not responsible for the extermination of the Jewish people that occurred within our borders.” Rivlin specifically referred to “a French presidential candidate” who has denied France’s responsibility for the deportation of its Jewish citizens to the Nazi concentration and death camps. “A member of her party denied not only French involvement in the deportation of the Jews to destruction, but their very murder,” thundered Rivlin.
But he noted that elsewhere in Europe, the situation is not much different. In Poland, the debate surrounding the involvement of the local population in the persecution and murder of Jews has become a political issue of the first order. In Ukraine, elected officials were enraged by Rivlin’s speech before the Ukrainian parliament, when he recalled that many of those who collaborated with the Nazis were Ukrainian, and among them those who betrayed and slaughtered Jews, and in many cases turned them over to the Germans, he said.
Conceding that the responsibility is not equal, Rivlin stated that while Israel does not demand from any nation other than Germany that responsibility be taken for the systematic planning and the implementation of the Final Solution, Israel nonetheless does call for moral internal reflection from all those who assisted in carrying out the systematic annihilation.
“The denial of responsibility for the crimes committed in the days of the Second World War is Holocaust denial of a new, more destructive and dangerous kind from that we have known till now,” he said, noting that “this is not a denial of the very existence of the Holocaust, but a denial of the distinction between a victim and a criminal. This is a denial that seeks to annul the political and moral responsibility that must stand at the heart of memory of the Holocaust for generations to come. Victimization is the most comprehensive and effective note of exemption from responsibility.”
Former president of Germany Joachim Gauck, a dedicated civil rights activist, was invited by Rivlin to come to Israel to participate in some of the memorial ceremonies. “Today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I pay my respects to those who were once ostracized, humiliated, persecuted and murdered by another Germany, because they were Jews,” said Gauck. “I will never think of those inhuman actions with anything but a pronounced sense of horror and profound sadness.” As president, he said, he had made a point of returning to the scenes of these horrific events and mass murders perpetrated by Germans, met with survivors, listened to them and cried with them. “I will never forget their stories. But above all, I will never forget their willingness to reach out in friendship to the Germans of today,” he said.
When he was young, he and millions of other Germans began to read about and realize what Germans before them had done, he said. “There was a time when I was ashamed to be German. I was unable to like my country. I hated it. My generation viewed our parents with disgust. They disclaimed all culpability, they allegedly knew nothing. The majority of them still maintained this silence in the 1950s and ’60s and refused to accept responsibility for what had happened.”
Surmising that he is the last president of Germany to have been born during the Holocaust, Gauck said that “even future generations of Germans will not have an identity unblemished by Auschwitz. The special and lasting connection between our peoples and Germany’s particular solidarity with the democratic State of Israel will remain part of their identity.”
■ ONLY ON Holocaust Remembrance Day, when one sees the thousands of people who flock to memorial events in different parts of the country, does one realize the extent to which the bulk of Israel’s population has a personal, emotional stake in mourning the past. Even among our public figures, there are still so many first-, second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors, and so many more with lower public profiles.
Among the first-generation survivors is former Supreme Court president Prof. Aharon Barak, who is currently a senior researcher at the Radzyner Law School at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Barak, who was a child Holocaust survivor, shared some of his experiences at the IDC memorial gathering.
Barak was only eight years old when his parents managed to smuggle him out of the Kaunas Ghetto by hiding him in a sack delivering Nazi soldiers’ uniforms. He subsequently hid with his mother for six months behind a double wall in the home of a Lithuanian peasant family, which was later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
Barak said that years later, he and his family met with the children of the righteous Lithuanians: “I asked them: Why did you save us? If you were caught, you would have been shot to death. How did your parents agree to take such a risk? I looked at my children and asked them: Would I be able to do the same? But I did not have an answer. Every survivor has his story, and every such story is a miracle, or luck, depending on his outlook.
“Each and every one of us can decide what to take from this. My lesson was never hatred, vengeance or loss of trust in humans. My lesson was the importance of the State of Israel, because if it existed then, even if the Holocaust was unavoidable, things must have been different.
“Another lesson, which my students know too well, is the importance of human dignity. The Germans took our lives, but they failed in taking our dignity away. This is why I highly value human dignity, human rights and national security. But also the importance of protecting every person’s rights. Therefore my main lesson to you: If we do not defend democracy, democracy will not defend us.”
■ FOLLOWING HIS reelection for a third term as president of the World Jewish Congress, at the WJC’s 15th world plenary in New York, attended by more than 600 delegates from 90 countries, Ronald S. Lauder said: “I have done many things in my life, but there is no accomplishment, no title, no honor that I am more proud of than being president of the World Jewish Congress.... We are one people, and we take care of each other.”
Lauder spoke of the antisemitism, anti-Zionism and demonization of Israel which continue to challenge the Jewish people and the WJC, albeit in a new form. He also spoke of the growth in size and strength of the WJC during the 10 years of his presidency, including the launching of a security department working in tandem with governments around the world to protect Jewish communities, and expanding diplomatic work to meet with important international and government leaders across the globe to advocate in behalf of the Jewish people.
Lauder still has a way to go to equal the number of years at the helm of the WJC of his predecessor, the late Edgar Bronfman, and like Bronfman, continues to courageously battle the injustices inflicted on Jews in places where they still suffer discrimination.
It is interesting that this year marks the 30th anniversary, almost to the day, of Bronfman declaring at a meeting of the WJC that Austrian president Kurt Waldheim was “part and parcel of the Nazi killing machine.”
■ YEAR AFTER year, and not only during the days immediately before and after Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Israeli media focus on the fact that Holocaust survivors are being denied their dignity in the Jewish homeland, of all places. While many were able to pick up the threads of their lives and weave them into productivity and creativity resulting in three-, four- and even five-generation families and a comfortable lifestyle, others can barely survive on their meager financial resources.
It’s not that the money isn’t there. It’s just that the bureaucratic barriers are such that it’s almost impossible to get past them. Many survivors do not know their rights, and even if they do, they may not know where to turn. Several newspaper advertisements offering help to survivors are in fact placed by lawyers who charge handsomely for their services, which many survivors cannot afford. Then there are not-for-profit organizations which unfortunately are staffed by people who have little patience or understanding for what they are supposed to be doing, and the survivor is often more confused at the end of conversations with such people than he or she was at the beginning.
One organization that is genuinely dedicated to helping – and does help – is the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, whose chairwoman is former education, culture and sport minister Limor Livnat. The foundation was established in 1994 by survivors for survivors, and its activities include providing nursing assistance in survivors’ homes, grants, and refunds for essential expenses such as a hearing aids or medical treatment, emergency alert buttons, financial assistance with dental care, eyeglasses, home renovations and other essentials. It also sends volunteer groups to help survivors with day-to-day needs, including shopping or simply someone with whom to socialize; gives free legal assistance to survivors and operates social clubs for them.
The foundation works with numerous partners and several municipalities, and according to Livnat there is money for survivor needs and there are many knowledgeable and experienced volunteers on hand who are ready to help them. In an interview on Israel Radio, Livnat said she had heard so often of the abject poverty in which thousands of Holocaust survivors were living that she felt drawn to do something for them when she quit politics. To contact the foundation, call (03) 609-0866.
Another source for information is Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, where Gili Tamir, a consultant on social welfare, has a program called “Magia lecha” (It’s due you), in which she advises listeners with specific problems of their rights with regard to pensions, grants, insurance, caregivers, etc. On Monday night of this week, she devoted her program to the rights of Holocaust survivors and had more inquiries by phone, Facebook and email than ever before. She will continue to deal with this subject on Thursday night of this week.
■ ON THURSDAY of last week, prior to the opening Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem that took place on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, met at the Prime Minister’s Office with the survivors who were chosen as torch lighters.
“There is hardly a day when world leaders, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other leaders do not come here and come to learn from the State of Israel,” he said. “There is great admiration for the State of Israel. ‘But how did you do that?’ they ask. ‘You were dust, ashes?’ So I look at you and I ask, ‘How did you do that?’ Because what we did afterwards is nothing compared to your great deeds, and that is the great story of rebirth. There is no real explanation for this miracle.”
■ IT’S TAKEN a long time for the Middle East and North Africa communities in Israel to gain the recognition they deserve.
With the exception of a few of their most outstanding representatives, who somehow managed to overcome the Ashkenazi barriers to higher education and white collar professions, a lot of talented people had to change their names in order to get a foot in the door. Names like Buzaglo, Abecassis, Abergil, Amsalem, Bohbot, Bouskila, Shabi, Shenhav, Hisda and Abaya were betrayers of origin, and job applicants with these or similar names were often turned away without even being considered. Even today, there are stories of people applying for a job and being rejected, and then reapplying under an Ashkenazi or Hebrew pseudonym and being accepted.
Two events this week, cast some light on achievements by MENA personalities. The first, on Thursday, April 27, at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, is a book launch of The Moroccans (Hebrew) by journalist and former MK Daniel Ben-Simon and includes among the speakers Ben-Simon himself, celebrated lawyer Zion Amir and Prof. Yifat Bitton, from the College of Management. The moderator will be political strategist Emilie Moatti.
On Friday, April 28, Tzavta in Tel Aviv will host an event under the title “From Iraq to Israel,” featuring some of Israel’s bestknown Iraqi-born citizens or those of Iraqi parentage, including: Shlomo Hillel, a former secret agent, government minister, diplomat and world chairman of United Israel Appeal; Eli Amir, a prizewinning author, who will be among the beacon lighters on Independence Day; Carmela Menashe, the prizewinning military reporter for Israel Radio; and MK and academic Yossi Yonah.
What spoils it though is that the moderator is Liat Regev, who, though she will do a thoroughly professional job, does not have a drop of Iraqi blood.
■ GLOBALIZATION MAY, in all probability, have had its genesis through diplomacy. Foreign liaisons are, after all, based on common interests and values. Thus, there is increasing evidence in Israel of foreign envoys becoming involved in Israeli issues on many levels.
Notwithstanding the close relations that exist between Israel and Cyprus, and which also existed before either achieved independence from British dominance, there was a period when relations were not exactly friendly; but that is now covered by the dust of history. Under the current relationship, it comes as no surprise that on Thursday of this week, Thessalia Salina Shambos, the ambassador of Cyprus, is hosting a panel discussion headed “Israeli Women Leading the Way – Achievements and Challenges of Women Leaders in Israel.”
The event, which is being co-hosted with The Israel Project, will feature a panel discussion led by Dafna Kaufman, director of the Israel Institute for Innovative Diplomacy; Dr. Efrat Elron, an expert on intercultural strategies; and Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes, talk show host, journalist, investor and socialite. The audience will be encouraged to add their voices to the discussion.