Terra Incognita: Should the victims now be the caretakers?

Terra Incognita Should

By SETH FRANTZMAN
October 25, 2009 20:03

Recent revelations regarding Hashomer, a pre-state Jewish defense organization founded in 1909, brought to light an interesting quote. Sammy Tolkovsky, a resident of Rehovot, wrote in 1913 that "it is my duty as a man... to protest... serious crimes against humanity [by Hashomer]. We Jews of all people, who suffered persecution and abuse for thousands of years... are duty bound to have a modicum of humanity." This line of thinking, appealing and quite common as it may be, leads not only to a double standard but punishes the Jews twice. First it acknowledges that Jews were victims, but then it says because they were victims they must live up to a higher standard. Yet this does not apply to other peoples. From African-Americans, who were victims of racism and slavery, to Muslims and others who were victims of European colonialism, the victim narrative is used as an excuse rather than as a weapon against the victimized community. Thus any outburst of anger by former colonials or by Muslim extremists can be excused by them having been victims of slavery, forced labor, racism or things such as apartheid and the Crusades. So why do the Jews get caught in the vice of this strange double-edged sword and why is it so often Jews who are the ones pointing the fingers at fellow Jews and saying, "You should know better?" or "The victims should exemplify morality in the extreme sense." The tendency to have this reaction is not illogical and has its appeal. But it quickly degenerates into a myriad of distasteful comparisons. How often does one hear that Israelis treat each other or others "like the Nazis did the Jews." One Israeli attorney once told me that "Israelis should not criticize the world for not taking in the Jews before the Holocaust unless Israel is ready to receive all the world's refugees from genocide. We Jews are just hypocrites." Consider how this claim works. Jews are hypocrites for asking why the world didn't take in Jewish refugee ships such as the S.S. St. Louis or Struma because Israel doesn't take in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sudan and Rwanda and other genocides? Once again it is easy to see how people think this way. REMINDED OF the Jewish refugees stranded in Europe before the war, one asks why Israel doesn't immediately grant asylum to Sudanese who manage, with great hardship, to cross Egypt to get here. It is valid to ask this question. It is valid to acknowledge that Jews suffered greatly as unwanted refugees and to see in modern day refugees similar hardships. What is wrong is to condemn Israel and hold it to a higher standard for not taking in "all" the world's refugees from genocide. Egypt owes as much to the refugees from Sudan as Israel. Just because Egyptians or Germans or the Swiss were never refugees from genocide doesn't release them from responsibility to humanity. Because Jews were once refugees from genocide doesn't mean Jews have a "special" responsibility. Consider what Gerald Kaufmann, UK Labor Party member of Parliament, said in January before the House of Commons. In the midst of the Gaza war, he stated that "my grandmother [who was murdered by the Nazis] did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza." He went on to say that Israel was "ruthlessly and cynically exploiting the continuing guilt from gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians." Thus for him Israel is like the Nazis, and Kaufmann feels that as a Jew he is perfectly placed to make this comparison and also to show that Israel should be held to a special standard because the Jews suffered the Holocaust. When Pakistan or Russia bombards Muslim extremists, no one says they use their past suffering to "provide cover" for their actions, instead their actions are seen as legitimate. Lizzy Ratner, writing in her blog, notes that her grandfather "believed profoundly that the fate suffered by Europe's Jews meant that you did everything possible to prevent other people from suffering the same thing." Her trip to Poland, "far from freeing me to embrace Israel, I wondered, baffled, how a people that was forced to live - and die - behind walls could force another people [the Palestinians] to live - and die - behind walls?" She says she "would like to see trips that go from the Warsaw ghetto to the Jabalya refugee camp... I would at least like to see the true lessons of 'never again' enshrined in a single, consummately-inclusive Israeli-Palestinian state - a state that serves, through its unparalleled openness and respect for the rights of all its residents, as a true rebuke to the forces of hatred and genocide." Thus the one Jewish state in the world, because of the Holocaust, should be a binational non-Jewish Palestinian state. Because of the Holocaust the Jews do not deserve a state, lest they be nationalistic, because they must be held to a higher standard. THE ARGUMENT that Jews must have a special respect for human rights because of the Holocaust punishes the Jews for having been victims. It is countries that have a history of committing genocides that should have a special respect for human rights and be held to a higher standard. Victims at the very least should be like everyone else. Furthermore the insinuation that Jews, such as those from Ethiopia or Yemen, whose communities did not suffer the Holocaust deserve to be held to a higher standard is more ludicrous and forces them to live up to special standards for crimes committed far away by Europeans. One Croatian journalist told me, when explaining why she would dress modestly and visit religious Muslims in Gaza but not religious Jews in Mea She'arim: "I expect more from the Jews." Some think expecting more from people shows respect for them, but in this case it also means excusing violence against them, being unnecessarily critical of them, disrespecting their diversity and holding them to a double-standard. The writer is a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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