A legacy of conscience

Anthropologist Dr. Tova Benski has found a surprising relationship between women's peace activism and the Holocaust.

Four Mothers vigil 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Four Mothers vigil 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Not very long ago, anthropology was a sensible, straightforward social science with theories that were easy to understand and research methods that were relatively clear-cut. Back in the "classic" period of the profession, an anthropologist - usually male, Western and white - journeyed to some faraway place to study people who were not Western and non-white, who spoke a strange language and followed exotic customs. And while the primitive living conditions often made the study of these remote people physically very difficult, the total initial "strangeness" of the people was actually helpful for research. With everything around him wild, weird and wonderful - bodies covered with tattoos, elongated earlobes, bones through noses, plate lips, peculiar facial expressions, incomprehensible hand gestures and a language that sounded like coughing - the anthropologist was certain to be alert, to pay attention to everything, to write everything down in his ever-present little notebook, and analyze everything he saw and heard. By the time the people he was living with no longer seemed "strange" or "exotic," when everything about them now seemed perfectly normal and commonplace, and when he could speak the local language so well that he was actually dreaming in it at night, the anthropologist knew it was time to go home, write his book and climb the academic ladder from assistant to associate professor. For modern-day urban anthropologists, however, life is a little more complicated. Anthropologists now often find themselves studying people who are a lot like themselves, who speak the same language, come from the same cultural background and share similar or identical values. Anthropologists today thus often run the risk of overlooking significant and crucial patterns of behavior, precisely because the people they are studying seem so "normal," so "ordinary" or, in other words, so much like them. This was the problem that Dr. Tova Benski was fortunately able to overcome. Now chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department at the College of Management in Rishon Lezion, Benski had been studying women's peace movements in Israel for almost 20 years when she began to notice a strong and surprising relationship between women's peace activism and the Holocaust. Specifically, she was surprised at how many of the most active women in peace movements were daughters of Holocaust survivors. Benski, 61, was herself born in Romania to Holocaust survivors - a mother who survived Auschwitz and a father who had been interned in a forced labor camp. She came to Israel with her parents in 1951 at the age of three. "I could kick myself for not noticing it earlier," she tells In Jerusalem. "Being a second-generation Holocaust survivor myself, I should have picked up on the references to the Holocaust in the discourse of women peace activists - all the comments about learning a lesson from the Holocaust and protecting human rights." It was, she says, precisely because of that background that she had missed the similarity because in the world of Holocaust survivors, that kind of talk and those kinds of references are not only normal but permeate all kinds of conversations and daily discourse. "This is the problem of the anthropologist who tries to study his own culture," Benski says. "The traditional anthropologist, studying remote tribes far away, had to learn how to make the strange seem normal. The modern anthropologist, however, has had to learn how to make the normal seem strange." Benski's discovery was preceded by years of research. "I've been studying women's peace movements in Israel, and I've been in the field on and off since 1985," she says. Benski began her research while at Bar-Ilan University, collaborating with Dr. Chaya Bareli. "We started our studies with the first known women's peace movement, which was Mothers Against the War in Lebanon. That was the very first one that appeared, and it signaled what was to come later on. In 1988, a feminization of peace protests occurred, with quite a number of women's peace groups appearing on the scene, such as Women in Black and the Women's Peace Network and other peace initiatives like Women for Political Prisoners." Particularly noteworthy is Women in Black. Formed in Jerusalem during the first intifada, the group's members called attention to their cause by dressing in black and holding "vigils" in memory of all victims of the spreading violence. At its peak, the movement sparked more than 30 vigils in locations throughout Israel. Chapters of Women in Black also began to form in other countries, including the United States, first in solidarity with the group in Israel and later to address local political issues in their respective countries. At present there are an estimated 10,000 Women in Black activists around the world. The appearance of these groups, Benski says, signaled a wave of women's peace activism that lasted until the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, when it seemed that peace was at hand. "They were for peace, so there was no more need for peace movements. This is what they thought. And only when it became clear that the peace process was crumbling, around 1998 to 2000, the second wave of women's peace activism started. It started in 1998 but really picked up in 2000, when the second intifada started." Was the second wave of peace activism like the one that preceded it? "It was more radical than the first one," Benski says. "It contained movements that questioned things that had not been questioned before in Israel. An example of these was New Profile, which questioned compulsory army service and focused on cultural militarism in Israeli society. There were also the women at Machsom Watch, who since 2001 have been monitoring the behavior and actions of the soldiers at the checkpoints. This wave has changed the internal balance within the peace movement and within the women's peace camp." Benski's ultimate epiphany about the role of the Holocaust in the women's peace movement came in 2002, when she began to do what anthropologists call "participant observation" of the Women in Black in Haifa. As she stood with the women during their vigils, she was surprised at the insults being hurled at them by onlookers and passersby. "People were shouting things like 'Your mother was a kapo,' 'Go back to Poland' and even 'It's too bad that Hitler didn't finish the job.'" But even more compelling were the comments about the women aiding Israel's enemies and bringing on another Holocaust, which led Benski to take a deeper look at the women participating in Israeli peace movements and a broader look at the Holocaust. "I found two things that are very important toward understanding the women active in women's peace movements in Israel," Benski recalls. "The first thing - and I found it in 1993 and paid no attention - Chaya Bareli and I distributed questionnaires to women who were active in the women's peace movement and got 134 back. The results showed that 70 to 80 percent of the respondents were born after World War II. These were middle-aged women, who grew up in Israel at a time when the collective memory of the Holocaust was formed - the Eichmann trial, the Kastner trial, etc. - and the general conception [in Israel] of the Holocaust was constructed. They were children when the Holocaust started to be discussed in schools. The second thing [I found] was that these were middle-aged Ashkenazi women. This meant that they were either second-generation Holocaust survivors, like myself, or were from families that had Holocaust victims. Very few [Jewish] people born after World War II in Europe or America were without family ties to the Holocaust and without any private or collective conception of the Holocaust." Conditioned, she says, by mainstream Israeli sociology to look for other correlations - such as high income and education levels - to explain the participation of middle-aged Ashkenazi women in peace movements, Benski was surprised at this unexpected relationship between these movements and the Holocaust. Once attuned to this theme, however, Benski began to notice spoken references to the Holocaust at meetings, rallies, conferences and other gatherings. After listening to enough speakers declare that it was important for us "not to be like the Germans," as well as frequent references to concentration camps, "The penny started to drop. I returned to my notes of previous interviews with women peace activists and realized that the issue of the Shoah came up more often than I had initially realized," she recalls. How often? What percentage of women in peace movements are the daughters of Holocaust survivors and what percentage of daughters of Holocaust survivors are activists for peace? "I don't work with quantitative measures. My work is anthropological, which means that I'm looking for themes, not for statistics," she notes. Why the Holocaust? "There is an acknowledgement in social sciences today that the Holocaust and the collective memory of the Holocaust is a constitutive event in Israeli society. It was one of the legitimizing factors for the establishment of the state and for the perception that we need a Jewish state and that we have to have a strong Jewish state, with a powerful military. Because there are only two options: a strong military or Treblinka - strength or annihilation. This is the basis of our hegemonic discourse. And this is how the memory of the Holocaust has been ingrained in our consciousness. "And one thing that we have drawn from that central event is the idea of a historical continuity - starting with ancient Egypt and ending here in the present day - of unifying the 'enemy' from different historical periods. It's the idea that in every generation there shall arise those who want to destroy us. As Yitzhak Rabin said, there will always be attempts to eliminate us, and we need to remember that such a plan is not impossible. Another Holocaust could happen again, and we need to have a strong state and a strong army. Menachem Begin always said that we must always be prepared for such a situation. There has been a Right-to-Left political consensus about this since the State of Israel was founded. In addition to this 'unification of the enemy,' there has been the premise of us being the eternal victim. We have always been the victims; we continue to be the victims." Which brings us to the central question of why the daughters of Holocaust victims should be drawn toward peace movements, instead of accepting the general - and many would say more logical - lesson from the Holocaust: that the future of the Jewish state demands strength. Why would women from such a background join the left-wing Women in Black instead of, say, the right-wing Women in Green, a group that also makes frequent reference to the Holocaust in virtually all of its discourse? Benski explains, "The women in these peace movements combine three different sets of values. The first is universalistic humanistic values. The second is left-wing political values, and the third is feminism. The combination of these three is what made the difference." Those three value systems, Benski says, have converged to form an ideology that sets the mainstream lessons from the Holocaust on their heads. "Rather than subscribe to a unified idea of the historical 'enemy,' these women are putting a specific, particular face on the Palestinians. They are saying that these people are human beings, that these people are our neighbors. And rather than adopt the usual idea of perpetual Jewish victimhood, these women are saying, 'We don't want to be the oppressors. We don't want to do to anyone what was done to us.'" Benski stresses, perhaps a bit disingenuously, that the women in these peace movements do not equate "occupation" with "Holocaust." "These women don't say that what's happening in the Palestinian territories is a holocaust. They don't say that. They're just super-sensitive to any violations of human rights because of the Holocaust." Some women, however, do appear to draw somewhat clearer comparisons. Benski quotes Michal Pundak Sagi, a member of Machsom Watch, as saying, "Sometimes I feel like those German women, standing next to the kitchen sink, washing their dishes while looking out the window, watching the trains carrying their human loads passing by. And they continued washing their dishes in complete apathy. I'm not prepared to be such a person." Another expression of this attitude comes from Chava Keller, 80, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from Lodz and fled with her mother from German- to Russian-occupied Poland in 1939. After joining the fight for the State of Israel in 1948, Keller became disillusioned, she says, when the new country failed to welcome back Arab refugees and obliterated abandoned Arab villages. A role-model peace activist for more than 50 years, Keller says, "The Holocaust is the most important thing that happened in my life. Everything in my life is in some way connected to it. There are two ways of thinking about the Holocaust. You can say, 'It must never happen again.' Or you can say, 'It must never happen again - to us.' I think that it must never happen again to anyone. The Holocaust was the most horrible thing that you can imagine. But you can't stop a holocaust for just one people. You must stop it for everyone. And here and now, the victims are the Palestinians." Benski describes her own political orientation as "center-Left." "I voted for Tzipi Livni," she says. "I have to do retrospection and try to see whether my analysis is affected by my own biography. That is why everything that I write and everything that I do and everything that I try to analyze I am giving to my colleagues." Thus far, she says, the reactions of her colleagues have validated her analyses. "I showed my colleagues - my male colleagues - the data. And they actually saw more of a connection between the Holocaust and women's peace movements than I did." Benski says that she also takes occasional breaks from her work to emotionally distance herself from her research, doing so whenever she feels that she's losing her professional objectivity - another hazard awaiting the anthropologist who studies his or her own culture. "Every time I feel like I'm losing myself as a researcher, I step aside for a little while," Benski says. "That's why I say that I've been in the field since 1985, on and off." As we prepare for this year's Holocaust Remembrance Day, two things seem more or less certain. The Holocaust will continue to be, in Benski's words, a major "constitutive event" in Israeli culture and society. It will apparently also serve as an enduring historical lesson from which people will continue to draw sharply different conclusions.