A call for bravery

Iranian dissident Afshin Ellian shows moral courage in Haifa.

iran man 521 (photo credit: Kobi Wolf/Irgun Olei Holland)
iran man 521
(photo credit: Kobi Wolf/Irgun Olei Holland)
"According to my opponents, I am a Jewish, even an Israeli mercenary, but I have to admit that [until] this very day I had, unfortunately, never been in Israel before,” Iranian expatriate Prof. Afshin Ellian told the crowd at the University of Haifa less than a week after the end of the IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense.
A professor of law at Leiden University in the Netherlands, Ellian is a noted expert in international law and a critic of Islam. Only 11 years old when the ayatollahs took power in his native country, he fled to Pakistan to escape political repression, later making his way to Afghanistan and eventually receiving asylum from the Dutch.
A popular commentator in the Dutch media, he was an adviser to the Committee for Ex- Muslims, a now-defunct organization that sought to facilitate the transition from religiously observant to secular for those wishing to leave behind Islamic practice.
He came to Israel as a guest of the Irgun Olei Holland (Association for Immigrants from Holland) and the Dutch Embassy in Tel Aviv to lecture on the topic of courage in dark times – during a period in which tensions between Israel and his native land are at a peak.
The timing of his speech was significant, he noted in a telephone interview just prior to his speech, since it occurred so soon after a war between Israel and Hamas, an Iranian proxy.
His lecture – part of an annual event sponsored by Leiden University, with a different professor speaking every year in a different forum around the world – was in honor of Rudolph Cleveringa, a gentile academic who stood up to the Nazis. Cleveringa was arrested and persecuted for his defense of Jewish colleagues whom the German occupiers had driven from academia. He is something of a national hero in the Netherlands and, Ellian noted in Haifa, “symbolizes resistance to tyranny and totalitarian oppression.”
Despite not being a popular man among Islamic immigrants to Europe, Ellian told the audience that he was compelled to speak out about the truth as he saw it, as Cleveringa was during the days of Nazism.
“If we care about the world and the conditions that govern it, then we are morally obligated to care about the politics that shape that world,” Ellian stated. “And if we find that we have a duty to help shape the form of politics, then by definition we must transcend ourselves, abandon our own private interests for the sake of the public realm, for the good of the polis. This demands the greatest level of courage, because the individual stops being merely the guardian of himself and instead assumes the role of the guardian of the polis.
This guardianship might even demand that his own life, his own well-being ceases to be the primary object of his duties.”
In the aftermath of a war in which many Israelis felt that the media, especially in Europe, were engaging in moral relativism, the Iranian law professor brought a message that resonated with his audience.
Recounting a recent controversy in his adopted country, he told of a Jewish butcher in the town of Geffen who wanted to erect a monument to the victims of German aggression. According to Ellian, “the local council had taken up the idea of erecting a new monument in the village that would commemorate the fallen of the war.”
However, “on this monument, the names of the German soldiers who died there during the war would also be engraved. Local supporters of this initiative demanded of the Jewish butcher that he’d tolerate that the names of his murdered ancestors would sit side-byside with those who were responsible for their murder. Henceforth, they demanded, ‘we would commemorate both equally.’” However, this was unacceptable, Ellian declared. Eventually the council backed down.
“The revision of the past and of the facts in order to conform to the new doctrines of cultural relativism will eventually lead to the revision and minimization of Cleveringa’s actions,” he said. “A world afflicted by amnesia will in the end forget what it means to have political courage. Even the ability to differ between good and evil, between terrorist and victim, between truth and untruth, requires that mankind has courage. Courage does not begin with physical courage or mental greatness, but begins with the critical ability to differentiate between certain facts and yes, even accord a certain hierarchy in morals.”
In the interview, Ellian told The Jerusalem Post that he was happy to be in a country in which diversity and tolerance were celebrated and where human rights were preserved. This, he said, stood in stark contrast to his own country, which he hoped would eventually join Israel on the path of democracy.
Summing up later that evening in Haifa, the law professor, a confirmed secularist, said that “the Torah is the book of memory. Finally I have arrived in the country where memory serves as the fountain from which courage and a joyous love for life spring forth.”