Sunday, 3 August 2014

“Does the Israeli collective memory not recall the evil of collective punishment?”

The second world war was a terrible time for Jewish people in Germany and other allied countries in Europe. There is no denying that. Now, children across Europe are being taught about the holocaust, about how and why the Nazi dictatorship built ghettos, concentration camps and eventually extermination camps like Auschwitz. They are being taught this, “lest we forget;” to make sure it never happens again.

Yet now we find that it is not us, but the State of Israel itself that is in danger of forgetting. As the wonderful and compassionate Rodney Bickerstaffe, ex General Secretary of UNISON asked, after the terrible assault on the UN school last week, “Does the Israeli collective memory not recall the evil of collective punishment?”

A very good question.

This is what the History Learning site says about the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in Europe. “....  all the Jews in Warsaw and the surrounding areas had to live in specified areas within the city boundaries. To begin with it is thought that about 400,000 Jews were forced to live within the ghetto. The area allocated to the Jews represented less than 3% of the whole city. With such numbers crammed into such a small space, conditions were extremely difficult. The ghetto was sealed off to the outside world on November 16th 1940.”

Sound familiar at all?

It goes on to talk about the use of tunnels so that the children could smuggle in food to help the people survive, hospitals that were short of the most basic medicines, and schools deemed to be illegal as they taught about Jewish culture, religion and heritage. A description of the most awful treatment of ordinary civilians who had done nothing more than be part of an ethnic group that the Nazis wanted rid of.

We read that following a rebellion by a small group of those living in the ghetto, a large force of soldiers entered the ghetto. Within four days they had gained control of most of the ghetto and in the process destroyed whole blocks of buildings and killed anyone who they saw.

Sound familiar at all?

It is thought that over 55,000 people were killed during the uprising. There were those who used the city’s sewage system to hide in. They were drowned when the Nazis deliberately flooded the system.  The ghetto was levelled. Those left alive were sent to Treblinka where they were killed.

Terrible terrible times. Times that should never be recreated. The life’s work of many Jewish people, some of them holocaust survivors, to make sure that such things never ever happen again.

And yet here we are. Israel itself repeating the sins of the past, doing unto others as had been done unto them. How can this be? And how can so many western governments including our own, be standing by and allowing it to happen again?

What more do we need to see? Civilians massacred, schools and hospitals bombed, civilian casualties reaching into the tens of hundreds, almost 400 children killed. A slaughter of the innocents indeed. Palestinian people already trying to live under occupation, like the Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto, denied basic essentials, denied basic rights, denied basic freedoms by the Israeli blockade.

Hospitals already operating in challenging circumstances now woefully short of the basic necessities and, against all tenets of international law, suffering Israeli bombardment. Whole buildings, peoples homes, razed to the ground leaving thousands homeless.

My friend has reminded me that many many Jewish people around the world  utterly condemn the actions of Israel and also speak out against them. She rightly reminds me  that this is not about Judaism but about Zionism and the two must not be conflated.

And it is the case that many brave Jewish Israelis speak out against the blockade and the “collective punishment” of the Gazan people. However, a reported 90% support it, and I ask myself, “How can they? How can they bear for other people to go through what their grandparents and great grandparents suffered, and to suffer it at their hands?”
Hamas fires rockets at Israel for the same reason that that small group of Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up against the Nazis in 1943. Because they could no longer bear the “imprisonment” and the treatment of their people and because they feared that the real intent of the Nazis was to wipe them out.

You only have to look at the changing map of Palestine since the 1950s to see that, for the Palestinian people, this fear is not without basis .

But Israel deals with the rockets. Two civilians have died in Israel. The rest soldiers. We mourn all deaths but this must be compared with the superior fire power of Israel, the massacre of over 1700 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and almost a quarter children.

Israel is the aggressor here, just as surely as Nazi Germany and its allies were the aggressors against the Jews during World War 2. The rest of the Western world rallied round to oppose Nazi Germany back then, now it must rally round Palestine and put pressure on Israel to withdraw from Gaza, to end the collective punishment and the slaughter of innocent people, and to end the blockade.

It is time for Israel to reflect on its own past and to learn the lessons from it; and for the international community to take steps to put an end to history repeating itself in this awful and barbaric manner.

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