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Evolution of International Holocaust Day reflects changing times

ROME – On the same day next week, Israeli President Shimon Peres will address the German Parliament and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel will appear before a special session of the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome.

The timing is not coincidental.

The events are focal points of international Holocaust Memorial Day, an annual observance on the anniversary of the Soviet army’s Jan. 27, 1945, liberation of Auschwitz, which is marked by the United Nations and more than two dozen individual countries.

Each year, hundreds of events take place on or near that date. Britain, Italy, and Germany have particularly extensive programs.

“There is a great sensitivity to this theme on both the local and institutional levels,” said Alessandro Ruben, a Jewish Italian member of parliament in Italy, where Holocaust Memorial Day has been marked since 2001. “Every year there are more and more events connected with it, including many, many educational initiatives in schools.”

The nature of the commemorations is a reflection of the times, too.

While most Holocaust Memorial Day initiatives are linked directly to the memory and impact of the Nazi genocide against the Jews, there is increasing emphasis on what the experience of the Holocaust can teach in the face of other genocides and persecution, such as those in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Darfur. World War II-era persecution of Roma (Gypsies) and gays also is examined.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs, said the shift in focus is to be expected.

“For Jews,” he said, the Holocaust “was a unique and unprecedented tragedy. But national and international commemoration events by their nature also stress the universal lessons that should be drawn from the event. As survivors and other eyewitnesses pass from our midst, those universal expressions naturally grow larger.”

At the same time, pro-Palestinian groups are trying to transform the international day of remembrance into an opportunity to criticize Israel.

Last year, for example, to protest Israel’s military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, a British Muslim organization boycotted events in Britain, and the local government in Barcelona canceled a public candlelighting as part of the Holocaust Day commemoration.

“Marking the Jewish Holocaust while a Palestinian Holocaust is taking place is not right,” said a statement by an official, described as a representative of Barcelona City Hall, quoted in the La Vanguardia newspaper.

The move drew an outraged response from Britain’s Board of Deputies, the body that represents British Jews.

“The conflict between Israel and Hamas should have absolutely no bearing on a day which represents the global fight against hatred,” board spokesman Mark Frazer said.

“Apart from the obvious flawed logic in making the decision, this is an affront to all Holocaust survivors and to the memory of the millions of victims. This move should draw criticism in the strongest terms from all parts of the Spanish government.”

Though Germany has marked a Holocaust memorial day on Jan. 27 since 1996, the impetus for the observance in most countries came from a landmark Holocaust education forum that took place in Stockholm in 2000, a decade after the fall of communism enabled an uncensored exploration of history. In most communist states, Jewish issues had been suppressed and study or commemoration of the Shoah had been limited.

At the Stockholm Forum, leaders from 46 countries pledged to promote education and research about the Holocaust, and to “encourage appropriate forms of Holocaust remembrance, including an annual Day of Holocaust Remembrance.”

Most participating countries chose Jan. 27, given the importance of Auschwitz as a symbol of the Holocaust, and the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 designated the date as an International Day of Commemoration to honor the victims of the Holocaust.

But a number of countries chose dates that reflected Holocaust events on their own territory.

In Poland, for example, it is April 19, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Romania chose Oct. 9, the date when deportations of Jews by the Nazi-allied Romanian government began in 1941.

The institution of Holocaust Memorial Day has not been without its critics. Some have voiced concern that institutionalizing Holocaust memory as an official date in a calendar risked turning commemoration into a cliché.

By and large, however, this does not seem to be the case.

“Consider how other historical events are remembered,” said Baker, who is also the representative for combating anti-Semitism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Veterans Day in the United States seems primarily marked by department store sales, for example. In contrast, the Holocaust is recalled seriously and soberly.”

He added, “While I do not want to sound overly sanguine, I don’t think we should fear that the memory of the Holocaust will disappear or that Holocaust deniers will find new adherents.

“These last 20 years have witnessed a steady increase in educational and commemorative activities. And Holocaust denial is primarily a cudgel wielded by anti-Semites and haters of Israel, not something that is genuinely debated in any legitimate forum.”

Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University historian who has written widely about the phenomenon of Holocaust denial, said she was “gratified as a historian that there is this attention to this event that is now in the past, especially as the survivor generation is passing.”

But, she said, “One hopes that there is attention in a deeper way: to examine how this emerged and happened, while the world stood silently by.”

JTA

 
 

Jewish leaders caught between criticizing, defending Obama

WASHINGTON – With anxiety over the White House’s Middle East policy mounting in some pro-Israel circles, several Jewish organizational leaders have found themselves in a discomfiting position: criticizing the Obama administration in public while stridently defending the president in private against the most extreme attacks.

It’s an upside-down version of what pro-Israel groups usually do: lavishing praise on the U.S. government of the day for sustaining the “unbreakable bond” while making their criticisms known quietly, behind closed doors.

News Analysis

The criticism has come in the form of mostly polite statements and newspaper ads questioning Obama administration pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, particularly regarding building in eastern Jerusalem. Such criticisms are voiced as well in private meetings with administration officials.

The defense comes up in dealings with irate donors and constituents, in phone calls, e-mails, addresses to small Jewish groups, shul talk. The theme of the complaints is consistent, and shocking, said multiple leaders, who all spoke off the record, and reflect the subterranean rumblings about the president heard during the campaign: His sympathy lies with the Muslims, he doesn’t care about Israel, he’s an anti-Semite.

The Jewish Federations of North America is sufficiently concerned about the phenomenon to have convened a “fly-in” of Jewish organizational leaders to Washington for an as yet unannounced date in May. The leaders will meet with White House, State Department, and congressional officials, in part to “to convey concerns about U.S.-Israel relations” — but also, insiders say, to allay those concerns.

One recent flood of anxious queries followed the Obama administration’s announcement earlier this month of its long-awaited nuclear policy. The reality of the policy was a pledge not to threaten with nuclear weapons those nations that provably disavow their nuclear weapons capability. Nations that continued to maintain a threatening nuclear posture, the policy made clear, would still face the prospect of a U.S. nuclear response should they attack the United States or its allies.

Obama named Iran as such a nation.

Yet instead of being reassured, donors and members of national Jewish groups flooded Jewish leaders with anxious queries about a posture that they interpreted as being aimed at embracing a nuclear Iran and forcing Israel to abandon its own reported nuclear capability.

Another persistent — and unfounded — rumor has it that Obama removed the phrase “Next Year in Jerusalem” from the White House seder in March.

“Where the ____ are they getting this?” asked a senior official at an organization that has been publicly critical of Obama since last summer.

Angst was stoked, too, when Obama spoke last week of peacemaking throughout the world necessitated by the cost of “American blood and treasure” through involvement in conflicts. It didn’t help that a New York Times analysis suggested the president had said that the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace threatened U.S. troops in other parts of the globe — even though the transcript of Obama’s remarks did not bear out any such linkage and Obama administration officials flatly denied one existed.

Jewish officials said a share of the blame lay with the Obama administration, partly for not adequately reaching out to Jews and to Israel, and partly because of the emergence of what appears to be internecine policy wars.

“The real story of The New York Times story is not that he’s changing Israel policy,” said another leader of an organization that has not been shy about criticizing the Obama administration. “The real story is, why are officials leaking” misrepresentations of his policy “to The New York Times?”

On the other side, one leader blamed the Netanyahu government for sending mixed signals on how to handle the tensions between Israel and the United States over settlement policy.

“Some are saying quiet is the best answer and others are saying loud noise is the best answer,” the Jewish organizational official said.

The official cited reports that Netanyahu personally approved public letters — from Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and Elie Wiesel, the internationally known Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate — criticizing Obama’s demand for a halt in Jerusalem building.

Despite mounting criticism by some Jewish leaders, polls show that Obama’s support among Jews in general remains strong. His backing has dropped from astronomical highs after he was elected, but remains about 10 points stronger than in the general population. Moreover, to the degree that it has eroded, the dissatisfaction with Obama appears to have more to do with unhappiness over his handling of health care and the economy than it does Israel.

Those who are expressing their concerns, however, are among the most active members of the pro-Israel community and help set the tone for the trilateral U.S.-Israel-Jewish leadership ties. Some are acquiring their information from anti-Obama e-mail blasts and consistently partisan critics of Obama.

Richard Baehr, writing in the conservative online magazine The American Thinker, cited The New York Times’ misreading of Obama’s remarks in arguing that “this president is the greatest threat to the strategic alliance of the U.S. and Israel since the founding of the modern Jewish state in 1948.”

McLaughlin & Associates, a GOP polling firm, touted signs last week that Jewish support for Obama was eroding, but the survey questions were premised on shaky assertions. One question posited that Obama would support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence, although U.S. officials have consistently said they would oppose such a move. Another suggested that Obama was ready to force Israel to give up the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, although there has been no such pressure.

Administration defenders cite signs suggesting that beyond the settlement rhetoric, the relationship is improving: Obama has increased defense cooperation, for instance, and strategic consultations between officials of both nations are more frequent than they have been in a decade.

“Our bond with Israel is unshakable and unbreakable both as it relates to security, as it relates to a common set of values and also as a common strategic vision because the threats to Israel are similar to some of the threats the United States faces,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, said Monday on Bloomberg TV.

Jewish leaders welcome such reassurances but say they are made defensively, and repeatedly call on the Obama administration to become proactive.

Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s chief Jewish proxy during the election and now heads the Center for Middle East Peace, suggested a more proactive posture was in the offing.

“Actions in the next several months will begin to reflect it,” he told JTA.

Notably, Emanuel held a behind-closed-doors meeting Tuesday with a group of leading Orthodox rabbis.

Meantime, Jewish leaders are walking a tightrope trying to balance traditional deference to the administration with concerns over the tensions. They also object to what they see as the unwarranted pressure on Netanyahu as opposed to relatively little pressure on the Palestinians to join talks that Israel has embraced with enthusiasm. Israel, they hasten to argue, remains America’s best friend in the region.

Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, made the Israel-is-our-best-friend case last week at Israel Independence Day celebrations, sharing the stage with Obama’s top political adviser, David Axelrod.

“Israel stood by America in spirit and in action after the tragic events of 9/11,” Rosenberg said. “As both our great nations fight the same scourge of terrorism and Islamic extremism, it is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world.”

The Wiesel and Lauder letters offered a suggestive contrast over how to handle the tensions.

Wiesel’s critique was oblique, not naming Obama, and deferred to U.S. orthodoxy that a final-status agreement must accommodate Palestinian claims to the city.

“What is the solution?” Wiesel asked. “Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be.”

Lauder, by contrast, directly addressed Obama and suggested that the president was sacrificing Israel to improve relations with the Muslim world.

“The administration’s desire to improve relations with the Muslim world is well known,” said Lauder, an active Republican. “But is friction with Israel part of this new strategy? Is it assumed worsening relations with Israel can improve relations with Muslims?”

One of the Jewish leaders said the contrast was instructive.

“For all intents and purposes, the WJC’s relationship with the White House ended last week,” he said of the group Lauder heads. “That’s not a relationship that pro-Israel groups can afford to have over the next couple of years.”

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has publicly criticized the administration on several Israel-related fronts. Still, he said, Jewish leaders have a responsibility to defend the president “when talking to those who accuse him of being an enemy of Israel or a Muslim.”

“For many years, you had a lot of Jews who didn’t vote for President Bush who would say, ‘I don’t like Bush but I love what he’s doing on Israel,’” Foxman said.

“Now the paradigm is changing. A lot of Jews are saying, ‘I like Obama, but I don’t like what he is doing on Israel.”

Foxman added that the most frequent question he hears when speaking to Jewish audiences is whether Obama is a friend of Israel.

“I say yes — but what’s wrong is the implementation of what he promised. What’s flawed is the strategy, not the goal,” Foxman said.

The ADL leader quickly added that despite promises to learn from past mistakes, the administration’s handling of Israel-related issues is “going from bad to worse.”

JTA

 
 

A plea for Jonathan Pollard

 

Area marks Yom HaShoah

UJA: ‘We must make sure every child learns about the Shoah’

image
Nachum Mester of Wanaque lights a candle as his daughter Zahava Trosten and his son Isaak look on. Charles Zusman

Survivors, family and friends gathered Sunday at The Frisch School for a Holocaust memorial, but while they were physically in Paramus, their attention was focused thousands of miles away, on Auschwitz, where the annual March of the Living was taking place.

Originally the “march of death,” from Auschwitz to the death camp at Birkenau, now it’s the March of the Living, said Wallace Greene, a member of the Holocaust Committee of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, the gathering’s sponsor. He noted that 10,000 youngsters take part, most (but not all) of them Jewish.

Unfortunately, bad weather in Poland prevented much of a planned live telecast from Auschwitz from getting through, but recorded speeches by Elie Wiesel, and then Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Major Jewish Organizations, were displayed on the large screen.

Some video did make it through, however, and the audience saw live images of youngsters gathered at Auschwitz, and a song performed by Dudu Fischer.

Meanwhile, the ceremony in Paramus was emotional in its own right. Youngsters in the audience carried 68 candles, commemorating the 68th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The candles were lined up on the stage in front of the screen displaying the images from Auschwitz. Song was provided by the Frisch Concert Choir under Scott Stein.

Survivors honored at the Paramus event were Lilly Veron of Fair Lawn, who was born in Hungary and survived the war in work camps in Vienna; Jack Rosen of Fair Lawn, born in Poland, who survived Auschwitz; and Stella Baum of Fort Lee, born in Poland, who survived the war hiding in the woods.

Also honored were Abe Klein of Fair Lawn, born in Poland, who survived a roundup in Lublin; Rae Nutkiewicz, born in Poland, who was taken by her mother to the Russian zone and survived the war in Siberia: and Nachum Mester of Wanaque, born in Moldova, under a bush, he said, after the train deporting his mother was bombed.

Alan Scharfstein, UJA-NNJ’s president, spoke of the event’s lasting message. “Our purpose is not just to tell the story,” he said, but also to “ensure that the story becomes part of the DNA of the Jewish people, and part of the collective DNA of all humanity.”

There is a long way to go to reach that goal, he said, but the annual remembrance is a step in that direction.

Greene spoke of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and other acts of rebellion. “Jews did fight back,” he said. “Despite overwhelming odds … they fought back in many ways. By retaining their humanity and refusing to be dehumanized by the Nazis, by acts of kindness to one another, even in the camps, by acts of piety, by acts of nobility … even in the darkest holes of evil and horror that they experienced.”

“We are grateful to be living in America. We are grateful to the survivor community; they are our living witnesses,” he continued. “For the dead, and for the living, we too must be witnesses,” Greene said.

“We must guarantee that the next generation will know what happened,” he said, “We must make sure that every child learns about the Shoah” so that their children will know what happened when there are no longer any surviving witnesses.

David Machlis of Englewood, the vice chair of the International March of the Living, conceived the idea of the live telecast, Greene said. Co-chairs for the Paramus event were Rosalind Melzer and Allyn Michaelson.

Greene said the hope is for more youngsters to take part in the March for the Living, saying that the “powerful experience” strengthens their identity as Jews, bringing “a stronger feeling for Jewish continuity,” and he appealed for donations for the program.

Greene said that the non-Jewish participants in the March of the Living “are more likely to take part in social justice activities. They are more likely to take action against discrimination.”

Wiesel opened his pre-recorded address with a question: How can people, the Nazis, reach such depths? “We have learned that racism is stupid and anti-Semitism is a disgrace,” he said.

“Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness. We must never allow our past to become our children’s future.”

Hoenlein continued that thread. “We remember [in order] to spare future generations of the trials of the past,” he said. “Judaism puts an emphasis on life. We look back in order to look forward.”

He cited the lessons of the 1930s, when Nazism was on the rise, but said there are differences now — there is the State of Israel and there is an Israel Defense Forces. “We must determine our future course” and not let our enemies do so, he said.

However, he said, the “big lie” still works, and “messages of hate” now spread faster than in the ‘30s. He cited the anti-Israel stance of Iran, the tragedy of Darfur, the recent murders of an Israeli family, and the fact that “the world is silent” in the face of these. “We have to speak out against indifference to us and to others,” he said.

 
 
 
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