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Moves on Goldstone bar mitzvah spark brouhaha

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Talk about shul politics.

In the interest of avoiding a disruption of his grandson’s bar mitzvah, Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the Goldstone report on the 2009 Gaza war, told JTA last week that he would not attend the family simcha next month at a Johannesburg synagogue.

But in case Goldstone has any second thoughts, a leading South African Jewish group announced it is ready to protest should he show up.

“We’ll exercise our constitutional right to protest,” the chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, Avrom Krengel, told the Cape Times on Monday.

Goldstone, a respected Jewish jurist from South Africa, has been persona non grata in the pro-Israel community ever since the release of his U.N. report on the Gaza war, which found that Israel committed war crimes in its three-week war with Hamas in Gaza in 2009. Pro-Israel groups have roundly condemned the report as dangerously one-sided, and say it has helped fuel international condemnation of Israel.

Following negotiations between the Zionist federation and Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the synagogue hosting the bar mitzvah service, Goldstone said last week that “n the interests of my grandson, I’ve decided not to attend the ceremony at the synagogue.”

Krengel stressed that Goldstone had not been barred from the bar mitzvah, but that he would not be welcomed if he chose to attend.

Krengel’s position prompted a torrent of responses from around the Jewish world. Many defended Goldstone’s right to attend the bar mitzvah even as they criticized his report on the Gaza war. (See page 16.)

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House of Representatives Middle East subcommittee, wrote to Krengel that he was “appalled and utterly disgusted by reports that Judge Goldstone will not be able to attend the bar mitzvah of his grandson due to protest threats by Jewish groups in South Africa.”

Describing himself as “an unapologetic critic of the Goldstone report, and of Judge Richard Goldstone’s badly warped perspective on Israel’s right to defend itself,” Ackerman said there was “absolutely no justification or excuse for carrying legitimate opposition and criticism of Judge Goldstone’s (wretched) professional work into the halls of his family’s synagogue, much less the celebration of a 13- year-old Jewish boy’s ritual acceptance of responsible membership in the Jewish community.”

The World Union for Progressive Judaism sounded a similar note. In a statement, Rabbi Joel Oseran, vice president of international development, and Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani, chairman of the South Africa Association of Progressive Rabbis, expressed their dismay.

“While we stand with Israel in disputing some of the findings of the Goldstone Commission’s report, Judaism teaches that judgment and forgiveness are not ours to withhold or to give,” they said.

But Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag, head of South Africa’s Beth Din, or Jewish religious court, said there were strong feelings in the synagogue against Goldstone attending. He praised the arrangement wherein Goldstone would stay away on his own volition, calling it “quite a sensible thing to avert all this unpleasantness.”

Goldstone has done “a tremendous disservice not only to Israel but to the Jewish world,” Kurtstag said. “His name is used by hostile elements in the world against Israel, and this can increase anti-Semitic waves.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s representative body, said in a statement that while “certain senior Jewish communal and religious leaders were certainly involved in the discussions around the topic, in no way did they attempt to dictate to or otherwise pressurize the family into arriving at their decision.”

The statement went on, “The SAJBD strongly believes that diversity of opinion in our community needs to be tolerated and respected, whether it emanates from the left, right, or center.”

In a separate statement, the Cape Council of the Board of Deputies said it “deeply regrets that a religious milestone has been politicized and disagrees with the manner in which this matter has been handled.”

JTA

 
 

Facebook is home to a new kind of Holocaust remembrance

Anne Frank’s Facebook page looks much like any other teenage girl’s: The profile picture shows Anne leaning against a wall; her hair is tucked behind her ears; and she stares off sideways, daydreaming perhaps, a slight smirking smile lifting up the corner of her mouth.

The comments on her “wall” are typical, too.

“We share the same birthday!” and “I hate this girl.” A string of teenage commentary follows every one of the many photos that have been posted to the page. One, in which Anne is standing outside in shorts and a sunhat, elicits this remark: “she had long legs! woah! model” In response, a prepubescent boy named Ricky laments, “she did have long legs……i hate hitler.”

Whether the fact that Anne Frank has a Facebook page (one set up for “fans”) strikes you as creepy and inappropriate or as completely normal and even charming will depend largely upon your age and the number of hours you spend on a laptop each day.

But the reality is that Holocaust memorialization is moving onto social-networking sites like Facebook and presenting new opportunities for remembering the victims — and bringing a whole new set of complexities. One of the most popular and disorienting forms that this new virtual commemoration is taking is the Facebook profile. Even the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is now involved with providing information to fill out the details of some of these profile pages.

The desire to personalize the identities of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust is not new. What is novel is the combination of this desire with a platform that is premised on empowering anybody to project his or her individuality far and wide.

There’s no more successful example of this fusion than the Facebook profile page of Henio Zytomirski. A small boy who must be no more than 7 or 8 years old appears in a black-and-white photo in the box provided for a profile picture. He looks full of joyful young life. But Henio has been dead since 1942, killed in a gas chamber at the Majdanek concentration camp when he was 9. On March 25, which would have been his birthday, dozens of Facebook users wished him a happy birthday on his “wall.” As of April 12, he had 4,989 “friends.”

One element unique to Henio’s profile is that it is being used to recount a narrative of this little boy’s life. In status updates written in Polish, Henio seemingly tells his story in his own voice. On Sept. 29 of last year, for example, this entry was posted: “Winter has arrived. Every Jew must wear the Star of David with his last name. A lot has changed. German troops walk the streets. Mama says that I shouldn’t be frightened, and always that everything is just fine. Always?”

The person posting in Henio’s name — and with the knowledge of his relatives — is Piotr Buzek, a 22-year-old history student from Lublin who works at the Brama Grodzka Cultural Center. According to Facebook’s policy, profiles of people other than oneself are allowed only with permission from the profiled person or, in this case, from that individual’s family. Buzek set up Henio’s page in August 2009, and since then he has been dutifully adding “friends” and posting photos and frequent updates. The center where he works was set up to promote the multicultural heritage of Lublin and has an archive of information and material on Henio’s life. It is from this that Buzek has created his virtual identity.

Buzek doesn’t think it strange that he should be speaking in the voice of a long-deceased Holocaust victim. As he sees it, this is a way of engaging a younger generation with what he calls “our tragic history.” Focusing on Henio and in essence bringing him back to life through Facebook is his way of making the Holocaust real.

“We can’t commemorate 6 million people,” Buzek said when the Forward reached him in Lublin. “I can’t imagine this number. But I can imagine one person. This boy was one of them. I can imagine him. And if you want to feel something deeper, you should concentrate on one person. You can touch it. You can’t touch 6 million people. You can touch one.”

Henio Zytomirski’s Facebook profile got some attention for being one of the first to use the site for that purpose. More than a few people were puzzled that Facebook could become a place for memorializing.

“The thing to remember is that many of these new social-media platforms are fluid, and information posted on them is very ephemeral,” said Evgeny Morozov, a blogger and contributor for Foreign Policy magazine. “What is it about Facebook or Twitter that makes them suitable for commemoration? I can’t find anything because they are built on the opposite principle. All the most recent stuff comes first.”

Those engaged in the more traditional forms of Holocaust remembering — namely, museums and physical memorials — are mostly skeptical of this new, looser, virtual form.

David Klevan is the education manager for technology and distance learning at the Holocaust museum. He was one of the organizers of what was called an “un-conference,” a gathering last December of museum professionals partly to try to figure out how to better use new social-networking platforms in ways that don’t trivialize the content.

Klevan looks a little warily at the Facebook profile phenomenon because he worries that those posting and those reading the posts don’t have access to a full historical context. Young people respond directly and sometimes thoughtlessly to the image or words in front of them — like the photo of Anne Frank in shorts. The pieces of information presented are disconnected from a larger narrative, and in a way that does not allow for any follow-up questions or further study.

“We prefer to maintain as much of the context as possible,” Klevan said. “If people are going to learn the stories of the victims, it’s preferable that they have easy access to supporting information and also being aware of where the content is being encountered.”

But the Holocaust museum has been providing information on the individual stories of victims to a Website called footnote.com, an online service that is trying to digitize historical documents and use them to create virtual memorialization projects. One of the service’s bigger endeavors is a complete online simulacrum of the Vietnam Wall Memorial, where information can be added to fill out the identities of those who died. Footnote.com has used the information provided by the Holocaust museum to create 600 Facebook profiles for Holocaust victims.

Unlike Henio’s profile, the Facebook pages created by footnote.com are different than the pages that individuals make for themselves. But they do still have all the usual features — a profile picture and a “wall” where pictures and comments can be posted, and attempt to do the same thing: create a virtual space for the individual victim to emerge.

“Our running tagline has been, “History is biography,’ “ said Chris Willis, vice president of social media for footnote.com. “If we are changing the form that that biography is being presented, it is only to make it more accessible. It’s going to make it easier for people to add more information about a life, maybe even add the kind of information that will help that life seem more unique and, in the end, much more compelling.”

This story first appeared at Forward.com.

 
 

South African museum to juxtapose Holocaust with Rwandan genocide

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These architectural rendering shows the exterior of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. “Khumbula” is the Zulu word for remember. Lewis Levin

At a South African Holocaust museum that plans to open late next year in Johannesburg, the Holocaust will be featured beside a more local genocide: the Rwandan violence of 1994.

The inclusion of the African mass murder is not a mere gesture toward political correctness in what will be the third Holocaust museum in Africa. Rather it will be an integral part of the planned Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre.

“The Rwandan section is a prominent part of the permanent exhibition, not an afterthought,” said center director Tali Nates. “It will be a shared museum.”

The message the juxtaposition sends is stark: that the Holocaust, and remembrance of it, did not prevent another genocide from occurring. Even in Africa it’s not a message that naturally occurs to the Jews here, Nates said.

“I don’t think that as South Africans and as Jewish South Africans we actually made the connection,” Nates said. “You cannot look at the story without remembering that as a South African, you need to make the connection to Rwanda, to the continent of Africa, and to the fact that genocide, sadly, did not stop after the Holocaust.

“So I could not, in 2010-11, establish a Holocaust exhibition within South Africa without looking at Africa,” she said.

The museum will combine survivors’ testimonies with documents, photographs, film, interactive exhibits, text, and artifacts. The exhibition space will take visitors on a route starting with exhibits on racism in general to the South African experience during apartheid to survivor accounts. There will be a memorial courtyard, an exhibition on the Rwandan genocide and an area dedicated to issues facing South Africans today, such as xenophobia.

To include South African voices in the exhibition on the Holocaust, seven local Holocaust survivors and Pretoria resident Jaap van Proosdij, who saved dozens of Jews, have been interviewed.

For the Rwanda section, the center is collaborating with museums and nongovernmental organizations in Rwanda, Britain, and the United States. The exhibit will tell the story not only of the killings, which took the lives of some 800,000 people, but little-known stories of those who rescued Tutsis from the violence.

The museum is receiving significant help from Proof, a U.S.-based organization that interviews rescuers in former hot spots such as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia.

Describing the Rwandan exhibit, Nates said, “It will be a sizable exhibit with moving images, with color, and we will use a lot of the voices of the victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and rescuers.”

As the Holocaust exhibit covers the 12-year period from 1933 to 1945, compared to the less-detailed 100 days of the Rwandan genocide, the Nazi exhibit will be larger.

“It’s not a competition in size of story, it’s not a competition in suffering,” Nates said. “It is about the human connection between the ‘Never again’ that we said after the Holocaust and the ‘Again and again’ that sadly we experienced in the 20th century.”

The Rwandan story resonates particularly in South Africa, which emerged from decades of apartheid just as the Rwandan genocide took place. Indeed, South Africa’s experience with apartheid will form a substantial part of the introduction to the Rwandan exhibition.

South Africa is the only country in Africa where the teaching of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are part of the national curriculum. The center is committed to assisting this education and has been doing so since its establishment in temporary premises in 2008.

Like the country’s two other Holocaust centers, in Cape Town and Durban, the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre plans to bring in scholars and train educators.

“Our hope is that our education efforts will lead to growing awareness, intervention, and prevention” of xenophobia within South Africa, Nates said.

Architect Lewis Levin is designing the museum. African stone, readily available in the Gauteng province in which the museum will be located, will be incorporated with concrete and steel.

The visual effect will evoke not only wreckage and destruction but also trees in a forest. Levin says the imagery is deliberate.

“If you visit the death camps, the fragments of mangled steel that have remained and of forests surrounding the precincts are strong visual associations,” he said.

The split-level, 9,000 square-foot center will be comprised of two buildings connected by a bridging structure and public areas. The first floor will house the permanent exhibition, while the second floor will include administration offices, a temporary exhibition space, a lecture hall, and a resource center.

At street level, the double-volume foyer will be dominated by a wall of clear glazing interspersed with illustrations drawn by children in the Theresienstadt ghetto during the Holocaust. There will be an area for reflection inside and outside in the form of the memorial garden to victims of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.

In the displays, the museum will include explanations in South Africa’s indigenous languages, such as Zulu and Xhosa, in addition to Hebrew and English. At the entrance will be a memorial light with “Z’chor,” the Hebrew word for “remember,” alongside words for remembrance in other African languages, including Kinyarwanda, the language spoken in Rwanda.

The Johannesburg center is being funded by the South African Holocaust Foundation, which funds the programs and determines the educational and philosophical direction of all three Holocaust centers in the country. The new center is also partnering with the city of Johannesburg to place the museum in a prominent site in the heart of the city — on Jan Smuts Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, near other museums and its main universities.

The property, which will be leased to the museum at minimal cost, originally belonged to the Bernberg sisters, Jewish sisters who had a fashion museum there and bequeathed the site to the city on condition that it be used as a museum or art gallery.

Nates, a native of Israel who married a South African and has lived here for 25 years, is an internationally regarded scholar on the Holocaust and a child of survivors. Her father and uncle were on Schindler’s list; much of the rest of her family was murdered at the Belzec death camp.

JTA

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This illustration of two survivors living in South Africa — Rwandan Xavier Ngabo and Warsaw Ghetto survivor Irene Klass — is being used as part of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre’s media launch. Ilan Ossendryver
 
 
 
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