Sunday, February 28, 2010

Changing Face in Poland

Adam Lach for The New York Times

There’s an interesting piece in the New York Times this week about a former Polish neo-Nazi who discovered his Jewish roots as an adult and now has become ultra-Orthodox. As he acknowledges in the article, “he was drawn to extremes.”

The piece brings up more questions than it answers. First of all, there is no discussion about how Pawel (or Pinchas), this article’s protagonist, has been received by the Orthodox community. How do they feel about having a former neo-Nazi in their midst? Have they seen this kind of conversion before? And does Pawel feel like he has been accepted by this community that he used to hate? Moreover, the article talks about his now being the subject of anti-Semitism taunts. How does he respond? Is he involved with any type of outreach to try and affect how Jews are seen in Poland?

Second of all, there was little discussion of why he became a skinhead in the first place. The journalist writes that Pawel used neo-Nazism to break out of the Socialist mold. But I would have liked to know more about what drove him in that direction when he could have chosen less violent and hateful ways to rebel.

Lastly, I was struck by the quotes from the Chief Rabbi in Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich. At one point he says, ““Before 1989 there was a feeling that it was not safe to say, ‘I am a Jew.’ But two decades later, there is a growing feeling that Jews are a missing limb in Poland. The level of anti-Semitism remains unacceptable, but the image of the murderous Pole seared in the consciousness of many Jews after the war doesn’t correspond to the Poland of 2010.” It is interesting that the Chief Rabbi is so optimistic in his assessment of Jewish life in Poland when Piotr Brozek, a 22 year old non-Jewish Pole responsible for Henio’s Facebook page, still is quite pessimistic. In my conversation with him, he told me that it is only people of his generation who want to change the anti-Semitic mindset that exists in Poland. The older generations, he believes, are unwilling or unable to break out of that mold. So who is right? And why do Jews and non-Jews hold such disparate views?

While Pawel’s story is certainly engrossing, it is also frustrating. It focuses on the sensational, at the expense of the quotidian. Where are the stories about ordinary Polish Jews? Who are they? Where are they? Between articles like this one and ones about young Poles attending Yiddish festivals and listening to Israeli hip-hop (neither of which makes them Jewish), we learn nothing about the typical life of a contemporary Polish Jew.

This kind of information is equally, if perhaps not more important, than the sensational stories. Why? Because there is still a great deal of suspicion and fear within the larger Jewish community towards Poland, as Rabbi Schudrich points out. Few American Jews, for instance, experience Poland outside of its death camps. There is very little understanding or acknowledgement that Jewish life is once again growing there. Articles like this one do little to change the narrative arc. I would like to see more pieces about Jewish youth movements or about a Bat/Bar Mitzvah class--something that would offer a fuller, more nuanced, picture ofJewish rhythms of Poland.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Breaking the Silence

Three thin little black books have been creating a firestorm of controversy in Israel recently. No, they have nothing to do sex scandals. Rather, they are publications from Breaking the Silence (BTS), an Israeli human rights group founded by four former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers. Their objective is to collect and publish testimony from soldiers who served in the Palestinian Territories between 2001 and 2004. So far, they have recorded the experiences of 700 soldiers, documenting many harsh, even brutal actions taken by the IDF in the Palestinian Territories.

On the eve of her first US tour, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dana Golan, the 27 year-old Executive Director of Breaking the Silence. Below is an excerpt from our discussion.

Symi Rom-Rymer: How did Breaking the Silence get started?
Dana Golan: There were always organizations talking about [Israeli] refusal [of military service] and other issues around that but no one was talking about what was going on in the Territories. Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004 by a group of guys who were very upset by what they saw while serving in Hebron. They talked amongst themselves about the situation in the army, about the orders that they get, the rules of engagement, and what it meant to do what they were doing. They felt that soldiers could only cope by taking out their feelings on the Palestinians because the tension and the pressure was so great. And their commanders gave them freedom to do what they wanted. When these guys got out, they just wanted to scream out what they felt. So they took their photos from their own albums and wrote about the experiences that they had. The reaction was so strong. People showed up and said, “this is exactly what I have in my own album.”

We’ve put a lot of effort into taking people to Hebron and to South Mount Hebron to show them what it’s like. And we give lectures to people of all ages. We try to talk to people before they join the army and say to them, “Listen, this is a complicated situation. But we do want you to be aware of the moral dilemmas before you confront them yourself.”

SRR: Who funds your work? Do you ever refuse donations?
DG: I am quite proud of all the funding sources that we have. In the US, we’re funded by The New Israel Fund and The Moriah Fund. We get some money from European countries like the Spanish, Dutch, and British governments. We also get private donors all the time. These countries give money to human rights organizations and human rights is a matter worth working for. I’m very proud to be a part of that. Since I know that they don’t influence what the soldiers say , the work that we’re doing or what’s important for us, I have no problem with any of this funding.

We don’t say yes to everyone. We reject money from donors from whom we can’t know the source of the money or what it means if they support us. We do not get money from Palestinian, Muslim, or Arab sources.

SRR: Why did you come out with a book of testimonies that just focuses on female soldiers?
DG: Girls are part of the occupation as well. They are standing at checkpoints and are sent on weapon searches and body searches. We thought it was important to collect women’s testimonies as well. We wanted to explore what the occupation does to girls and what happens when you have five girls and 400 guys. One of the common threads through all of the testimonies is how the girls are trying to be one of the guys at the age of 18 or 19. They care so much about the social factor around them and sometimes girls are even more aggressive and violent, to prove how tough they are. The result is often increased violence towards the Palestinians. We’re trying to break the silence about all aspects of the reality in the Territories. This is just one of them.

SRR: What was your experience in the army?
DG: I will tell you about my most significant night while in the army. As a member of the Education Corps, I went from base to base talking to soldiers but was never in combat. I often felt like an outsider and kept asking to be a part of things. One night, before a weapons search, I asked them to let me join them. They agreed, but did not tell me why. I realized why only later. They just told me to be there at 2AM. I was the only one without a weapon.

Hebron is divided between the sections controlled by the Israeli military and those controlled by the Palestinians. This was the first time that I went into the Palestinian-controlled part of Hebron. We were in the jeep and I was looking out of the window and saw that the streets were empty. I didn’t know where we were going and I got a bit hysterical and thought to myself, ‘what the hell are you doing? You’re in a jeep and people can shoot at you and you don’t even have a weapon to protect yourself!’

We got out of the jeep and ran until we reached the first house. We opened the door and a man in his pajamas opened the door and the soldiers automatically pushed him aside. The mother, grandmother, and two kids were standing in the corner of the room and they just stood there. Silently. No one looked at them or talked to them. The mom was looking at me. It was the first time I saw how the Israeli army searched for weapons. While they were making a huge mess searching for weapons, I naively asked the commander if we were going to help them later to clean up. As we walked from one room to the other, I saw that they had pictures of Jerusalem and I thought, ‘wow. They have the same photos as we do!’ At some point, the soldiers were laughing because they found some porn films The father was so embarrassed.

I remember looking at this small kid in the corner and thinking, ‘what would I think of those people who entered my parents’ place in the middle of the night and acting like that with my dad?’ I felt like I was part of the bad guys. I felt ashamed because I came to their place just because I was curious to see what it’s like to be an occupier. I didn’t need to be there. At some point, the commander told me he wanted me to search for weapons on the women’s bodies. I was not trained for that, I had no idea that the only reason he let me come was because they needed a girl to do a female search. At first I thought he was joking and then I thought, ‘what the f— am I going to do?’

I did not force the women to get naked, like I was supposed to. I was doing it with another girl and I had heard stories about girls at checkpoints that do body cavity searches. I remember saying, “I don’t care if she has a bomb inside her. I’m not going to put my hands inside her body.” We searched the first woman. I remember the smell and felt so ashamed that I had to touch her. So I was very gentle and searched very gingerly. Then we searched the grandmother. Then we went out and the commander didn’t even ask us anything. That was the strangest thing. He didn’t train me, didn’t tell me what to do and then he didn’t even ask us about it afterwards.

That night really shook me up. It was the first time I was in a situation where I got my hands dirty. I told myself: This is what it looks like. This is why a kid can hate you for the rest of your life. And you would hate him as well if it were the reverse. It was the first time that I realized how complex it was. There is no other way to search for weapons, but I don’t want to have the right to enter people’s homes at 3am and to do it as if it’s my home. I don’t want that. This is not something I want my kids to experience. I don’t want anyone to be able to do that to me and I don’t want to do it to others. The commanders tell you not to tell. You feel as if everything is part of this larger plan that you might not understand until the end, but that’s ok. You’re just supposed to be a soldier. There’s a reason they send you to the army at 18. You’ll just do whatever you’ve been told.

SRR: What are some of the most common criticisms and/or misconceptions about BTS?
DG: First of all, it is difficult for people to hear that Israeli society is not ok. Through our work, we are suggesting that we should doubt and question the occupation of the Territories. People find that very difficult. People’s tendency is to think that everything has a justification of security. We want to be secure. The Israeli tendency is not ask questions and not to doubt the situation itself. I was raised to ask questions. It’s very difficult for people to accept these kinds of questions.

One of the most common criticisms is that we only publish testimonies anonymously. People accuse us of publishing lies. They say, ’if people want to say something, they should just say it.’ But no one will do that. No one will go to his commander and speak out. Soldiers in Israel do not speak out against the army. Not because they are afraid that someone will come and investigate them but because they are afraid of their friends. If Israeli society wants the soldiers to speak, they need to give them that freedom and show that they are willing to listen We know that some people who testified suffered a high social price for talking. But for us, there is no other way.

People accuse us of speaking badly about the army–of airing dirty laundry. They tell us that we should just talk to the army and try to solve the problems. But we do not believe that we should educate the army. We believe that people should ask and doubt and take a moral stand.

SRR: Why have you come to speak to American Jews?
DG: The Jewish community in America has a very big influence on what goes on in Israel. When I was a soldier, I was wearing a uniform made in the US and I was carrying an American M16 gun. So I believe it is important to show our reality to the people who support Israel morally and financially. It’s easy to hide it from them. It’s as important for me to talk to them about it as it is to speak to Israelis. In a way, I feel that the Jewish community in the United States has the same obligation to hear me because the things that the IDF are doing are being done in their name as well. And I want them to take a stand as well. I put them on the same level as Israelis. You send me there. Listen to me.

I want them to listen, I want them to think. I want them to doubt, to criticize. I want them to ask questions all the time. If there is something we have learned, it’s that we have to take a stand. We cannot afford not to do that.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

O'Reilly Plays the Jew Card

Perhaps the winter weather is making people a little crazy or perhaps liberals, fed up with current political narrative, are just itching to remove the gloves. Whatever the reason, a willingness to venture onto Republican turf has been on the rise these past few weeks. First, there was President Obama who, in a riveting piece of political theater, took on the House Republicans during their annual retreat in Baltimore. Then, just a few days ago, Jon Stewart appeared on Fox as a guest of Bill O’Reilly.

(Can someone explain to me why he is so popular? Political views aside, he comes across as so condescending and self-righteous—why do viewers find that appealing? Or is he just that way when non-Republicans are on his show? If someone could let me know without my having to watch more of him, that would be much appreciated).

Anyway, as I was watching O’Reilly “vet” Stewart on his opinions about Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons, he suddenly brought up the fact that Stewart is Jewish. I thought: “is he seriously going to ask Stewart why he doesn’t, as a Jew, support Israel’s hawkish approach to Iran?” He didn’t. Instead, he said:

O’Reilly: “You’re a Jewish guy, right?”
Stewart: “What?”
O’Reilly: “I believe Ahmadinejad wants to drive you and all the other Jewish people into the sea.”
Stewart: “So? I cannot control that.”

Stewart then went on to explain his position on Iran and nuclear weapons, deftly ignoring O’Reilly’s ham-fisted attempt to conflate the Iranian government’s concrete threat against Israel with a more abstract threat against global Jewry. (To see the whole exchange, click here.)

O’Reilly’s comment bothered me on several levels. First of all, once he realized Stewart wasn’t rising to his bait, he decided to up the ante by focusing on Stewart’s religion. Just because Stewart is Jewish doesn’t mean he only see issues like Iran from a particular perspective. Furthermore, by emphasizing Iran’s direct threat to “the Jewish people” and linking that to Stewart personally, O’Reilly implied that he should analyze the situation primarily through an emotional framework. Secondly, by emphasizing Stewart’s religion, O’Reilly suggested that Stewart, and other American Jews, is somehow apart from the rest of Americans. There are many reasons why the US does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. These concerns are shared across religious, ethnic, and political lines. Should Iran get the bomb, it could have deadly consequences not just for Israel, not just for Jews, but also for Americans and other Western countries. In other words, whole swaths of the world would be at greater risk if this were to happen. Why, then, should Stewart be asked only react as a Jew? Is he not also in danger as an American? As a Western male?

Based on his show and what he has said in interviews, Stewart’s religion does not seem to influence his political views. But even if being Jewish was the main way he defined himself politically, that is for him to bring up. O’Reilly use of Stewart’s religion as a tool to goad him into siding with him, implies that Stewart’s concern for Jews should override his views about what is in America’s best interests. Although this particular exchange was done somewhat tongue-in-cheek, O’Reilly’s comments reflect a larger, troubling phenomenon in which complex worldviews are unacceptable and only simplistic narratives can prevail—in this case, within a Jewish context. Once again I’m reminded why I dislike Fox News.