Truth under Siege
During the Holocaust, the world watched silently. Will things be any different this time?
April 3, 2002
As I write, we are coming up on Day Six of the unending ratings-grabber known as "Ramallah Under Siege." I can almost hear the latest sting from the "Library of Dramatic and Tragic News Music." I can see the flashing graphics with banners reading "Arafat Under Attack" or "On the Brink." And the surest sign that an area is "under siege" or "on the brink" is the presence of MSNBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield. Wherever someone starts a war, wherever there is a "No Media" sign posted, Ashleigh and her trademark specs are there. She rolls in with the tanks, ready to cover the story of her death-defying attempts to arrive at her live-shot on time. And all the time I wonder why I haven't seen a banner headline that reads "Israel Under Siege" or "Jerusalem Under Attack."
The fact is that cable news networks can cover suicide bombings in Israel 24 hours a day and they still won't snag the ratings that a live broadcast from Yasser Arafat's dank, dark compound will. Thanks to the media, the plight of the Jewish people is not a story that appeals to the sympathy of the general public. It never has been.
The newspaper headlines sickened me because they said of America: We knew and did nothing.
On a visit to Israel just three weeks ago, I spent an afternoon at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It was my third trip there in as many years, but my first time visiting the Holocaust museum. What I saw there angered me. But my anger was not directed at the obvious target, the Nazis. It was not the pictures of walking skeletons with sunken eyes and shaved heads that upset me. It was not the photos of starving children, lying face down in the gutters of the Warsaw ghetto. It was not even the cruel smirk of a German officer as he held a gun to the head of a kneeling Jewish man with a yellow Star of David patch sewed firmly to his sleeve.
What angered me most about Yad Vashem were the front-page copies of The New York Times displayed next to these horrific images. These articles were dated 1937 and 1938. In one of them, the infamous Kristallnacht ("Night of the Broken Glass") attack of November 9, 1938, was described in great detail. These screaming headlines sickened me because they simply said of America, "We knew and did nothing."
I don't mean to single out The New York Times as a villain; this just happens to be the paper whose headlines made the display at Yad Vashem. In fact, the Times is to be commended for giving front-page coverage to these horrifying attacks. My question is this: if we knew this was going on as early as 1937 (and I'm sure, many years before that), why the deafening silence from our government, our society and even our religious institutions?
After visiting the main part of the museum at Yad Vashem, I walked through the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles, which commemorates the brave men and women who risked their lives to save Jews. The Avenue is lined with trees planted in honor of the so-called "Righteous Among the Nations" -- people like Oskar Schindler and Corrie ten Boom. Of the more than 18,000 Righteous Gentiles listed as of 2001, only one of them was American. Just one.
Oddly enough, decent societies around the world have lamented and repented over their role (or lack thereof) in the Holocaust. The Europeans, the Americans, the Protestants and the Catholics are all very sorry about what happened more than half a century ago. But if we were given the same opportunity to speak out against anti-Semitism today, would we react any differently?
If we were given the same opportunity to speak out against anti-Semitism today, would we react differently?
A pointless question, you might say. In today's modern, civilized society, the Holocaust could never happen again. That's why we have Jewish museums and Steven Spielberg movies -- to make sure it won't happen.
Think again. Anti-Semitism is on a global rampage that goes far beyond mere Palestinian terrorism. You may not even realize it, because it is drowned out by the ceaseless coverage of "The Siege of Ramallah." We may not have seen a defining moment like Kristallnacht in the '30s, but the Passover massacre in Netanya comes close, in cruelty if not in scope. And instead of offering their support and sympathy for the victims of this barbaric bombing, the nations of the world, who can't agree on anything else, are coming together with one common bond: their hatred of Israel.
WAVE OF ANTI-SEMITISM
If you are reading this right now and you feel I am being overly dramatic, here is a brief look at how the world is responding to the so-called Siege of Ramallah.
In Egypt, hundreds of anti-Israel marchers ran toward the Israeli embassy and broke through one line of riot police. At the University of Jordan, riot police used batons to prevent some 500 angry demonstrators from leaving their campus. That was one of four protests that took place in Jordan, which, along with Egypt, threatened to expel their Israeli ambassadors.
In Lebanon, more than 500 Lebanese and Palestinian demonstrators tried to storm the Egyptian embassy in Beirut but were dispersed by police. Hezbollah guerrillas also threatened to begin hijacking airplanes if anything happened to Arafat. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi led a march in his capital, Tripoli, and called on Arab countries to let volunteer fighters in to help the Palestinians. And Kuwait, one of America's strongest Muslim allies in the Middle East, criticized the U.S. for its "contribution to Israeli aggression."
They are all Arab nations, you say -- that's to be expected. You're right. But it is not just the Arabs. Perhaps the most disturbing response has come unofficially from Europe, where a new wave of anti-Semitism is rising from its 70-year-old grave. No more Kristallnacht, you say? Take a look at what happened in France this past weekend:
Hooded assailants crashed two cars into a synagogue, and assailants opened fire at a kosher butcher shop in southern France.
A fire destroyed the 20-year-old Or Aviv temple in Marseille, leaving it a blackened mass of wood and metal. Vandals set a fire at a synagogue in the eastern city of Strasbourg on Saturday night, scorching its facade. Hooded assailants crashed two cars into a synagogue early Saturday in Lyon, setting fire to one of the vehicles inside the temple's prayer hall. Assailants opened fire at a kosher butcher's shop near Toulouse, in southern France. A Jewish couple was attacked Saturday in the Rhone region town of Villeurbanne, according to Le Journal du Dimanche. The woman, who is pregnant, was reportedly hospitalized. A book published last month by a leading French anti-racism group and Jewish students chronicled an astonishing 400 recent attacks against Jews and Jewish sites around the country.
In neighboring Belgium, attackers threw gasoline bombs through the windows of a Brussels synagogue late Sunday, causing a small fire. And in Russia, vandals in the city of Kostroma scrawled a large black swastika across a synagogue Sunday night, the latest in a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the region, according to NTV television.
AMONG THE TREES
Are we at the point where we need to hide Jews in our attics or sneak them in and out of countries with fake passports? No, of course not... not yet anyway. But compare the laundry list I just gave you with the following passage:
During the first months of occupation, life was not so very unbearable. The true horror of occupation came over us only slowly. A rock through the window of a Jewish-owned store. An ugly word scrawled on the wall of a synagogue. It was as though they were trying us, testing the temper of the country. A synagogue burned down, and the fire trucks came. But only to keep the flames from spreading to the buildings on either side.
The above passage, taken from Corrie ten Boom's book "The Hiding Place," describes life in the Netherlands after the Nazi occupation in 1940. Not unbearable, as Corrie puts it, not extremely newsworthy. But the beginning of one of history's most horrific massacres.
On my walk through Yad Vashem, my emotions were caught somewhere between tears, anger and prayers. Tears for the millions of people who underwent such atrocities, anger at the "civilized" world that tacitly allowed it, and prayers that, if given the opportunity, I would not sit idly by and watch it happen again. As I walked among the trees of the Righteous Gentiles, I prayed that my generation would have the courage of Oskar Schindler, Corrie ten Boom and the other selfless people honored on that Avenue.
SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY
Those who love Israel -- Jews, Christians and non-religious people alike -- might be asking right now, what can I do to help? I must have received at least 50 reader e-mails asking me that question after reading a recent commentary I wrote about the Al Aqsa terror attacks. It is an important question, and I don't want to trivialize it with stereotypical responses like "E-mail the President" or "Write to your congressman."
Share the truth with a church group, a civic group, or even your own neighbor.
And so my answer is this: Watch the news, read behind the headlines and be aware of how the world is aligning itself against the Jewish people. If you are presented with any opportunity, however small, to share the truth with a church group, a civic group, or even your own neighbor, then seize it.
More importantly, take the desire you have to "make a difference" and turn it into a prayer. For Jewish people in Israel and around the world, pray for physical safety and peace of mind. For Israel's government leaders, pray for courage, comfort and clarity of purpose. For our own president and his advisors, pray for wisdom as they write our nation's reaction for the history books. And most of all, pray that a new generation of "Righteous Gentiles" will rise up when and where they are needed.
It is easy to ignore what's going on half a world away and relax in the relative comfort of our fun-loving culture. But just remember this: the Stars and Stripes and the Star of David burn together in Arab squares around the world. And let's not forget that in those same squares, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hang side by side, smoldering in effigy.