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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Panel discusses Holocaust’s role in Middle East conflict

Published: April 20, 2007
Section: Front Page

Brandeis hosted a panel Thursday called The Public Framing of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: How the Holocaust Underlines Realities of Fear, Intimidation, and Denial. The panel, moderated by Professor Gordon Fellman (Soc), featured Dr. Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, Dr. Alice Rothchild, physician and cofounder of Jewish Voice for Peace-Boston, and Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, author of Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel.

Instead of drawing a large student turnout, the event drew an audience almost exclusively of older adults. Fellman began the discussion with a comment about Jimmy Carters visit to Brandeis. Carters visit, Fellman said, helped us to open the real debate [on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] at Brandeisit helped to crack open the taboo. He added that in the discussion of the conflict, the elephant in the middle of the room is the Holocaust. He continued, the left doesnt have a good way of dealing with feelings.

Roy was the first to speak. She explained an essay she wrote entitled A Jewish Plea that appeared on Roy characterized the essay as an ethical response to Israels policies regarding last summers war with Lebanon and the Palestinians. She then conducted into her discussion of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is part of who we are as a people, she said, what have we as a people made of our suffering?

Roy, whose parents are Holocaust survivors, said her parents stood as a moral challenge among us. But, she said, Zionism has denigrated the memory of the Holocaust. Roy, arguing that the Holocaust should be used to promote morality and justice, relayed her mothers story of liberation from the concentration camps. According to Roy, after her mother and sister were liberated by the Russians, the prisoners were given free range to exact revenge upon the prison guards. However, Roys mother resisted the temptation to ravage the guards. Instead, Roys mother said, we cannot do this. We must seek justice, not revenge.

Roy also addressed the issue of intimidation and accusations of anti-Semitism. Why is it anti-Semitic to argue against the misuse of the Holocaust? Why is it anti-Semiticto defend the dignity and rights of all human beings? Why is it anti-Semitic to envision a futurethat allows both peoples to live with dignity, equality, and peace.

Rothchild followed Roys speech. Were all searching for meaning in the tragedy of the Holocaust, she said. How do [victims of the Holocaust] get to a place where they can do this to another people? Rothchild asked. Moreover, the Holocaust undermines and distorts the realities in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Rothchild then discussed issues of determination. She explained that evoking the Holocaust is a tool often used by what she deemed right-wing groups. As examples she pointed to the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership. According to Rothchild, the David Project has equated the threat of a nuclear Iran with Hitlers Final Solution and the current times with the 1930s.

Rothchild then referenced the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which she accused of employing similar rhetoric. Then, in particular reference to Brandeis, Rothchild cited the alleged loss of five million dollars in donations from Brandeis alumni as a result of Carters visit to campus. These acts of intimidation, Rothchild asserted, muzzles the academic community and the Jewish community in general.

Last to speak was Beit-Hallahmi, who discussed at length the culture around victimization. We all want to be victims, he explained, because it gives us the moral high ground. In actuality he argued, suffering does not ennoble anyone. Moreover, he said, being a victim is an objectionable reality. Victims should not be idealized or romanticized. We have to recognize that there are many victims, Beit-Hallahmi argued that victims should be given their rights without idealization or romanticization.

Beit-Hallahmi commented that Jews have little reason to feel like victims in current times in light of the prominent positions to which Jews have risen. There is a psychological gap between reality and a tradition of insecurity. He then addressed the concept that Zionism came out of the Holocaust. This is the not case, he said, as Zionismwas around long before the Holocaust. He also discussed the need for changes in thinking. Changes in consciousness come slowlybut theyre coming [in Israel]. Changes come about because of many, many small struggles.

The discussion was then opened to questions. The first came from a man who said even paranoids have enemies. He then asked how Israel ought to deal with avowed enemies of the state. All three panelists agreed that the occupation is responsible for violence. Beit-Hallahmi said the rules of the game create oppressionits not surprising that you have resistance. Roy commented, we are occupying another people. We have engaged in a process of oppression that is quite severethere is a humanitarian denial of a people. If you take away all possibilitywhat do you expectgiving unabated oppression? She added, allow people to live as we livethen the violence will stop.

Another audience member asked, how do we break through the Holocaust inflected barrier? Rothchild explained, we must constantly challenge stereotypes and reframe issues. We must get people to ask different questions. Moreover, we must humanize the otherwe must try to reproduce the situation for studentsgive it a context that is denied. De-educate, re-educate.

Beit-Hallahmi said, you can see a lot of movement [in opinion in Israel] even if the government is not. There is a recognition that the present situation is too costly.

When asked about the implications of this discussion for Brandeis in light of the loss of funding resulting from Carters visit, Fellman said that the five million dollar figure is a very casual figure. He explained that some donors have stopped donating while others have donated for the first time. Moreover, its up to the President to explain to donors what a university is. Roy commented, this discussion shouldnt be perceived as a threat.