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Speaking from the heart

Published: October 29, 2010
Section: Opinions


Last Thursday, Brandeis students were treated to a frank talk by Holocaust survivor and activist Hedy Epstein on her experience working for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a wispy, breathless tone, she related a story that Jewish audiences needed to hear: how a refugee of the Nazi Holocaust came to dedicate her life to social justice and particularly to the cause of the conflict in Israel-Palestine.

Admittedly, an 86-year-old woman clutching a podium is not visually stunning, nor does she display the panache and polish of a professional speaker. Hedy waded into the discussion with the intent to share her stories. She spoke from the heart and from her own experiences, sprinkling her talk with sad and enlightening anecdotes.

She came to identify with Palestinian suffering, not through angry speeches or an ideological party-line, but from the simple hospitality of a West Bank family. She related a horrific story from an Israeli checkpoint, where she witnessed a young Israeli soldier hitting a child in front of his mother. Concerned about what would become of this soldier when he returns to civilian life, Hedy asked what will become of a society that allows this cruelty to go unnoticed and unchecked.

One of the questioners at Hedy’s talk attempted to “trap” her by asking if she knew how many rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel in the lead-up to Israel’s assault on the strip: the answer was 2,700. Hedy astutely replied that during the same time period, according to the Israeli government’s statistics, the Israel Defense Forces fired more than 14,000 shells into Gaza. Hedy showed that Israel does not have a moral monopoly on trying to defend its people and that, while Hamas’ tactics may be unjust, so are Israel’s.

Hedy does not endorse rocket fire from either side. She believes that no rockets should be fired at all. Hedy supports nonviolent resistance against oppression and supports a growing non-violent resistance movement in the West Bank that is violently suppressed by the Israeli government.

While many of the right like the claim that Israel is only a “victim,” Hedy’s message is a plea to recognize the suffering of others. Whatever academic or political qualifications she may lack, the personal tragedy she endured during Hitler’s genocide gives her a responsibility to speak up when she witnesses suffering in the faces of others. The legacy of the Holocaust is repeatedly used by the right-wing to justify nationalist and militarist policies in the Middle East. Hedy reminds us that this need not be the case and that the Holocaust should instead be used to advocate against injustice towards all peoples, not just Jews. As uncomfortable as this may be for American Jews to hear, it is incumbent upon us to listen with open hearts and minds, to reflect upon the tragic conflict in Israel-Palestine and our place within it.

I understand that it is difficult for the Brandeis community to wrestle with these problems. But only by acknowledging the pain in ourselves and others will we ever reach reconciliation. My favorite part of Hedy’s presentation was her admission of failure: “I have failed so far, but that doesn’t mean that failure will be in the future. Peace will be in the future.” Her humility and hope speak volumes. She speaks not only to where we have come from, but to who we can be.