“Shitty Jew”

This is currently featured in Lay of the Land:

Shitty Jew

This is a personal account of a grossly antisemitic incident and the events that followed. It is important to share these stories, especially at a time when levels of antisemitism are rising to alarming levels around the world. We can no longer be silent in the face of hatred

Yes, you read the title correctly. This is not an easy story to share with you but at a time when hatred and vile invective against Jews is rising alarmingly across the globe, I feel the need to rise above my own personal humiliation and hurt and allow myself the vulnerability of sharing this very personal story with you.

Today, it is more important than ever to expose racism and bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head and send a message that antisemitism will no longer go unchecked. It is no longer okay to gaslight the concerns of Jews and we will no longer suffer in silence.

This story takes place in race sensitive South Africa and exposes a diabolical double standard that exists on issues pertaining to racism. The democratic rainbow nation that enjoys what is arguably the most progressive Constitution in the world, sets the bar when comes to calling out the bigots and haters but when it comes to the oldest hatred in the world, is oddly silent. Has the current political climate with the ruling ANC’s almost rabid disdain for the State of Israel filtered down and is clouding human decency?

South Africans are all too familiar with cases like Penny Sparrow, Adam Catzavelos and others who have made repugnant racist comments and are paying the price but there seems to be no punishment for antisemitism – only avoidance.

I guess when it comes to equal opportunity hatred, the South African media are not as “woke” as they purport to be. Cry the beloved country.

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It all started with a letter.

In my capacity as co-founder of the South Africa-Israel Policy Forum, I responded to both a letter written by Gunvant Govinjee and an article written by Alexander O’Riordan that featured in the Business Day and The Daily Maverick respectively. Regrettably, my opening line that stated unequivocally that my letter was in response to both the letter AND the article, was omitted in both publications.

O’Riordan erroneously interpreted some of my comments as a direct attack on him, and proceeded to call me a liar both in a letter of response in the Business Day as well as on my Facebook page. The latter followed an invitation into my personal space after a well-meaning acquaintance suggested that if we spoke to each other, we might find middle ground.

It was not to be!

O’Riordan unleashed venomous invective, calling me a liar multiple times, alleging that I called him a racist (there is a BIG difference between calling someone a racist and saying comments are such) and demanding an apology. Although acknowledging that ‘perhaps’ he had reacted wrongly, he STILL persisted in calling me a liar. I had all the facts so wasn’t as bothered by those accusations as I was by what followed.

When I replied to him by saying that I was a proud Jew, his only response is to resort to personal attack and things took a profound turn for the worse.

O’Riordan responded by calling me a “shitty Jew” no less than four times and his final punch was comparing me to Harvey Weinstein and Bernie Madoff. Now, while I cannot testify to Madoff or Weinstein’s levels of religious observance, I can ask why is religion a factor on what kind of a person they are? We don’t judge other criminals by their religion n’est-ce pas?

O’Riordan then went on to clarify who he deems “decidedly unshitty”. Those Jews that are “good” i.e. anti-Zionist or anti-Israel like Ronnie Kasrils or Joe Slovo. Good Jews vs Bad Jews – a distinction which antisemites are weaponising in order to sow division and try rationalise their hate-driven behaviour.

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O’Riordan claims that Ronnie Kasrils, a former Minister of Intelligence is a “good Jew” but please allow me to remind readers that this is a man who in an Op-ed for the Daily Maverick on the 20th of April this year, made the following comments referring to the development of business ties with Israel as “crony capitalists within the ANC” who were more than ready to have “their palms greased like Judas with silver coins“.

Today, the word ‘Israel’ or ‘Zionist’ has replaced ‘Jew’, and Kasrils, despite his Jewish roots, is trafficking in nasty antisemitic tropes. While O’Riordan – a self-proclaimed atheist – further states that there are “shitty people” of other religions, it is the focus on Jews and his propensity to make divisions that is decidedly dangerous and must be called out.

Good Jew vs Shitty Jew – this is not criticism of Israeli policy, which is legitimate and which Israelis have elevated to a national sport. This is where the line has been crossed and a further line drawn in the sand.

We, the Jewish people will decide what is offensive to us and making these despicable distinctions offends us to the core. Must we be punished and isolated for having and supporting a state of our own? Those like O’Riordan who make these distinctions believe so.

Following this, I sent an official letter of complaint to both editors, thinking that they do would share my disgust and act. To date I have had no response – not even an acknowledgement  of receipt  – from either of the editors.

Radio silence!

At first, I was angry and then I thought, perhaps there is something more to this. Were the editors afraid of taking a stand or drawing attention to this issue? I really don’t believe it is anything personal or anti-Israel on behalf of the editors; on the contrary, I think the political climate in South Africa is such that it could invite a lot of hate-filled invective.image005 (5).png

Has the climate become such that when it comes to rising antisemitism in South Africa, people are too scared to take a stand? The recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the ruling ANC and terror organization, Hamas as well as the renaming of Sandton Drive after arch terrorist, Leila Khaled, has firmly cemented where South Africa’s alliances fall. The trafficking in antisemitic tropes by ANC and other party leaders such as the EFF who made this statement “We also call on the international community to remember the people of Palestine, the birth and death place of Jesus Christ. They represent the suffering, the permanently crucified, disfigured and humiliated body of Christ hanging on the summit for all shame. The Palestinians suffer racial discrimination, colonization and apartheid in the hands of the apartheid state of Israel” or former Foreign Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu who wished the “Israeli Embassy was in the Dead Sea” only adds fuel to the fire.

O’Riordan’s comments I find racist and offensive and the subsequent editorial silence of the respected Business Day and Daily Maverick, I find worrying, especially in today’s climate. My concern is compounded by these publications offering a platform to a professional propagandist who when unable to establish facts, resorts to racism, when referring to me as a “shitty Jew”!shitty Jew4.JPG

If he had made these comments about another race or religion, it would be equally intolerable and someone like this who trafficks in racism should be publicly shunned and exposed. O’Riordan should be held to the same standards as any racist.

If it is not going to happen in a country like South Africa that purports to be a liberal democracy to take a stand of racism in any of its ugly forms then it is up to us as individuals. Failure to do so allows for hatred to flourish.

I won’t be silent or silenced. Not on my watch.

In a democracy there should not be any place for intolerance and racism in a civilized society.shitty Jew5.JPG

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23 741

This is currently featured on Lay of the Land:

23 741

There are 23 741 reasons to bow our heads this Yom Hazikaron. There are 23 741 reasons to express our profound eternal gratitude. There are 23 741 reasons for our hearts to ache. There are 23 741 reasons to be proud. 23 741 reason for the tears to fall from our eyes. There are 23 741 to remember. There are 23 741 names ingrained in our hearts forever. There are 23 741 reasons for the siren to wail its mournful cry.

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War & Remembrance. Young Israeli soldier lays national flags at a military cemetery before a ceremony on Yom Hazikaron. Ceremonies are held throughout the country at the exact same time commencing with a siren sounding at 11.00am throughout the country.

23 741 soldiers, security forces and police have fallen in defense of Israel since its birth as a modern state in 1948.

We will never forget them.

The stories of unparalleled bravery and selfless sacrifice like Roi Klein, who saved the life of his unit by absorbing the blast of grenade. Risking it all to leave the comforts of home in the US, to serve as a paratrooper like Michael Levine. The iconic warrior like Yoni Netanyahu who fell in Israel’s daring Entebbe operation in 1976 that rescued 102 Jewish hostages from a hijacked Air France passenger aircraft in Uganda’s capital.

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Jonathan (“Yoni”) Netanyahu, brother of Israel’s Prime Minister, commanded the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal during Operation Entebbe to rescue hostages held at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976. The mission was successful, with 102 of the 106 hostages rescued, but Netanyahu was killed in action — the only IDF fatality during the operation.

The names of the wars and operations are etched in memory – the War of Independence, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the wars with Lebanon, Operation Cast Lead and so on.

Their names are seared in our hearts.

And there are those whose names we will never know but whose valiant acts of bravery are the reasons that we enjoy the freedoms that we do.

At 20h00 a mournful siren will announce the start of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen warriors and victims of terror.

Yom Hazikaron inspires in us a sense of awe and creates an incredible sense of solidarity amongst Jews around the world, but it is here in Israel where the emotions are seriously heightened. Our soldiers are not uniformed strangers who serve but our children, spouses, colleagues, parents, friends and lovers.

They are the people we love.

Yom Hazikaron is not only a day of remembrance, but also one of gratitude. Few words can express how grateful we are for all who protect us on land, sea and air. Our brave warriors, these lions of Zion are our guardians and protectors. We are proud of them; we embrace them, and we love them.

Israelis respect life. We revere life and we revel in it. And it is on this solemn and heartbreaking day that we are reminded of its fragility.

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Mesmerising Message. Staff Sgt. Michael Levin soon after he was drafted in 2005. He was killed a year later in the Second Lebanon War. ‘If anything happens to me, I just want to say that I love you and miss you and wish you all the best,’ Levin said in a voicemail, shortly before he was killed. (Tami Gross)

This year is particularly poignant. I write this just days after 700 rockets were fired by terror groups in the Gaza strip into Israel, killing 4 civilians (may their memories be for a blessing) and injuring and traumatizing countless others. We were reminded again that the guardians of Israel neither slumber nor sleep as they worked 24/7 to protect us.  We thankfully lost no soldiers but days like this are bitter reminders of the threats we face as a nation and how achingly close we come to situations where  this is a possibility.

In recent years, Yom Hazikaron has also included honouring victims of terror attacks.

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Druze Hero. Over 3,000 people from all over Israel attended a memorial rally for Druze policeman Zidan Saif in his home town of Yanuh-Jat in the Galilee in 2014, killed while trying to stop a terrorist attack at a synagogue in Jerusalem.

Victims targeted simply for being Israeli. We remember brave men like Ari Fuld who gave chase to his murderer before succumbing to his wounds. Zidan Saif, a Druze policeman who had come off his shift when he heard of an attack on a synagogue and rushed to assist and paid with his life. We remember teenagers Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naphtali Frenkel  – whose names live on in heartbreaking infamy. We remember the mothers and father, brothers and sisters, grandparents and babies – gone soon, far too soon. This year the number of victims of terror is 3 146.

There are 3 146 reason to remember, to wipe the tears from our eyes, to light a candle.

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Israel Stunned. Mourning candles in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, following the June 12, 2014 the brutal murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In an emotional paradox, the sun will set on mourning and Israel will don her best blue and white to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.

This year we have 23 741 more reasons to. We celebrate in their names.

They will forever be the watchers on our walls, the guardians of our gates. Their memories will be forever blessed.

“…And so they stand, the light on their faces, and the Lord,

alone passes among them, with tears in His eyes He kisses

their wounds, and He says in a trembling voice to the white

angels: “These are my sons, these are my sons.”

 The Parade of the Fallen / Hayim Hefer

 

The Mensch Who Put The Monster On Trial

This post is featured on Lay of the Land:

The mensch who put the monster on trial

 

“Not a day goes past that I don’t think about the Eichmann trial”. Judge Gabriel Bach greets us warmly as he welcomes us to his apartment in a leafy suburb of Jerusalem. His living room bears testament to an extraordinary life and career. Dotted with family pictures and impressive volumes of books, the eye is drawn immediately to a collection of books entitled “The Eichmann Trial”.

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Judge Gabriel Bach

It is this moment when you are aware that the gentle, charming man who has welcomed you with a twinkle in his wise eyes is one of the men who sought justice for the millions. He is the mensch who put the monster, Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for sending millions of Jews to their deaths. I do confess to being more than a little star-struck. It is men like this, the quiet giants and their pursuit of justice and truth that hold a nation on their mighty shoulders.

Monsters are usually the stuff of fairy tale lore but this one was real. The world was riveted when news broke that Eichmann was captured.

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Adolf Eichmann

Hiding out in Argentina as Ricardo Clement, the devil was now in custody, thanks to a stealth and decisive operation by Israel’s Mossad. All that remained was justice.

Born in Germany, the Bach family managed to flee to Holland just two weeks before Kristallnacht (Night of broken Glass) which would result in the destruction of many synagogues and businesses and the rounding up of Jews, many who would be sent to camps like Dachau. The Bach family managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazi machine, leaving Holland just before the German occupation and sailed to British Mandate Palestine on the “Patria” which would sink on its next journey. It was here, before there was a State of Israel and safe haven for Jews, where Bach, young lawyer in the state’s attorney’s office with an exemplary record and a bright future was one of those chosen to join the team of prosecutors.  He would also be tapped to be in charge of the investigation.

It was time to gather the evidence for the trial that would begin on the 11th of April 1961.

The team of prosecutors would have to wade through volumes of documents and evidence. Married with a small daughter, Bach would spend 9 months immersed in investigations and communication with Eichmann without meeting him face to face, that included ensuring that he was aware of his rights to a defense attorney of his choice. The time came to meet the devil face to face.

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Chief prosecuter Tzvi Hauzner (standing). Defense advocate Robert Servatius (left). Deputy prosecuter Gabriel Bach (second from right)

Judge Bach describes his first encounter with evil. “I will never forget it. I was sitting in my office in the prison, reading the autobiography of Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz who was eventually hanged in Poland, describe how they had many days when they killed a thousand Jewish children per day and he mentions how the children would kneel and beg to be spared and when he and his colleagues were pushing the children into the gas chambers his knees would hurt and he felt ashamed of this “weakness” but remembered how Eichmann had reiterated that it was the children who had to be killed first lest they grow to be a generation that would grow up to take revenge. And then 10 minutes after I read that, there was   a request from Eichmann to see me.  It wasn’t so easy to keep a poker face with him sitting opposite me.”

How does one even imagine what it was like to have to sit opposite such a monster?

Bach describes having to handle this like any other criminal case. Emotional moments would come later – and without warning.

The German government was most cooperative in ensuring that Bach and his team received documents from all the ministries. The evidence was irrefutable.  It was time for the trial to commence.

The Eichmann trial was a game-changer in many respects. The first to be televised, the trial would allow millions around the world to enter the courtroom. The trial would also be the first opportunity that would allow survivors and witnesses to give emotional testimony. For many young Israelis who could not understand why the Jews of Europe seemed not to defend themselves, they now understood the severity, the genocide, the cruelty and the devious tactics of the Nazi killing machine that ended the lives of six million. There are accounts of Eichmann telling deportees on their way to the death camps to write postcards to their remaining loved ones and friends, not only telling them of the wonderful place they were going to, but also encouraging them to follow.

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Packed Courtroom. Leaning forward, members of the public strain to hear every word of horrific testimony in the case against Adolf Eichmann that was televised to the world.

Eichmann sat behind the glass, in the dock, completely impassive. Eichmann showed no remorse and no regret.

His defense? He was just following orders. This would prove untrue when on several occasions evidence would come to light and on more than one occasion when asked to spare the life of a Jew, Eichmann would refuse absolutely.

As the trial progressed, so did day after day of emotional, harrowing testimony from survivors who gave heartbreaking account of the loss of their families and the excruciating cruelty they endured at the hands of the Nazis under the commands of Eichmann.

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“Trial Of The Century”. Gabriel Bach (centre) with Adolf Eichmann in the glass booth (behind).

Most of us who have watched Schindler’s List can remember the searing image of the little girl in the red coat going to the gas chambers and her lifeless body on a pile of corpses.

A red coat would later affect prosecutor Bach’s composure! One day when hearing testimony from a survivor who during the selection process was spared for labour while his wife and daughter were sent to the gas chamber for immediate extermination. The SS were unsure of what to do with his son but eventually told him to join his mother and sister. The witness was concerned his son would not find them but saw the image of his little daughter in her red coat, no more than two-and-a-half, disappearing, never to be seen again.

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Schindler’s List | The Girl In The Red Coat (ft. ‘Oskar Schindler, Liam Neelson)

Bach had just bought his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter a brand new red coat. His impeccable composure was shaken to the core.

The trial would proceed until the eventual verdict. On December 13, 1961 the court found Eichmann guilty on most articles of the indictment, and on the 15th of that same month, sentenced him to death. The defense appealed to the Supreme Court which on May 29, 1962, ratified the verdict of the lower court. Eichmann and his team appealed to the President, Yitzchak ben Zvi for clemency but were denied and during the night between May 31, and June 1, 1962, Eichmann was executed by hanging at Ramla Prison. In his final moments, Eichmann expressed his unwavering love and loyalty to Germany and Argentina. After his body was incinerated, his ashes were scattered at sea outside Israeli territorial waters.

Justice had been served.

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Justice Served. Following Eichmann’s conviction and sentence to death, the man who had once tried to wipe out the Jewish people, pleaded for mercy from the head of a Jewish state. President Ben Zvi responded with a verse from the Bible: “As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.”

At the conclusion of the process, jurists from all over the world, including some who had initially questioned Israel’s right to judge Eichmann, noted the fairness shown by the judges and their strict adherence to the principle of a fair trial.

This was more than Eichmann ever showed his victims.

Prosecutor Gabriel Bach would go on to enjoy an illustrious career that would see him assume many titles. He would go on to be State’s Attorney and then a Judge on Israel’s Supreme Court.  One title would accompany him through all of this – that of mensch. Today, at his advanced age, Judge Bach is still a most sought after and loved speaker and travels the world, engaging new audiences. He is particularly moved by the interest and willingness to learn by young Germans.

Judge Bach waves goodbye to us from the window of his modest apartment. Well into his 90’s his exuberance for life and gentle personality are testament to why this man is a giant amongst the heroes of the Jewish people.  The lessons have been many.

The importance of bearing witness, of seeking justice and the example set by a man who can affectionately be called prosecutor, Judge and mensch.

 

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Judge Gabriel Bach and I

“Global Warming Launched Our Rockets”

 

This article currently appears in Lay of the Land:

Global warming launched our rockets

The art of abdicating responsibility for the firing of rockets onto Israeli civilian infrastructure was elevated to a level that only be described as something out of a Monty Python sketch as arch terror group, Hamas, blamed weather conditions for their recent launching. Really, you cannot make this up!

Hamas, who are charged with governing the Gaza strip, are responsible for the recent spate of rockets that have been fired towards Israeli territory in the last couple of weeks, culminating in a tense escalation.

On the 25th of March, a rocket was fired from the Gaza strip, reaching far into Israeli territory and decimating a house on the moshav, Mishmeret, and injuring a family of seven. Thirty other homes were damaged by shrapnel from the rockets. Israel threatened a strong response and bombed strategic targets in the Gaza strip, including leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh’s secret headquarters. No civilians were killed which is testament to the conduct of the IDF to strike with pinpoint precision while doing the utmost, including warning with pamphlets, text messages and phone calls, to avoid any loss of life.

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Remains of the house destroyed by a rocket in Mishmeret

The response to this was another barrage of rockets into Israel’s southern communities.

While Hamas would rather have you believe that rockets are self-launching, it cannot detract from the important fact that they are responsible for reigning in rogue elements within the Gaza strip and their inability to control terror groups like Islamic Jihad can plunge the volatile area into another war. Islamic Jihad, like Hamas, is a proxy of Iran and the regime, aiming to gain a closer foothold to Israel is looking to Gaza to do this. Iran is using their proxies on both Israel’s Southern and northern borders to provoke a war. Hamas are in talks with Qatar and Egypt with regards to easing the humanitarian crisis in the strip, but other groups are itching for a showdown with Israel.

This places Hamas in a bit of a quandary.  They don’t want to engage in a war with Israel (hence the epic excuses for their rockets launching) BUT still want to be seen at the vanguard of Palestinian resistance.

Hamas would also rather distract from growing protests in the Gaza strip. Across this beleaguered patch, the citizens are taking to the street to protest that enough is enough. Enough with high taxes. Enough of high unemployment. Enough of poverty while the leaders of Hamas live the high life and using much needed international aid to fund their terrorist escapades. Journalists and human rights activists have been rounded up and tortured and Hamas goons have invaded people’s homes in attempts to squash these protests. The leadership of Hamas has to show that they are still in control of the strip – and while rockets are a distraction from their internal issues, they are reluctant to provoke Israel into a full-scale conflict, so they hedge their bets carefully when they strike. However, I don’t think that they were ready for Israel’s no-nonsense response……

As Israel approaches a crucial election that could very well be a game changer, Iran is wont to challenge the mettle of Israel. Could this be a tactic to disrupt the upcoming elections?

These dangerous cat and mouse game coincided with the one-year anniversary of the March of Return protests and annual Land Day commemoration. Over the last year, Hamas have encouraged thousands of Gazans to protest at the border with Gaza. These are NOT peaceful protests.

Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar, spoke of breaking through the border fence and “ripping the hearts out of the Jews”. Hardly Kumbaya, but rather a sinister call to murder. Sinwar’s words were backed by tires being burnt, creating an ecological disaster, Molotov cocktails and rocks being thrown at IDF troops, animals set alight and the launching of incendiary devices attacked to kites, balloons and kestrels. These incendiary devices burnt thousands of dunnams of valuable agricultural land and fauna and flora and constitute a war crime against Israel.

But it is all about the optics!

 

No Kidding

Hamas and other terror elements provoke in order to get a response, hopefully one that racks up as many civilian casualties as possible. To this end, Hamas ensured that children are on the front line, and for the anniversary, closed all the schools so that they could participate. I ask you, do responsible adults encourage children to be active in conflict zones? Civilian casualties mean pity, opprobrium for Israel and front-page headlines. With global interest in the conflict waning, Hamas are desperate for column inches. This one-year anniversary march could have ignited the region but thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Egypt, Israel and yes, Hamas, disaster was averted. The caveat? Calmer protests for the easing of restrictions on the Gaza strip by both Egypt and Israel. The people of Gaza deserve better than to have violence and conflict inflicted on them by the proxies of a tyrannical regime. In the meantime, IDF troops are maintaining their positions on the border should conflict erupt.

As the situation in Gaza deteriorates into a humanitarian disaster, the time has long since passed for Hamas to accept their role and responsibility for this. Blaming Israel is convenient and easy, blaming global warming and weather phenomenon’s for almost igniting war, is, well, just plain cowardice.

Breaking the Veil of Silence – with Lindy Hoffman

This article is currently featured in Lay of the Land:

Breaking the veil of Silence

Recollections, Revelations and Remorse from the Descendants of the Perpetrators of the Holocaust

The United Nations designated January 27 – the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – as a day for member states to honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism.

With the alarming rise today in Holocaust denial and antisemitism – even in the very lands where the Holocaust happened – LOTL explores the hatred of the Shoah (Holocaust) by interviewing Pastor Jobst Bittner, who heads the movement of the descendants of Nazi perpetrators to openly confront the hatred of the past that it will foster  a genuine healing, and hopefully – “Never Again”.

Author’s note:

This was a profoundly emotional and moving experience. It takes an enormous amount of courage to delve into the past, especially that of your family and navigate a painful past. To explore this can also bring about great healing.  After Apartheid in South Africa came to an end in 1994, there were many attempts through the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ to try bring healing and understanding between victims and perpetrators but too few sat down with each other on a one-to-one basis and shared the experience of the other. Perhaps March of Life sets an example that the traumas of the past, when spoken about and addressed openly, fosters great healing.

Jobst Bittner greets you with a warm smile and twinkling blue eyes. He immediately puts you at ease when he shakes your hand and his presence is reassuring. Bittner, apart from being a Pastor, is the Founder and President of March of Life – a movement of the descendants of the German Wehrmacht, the SS and the police forces of the Third Reich, and who organise memorial and reconciliation marches at sites across Europe where atrocities were committed.

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Tübingen Today. A colourful façade hides a dark past.

How did it all begin?

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Turbulence in Tübingen. A march by of the Sturmabteilung (SA) in Tübingen.

 

The German city of Tübingen was a hotbed of training for the Nazi party. A university town, many of the intellectual elite of the Nazi party would gather in Tubingen where they later created an institute known as the Institute for Racial Hygiene. This “institute” would in time decide who was an “Aryan” and who was an “untermensch” (subhuman); who was a “superior” and who was an “inferior”; and was responsible for the ‘selection process’, which saw millions of Jews and other “undesirables” sent to their deaths.

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Enveloping Evil. With uniform and swastika flags, the square in front of the New Aula in Langemarckplatz in Tübingen was renamed in May 1938 to be followed in November with the burning of the Tübingen Synagogue during Kristallnacht.

The March of Life was born is 2007 when Pastor Jobst Bittner and his wife Charlotte decided that something had to be done about the history of the city. Growing up in the post-war generation, Bittner and his wife realised that their parents and grandparents never spoke about the war or their experiences.  The past was related by sticking to just the historical facts; never a mention of the experiences of those persecuted by the Nazi regime.

My parents”, says Bittner, “never spoke of the deaths of six million Jews and this was the same for all of Germany. People pushed aside or repressed their guilt or played it down.”

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Pastor Jobst Bittner and wife, Charlotte

 

“But once we realised we needed to take responsibility, at least in our own city, we had to engage with our own family histories – to make it personal.  We started training members of our church to take a careful look at their own family history which in Germany is simple because Germans are so thorough and everything was recorded. So we started training our members to ask their families “What happened?” and “What did you do?” I found a term for it – ‘Breaking the Veil of Silence’. It is now a recognized term in Germany because the two decades after the war are known as the decades of silence,” says Bittner. “Most families don’t talk about what really happened, preferring instead to say that “nobody was involved”.  But this was not the case. The perpetrators of the Nazi genocide against the Jews were still able to resume normal lives and careers after the war. Many returned to their careers, resumed positions as judges, in government, in the civil service and academia – they simply returned to their normal lives and professions in society.”

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From Erudition To Evil. A town that housed the famous University of Tübingen
associated with eleven Nobel laureates notably in the fields of medicine and chemistry, also housed the infamous Institute for Racial Hygiene responsible for the ‘selection process’, which saw millions of Jews and other “undesirables” sent to their deaths.

The members of Bittner’s church started to research their family backgrounds and each one of them discovered terrible details about the involvement of their own families. One member discovered that his father had been in the Wehrmacht in Poland and active in genocide there. Others were involved in the Ukraine, and in general, it was expressed that “Nazis were somebody else”. The Bittners believe that in some way, every single German was involved. Nobody could say: “I was not involved.”

Someone learned that their grandfather had been a guard at Dachau – but the family made the excuse that he was “just a book keeper” or “just sitting around”. On closer investigation, it was discovered that the system at Dachau ensured that all duties rotated and everyone had the chance to do each “duty”.

Face to Face

Pastor Bittner feels an incredible sense of duty and responsibility to face the pain of the past so that the trauma that affects both descendants and victims of the perpetrators can be healed.

“Traditionally, Germans have played down the magnitude of of the atrocities. We teach them to speak the truth and own up to the past. Yes, my father was involved in the genocide. My parents remained silent and were just as guilty. The vast majority remained silent. It takes something to say my parents were silent as our Jewish neighbours were taken away, dispossessed, sent to concentration camps and killed. They were as much an accessory to the Holocaust as pulling the trigger on a gun. And so a movement was birthed. I wrote a book on the veil of silence. The same silence we saw from perpetrators, we saw from the descendants of the victims. The tragedy is passed down through the generations. The silence of the fathers became the silence of the sons,” says Bittner. “We can understand the silence of the generations of victims; the pain would be too much and the silence was passed down as pain. We realized that as long as the pain was still there through the generations, we have a responsibility to the victims to do something about it. In our experience, when we speak to survivors, we needed to find ways to ask the forgiveness our fathers and grandfathers would not ask. Only then can we start to heal the pain.”

As one could well understand, the eventual meetings between survivors and descendants were extremely emotional. Both parties were extremely touched and opened up their hearts to each other. This created the space for healing.

During the war, “Tübingen had been surrounded by concentration camps,” says Bittner.  “Not large but terrifying; and towards the end of the war they were razed to the ground and the surviving prisoners forced on death marches. Over 250 000 people perished in plain sight on the streets of Germany. They were either shot or died from sheer exhaustion. Nobody could say, “I didn’t know”. So what we started to do was to trace the route of one of those death marches from Tubingen to Dachau. This is why we called it ‘March of Life’ – to reaffirm life that the death marches could become a march to sanctify life.”

 

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Breaking The Silence. A public ‘March of Life’ event in Tübingen in 2016, confronts people with their country’s dark past.

March of Life is connected to the annual educational programme called March of the Living “which invited me to address 25 000 participants in Budapest. While March of the Living is connected to the survivors, what we say is that we are so closely connected to them because we are the descendants of the perpetrators. “

Before participating in their first march, “we had not met with any survivors and during that march, we received a call from a survivor who asked to walk with us. Rose was a survivor of six concentration camps and liberated from Dachau at the age of sixteen. We considered it an honour, and then Rose asked to bring thirteen more survivors. For some it was their first trip to Germany and many were fearful to hear German, the language of the persecutor. We were at a loss what to do. We knelt and we washed the feet of survivors and at first they did not know how to react but after a while were so deeply moved at the healing taking place at the moment. We started to embrace each other. We thought this is what we can do to bring healing.”

A Movement Is Born

This was one of the most pivotal moments of Bittner’s life and from these deep, emotional roots, a movement was born. Healing for descendants who carry guilt and shame as their heritage is just as important as that of the survivors. As we lose more and more survivors, so the responsibility to teach the next generations becomes ours. While there are many who say we must move on, the importance of memory and bearing witness is so important, especially as antisemitism rises around the world.

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March of Life advocates that we cannot be silent in the face of antisemitism and hatred. Delving into the past is painful. But the results are evident. The media started to pick up on this extraordinary story in The Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times and the message started to spread.  It grew organically, gaining momentum.

“We were invited to Poland and the Ukraine. By telling our story it encouraged others to do the same. In Poland and Lithuania where they had previously denied involvement, they began to talk. Our message as Germans was if we could face this, so can you. Now we educate – we are in a university town. So historians are considering how the culture of commemorating is done. Memorial events or historic remembering of facts is important but antisemitism is exploding. It has become disproportionate in the last five years. History can only come alive if we make it personal. If not us, then who? In the recent issue of Der Spiegel, we were the main cover story with personal stories but there is so much more to do with people still reluctant to talk about it,” laments Bittner.

Many people are resistant to the descendants telling their personal stories, feeling it dishonours the memory of their parents. Nevertheless, the descendants took a conscious decision to press on and the grandparents started to talk. “They found it easier to talk to their grandchildren than their children,” says Bittner.

Silence Is Not Golden

One could call March of Life a truly pioneering movement. While the government of Germany feels that working through the past is a high priority and share a sense of responsibility for the state of Israel, many ministers resist revealing their family history. March of Life has exhibited true courage to go where many dread – the past; and work closely with Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial museum and education centre. And this has found a welcome response from Germany’s Jewish community, and in 2017, the Jewish Community of Halle in Germany, awarded the March of Life with the Emil L. Fackenheim Prize for Tolerance.

Marches take place all over the world from Germany to Switzerland, Poland, South America and Jerusalem.

The impact is massive, reaching to millions of people.

Pastor Bittner says that despite the fact that they march proudly with Israeli flags and in cities like Paris where security is vital, they have faced no aggression, something “ We don’t take it for granted.” In Austria, they marched at the Mauthausen Death camp and taught seminars. “People revealed symbolic Nazi paraphernalia that had been in their family’s possession for years and some were shocked to discover what they meant. We even had reformed neo-Nazis in our congregation. Bittner believes that “antisemitism will cease to exist once it leaves the church.”  They are also present in schools teaching about the Holocaust. “I take some experts from Israel to schools and we are invited on a regular basis and we take survivors. Hearing from a survivor has a profound impact. We have seen this with Muslim students who have never been exposed to this. One story from a survivor is more important than fifty lessons.”

March of Life is a living memorial to history and a testament to the power of dialogue, no matter how painful it is. Silence and indifference propagate hatred. After the Holocaust, Jews took the vow “NEVER AGAIN”. Never again would we allow hatred to rise to the levels that it results in genocide. Never Again would we be silent. Never Again would we allow the wholesale slaughter of our people.

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Illuminating Darkness. At Israel’s March of Life office in Caesarea are (left to right), Pastor Jobst Bittner, the article’s co-writers Rolene Marks & Lindy Hoffman, the director of March of Life in Israel, Yigal Even-Ziv and clinical psychologist, Carolin Hohnecke, who is a 3rd generation descendent of a perpetrator.

Our gratitude to Pastor Bittner and March of Life – they have given wings to our vow and a tailwind to our voices.

They have broken the Veil of Silence.

A Donkey named Hope

This article currently appears on Lay of the Land:

A Donkey named Hope

Jester loves to greet people.  If donkeys had a public relations spokesman, Jester would be it. A nuzzle of the nose is all the payment he requires.  Gali is the beauty queen with her grey coat and elegant black markings. She is also a bit of a maternal figure. Sooty has the longest ears and wiggles them proudly and Chicco has a long memory for kindness. Yalon steals your heart with his large foal eyes and gangly legs and Hope is a movie star with a penchant for a little something sweet. She is also in for a surprise because on Christmas day she will turn 1 year old and there is a party planned in her honour.

These are just some of the 250 cast of characters that call Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land their home.

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Gali and her baby Yalon

Nestled in the serene moshav of Gan Yoshiya close to the seaside city of Netanya in Israel, Safe haven for Donkey’s in the Holy Land is more than just a sanctuary for these rescued animals – it is a real community of caregivers and their equine charges and the healing that they receive.

The gentle and noble donkey is an iconic image that had been associated with the Holy Land. From biblical times to today, donkeys are symbolic of peace, conciliation and humility. Donkeys are seared into the imagery of all three of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Kings David and Solomon revered donkeys, Kind David kept a royal she-mule and King Solomon chose to be anointed on one instead of a grander animal like a thoroughbred horse or elephant. Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey as a symbol of peace. In Islam it is believed that a donkey who  had the  power of speech told Muhammad that it was the last in a line of donkeys ridden by prophets and was a descendant of the donkey ridden by Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which was also called Ya`fūr.

Sadly today, in a region that is often volatile and mired in conflict and conflagration, these humble, gentle creatures are often a casualty.

Donkeys have often been referred to as workhorse, not because of their shared equine features but because of their ability and patience to bear heavy loads. This ability is sometimes exploited by some who use these sweet creatures as construction workers, over burdening them with weight and materials.

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Dinner time

In this region that can sometimes be a tinderbox waiting to explode, donkeys have been brutally abused by terrorists who have exploited them to make a political point. During the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) it was not uncommon for terror entities to pack these sweet creatures with explosives and direct them towards soldiers at checkpoints. In the last few months, as Hamas encourages rioters along the border between Israel and Gaza, so too have donkeys been used as weapons.  One of the first weeks of protest saw donkeys draped in Israeli flags and set on fire. This outrageous act of animal cruelty and depravity has barely registered in the media. Donkeys are just not “sexy” enough a story.

Thankfully, there is an organization that is dedicated to the well-being and up keep of these humble and noble beasts.

Founded in 2000, Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land is a not-for-profit organization that helps thousands of working donkeys in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The sanctuary provides life-long care to over 200 unwanted and abused donkeys of all ages but the work does not stop at the sanctuary gates. Safe Haven for Donkeys operates a mobile clinic that treats around 500 working donkeys, mules and horses across the Palestinian Territories as well as a permanent clinic in the city of Nablus.  The mobile vet treats injuries such as those from poor harnessing, overgrown hooves and bad teeth are easily treatable and this goes a long way in helping to improve the lives of the animals who work so hard for so little.

Safe Haven for Donkeys has realized that education is just as important and help teach children and adults how to treat these animals with humanity and kindness and through the work with the owners of these animals, the team has made many friends and is treated with trust and respect.

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Jester loves to greet visitors

“Our vets circulate and go to a different village every day to ensure that as many are treated as possible” says Abed, a caregiver whose dedication and love for his charges is evident.

The work done by this organization is evident in the happy, braying donkeys who despite all that they have endured,  are friendly to the visitors who come to either volunteer or check out the sanctuary. The donkeys just love a cuddle and a scratch – and maybe a good old roll in the sand. After enduring so much abuse, Safe Haven’s over 200 personalities who proudly carry their names on their harnesses, get to live out their lives in peace and serenity in the gorgeous heart of Israel.

For a donkey called Hope and all the cast of characters, Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land is more than just a sanctuary, it is home. It is a veritable heaven for donkeys – and that is worth braying about.

For more information about the sanctuary and to contribute, visit their website:

Safe Haven for Donkeys

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I just couldn’t resist a kiss…

At what price, war?

This is currently featured on Lay of the Land:

At what price, war?

Heavy is the head that wears the crown – or in this case makes the unenviable decision on behalf of a nation to go to war.

I don’t envy any leader or general who has to make this decision.

Over a period of two days, nearly 500 rockets and mortars were fired by terror factions from the Gaza strip into Southern Israel, sending hundreds of thousands of civilians scrambling for safety in their bomb shelters.

One person (a Palestinian from Hebron) was killed when a rocket hit his apartment in Ashkelon, a 19 year old soldier is fighting for his life, a beloved family pet was killed and 68 people have been treated for injuries as well as the horrific destruction of property.

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Bus burns after sustaining direct hit from rocket fired from Gaza, 19 year old soldier was critically injured

At the moment there is an Egyptian-brokered a ceasefire in place and many have opined that we should “obliterate Gaza” “flatten it totally”. I am very perturbed and offended by this kind of rhetoric.

Please allow me a moment to rant. I share the frustration of many that we need to put an end to the terrorist actions of Iranian-backed Hamas and various other terror factions in the strip for once and for all. These terror groups hold both their own and the civilian population of Israel hostage with their thirst for bloodshed. Many have called for an all-out war with our Gazan neighbours and it is easy to be an armchair general from the safety of our homes, far away for the proverbial battlefield.  I am not a military expert and I cannot fathom, like many of you, the difficult decisions Israel’s government, security cabinet and Generals have to make. But I am a human being and holding on to my moral compass, my humanity is sacrosanct.

The decision to go to war or “boots on the ground” is profoundly difficult. War is not glamorous or an easy decision to make. For Israelis, this situation is profoundly painful and as much as we would like to deal a death blow to the likes of Hamas, we are well aware of the consequences.

War is fought on the backs of our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, lovers, friends and colleagues. Some of them don’t return. War is more violence inflicted on our civilian populations. War is experiencing PTSD (which by the way many of us, including me experience at the sound of sirens). War is going to funerals for those fallen and gone too soon. War is sleepless nights because we worry our loved ones in the battlefield have not contacted us. War is our heart stopping every time our phones ring or whatsapp beeps.

And war is suffering inflicted on the Palestinian civilian population who do not deserve to be punished because of the actions of their leaders. War is women, children, the disabled and vulnerable being used by Hamas as human shields. War is our diaspora communities under threat and more anti-Semitism because Jewish communities outside of Israel are seen as the de facto representatives of the state.

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 Fallen.

I am proud and grateful for our armed forces and security establishment who abide by the strictest code of ethics and conduct. These brave men and women protect us 24/7 while retaining their humanity in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Who are we to behave in a way that is disrespectful to them and fellow innocents by baying for blood? I am proud of a country that takes our duty to be humanitarians even to civilians belonging to an enemy entity very seriously. This is why we continue to ensure that humanitarian aid is delivered to the beleaguered strip unabated.

I hope this offers an explanation. Some of you may disagree, and that is your right. All I am asking is that in a time of conflagration we do not lose our perspective – or humanity.

My gratitude to our brave men and women of the  IDF, IAF, and security services, police, first responders and firefighters for exemplifying the best of us and keeping us safe.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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