What does one wear to visit a concentration camp?
Certainly not stripes, I thought to myself as I dressed that morning. In mid-March, I visited the death camps Auschwitz and Birkenau. Though I have been desensitized to the Holocaust over time (due to books, museums and classroom discussions), this visit freshly traumatized me. Not as a Jew, but as a human, I was traumatized.
I felt a similar trauma when, several months ago, I read an end-of-year list of political developments for 2014 and saw “the recurrence of mainstream anti-Semitism.” Again, not as a Jew, but as a human, my heart sped up.
In the past months especially, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has inflamed many people in the West. My fellow students have even argued against the creation of the state of Israel in the first place.
Well, I can confidently say that after visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau today, I feel the UN was right to create Israel. The gas chambers are long cleansed of the stench of death, but the marks of fingernails scratching at the chamber walls remain. After the concentrated murders of millions of innocent people with faces and names, the establishment of a safe space for Jews seems only moral. However, Israel has not been a safe space.
Anti-Semitism has flared recently over the disproportionate killing of Gazans by Israel — although it’s important to note the firing of rockets from Gaza directed at Israel. I understand that many in the world — including so many of my fellow students — are, in their compassion, angry at Israel for the impoverished, stateless condition of Palestinians. While I am angrier with Hamas for squandering the land given to them and making war rather than building safe livelihoods for their people, I am angry with Israel too — despite the fact that I identify as Jewish. But Israel needs to exist, and there is no reason to hate Jewish people simply because you disagree with the current government of Israel.
The point I want to make is that political opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be expressed through anti-religious sentiment, be it anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any form of xenophobia. On both sides of this conflict, the main troublemaking groups are small subsections of the population. Even if they claim religious justification for their actions, they must not be regarded as representative of the religions as a whole. Extreme right-wing Jews are a small minority of the Israeli populace. Hamas assassin-martyrs do not represent all Palestinians.
This lesson should be familiar: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to inextricably link politics with religion, as humans, we should know better. Political opinions should not translate into hatred of a group of people, or a so-called “Jewish race.” We all form part of the human race.
After visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, I am reminded of just how easily human nature can spiral into horrific, nearly inconceivable actions, especially when groups deny their common humanity. As humans, we need to recognize how unfounded anti-Semitism is, and how dangerous it is to link support for Palestinian statehood to hatred of Jews worldwide.
This sentiment is timely — a mob attacked a synagogue in London this week, not just vandalizing the property, but ripping prayer books and assaulting the people inside. It is unclear if the incident was completely motivated by anti-Semitism, but reports say members of the mob chanted “Kill the Jews!” Anti-Semitic events leading up to 1939 began in much the same way. A recent article in the Huffington Post reported that 54 percent of 1,157 Jewish students surveyed experienced anti-Semitism at American universities in the first half of the 2013-2014 year. These incidents were largely from students themselves, and sometimes in clubs or societies.
Concerning Israeli-Palestinian politics, I note Amnesty International’s recent report that outlines war crimes committed by the Gaza leadership against their own people. Israel is also accused of war crimes, based on their military response, though Israel’s attacks are in response to Gaza rockets. I find it hard to pity Hamas when it uses its own citizens as a shield to blame Israel for creating collateral damage, or when the Palestinian leadership has refused to sign onto numerous peace-and-land agreements over the past 60 years. However others may interpret these facts, the ultimate point is that these are political considerations that should never be translated into hatred for a religious group.
At the end of the day, after my death-camp visit, I above all feel an immense fear at the darkness of human capabilities, and revulsion that anti-Semitism is on the rise once more. Please consider that it is okay to dislike Israel’s current political position towards the Palestinians. It is not kosher to hate Jews — or anyone.
Email Arkady Silverman at [email protected].wm.edu.