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What I learned at the Museum of Tolerance

Yesterday, I visited the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles for the first time, accompanied by my uncle. Both of us were struck by what was conspicuously absent from the interactive exhibits that are meant to fight racism, hate speech, human rights violations and genocide. There was virtually nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the behavior of either side.

It is, I suppose, understandable that the Museum’s staff has chosen not to wade into that political hornet’s nest. When discussing that conflict, one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist, one person’s nationalist oratory is another person’s genocidal rant. This is not the stuff that museums of tolerance are made of. But Israeli behavior did come to mind at various junctures during the visit. There was no way to avoid it. And the associations, alas, were not pleasant.

The Museum has an exhibit on hate speech with a videotape that focuses on a racist, sexist, right wing radio talk show host. He says vile things about blacks and feminists and others, various characters react to him, and visitors to the exhibit get a chance to vote on questions related to freedom of speech. At the end of the presentation, we are told that hate speech —i.e. bigoted remarks against anyone because of their race, sex, ethnicity, or sexual preference—has a “corrosive effect” on a democratic society. If left unchecked, it can be very destructive.

So of course I thought of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s Le Pen. Americans for Peace Now has done a splendid job of documenting his extremist statements on their web site. Read them and weep. Earlier, in the museum’s lobby, I had spotted a list of goodhearted, liberal Jewish donors on the wall. Now, I wondered how they were dealing with the fact that their museum is trying to stamp out precisely what is embodied by one of Israel’s most popular politicians, a racist and former Kahanist who may well be a kingmaker as the Israelis try to form a new government.

There were other presentations about mass extermination and ethnic cleansing. There was a segment about the desperate plight of refugees. There were familiar but still ghastly images from Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Again and again, we saw the innocent victims of violence by state-sanctioned forces that were unconcerned about either civilian casualties or human rights. The accusations of Israel’s accusers rang in my ears, those people who make glib and reckless comparisons between Israelis and Nazis, or throw around terms like “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” to describe Israeli actions and policies.

Usually, I am as disturbed as anyone when Israelis are placed in the same category as the worst human rights violators. Despite the impression given by Israeli rationalizations for seemingly pitiless assaults on civilian neighborhoods in the Gaza Strip, they are not deliberately trying to exterminate an entire people.

But watching these presentations, it was impossible not to think about the maimed children of the Gaza Strip, the white phosphorus in civilian neighborhoods, and the high approval ratings Israelis gave to the entire, appalling operation. I had to think very hard about whether Israel’s accusers were right, whether the comparisons were valid, whether the Gazan kids could legitimately have been in those video presentations at the museum. The very fact that I was even forced to consider such things was disturbing, and instructive. These and similar questions are in the air now, among Israelis and at least some American Jews. There is no escaping them. And, yes, there is a risk that mentioning them gives valuable ammunition to anti-Semites and others who want Israel to disappear, but at a certain point, those who still care about Israel need to take that risk and confront these questions.

In his bold and brave new book, The Holocaust is Over. We Must Rise from the Ashes, Avram Burg notes:

When our armed forces, in which our children serve, kill people who pose no immediate threat, who are not about to commit an act of terror and are not considered ticking bombs, we stop reading, knowing, hearing, and caring, because the army uses the term “targeted prevention.” How targeted could it be when it is carried out dozens, if not hundreds, of times? How targeted could it be if innocent bystanders are maimed and killed? Targeted prevention sounds much better than “extermination,” “assassination,” or “liquidation.” Are we becoming more like them? Has the enmity between us and the Palestinians already blurred the lines between a good soldier and a predator. If I resemble them, the Palestinians, and they are the heirs of the Nazis [DF: he means that they are the heirs of the Nazis in Israelis’ popular imagination], what does that say about me? About us? We have no answer, no proper words.

Neither do I.

The visit became even more disturbing when we reached the floor with exhibits chronicling the Nazi Holocaust. We saw a brief video segment that made mention of the “Nuremberg Laws,” the codicils that prohibited non-Jewish Germans from marrying or having sex with Jews, among other things. Later, my uncle said, “I couldn’t read all of the Nuremberg laws. Do you know if any of them are like the laws in Israel? Is Lieberman advocating laws like that?”

“No,” I answered. “There’s nothing that bad in Israel.” But the fact that it would even occur to him to ask the question was also telling.

My uncle is 80, a sweet funny man, a very liberal Democrat. At breakfast during this visit, I told him that, over the years, I’d noticed that he had become increasingly upset by Israel’s belligerent settlement expansion, its treatment of Palestinians under occupation and, lately, its military tactics. He said, “No, I’ve become more objective.”

A violist, he had served in the U.S. army orchestra during World War II. His older brother, my father, was a passionate Zionist. A good friend of his had helped to liberate the concentration camps. He’d always thought that Israel had a right to exist because there was no other choice after World War II, no other place for “our” refugees to go. To him, and to the rest of my family, Israel used to be associated with progressive, socialist ideals. But in 2009, at the Museum of Tolerance, he insisted, “Your father wouldn’t have supported what they are doing [to the Palestinians]. My father wouldn’t have supported it.”

But this was more than a matter of disapproval of Israel from the comfort of a distant shore, or of lost ideals. My uncle was disturbed by other, more direct consequences of Israeli behavior. In the few days that my family had stayed at his home in Santa Monica, he had repeatedly talked about what Hugo Chavez and his thugs were doing to the Jews in Venezuela, the scary rhetoric demanding that Jews there denounce what Israel did in Gaza, the attack on a synagogue. He was clearly alarmed, taking the whole thing very personally. Several times, he said, “There might be a pogrom…” And he clearly believed Israeli behavior was partially responsible for this state of affairs.

In other words, he was worried and angry that, 60+ years after the creation of a permanent refuge for the Jews, the people in charge of that refuge were hurting Jews thousands of miles away.

At the Museum of Tolerance, after I tried to assure him that Israel hadn’t sunk to the level of the Nuremberg laws, he said, “I guess I’m afraid…I’m afraid that they [the Israelis] are going to be equated with Nazis.”

And what he said next was even more mortifying, even sadder: “I’m afraid we’ll be blamed.”

“You mean American Jews?” I asked.

“Of course.”

I guess you could say that we had a very educational visit, and that the museum had taught me some things about Israel, after all.

14 thoughts on “What I learned at the Museum of Tolerance

  1. Very moving. Why did you leave out the Wiesenthal crew’s insistence on building a museum in Jerusalem on the site of a Muslim cemetary, and offending local sensibilities? That was also “conspicuous by its absence,” Dan

  2. What a surprise! And a welcome one. We watch Zionist mythology being stripped away, right in front of us. Thank you for the honest look at the brutality and racism that America sponsors and either encourages or ignores. Coming from someone like you, Dan, it is powerful indeed.

  3. I use the metaphor of a crow flying across a gorge to describe the appeal of the left for either a single-state solution or a magic acceptance of Hamas.

    Close in distance, far in path (if possible at all).

    With the “Museum of Tolerance”, my suspicion is that there is a path to get from incomplete to complete, to suggest that the museum take a stand on tolerance of minorities and neighbors close to and at home.

    That the distance the crow flies is not much further than the road distance.

  4. Dan says:
    In other words, he was worried and angry that, 60+ years after the creation of a permanent refuge for the Jews, the people in charge of that refuge were hurting Jews thousands of miles away.

    Oh, I see. Hatred of Jews is due to what Israel does. Then how do you explain 2000 of genocidal antisemitism that existed before the state of Israel arose? Well, we can say that we can rephrase that as antisemitism today is due to what Jews in Israel are doing. But then we would have to explain the pre-state antisemitism by what Jews were doing in other places (e.g. Jews are Communists, Jews are Capitalists, Jews run white-slavery, etc). So Jews are responsible for antisemitism. Right?

    Dan also said:
    A good friend of his (father) had helped to liberate the concentration camps. He’d always thought that Israel had a right to exist because there was no other choice after World War II, no other place for “our” refugees to go
    How come he didn’t seem to worry about dispossessing the Palestinians then? He didn’t like the concentration camps so that gave the Jews to go to Palestine and take it from the Arabs?

    Dan says:
    To him , (his father), and to the rest of my family, Israel used to be associated with progressive, socialist ideals
    Oh, so Israel is alright if it is forced to live under a corrupt, stifling socialist system that almost all Israeli remember with revulstion today, so that foreign Jews can be proud to know that some Israelis were going around quoting Marx, but if Jews in Israelis return to their roots and quote the Bible instead, suddenly they are not fit company for dencent people (i.e. “progressive” Jews).

  5. Yitzhak,
    I basically agree with you. And that was my main gut reaction when I first read the piece.

    Much as I dislike some of the Bible-quoting Jews todays, Marx’s disciples, whether Jew or Gentile, were much, much worse.

  6. I’d give Dan much more credit than that.

    He was commenting on the hypocrisy of supporting tolerance of all except those that one is actually in a relationship with.

    “I respect all people. Its just my brother than I can’t stand.”

    “I respect all opinion. Its just those that disagree with me that I can’t accept.”

  7. Thanks, Richard. Y Ben-David, in #4 you commented on my uncle’s worries as if those worries were a carefully crafted political argument. Why can’t you think of them as the reaction of a worried, intelligent, and not atypical American Jew? If Diaspora Jews are having that reaction, shouldn’t you be worried, regardless of whether you agree with it or not?

    At any rate, your denial that Israel has anything to do with how people around the world feel about Jews is nothing short of ridiculous. Of course there are other reasons besides Israel why the Jews have been hated over the centuries and of course those reasons still exist. But do you deny that current Israeli policies and behavior contribute to that hatred, increase it, energize it? If you think so, then you need to travel outside of Israel a bit more.

  8. Dan-so you say Israel is at least partly responsible for antisemitism around the world. This, of course, was the motive for the creation anti-Zionist organizations like the American Council of Judaism decades ago…they said the creation of a Jewish State would cause problems of dual loyalty for American Jewry. So where do you draw the line? Leftist Zionists are willing to expose world Jewry to difficulties created by the dispossession of the Palestinian refugees, but then they say that Israel’s policy in Judea/Samaria is “going to far” in causing anti-Israel/anti-Jewish feeling. But this problem goes back before Zionism. Recall that Charles Lindbergh and the “America Firsters” said American Jewry was trying to drag America into a war against Nazi Germany only to serve the interests of European Jewry. What does it say about people who are willing to attack Jews outside of Israel because of what Israel is doing? Is it anymore “understandable” than people attacking American Arabs as a result of what happened 9/11? Chavez is virulently anti-American and he believes Jews control the US (this was also Peron’s line in his day) so he can incite his population against the Jews without any connection whatsoever to anything Israel is doing.

    Regarding your Uncle’s and Father’s support for Zionism as a result of the Holocaust….this is understandable. In those days, the Jewish people’s connection to Eretz Israel was taken as a given (the Bible, you know) and it was an era when colonialism was accepted as a force for civilization and populations could be moved around in order to create a better international order (India-Pakistan, Greece-Turkey, Germans booted out of eastern Europe, etc) so I am sure they didn’t think much about the Palestinians (although there were those even then who did, but they were a minority). Now, six decades later, things have changed….”progressive” values have morphed into others, religious values (both Christian and Jewish) have fallen prey to secularism, colonialism has fallen into disrepute, post-modernism has eaten away at the things like the belief that a democratic society (e.g. Israel) is superior to non-democratic societies (e.g. the Palestinians and other Arab states) and that(Jewish) particularlism nationalism are now passe and that the Palestinian cause represents “universalism”, years of Arab oil money financing a slick propaganda campaign making the Palestinians out as the “ultimate victims” and the Jews as the “ultimate aggressors” and so we see things like “progressive Zionism” falling into disrepute. It is harder and harder for “progressives” to reconcile themselves to support Zionism in ANY form. I see this reflected in many “progressive” Jewish blogs and I have seen Jews (more than one) just in the last couple of years begin to question their committment to Zionism that they had for decades!
    It wouldn’t surprise me if your people of your uncle’s generation are undergoing the same metamorphosis.
    Israel is undergoing rapid social change. The old order, Labor Zionism has lost all its ideological underpinnings, today offering people simply another secular, materialist, consumerist society. The old “progressive” socialist Labor Zionism your Uncle fondly recalls died a long time ago and even most of its adherents say “good riddance” as I pointed out. As you may have heard, during the last war, half of the army casualties were Orthodox/religious Jews many from the Judea/Samaria settlements. Israelis see that these people are in the forefront of the defense of Israel. The kibbutznikim, who once made up half the officer corps while being only 3 percent of the population have long ago dropped out of this role. A large part of the working class also has turned more to Jewish tradition as is represented by the large number of non-Haredim who vote for SHAS in addition to the large vote for the Likud which has strong roots in the traditionalist elements of society. This is the new majority in the country. If “progressive” American Jews feel alienated from Israel because of this, then all I can say is that we are just going to end up drifting away from each other, which would be tragic, because American Jewry needs Israel in order to keep contact with its Jewish roots. Indeed the great success of the Birthright program where young Jews, many of whom come from quite assimilated backgrounds come to Israel and get turned on to their Jewish heritage. Thus, I am not worried that there is going to be a break between our two communities, althouth no doubt, some individuals will have their identities shattered by the strains I have outlined above.

  9. Dan, most American Jews don’t care about Israel. One in five I would estimate. The McCain vote. Why should Israel sacrifice itself in order to make your uncle feel better in front of his friends. Serious question.

  10. “Tolerance” really solves nothing, does it? It’s not as if it is an attempt at acceptance of the other.

    The omission of the I-P conflict is rather conspicuous since the Museum was built on tolerating Palestinians. Way to “tolerate” them. Better to build on their land and not mention it all I guess, since that seems to be the quid pro quo of villages built and gone of yesteryear.

    “Why should Israel sacrifice itself in order to make your uncle feel better in front of his friends.”

    Since “most American Jews don’t care about Israel” maybe they would have no problem withholding all that aid and military equipment that is sent their way. Hey, America would not need to “sacrifice itself in order to make Israel “feel better in front of” their enemies.

    I guess it really boils down to what you want to “sacrifice” here: Zionism (in any of its forms), democracy, security, stability, or the status quo. It seems many are wrestling on what they think Israel should be to them.

  11. Joshua’s point about America has implications that Y Ben- David and Perlman don’t seem to care about, or fathom. Dan’s uncle was worried that American Jews would be blamed because of Israeli behavior that the U.S. does little or nothing ot stop. I am even more worried that Americans as a whole ARE being blamed. There is not much doubt that U.S. kneeejerk support for Israel contributes to hatred of America in much of the Muslim world. So I wouldn’t say that the problem is that American Jews have “dual loyalties.” The problem is that they have dual vulnerabilities.

  12. He’s right to point out the confusion and triviality of the use of the term “colonialism” in the expression of much of the left.

    Why do you consider colonialism wrong?

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