American Jews Americans for Peace Now Anti-Semitism Avigdor Lieberman Gaza Strip Israel Israeli occupation Palestinians

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.

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