Holocaust survivor: 'Why I back Palestine'

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A year after a murderous Israeli assault, the war on the people of Gaza continues. Gaza is still under siege — still surrounded by walls and checkpoints. Its people are denied the necessities of life and the right to rebuild and shape their future.

Gaza is still under siege — still surrounded by walls and checkpoints. Its people are denied the necessities of life and the right to rebuild and shape their future.

For me, as a survivor of the holocaust, the tragic situation in Gaza awakens memories of what I and my family experienced under Hitlerism — the ghetto walls, the killings, the systematic starvation and deprivation, the daily humiliations.

The tragedy of Palestine is, of course, different from the holocaust. Israel has no gas chambers. Its government does not strive to kill all the Palestinians.

Israel's intention is, instead, to take the Palestinians' homeland and to deprive them of civil and human rights.

Every case of oppression is unique, but the struggle for justice is indivisible. As we then fought for freedom for European Jews, we now call for freedom for the Palestinians.

The holocaust is linked to Palestine in another way. Many Jewish survivors of Hitler's slaughter lost their families, homes and communities and sought a new life. There was a campaign to convince them that they needed a homeland — in Palestine.

They were told lies that Palestine was an empty land, with few inhabitants. The Israeli government terrorised, brutalised, and expelled Palestinians from their homelands. Palestine became a colonised settler state.

Thus, the Palestinians were made to pay for Hitler's crimes.

Like the Nazis, the Israeli government enforces collective punishment. It aims to kill enough Palestinians, to punish them sufficiently, drive them out of their homeland, so they will disappear as a people. Israel seeks to remove Palestine from the world's family of nations. That too is a form of genocide.

The crimes against the Palestinians inspire guilt in the Jewish settlers and breed fear that the Palestinians might carry out a supposed new "holocaust" against them. Once again, holocaust memories are being mobilised to justify maintaining Israel as an exclusively Jewish state.

As a child in France, I survived the holocaust because a strong resistance was organised. Thousands of people — Christians, Jews, and Muslims — joined the fight for freedom against the fascist French Vichy government. They struck powerful blows against racism, whose impact endures in France today. They organised a network to save Jewish people.

That's why I am here today.

For me, as for many Jews today, the memory of the holocaust inspires us not to support war and oppression but to work for solidarity and freedom — in this case, freedom for the Palestinians. The Israeli government claims its wars are waged on our behalf. It's a lie. We say: "Not in our name."

We raise a simple demand, in the interests of all the peoples of the region: end Israeli apartheid.

The United Nations has defined the crime of apartheid as "inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them". The word apartheid, which means "separation," was coined by the racist regime of South Africa, which denied civil and human rights to non-Europeans.

We know apartheid in our colonised country of Canada: the process through which indigenous peoples were robbed of their lands and deprived of their livelihood, while every attempt was made to destroy their culture. The architects of South African apartheid studied Canada and took it as a model. The founders of Israel studied it too.

Today we see an apartheid state in the land of Palestine/Israel. It is symbolised by the so-called "separation wall" that confines Palestinians to segregated ghettos, by the checkpoints, the arbitrary killing and arrests, the systematic material deprivation.

Nelson Mandela, who led the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against South African apartheid, has said that justice for the Palestinians is "the greatest moral issue of the age".

He also has stated: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians."

On July 9, 2005, a unified call of Palestinian civil society organisations proposed a campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions as a central focus for efforts to end Israeli apartheid. Boycott, divestment and sanctions were crucial in the victory over apartheid in South Africa.

Only an end to Israeli apartheid will permit Jews and Palestinians to forge new relations and resolve the issue of state structures on the basis of equality

At this very moment, the province of Ontario and the Canadian federal government are working to muzzle and criminalise the movement against Israeli apartheid and the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

In March 2009, Jason Kenney, Canada's immigration minister, banned British MP George Galloway from entering Canada, because he had led convoy of humanitarian relief to Gaza.

Kenney says we must act against "a new kind of anti-Semitism" — namely, criticism of the Israeli government.

A year ago, Kenney said that Israeli Apartheid Week did not fall under the protection of Canadians' right to free expression of political opinion. He condemned Israeli Apartheid Week as consisting of "efforts to single out and attack the Jewish people and their homeland".

It is not we who single out Israel. The Palestinian solidarity movement merely subjects Israel to the same standards as any other country.

It is Israel that singles itself out, by carrying out crimes like the siege of Gaza. It is the Canadian government that singles out Israel by declaring it exempt from challenge.

Educational programs such as Israeli Apartheid Week give voice to Palestinian suffering and are free of even the slightest hint of hostility to Jews. Yet Kenney implies we are in violation of Canada's laws against "hate propaganda".

Kenny and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler have organised the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA), a privately funded association of 13 MPs. It is currently holding an inquiry into anti-Semitism, which it says is "at its worst level since the end of the Second World War".

This is because of what it views as "accusations of blood libel … against the State of Israel". Blood libel is a charge that a group engages in ritual human sacrifice, especially of children. The parliamentary coalition seems to be using this term here to stigmatise criticism of Israel's killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinian children.

Another focus of the coalition is Canadian universities where pro-Palestinian educational activity has been intense. Some university administrators have tried to block this by placing limits on free discussion.

Criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, Cotler explains, because Israel embodies the "collective Jew". When we call Israel an apartheid state, he says, we are "attacking all Jewish people and their homeland".

How absurd! If we criticise the Harper government, is this an attack on the "collective Canadian"? By this rule, all criticism of governments anywhere could be made illegal.

The goal of the so-called CPCCA is to have the Canadian government legally define criticisms of the State of Israel as anti-Semitism, and therefore an incitement to hatred.

This could apply to calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions, as well as to using the term "apartheid" with regard to Israel. These threats to freedom of expression aim to create a chill on university campuses and civil life.

If the crimes against the Palestinians prevail, it would mean that Hitler's spirit had triumphed. To be true to the memory of the victims of the Jewish Holocaust — and of all Hitler's victims — we must defend the Palestinians. The united campaign for peace and justice for Palestine aims to secure for all inhabitants of Israel/Palestine an equal voice and equal rights.

The day will come when the Gaza ghetto wall will fall and we will see liberation of the Palestinians. It will be a new day for freedom for all of us around the world.

Let us work together for that day of liberation.

[Abridged from a speech given to a March 2 meeting at the University of Waterloo in Canada, held as part of Israeli Apartheid Week. Suzanne Weiss, a holocaust survivor, is a member of Not in Our Name: Jewish Voices Against Zionism, and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto.]

From GLW issue 831