Palestine: Lessons from the Holocaust

BY AMER G. ZAHR
The Progressive Pen
Published March 14, 2001

I sat and listened to Cornel West for over an hour in Rackham Auditorium on Monday night. I listened attentively. I took notes. And I thought. I saw my fellow students, for the most part, sitting in the auditorium, entranced, listening to arguably the most prominent African-American intellectual today.

Paul Wong
The Progressive Pen<br><br>Amer G. Zahr

I heard him talk about genocidal mentality. I heard him say that it is the arbitrary use of power to murder another people. I heard him say that scapegoating the victim is a component of the genocidal mentality. I heard him say that we must have the courage to call into question all forms of genocidal mentality and practices. He said that we need to fight against all forms of apartheid. I heard him describe a term I had heard before: "Blues sensibility." This way of thinking accepts that the courage to fight for justice is against the grain it is both invigorating and unnerving.

Cornel West was invited to speak by Hillel, the Jewish umbrella group on campus and the various other groups that are sponsoring the Holocaust Conference.

I heard him say nothing about Israel. I stood and applauded for him when he was finished with his lecture and I felt revitalized by his words. He is an engaging figure. I applauded for him for a long time because I thought he deserved it. I quickly scampered to the front of the line at the microphone to ask a question. Somebody got there before I did. There were two microphones. I quickly calculated that I would be asking the fourth question. The second question that was asked came from a secular American Jew who asked Dr. West how he should grapple with being a humanist alongside with being a member of a religious community that was committing numerous violations of civil rights against Palestinians. He got a long response, riddled with applause, but he didn"t get an answer. The third question came from an American Jewish woman who asked Dr. West why he had not mentioned Israel and its gross violations of human rights in his descriptions of genocidal mentality. Dr. West told her that the Holocaust Conference would be a great opportunity to explore these various viewpoints. She also got a long response, but once again, no answer.

Then my turn came. I greeted Prof. West and thanked him for coming. I told him my name and that I was a Palestinian. I said that I was interested in his opinion in particular, and I proceeded to ask him how we could, in an academic and intellectual environment, talk about so many forms of genocide and apartheid and neglect to talk about the Palestinians. I also asked him what he thought about Zionism, whether he was a Zionist and how we can view the lessons of the Holocaust in Palestine. I informed him that as a result of the creation of the state of Israel, there are today almost 6 million Palestinian refugees living without a homeland, routine house demolitions and a system of apartheid that relegates Palestinians to less than second-class citizens in their land.

My questions were also, for the most part, dodged, although I did get him to say that unlike Garvey and King, he was not a Zionist. But of course, as he noted, it is only because he is not a nationalist of any kind and since Zionism is a form of nationalism, he couldn"t subscribe.

I was disappointed. I had almost wanted him to redeem himself. But he didn"t. In fact, he talked just like a politician running for office, looking not to offend anyone.

I can"t understand any of this. How can we sit around like intelligent people and talk about the European Holocaust, East Timor, the Armenian genocide, Rwanda and other situations, without ever bringing up one of the most horrendous cases of ethnic cleansing this century, namely the Palestinian tragedy of 1948 to the present.

The lessons of the Holocaust are there. Ethnic supremacy, scapegoating the victim and attempting to destroy a national identity are all bases of the Jewish state. At birth, citizens are pigeonholed according to ethnic backgrounds. Only Jews are able to obtain permits to buy land. Furthermore, only Jews are able to take advantage of Israel"s right of return. Any Jew from anywhere in the world can return to Israel and immediately gain citizenship and government subsidized housing and employment. Palestinian refugees from all over the globe, who have been displaced for almost 53 years, are afforded no such rights. In the common political jargon, we have a name for this type of government: Apartheid.

Apartheid is seen as a dirty word and rightfully so. But it is clearly applicable, especially when Israel, like many other states which the United States routinely condemns and sanctions, gives one ethnic group numerous civil privileges while battering the human rights of another. South Africa functioned in almost the same way, with the main difference being that South Africa was a minority-controlled apartheid, while Israel is a majority-controlled apartheid. And they still have the nerve and so does our government, to label themselves a "democracy." Let it be known that the Palestinians are acting no different than any other colonized people: They are rebelling against their oppressor.

Palestinians are living under a brutal military occupation and just about every worldwide human rights organization has affirmed this fact. I have viewed this occupation up close, and I would not wish it upon my enemy. Palestinian suffering has its nuances, but it is definitely not unique. Native Americans, African-Americans, Bosnian Muslims, Rwandans, Armenians, Kurds, East Timorese shall I go on? have all been treated in the same way. We have our Emmett Tills. We have our suffering. And it has been seen throughout modern times in Palestines all over the world. I am proud to be a Palestinian, and I am saddened as well when I realize that my land, a land that met and shaped so many cultures, is also the center of such affliction. It is the focus of both my dignity and my pain. Let the lessons we have learned from human tragedy throughout our history not be lost on Palestine.

Amer G. Zahr"s column runs every other Wednesday. Give him feedback at www.michigandaily.com/forum or via e-mail at zahrag@umich.edu.