Sunday, May 24, 2009

Our responsibility in "never again"

“Never again” has turned into “Again and again.” Again and again, the response to genocide has been too little and too late. During the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, the world’s response was denial.”
The International Campaign to End Genocide

In early April I had the opportunity to listen to Ann Wright speak about the crisis in Gaza. She had recently returned from her second trip there and was already organizing another. The objective: to draw international attention to the Israeli and Egyptian government blockades that prevents Gazans from receiving sufficient food and medical supplies, especially in light of the collective suffering inflicted during the 22-day Israeli attack this past winter.

Boulder, Colorado is a liberal community, so I had expected the hall of the church in downtown to be filled. But it wasn’t a well attended event. No more than 40 people listened to Ann’s description of the destruction in Gaza by Israeli Defense Forces. When she was ready for questions, she offered to answer first any from Palestinian people in the audience.

A man in the back row stood up and spoke an accent and speech impediment that made it difficult to understand what he was trying to say. I couldn’t tell if he was angry or emotionally distraught. But one determined declaration came through loud and clear. “From now on” he said “I will deny the Holocaust.”

No one reacted audibly to those words. Ann didn’t pursue that part of his statement, and soon enough other questions were posed and the moment disappeared into the night.

I had always considered denial of the Holocaust to be a rejection of historical facts or anti-Semitic race baiting. Yet my initial reaction wasn’t to view this Palestinian man as either ignorant or a Muslim extremist. He didn’t fit into either mold. His words “from now on” meant he was obviously aware of the historical reality, and there was no one in the audience he seemed to be challenging.

Literalism is fraught with conclusions that lead to irresolvable conflict, and I realized I had been caught in one that promoted ignorance and prejudicial judgment on my part. It made me wonder about how Americans demonize Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for making the same statement. Is there more to their meaning which we conveniently choose not to consider?

Whether it was pain or anger, the Palestinian man was genuinely sharing his grief regarding the Israeli attack on Gaza. I could sense the literal transform itself to metaphor. He will deny the Holocaust until the world recognizes the suffering of his people and brings it to an end.

I’m not suggesting that the loss of innocent lives in Gaza compares in any way to the horror of the Holocaust. Rather, this man helped me understand that I'm not as opened minded as I like to believe. I have to learn to listen better.

“Never again” begins by seeing that we are all susceptible to labels, stereotypes and other forms of prejudice. It prevents us from the difficult work of understanding the way other people see our world and its history. "Never again" is our responsibility to an end the collective suffering that discriminatory judgments impose on people of any ethnic, racial, religious, or national group.

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by Rich in Juneau