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A lesson in-tolerance

June 19, 2014 – 7:12 pm2 Comments

By Andrew Wirth:

MOT--Tolerancenter EntranceI recently and unexpectedly spent a day in Los Angeles, courtesy of a delayed United Airlines flight and a missed connection home. The first thing I often do when in a foreign city is visit the local Holocaust Museum.

On this occasion, rather than (or perhaps as well as) being parochial and mildly neurotic, it was appropriate, as the day happened to be Yom Ha Shoah.

The Simon Weisenthal Centre is visited by over 250,000 people annually (including 130,000 students).  It is described on its website as “…a symbol of society’s quest to live peacefully together… an important resource on how to achieve that goal…”

The Museum is an imposing, somewhat anonymous-looking brown structure. When I arrived, the main hall was bustling with school groups, hundreds of adults, VIPs with guides headed every which way, and sundry others.

The museum comprises two wings: one devoted to the Holocaust and the other to the promotion of tolerance. I started my tour in the tolerance wing.

At the entrance one is asked to choose between the door marked “prejudiced” and the door marked “not prejudiced”. The second door doesn’t open. A corny first lesson – we are, all of us, prejudiced.

Many exhibits were high-tech, glitzy, a bit Hollywood – but at the same time they were cleverly engaging, especially for the masses of school-kids who appeared to be quite engrossed by the content.

The Museum covered a comprehensive range of topics from hate speech, sexism, racism and the American civil rights movement to genocides and refugees.

In the lecture-hall style “Millennium Room” there was a multi-screen interactive setting for education about refugees – with multiple-choice questions allowing participants to compare their knowledge, beliefs and behaviours to that of their peers.

What is the commonest cause of refugee deaths? I selected starvation. Wrong – land mines! Then came questions like: “Would you be willing to let more refugees in to the US alleviate the problem? What about increases in taxation?”

I continued past displays covering a wide range of refugee groups. Slowly something dawned on me. I walked around again just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.

The displays were great, but there was indeed a group of refugees who were, at least for me, conspicuous by their absence from the Museum – Palestinians.

Given the prominence of the Palestinian refugee issue, this was unlikely to be an oversight. It was presumably a policy decision. Indeed, silence on this topic is hardly surprising.

The issue of Israel-Palestine is of deep concern to many in the Jewish community who view it primarily through the lens of territorial or even existential conflict, rather than as an issue of refugees or human rights.

Beyond the military conflict, dispute over the attribution of moral responsibility for the genesis and perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem is a political and ideological (and to a lesser extent academic) battleground.

Some might ask why the Tolerance wing of a Jewish Museum should even consider providing a platform for a group who had once made common cause with the Nazis, in a sense endorsing the very tragedy commemorated in the other wing of the museum.

Today, whether through violence or through Boycott, some Palestinian groups are still perceived to be seeking to undermine the political existence of the Jewish State.

Of direct relevance to a Holocaust Museum, Palestinian and broader Arab responses to the Holocaust have included accusations of Jewish complicity in, and manipulation of the Holocaust for political gain, as well as outright denial.

Perhaps more challenging is the appropriation of the language and imagery of the Holocaust to imply equivalence between the Palestinian experience and the Shoah.

For these and other reasons, a Palestinian exhibit in the Museum of Tolerance may be distressing for Holocaust survivors and their families.

Thus, as important as education about Palestinian dispossession might be, a Holocaust museum may not be the right place for it. It’s just too hard.

But this is not “just” a Holocaust Museum. It is supposed to be a Jewish Museum of Tolerance. An educational facility. Could it – should it – not have something to say about Palestinian refugees and self-determination? I turned to the Vision Statement on the museum website.

Recipient of the Global Peace and Tolerance Award from the Friends of the United Nations, the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) is a human rights laboratory and educational center dedicated to challenging visitors to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts and confront all forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world today.

In his address at the dedication of the Museum of Tolerance in 1993 Federico Mayor, Director General of UNESCO said: “…it is crucial for all of us to give new meaning to the word ‘tolerance’ and understand … our ability to value each and every person is the ethical basis for peace, security and intercultural dialogue… A peaceful future depends on our everyday acts and gestures. Let us educate for tolerance in our schools and communities, in our homes and workplaces and, most of all, in our hearts and minds…”

… The (Museum’s) daunting task was to create an experience that would challenge people of all backgrounds to confront their most closely-held assumptions and assume responsibility for change…

Daunting indeed!  The Museum undoubtedly provides a valuable educational resource, widely utilised by the broader community. It would be cynical and mean-spirited not to respect an organization that values teaching not only its own difficult history, but is energised by that history to promote a more universalistic message.

However, to really teach tolerance, should the museum not open us up to “the other” by challenging us, rather than ignoring our fears and preconceptions?

On the other hand, to what extent should a major Jewish institution really be expected to challenge its own founding community’s beliefs, fears and prejudices on such a hotly contested issue?

In thinking about this on the flight home and subsequently, I have come across several stories about tolerance and intolerance that provide  interesting context for these questions.

Recently a Palestinian Professor at Al Quds University, Mohammed Dajani, courageously led a group of Palestinian students on an educational visit to Auschwitz – courageous because it attracted enormous criticism back home.

One of the students who travelled with Dajani said of the group:

Although the public outcry has silenced most of them, they all went to Auschwitz out of the belief that deepening their knowledge of the Holocaust could help pave the road to peace. Not only did they choose to reject ignorance, but they displayed remarkable moral courage by choosing to respect the past suffering of “the other.”

One of Dajani’s many critics, a news commentator writing on the website for a television station in Ramallah, condemned the Palestinian “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz-Birkenau: “Let us first pay attention to our martyrs and their families.”

One of Dajanai’s students explained: “When my fellow Palestinian travelers talk among themselves and with friends and family about the accusation that they “sold out to the Jews” by visiting Auschwitz, they tend to cite their love for their country, noting that their travel makes them no less patriotic or nationalistic than their critics.”

Expressions of empathy with the narrative of “the enemy” invite communal rejection on both sides of the conflict.

We have recently witnessed the rejection of J-Street’s bid for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, and efforts to prevent progressive Jewish organisations such as the New Israel Fund from participating in the Celebrate Israel parade.

These are both indications of how Jewish organizations are regarded when they are not considered to be sufficiently loyal, or at least do not express their loyalty in an acceptable manner.

Then here was Mahmoud Abbas’ recent statement acknowledging the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy with victims’ families.

Had he really shifted from the position articulated in his doctoral thesis on Zionist-Nazi collaboration? Was his statement just a political stunt or was it an important symbolic gesture on the eve of Yom Ha Shoah?

While Bibi Netanyahu rejected this statement, Israeli historian Yair Auron pointed out that “This is the first time such a senior Palestinian or Arab personage has said such things. Even if there was a political element to his statement, it deserves admiration and respect…”

On Yom Ha Zikaron Israelis remember those who have fallen in battle defending their country, as well as victims of terror. Again this year an “alternative ceremony” was held in Tel Aviv, organized by a left-wing group, Combatants for Peace.

What makes this event alternative is that it is a joint commemoration including both Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Outside the event, small but vocal protesters call the Jews attending the event “traitors”.

The famous Jewish-Israeli singer, Achinoam Nini sang at the event a couple of years ago, and found herself the subject of a threatened blackban for supporting such a “treacherous” event. Joint events are also rejected by many on the Palestinian side.

I attended the alternative Yom Ha Zikaron ceremony in Tel Aviv two years ago. It was moving and uplifting to mark a common humanity with those with whom we are in conflict. At the same time I felt a deep ambivalence, that perhaps I shouldn’t be there.

Families and communities- Israelis and Palestinians alike, have a need for, indeed are entitled to, a space within which to memorialize their own losses, honour their heroes and share communal solidarity.

At a time of mourning, to bring into ones midst the kin of those associated with that loss is deeply challenging – an aspirational gesture perhaps best left for a time after reconciliation.

Compassion for one’s enemy and tolerance for their grievances and narratives do not come easily. Both sides in this conflict understandably have difficulty seeing the position of the other and are quick to label expressions of compassion as naivety and even disloyalty.

Palestinians are abused for travelling to Poland to learn about the Holocaust, progressive Jewish groups are excluded from roof bodies, hatred is expressed towards Jews and Palestinians who consider a memorial day as an opportunity to make common cause.

These responses are predictable, and perhaps understandable. It is also possible to understand how representing the plight of Palestinian refugees within a Holocaust Museum, or even a Jewish Museum of Tolerance, may evoke similar emotional responses.

However, if the Museum of Tolerance deals only with issues that are far away in time and place, if they present no sense of cost or personal confrontation, if they fail to challenge deeply and experientially, then the Museum may fail to provide the most profound lesson.

By not tackling an area of greatest discomfort to the Jewish community, the Museum seems to be missing an opportunity to do something not just worthy, but something really outstanding.

Professor Daoudi, in response to fellow Palestinians critical of his visit to Auschwitz, said: “I do not regret for one second what I did. As a matter of fact, I will do it again if given the opportunity. I will not hide, I will not deny. I will not be silent. I will not remain a bystander even if the victims of the suffering I show empathy for are my occupiers.”

Many have found Dajani’s act to be moving and inspiring. Such acts and statements resonate in ways that can transform perceptions in an instant. In the end, I don’t know whether a Jewish Museum of Tolerance is a fitting place for learning about Palestinians.

I do wonder, though, if the museum could find space for this most challenging of subjects, might the experience of the Museum be not just informative, but indeed transformative.

Post script: Ironically, the Museum of Tolerance being built in Jerusalem (under the aegis of the Los Angeles Centre) has been the subject of a great deal of controversy.

In addition to concerns about the building site overlying and old Arab cemetery, Bradley Burston has written in Haaretz:

Another primary concern has been the educational direction of the museum. Although it may be argued that the central issue of tolerance in Jerusalem is the tension between the city’s some 500,000 Jews and 300,000 Palestinians, the Israeli-Palestinian divide will not fall under the museum’s purview. “It’s not about the experience of the Palestinian people,” Hier said of the museumin 2004. “When they have a state, they’ll have their own museum.”


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  • Joe in Australia says:

    Andrew, can you expand on this Israel/Palestine issue? Have any academics or governmental institutions looked into it? I don’t think it has been addressed sufficiently, and I wholeheartedly support your suggestion that the focus of the Simon Wiesenthal center be redirected from a celebration of that man’s life and goals into something that occurred to you while you were waiting for a flight.

  • letters in the age says:

    A great article in The New Yorker about tolerance and Auschwitz which I found very appropriate and relevant for gen y is here

    Is the Selfie appropriate at Auschwitz?

    Please google at your perusal for this controversial topic

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