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A fine and courageous man

This is a guest post by Richard Verber.

Two weeks ago, the Jewish Chronicle published this letter I’d written:

It was with deep sadness that we learned of the passing of Chaim Fuks (Harry Fox) this week. Born in Poland, Chaim survived a number of Nazi labour camps before being liberated from Theresienstadt. He dedicated his life to teaching others about the horrors of the Holocaust and returned to Poland for the first time with March of the Living UK in 2011. He did so again this year, bringing wit, warmth and wisdom to our experience.

His rapport with everyone on the trip was instant and he will be sorely missed. We are collecting memories of Chaim to produce a tribute to him: contributions can be sent by email. We wish long life to his family.

A short, fairly innocuous note which I’d been moved to write following the untimely death of Chaim Fuks, a Holocaust survivor I had got to know over the last couple of years. On behalf of March of the Living UK, I wanted to wish his family long life and let people know that as a small tribute to Chaim’s life, we were collecting people’s recollections of him.

In addition to the many tributes I received was the following email:

Dear Richard

Reading your letter in the JC of the recent death of Chaim Fuks ( Harry Fox), a survivor of a number of Nazi death camps ( being liberated from Theresienstadt) , I was much moved to hear that he had devoted his subsequent life to teaching others about the horrors of the (Nazi) Holocaust. Obviously a fine and courageous man who had much to say to present day society . On looking at the title of your organization ( March of the Living UK) I was left to wonder what views he had of the subsequent suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of Zionist Jews ( both in Israel and in this country) from 1948 until the present day.

Best wishes

Michael Shanahan

Member: Palestine Solidarity Campaign, writing in my personal capacity .

You can see what the writer is trying to do, right? It is so simple in its moral duplicitousness, so disgusting in its cognitive dissonance that it deserves no polite reply, no careful rebuff because the author is not actually interested in what I have to say.

Let’s briefly look at why it is so disingenuous.

The email begins well. A polite “Dear Richard” sets the tone. The writer says he read my letter and was much moved by Chaim choosing to dedicate his life to teach other people about the horrors of the Holocaust.

I pause slightly when I see the word Holocaust qualified by “(Nazi)”, but I give the benefit of the doubt, after all, the author of the email goes on to label Chaim “a fine and courageous man” – I can’t argue with that.

But then comes the killer line – so obnoxious, so breathtaking in its arrogance – that the writer’s true intentions are revealed:

On looking at the title of your organization ( March of the Living UK) I was left to wonder what views he had of the subsequent suffering of the Palestinians at the hands of Zionist Jews ( both in Israel and in this country) from 1948 until the present day.

Where to begin? Firstly, it makes no sense: why would looking at the name of March of the Living UK give rise to his question? That aside, let me make three main points.

One. Chaim was there to educate me and others about the Holocaust. He shared his tragic story with us and gave us personal insights and a better understanding of the camps and towns we visited in Poland. I didn’t know what Chaim’s views were on a whole range of things, including Israel/Palestine. But that’s not what I’m being asked in this email. The writer is actually saying: given that Chaim is someone who survived the Holocaust, and who therefore knows and understands suffering, what do you have to say about the direct correlation between Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering over the last sixty years.

The portrayal of Israelis and Jews as modern-day Nazis is a popular grotesque motif designed to say: look what you’ve become Jews, you’re as bad the Nazis were.

Two. The word ‘subsequent’ might not look like the most offensive word, but its use conveys a widespread untruth: the birth of the modern day state of Israel was a direct result of the Holocaust. This is not the case. Sure, chronologically, the declaration of the state took place three years after the end of World War II. And yes, absolutely, the horrors of the Holocaust sped up the process at the UN.

But the point is, the process had already begun. The popular political notion of a nation state, and the efforts of Herzl – and others – at the turn of nineteenth century combined to create the desire for a homeland for the Jewish people. The Holocaust did not – solely – lead to Israel’s creation.

Three. If Zionism is understood as the right for Jewish self-determination, the desire for there to be a Jewish nation state in Israel, then most Jews are Zionists. It doesn’t matter how many times people write “Zionist Jews” as a pretense to distinguish them from “regular Jews”. Study after study shows that the majority of Jews do consider themselves to be Zionists, and an even higher proportion consider Israel to play a part in their Jewish identity.

Finally, we now know why the writer used “the (Nazi) Holocaust”, where for us, and most of the rest of the educated world, the phrase “the Holocaust” would suffice. For him, “the (Nazi) Holocaust” is one event in a long list of holocausts. It deserves no special mention, no special status. This is wrong.

It is certainly true that we Jews don’t have a monopoly on suffering. We are also, sadly, not the only people to have suffered from genocide, not even the only people in the twentieth century.

But the Holocaust was and is a unique tragedy: the systematic attempt to wipe out an entire people from the face of the earth. This is why it is known, simply, as the Holocaust.

I know nothing about the writer of this email – save that he reads the Jewish Chronicle – and nor do I wish to. Dialogue has its place, as does debate with people who think differently to me. But the man who wrote this deserves neither.