Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Whose lives matter?

In June I was part of a group of Jewish teachers visiting the Center for Humanity and Holocaust Education in Cincinnati.

The Center houses a small museum, focusing on the experiences of Holocaust survivors and liberators who later lived in Cincinnati. Its main function, however, is outreach to secular educators, especially teachers in public and Catholic schools. It is somewhat unusual for a group of Jewish educators to attend one of its seminars.

Some of us were distressed by a forced-choice exercise in which each participant had to choose one of six listed reasons for teaching about the Holocaust. Although all six reasons were valid, not one of them mentioned the six million Jews who had been killed. We felt that, in its zeal to apply learning from the Holocaust to contemporary situations, the Center had gone too far in universalizing the history.

Our reactions there helped me to understand the mixed responses to the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. When people try to replace the slogan with “All Lives Matter”—which is true—they deny the experiences of Black Americans.

Perhaps this is because when a white person hears “Black Lives Matter” he or she may interpret it as “white lives don’t matter” and “my life doesn’t matter.” But when a black person hears “All Lives Matter,” it may come across as “black lives don’t matter as much.”

Here’s a helpful illustration. If you go to the emergency room with a broken arm, you don’t want the doctor to say, “All bones matter.” You want the doctor to treat the bone that is broken, not the ones that aren’t.

Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement had adopted a platform with an anti-Israel plank. Why the movement needed to adopt any platform, and why it needed to involve itself in the Middle East, is impossible to explain. Nevertheless, regardless of any issues we have with the movement, we must say that black lives matter.

Although my group objected to the omission of the Jewish victims from the six choices, all teachers attending a seminar would already know that six million Jews, constituting the largest group of Nazi victims, were killed.

They would also know that there were other victims, including ethnic minorities such as the Roma and Sinti, opponents of the Nazi regime including German communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Polish civilians, and the physically or mentally infirm. A display in the Cincinnati museum lists the total of non-Jewish victims as six million, including Red Army prisoners of war who were executed.

It could be argued that we sometimes efface history by portraying ourselves as the principal—or even the only—victims of Nazi murder. However, I believe that, were it not for Hitler’s extreme hatred of Jews, the mass killing system might never have been created.

Some Jewish organizations, especially the Anti-Defamation League, have sought to keep other campaigns of genocide from being recognized. In particular, the ADL refused for many years to acknowledge the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by Turkish forces in 1915 as genocide. Worse, these organizations lobbied Congress to keep the U.S. government from recognizing it.

The reasons for this were murky. Pressure from the government of Israel may have been a factor, because Israel had a secret military alliance with Turkey. Risk of offending Turkey would also concern the United States, which has military bases in Turkey. It’s also possible that Jewish groups felt that acknowledging the Armenian genocide would detract from the memory of the Shoah.

In May of this year, however, the executive director of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, wrote, “What happened to the Armenian people was unequivocally genocide.”

Greenblatt went on to say, “We believe that remembering and educating about any genocide—Armenian, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, and others—is a necessary tool to prevent future tragedies. . . . That is why I am speaking out today and why we would support US recognition of the Armenian Genocide.”

That sounds slightly, but only slightly, like “all genocides matter”—which is true. But it specifically acknowledged the genocide in Armenia. When some of us proclaim, “All lives matter,” do we mean “including black lives”?