Learning from the King



by Danny Ben-Moshe (Melbourne)


As I watch the news of tourists excluded from national parks in America, as Federal Government is shutdown, I recall my visit to Washington DC’s famous National Mall, when I was recently in the city for a screening of Rewriting History.

I viewed several memorials of inspiring individuals: Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. People who said no to hate and tried to foster positive political change. Physically I was in the American capital, but in the midst of Rewriting History screenings, my head was in an East European space, and this was the prism through which I saw many of the city’s magnificent exhibits. One memorial resonated with me more than any other: The Martin Luther King Memorial.

Set in marble at the newest of the capital’s memorials, are ranges of quotes from King reflecting different messages from different stage of his life.  I would like to highlight three that stood out to me as being highly relevant for what is occurring with the rewriting of history through double genocide in Lithuania and Europe.

Quote 1: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, we are caught up in an inexplicable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

My Reflection: As I have lobbied and spoken out on Lithuanian double genocide issues, people have told me it is a tiny little country not worth worrying about. I find this naive and galling, for the significance of what is occurring in Lithuania is not just about what it represents for the memory of a 700 year old Litvak culture, but as Efraim Zuroff put it in the REWRITING HISTORY documentary, it is a laboratory for what could, and indeed is, already occurring elsewhere in Europe.

At first glance these developments may seem to be a purely Jewish issue, but anyone who is familiar with the situation in Lithuania will know, that those same groups and individuals who propagate double genocide and laud war time Nazis and their allies, are part of a broader worldview with anti-democratic tendencies, homophobia, and ultra-Nationalism. If they make political progress it will consume more than just Jews in its wake.

Quote 2: “The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

My reflection: This may sound a bit dramatic, but my experience in campaigning against double genocide in general, and Lithuanian government policy in particular, has made me realize how the Holocaust happened. I am not referring to how the Nazis organized the logistics of genocide, but how others failed to protest and take action because they were unprepared to go against the grain and be contentious.  I have approached many Jewish individuals and organizations to get involved in the campaign against double genocide. Disappointingly many have responded with statements like “we are not a political organization” and  “we would rather avoid something that will be controversial.”

In short, too many people are unprepared to come out of their comfort zones, unprepared to stand up and be counted. It makes a mockery of the notion of kol yisrael arevim ze le-ze, “all Israel is responsible for one another.” The question for Jewish organisations and individuals, especially those of Litvak descent, is if we don’t speak out, who will? The 96% of Lithuanian Jewry who lie in Europe’s mass graves cannot speak for themselves. If we have learnt nothing from their deaths then the travesty of their murder is compounded.

I am pleased, however, to share recent developments from the United Kingdom, where both the United Synagogue and the Reform Movement of Great Britain have signed the Seventy Years Declaration. This shows that awareness about double genocide is growing, and that attitudes are changing. It demonstrates that Jewish organisations are beginning to stand up and be counted, to use King’s word’s, in “times of challenge and controversy.”

In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked arm in arm in with Martin Luther King on a civil right march in Selma. He later wrote; “when I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” We all need to pray through our actions against the rewriting of history. One way is by typing on our keyboards and signing the Seventy Years Declaration and getting other individuals and organisations to do so.

Quote 3: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

My reflection: The Lithuanian government is heavily engaged in gestures towards the Jewish community. Lithuanian authorities will talk about pre-War Jewish life, they will sponsor exhibitions about it, even reconstruct its sites in Lithuania itself, and talk about what the Germans did to the Jews – as indeed they have been doing this week in sponsoring events around the world to commemorate the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto. All these measures are welcome. They go some way to create a climate with “the absence of tension.”  None, however, enable “the presence of justice.”

For “true peace” to occur in the process of Jewish-Lithuanian reconciliation, the Lithuanian authorities must explicitly acknowledge that the Lithuanian Activist Front and other Nationalistic groups killed thousands of Jews before the Germans arrived and took control. This will entail acknowledging and apologizing for the fact that the Provisional Lithuanian Government established a ghetto and adopted laws worse than the Nuremberg laws, all of their own volition.  Such an acknowledgement is a reasonable aspiration, and it is unreasonable that it is made to seem like a grandiose aspiration. The Lithuanian authorities, however, are avoiding these necessary steps that will facilitate peace and justice. At best, we are left with inadequate gestures that for some help create “an absence of tension.” At worst, as war-time killers continue to be lauded, we are left with a rewriting of history.


Reprinted with permission from: Rewriting History.

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