Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Institutionalized Discrimination

Whenever I'm here in Jerusalem, it is always a mixed bag of emotions. Being in such an amazingly powerful place, spiritually speaking, is a true pleasure for me.

In the midst of the pleasure, there is always some pain and sorrow.

I had back to back experiences that showed me the truth that without awareness and conscious intervention, history repeats itself.

I spent yesterday at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Looking at the images of the shameful, dreadful horror that was the holocaust is never an easy experience to engage in. Looking at models of people being put into ovens, films of people being brutally mistreated and led to the slaughter, leaves one in shock at the potential for the inhumane treatment of one another that we humans are capable of. I simply can't fathom what it takes to 'check out' to the point where you could put another human being into an oven, or shoot them from point blank range (or to shoot them at all, actually).

As I looked at the pictures in the museum, there were several that struck me:

* A Jewish man with his prayer shawl on, surrounded by Nazi soldiers who are laughing at him and humiliating him.

* Large groups of Jews sitting in confined areas, guarded by one or two Nazi soldiers.

* Pictures of hungry, suffering mothers holding their children.

These pictures (in addition to all the rest) were painful to look at.

As I walked through the museum with an Arab/Palestinian friend of mine, a few of these photos struck a special chord in us because of their similarity to modern day circumstances in which Palestinians find themselves. You could literally pluck out the Jews from the photos, insert Palestinians... remove the Nazi soldiers and replace them with Israeli soldiers or border police... and you have the same image... unfolding this very day.

I am not going to engage in a debate over the uniqueness of the holocaust in human history, or whether it is right or wrong to compare current experiences to this past atrocity.

In my mind, any inhumane treatment of a human being is unacceptable and indefensible. The scale on which it happens is not what I'm concerned with. Little atrocities, without public outrage... can turn into big atrocities.

Seeing these images of long ago - with people being treated with hatred and disdain... as enemies of those in power... as the 'cause' of all societal ills... made me cringe as I compared them to the current experience in which the Palestinians find themselves.

History repeats itself.

I learned today of one of the many ways, at present, that Arab Palestinians are being mistreated... with the hopes of driving them out of their land. In Jerusalem, near the Dung gate, is an area called Silwan. This area is predominantly Arab. Jewish settlers have purchased property in this region, and have moved in - along with Israeli military protection. Whenever this happens in an Arab area, there is a large disruption to the lives of the native residents of the area. A handful of Jewish residents can create unbelievable hardship for the majority of the residents, not because of the presence of the people themselves, but of the military protection and the 'changes' that are made to 'ensure their security.'

What has happened in Silwan, is that roads have been changed into one ways so as to prevent the Arab residents from reaching their own homes and property without a lengthy and time consuming detour around the old city of Jerusalem. There is a two way street that allows the Jewish residents to go directly to their homes and property. These are recent changes that outrage the long time local residents (Arabs) and create incredible animosity towards the Jewish residents.

Causing inconvenience for 'the many' to give special benefit to 'the few' is not a way to engender good feelings and work towards peace. It will, in fact, always lead in the wrong direction.

The resentment over the disruption and deterioration in the quality of life for the people who've always lived there is going to explode into rage and anger.

Imagine if, in your neighborhood, a new resident moved in with an entourage of security, changed all the routings of your entries into your property, so that it took you 20 minutes instead of 2 to go to the grocery store... or the gas station... or to go to work. Not for one day or two days... but forever. How would you feel about that? Would you accept it and not complain?

I don't think so. Yet, this is exactly what's happening here.

History repeats itself. Small injustices turn into big injustices. Big injustices turn into atrocities.

Not speaking out against the mistreatment of people is a complacency that allows this process to happen. The holocaust is the undeniable example of how this happens. When mistreatment of a group of people is 'justified' or seen as 'acceptable' by increasing numbers of people... we are on our way to horror.

I believe it is the responsibility of every person on the planet to speak out against the dehumanization or mistreatment of any person or group of people whenever they encounter it.

I hope, for all our sake, that the world wakes up to the doom that comes from repeating horrible history. We can and should be better than that!

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