We hear disturbing reports this year from southern Israel. The government proposes to relocate some 70,000 Palestinian Bedouins from their present homes to government-approved townships. This is called the Prawer Plan, and Israel’s parliament approved it by a three-vote majority in June. The Prawer Plan would destroy 35 Bedouin villages in the Negev region and extinguish Bedouin claims to land seized from them after the foundation of Israel. The government denies basic services to these villages. Right beside them, in many cases, are new, modern, fully serviced communities for Jewish settlers.
Supporters of the Prawer Plan say that it will compensate the Bedouin for their lost lands and improve their economic status. But unconvinced, the European parliament has condemned the plan and demands its withdrawal. So has the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN Office for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch.
This plan has not been negotiated with the Bedouin and does not have their agreement. It is to be imposed on them. Many have called it ethnic cleansing.
Ethnic cleansing has been defined by the UN Security Council as the forcible removal by one ethnic or religious group of another such group in a geographic area. When I think of ethnic cleansing, I recall my own experience in France under Nazi occupation during the Second World War.
Ethnic Cleansing in Occupied France
Six months before I was born, the French government of the time passed laws excluding Jews from the civil service, education, the media, and professions. They repealed the law against anti-Semitism and started a massive anti-Jewish hate campaign. Large numbers of Jews were rounded up and put in concentration camps.
Much of France was then under Nazi occupation, but the Nazis didn’t ask for these measures. The French authorities volunteered and did it on their own. But soon the Nazis got into the act. They had a vast project – to clear ten million Jews out of all European countries – not to deport but to exterminate them. Ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.
The French police handed over to the Nazis tens of thousands of Jews and other French people to be sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, where they were almost all killed. French authorities tore children from the arms of their mothers, and handed over the mothers to be slaughtered. Then, weeks later, the children were packed into a death train and sent to Auschwitz to also die there. Among the adult victims was my mother, killed in Auschwitz in 1943. The Nazis’ goal was to round up, deport, and kill all the Jews in France – as was being done across Europe. The Nazis documented the names, date of birth, country and towns of origin. I know the date and number of the convoy that took my mother to Auschwitz and the day she died there. It was as though they collected human trophies.
But amid this terrible slaughter, an inspiring thing happened. There was a wave of revulsion in France against the treatment of the Jews. Both spontaneously and through organizations, French people made arrangements to protect them. Altogether, three-quarters of the French Jews escaped the Holocaust. Some ten thousand Jewish children left their families and were hidden. I was among them. In 1943, a resistance organization took charge of my care and placed me with a peasant family in Auvergne, a farming region in south-central France.
Last month I went back to Auvergne to learn how it was that I had been saved.
What I Learned in Auvergne
I spoke to many people who remembered those years. Auvergne at that time was a land of refuge, a poor region, but one where there was food and much work to be done. It welcomed refugees from Italy, from Spain, from German-occupied regions. It welcomed French young men, who the government was trying to round up and ship to Germany to do forced labour. Emma, one of my new friends in Auvergne, told me there were a dozen Muslim refugees from the Soviet Union in her village, conscripted into the Nazi army, and sent to France. They had deserted to join the anti-Nazi resistance. There were the Roma – the French police rounded up and interned thousands of them. And there were thousands of Jewish refugees in Auvergne, old and young, seeking safety from arrest by French and German authorities.
I met a man who led his community in providing refuge. His name is Robert; he is now 91 years old. When he was twenty years old, he helped hide and protect 130 Jewish people who had come to seek safety in his little town, Malzieu. He was ready to lay down his life for them. He showed me an immense wood wardrobe that he had pushed against a door behind which there were Jews in hiding.
“How many of the Jews were denounced to the police?” I asked.
“None,” he said.
“So did everyone in Malzieu wanted the Jews to be there?”
“Not at all,” he said. “Some were anti-Jewish.”
“Why didn’t they denounce the Jews, then?” I asked.
“They may have had resentful thoughts, but they didn’t act on them. They would not act against the feelings of their community.”
So even the anti-Semites, through their silence, aided the resistance.
Recently, the Israel government offered Robert the medal of the “Righteous,” honouring Christians and others who saved many Jewish people. But Robert refused it. “I did nothing special,” he said, “Just the minimum that was my duty. And what we achieved, we did together, as a community.”
Robert exemplifies the tradition of universalism – a spirit of solidarity with all humanity. This is a proud Jewish tradition – the tradition of my family. In terms of Hitler’s Holocaust, its meaning is “never again” – but not just with regard to Jews. It means “Never again for humankind.”
Lessons for Canada Today
After the war, I was an orphan. I left France while still a child and crossed the ocean. Now I am a Canadian, proud of my new life here. What does the Holocaust tell me about Canada today?
I went to university in Canada during the 1990s. There I was told that Canada is an egalitarian, multicultural, modern country. “America is racist,” I heard, “but not Canada.” However, I have since learned that racism was an important aspect of European colonization in Canada. The very processes in which land was seized and settled were justified by racist ideologies, casting Indigenous peoples as inferior savages. The Native population was regrouped on small and economically unviable tracts, called “reserves,” deprived of citizenship rights, and subjected to disabilities and restrictions. Later, such a system became known as “apartheid.”
Today, indigenous people are leaders in Canada in working to protect the land and achieve environmental justice. Through the Idle No More movement, the Indigenous community has brought to our attention the damages of tar sands excavation and how it adds to climate change. They have shown the racist nature of the economic systems in which we live, the abuses of powerful industries, and the need to build a society based on respect for those oppressed by neoliberalism and respect for Mother Earth. Native people in Canada show us how a subjugated and despised population can point the way forward for the whole society. Here is an important lesson for other countries, and especially for Israel.
The Harper government does not heed Indigenous lessons on environmentalism. In the present world governmental negotiations on climate change, Canada is widely considered to have the worst environmental and climate record among developed nations. Climate change, generated mainly by rich countries like Canada, is a powerful engine for inflicting immense suffering on poor countries. We have just seen this in the Philippines. Millions are forced from their homes and become climate refugees. Climate change is generating something resembling ethnic cleansing on a world scale.
Sadly, Canada’s system of Native segregation provided a model for South African apartheid and, later, for the theft of Palestinian lands. The sinister Prawer Plan is only the latest step in a process of land theft that has been grinding on for seven decades. And, strangely, Canada’s government has now stepped forward as the world’s number one apologist for Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians. As a Jew, I say the Israeli government actions are “not in my name.” As Canadians, we must now tell the government of Stephen Harper that his support for Israeli apartheid is not in our name.
The Palestinian Fight for Human Dignity
The Prawer Plan to extinguish Bedouin land rights fits into a pattern of Palestinian dispossession over the last century.
When my parents were born, Palestine was a successful, diverse, and tolerant society of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Meanwhile, eastern Europe – tsarist Russia in particular – was wracked by violence against Jews. Many fled the region, and some moved to Palestine. Among them were my father, when he was a young boy, and his family. But guided by the Zionist movement, these refugees came not as immigrants, to enrich Palestinian society, but as colonial settlers, to displace it: a colonial project of ethnic cleansing. This was not to my father’s liking, and he moved as a young man to France. Both he and my mother, and most of their Jewish generation in Europe, were sceptical of the Palestine settler project, and sought safety for Jews through social progress in Europe itself.
Step by step, the Zionist project took Palestinian lands, evicting and dispossessing the residents. Then Hitler’s war and Holocaust destroyed forever the Jewish homeland in Poland and neighbouring countries. The Jewish survivors searched for a new homeland. The Canadian government, with the support of many well-intentioned people, thought it proper to grant them a state in Palestine. It seemed only fair, given what the Jews had suffered. As for the Palestinians, they were callously brushed aside. Indeed the lie was spread that they did not even exist – Palestine was called “a land without a people.”
Dispossessing and persecuting Palestinians became a way to atone for Hitler’s crimes. And so we had the nakba, in 1948, when 750,000 indigenous Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, victims of a new and terrible ethnic cleansing.
The process continues even today. Jewish settlements are imposed on the remaining fragments of Palestinian lands on the West Bank. The Gaza Strip is cruelly blockaded. Palestinians in Israel suffer legal discrimination. Palestinian refugees continue to endure forced exile. Israel wages repeated aggressive wars. And the Prawer Plan targets remaining Bedouin lands.
And still, today, Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is often justified as necessary to prevent a ‘second Holocaust’ against the Jews. What a lie! The very idea is a monstrosity. It is the Palestinians who suffer mistreatment often reminiscent of what Hitler imposed on the Jews. The real threat to Israel’s Jewish population comes from their own government’s cruelty, its apartheid policies, its land grabs, its theft of resources, its long-term drive for ethnic cleansing.
If we have learned one thing from Hitler’s crimes against the Jews, it is that ethnic cleansing, ethnic slaughter and genocide must be opposed today wherever it occurs – and above all in Palestine. To be true to the memory of the victims of the Jewish Holocaust and of all Hitler’s victims, we must defend the Palestinians.
Palestine and the Environment
Canada is the world’s number 1 climate criminal and number 1 supporter of the Israeli government. Could there be a connection?
Settler colonialism is always an assault on the environment. In southern Ontario, it began by cutting down the forests; in the Prairies, by exterminating the buffalo. For Palestinians, the symbol of their displacement is the bulldozer, uprooting their olive orchards.
Often, environmental racism is carried out under the banner of environmentalism. The Israeli government, with official Canadian support, rip and tear apart native vegetation while driving out the indigenous Palestinians and stealing Palestinian water resources. That is what they called “making the desert bloom.”
A key pillar of the colonization of Palestine has been the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF enjoys charity status in over 50 countries, including Canada, and serves as a global fundraiser for Israeli colonization and apartheid.
The Jewish National Fund contributed to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in the 1948 Nakba and continues today to play a central role in maintaining Israel’s regime of apartheid. The JNF has now been repackaged as a supposed ecological organization, providing an attractive environmental face – what we call “greenwashing” – for Israeli colonization of Palestinian land. Today, the JNF controls vast properties taken from Palestinians, developing them exclusively for people of “Jewish nationality,” a concept established and promoted in the JNF’s charter. In the spring of 2010, Palestinian organizations united against Israeli Apartheid and called for an international campaign to tell the truth about the JNF.
Palestinians today are affected by environmental racism. As an example, polluting industries use the dependant countries as toxic waste dumps for their hazardous industrial and nuclear wastes. Jamil Matour the deputy director of the Palestinian Environmental Agency has said that “Israel has been dumping waste, including hazardous and toxic waste, into the West Bank for years as a cheaper and easier alternative to processing it properly in Israel at appropriate hazardous waste management sites.”
The struggle for human dignity is tied to the right to sovereignty, freedom to speak and discuss, and the right to have clean food, clean water, and clean air.
How Can We Aid the Palestinians?
We are building a united world campaign to get out the truth about Palestine. Palestinians must have the right to speak up. The media, manipulated by the elite who control Canada, pervasively confront us with a wall of silence. We face continual challenges to the rights granted to us by Canada’s Charter of Rights, free speech and assembly.
At York University in Toronto, for instance, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) had its official club status revoked for holding a protest which called on the York administration to divest from Israeli Apartheid. One of the students was actually expelled. It was an arbitrary decision and an abuse of power. The administration refuses to release the supposed evidence against him and against SAIA.
Defending the right to speak, discuss and voice an opinion is central to our efforts to defend the Palestinians.
During my trip to Auvergne last month, I was struck by the magical power of human solidarity, expressed in varied and resourceful resistance movement that saved the lives of ten thousand Jewish children, including me. Let that same spirit of solidarity inspire us today in supporting victims of oppression here and worldwide, beginning in Palestine.
Stand up for the Palestinians. Demand that their right to return to their homelands is upheld; demand that they have equal rights in Israel; demand an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
Join the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel – BDS. It is a non-violent and democratic way to unite and make Israel accountable for its crimes against the Palestinians.
Let us call for an end to the Prawer campaign and the dispossession of the Palestinians.
Palestine will be free! •
Suzanne Weiss is an active member of Toronto East Against Line 9 and tar sands as well as an activist for Palestinian rights.