by Daniel McGowan, Professor Emeritus, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Director, Deir Yassin Remembered
“The website for RighteousJews.org was begun in 2003 as a way to commemorate the memory of those Palestinians who have been, and continue to be depopulated, dispossessed, humiliated, tortured, and murdered in the name of political Zionism and its quest to create a Jewish state in the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.”
Of all the Holocaust museums in the world, Yad Vashem on the west side of Jerusalem is the most famous. Established in 1953 it was created “to commemorate and perpetuate the memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.” Situated on the Arab lands of Ein Kerem on what has been renamed the Mount of Remembrance (Har Ha’Zikaron), Yad Vashem is a vast, sprawling complex of tree-studded walkways leading to museums, exhibits, archives, monuments, sculptures, and memorials.
In 1963 the museum was expanded to honor “Righteous Gentiles.” In order to be considered for the title of “Righteous Gentile,” data must clearly demonstrate “that a non-Jewish person risked his (or her) life, freedom, and safety in order to rescue one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation to death camps without exacting in advance monetary compensation…” “This applies equally to rescuers who have since passed away.” (www.yadvashem.org/righteous/index_righteous.html)
The criteria are narrow and clear. The “Righteous Gentile” cannot be Jewish. He (or she) must have risked his life in the rescue of one or more Jews during the Holocaust. And he must not have exacted monetary compensation, at least not in advance. So King Muhammed V of Morocco is not eligible, because, although he refused to give Hitler a list of Moroccan Jews, saying, “We have no Jews in Morocco, only Moroccan citizens,” that is not considered to have been enough of a risk to his life. And Khalil al-Sakakini who saved the poet, Alter Levin, from arrest by the Turks in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem in December 1917 and who was subsequently arrested and tortured for it, does not qualify because that was not during the Holocaust.
To the surprise of most people, including those intimately involved with the Arab Israeli conflict, there are over 20,205 Righteous Gentiles who have been honored, many posthumously. Most are Polish or Dutch. There are no Muslims. During the last six years over 3,500 new names have been added.
It is also noteworthy that the honor is still, after over a half century, sought and coveted. For example, Stephen Wise (grandson of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise) has been trying since 1986 to get Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945, awarded the honor of being a Righteous Gentile. Yad Vashem does not deny that the anti-Nazi resistance by Bonhoeffer saved people, but alas, as far as the selection committee is concerned, there is not sufficient proof that these people were Jews. Therefore, Bonhoeffer is not “righteous,” at least according to the narrow definition employed at Yad Vashem. The director put it quite clearly: “We wish to underline that the Righteous program was not designed by the Israeli parliament to cover all those who died as martyrs in the anti-Nazi struggle, but to honor non-Jews who specifically addressed themselves to the Jewish issue, and risked their lives in the attempt to aid Jews.” The fact that Bonhoeffer, living within Nazi Germany, spoke out repeatedly against the persecution of Jews at risk to his own life and ending in his own execution does not matter; he still has not made the list.
But even if one precisely meets the criteria for a Righteous Gentile, the honor may be withheld. Hans von Dohnanyi was a member of the German Military Counterintelligence; he rescued 14 Jews in a mission known as Operation Seven, was arrested in April 1943, and was tortured and hung for the crime at Sachsenhausen on April 9, 1945. But application for the honor of “Righteous Gentile” by the very Jews he saved was rejected, because von Dohnanyi was a Nazi officer. Many feel that the number of Germans recognized as “Righteous Gentiles” has been deliberately kept low (only 383 out of 20,205 as of January 1, 2004) to belittle or understate the existence of any resistance movement in Germany during the Third Reich. Hence, all Germans were “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” to borrow the title of Daniel Goldhagen’s thoroughly discredited book. (See: “A Nation on Trial” by Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn. These authors meticulously document Goldhagen’s misrepresentations of secondary literature and juxtapose his text against the German archives he supposedly consulted.)
The website for RighteousJews.org was begun in 2003 as a way to commemorate the memory of those Palestinians who have been, and continue to be depopulated, dispossessed, humiliated, tortured, and murdered in the name of political Zionism and its quest to create a Jewish state in the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It does so in exactly the same way, for better or worse, as Yad Vashem’s program for Righteous Gentiles commemorates the memory of Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
To be considered and selected, a “Righteous Jew” must
1. Consider himself or herself to be Jewish. He or she does not have to be religious. Non-practicing Jews and even atheists can be considered.
2. Have demonstrated solidarity with Palestinians as human beings, deserving of being treated equally with all other people in the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, one country with equal citizenship for all.
3. Have faced disparagement, discrimination, or even death as a consequence of his or her standing up for the rights of Palestinians.
It is not important why a “Righteous Jew” has defended Palestinian rights or whether his or her actions were based on friendship, altruism, religious belief, humanitarianism, or simple human decency. Candidates may be considered posthumously.
At Yad Vashem a person recognized as a “Righteous Gentile” is awarded a specially minted medal, a certificate of honor, and the privilege of having his name added to the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous. The last is in lieu of a tree planting, which was discontinued for lack of space at the museum.
Similarly, the award for being selected as a “Righteous Jew” is a simple tin button with the symbol of the saber (the Arabic word for cactus and meaning the same as the Hebrew word, sabra), that prickly little plant, which is all that remains of over 400 Palestinian villages and towns destroyed in 1948 in Israel’s “War of Independence” or the Palestinians’ “Nakba” or Catastrophe. The cactus is the embodiment of samud, the Arabic word for steadfastness and perseverance.
It is also a metaphor of Jewish perseverance in the Zionist quest to build a state in Palestine. Jews born in Israel often refer to themselves as “sabra” which gives them a preference over those born in the Diaspora. Arabs born in Israel/Palestine, even those 1.3 million who are Israeli citizens, never refer to themselves as sabra.
The saber or sabra symbol is recognized and shared by both people. In that sense it is a bridge compared with a Star of David or an Islamic crescent that suggests “separation of them from us.” It is interesting to note that the founders of RighteousJews.org considered awarding a small gold pin in the shape of historical Palestine, that is, all the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. But to some people such a pin connotes possession by one group at the exclusion of the other. That would not be in keeping with the philosophy and struggle of those Jews on the list who have been honored for promoting and defending the right of all people to be treated as equal citizens.
In the future RighteousJews.org hopes to be able to provide each person on its honored list with a specially minted medal bearing his or her name and a certificate and a tree planted in Israel/Palestine in his or her honor. Ceremonies will be held in the hometowns of honored recipients and will be attended by representatives of both the Jewish and the Palestinian communities along with wide media coverage.
Righteous Gentiles vs. Righteous Jews
When one compares the state-funded Yad Vashem program to remember six million massacred Jews, by (in part) remembering Gentiles who tried to save them, with a grass-roots low-budget website to remember the dispossession, depopulation, and humiliation of Palestinians, by (in part) remembering Jews who tried to save them, many interesting similarities and anomalies arise. Neither list is politically correct. Neither list is “balanced.” Both lists make those included and those excluded uncomfortable. Both are proactive and political and provocative.
The Righteous Jews list is proactive because it says, “If you are Jewish and if you believe in the universal principle of equal rights and equal citizenship, then you cannot support the quest to build a state where the hegemony lies with one people, Jewish people, who today are not even a majority, at the expense of indigenous people who have lived there for centuries.” The list shows clearly the names of those Jews who oppose such a colonialist quest and who have suffered because of their willingness to be recorded as part of the opposition. You may believe in equal rights of citizenship, but having your name on this list clearly brings you out of the closet. It exposes you to ridicule for defying, or at least questioning, the manifest destiny of a Jewish state, ordained by God, a “light unto nations,” etc. etc. And it may well cause you to be included on some hate list, such as the one found at www.Masada2000.org<https://webmail.hws.edu/exchange/MCGOWAN/Documents%20and%20Settings/mcgowan/Local%20Settings/Temporary%20Internet%20Files/OLK4D6/www.Masada2000.org>.
Promoting the list of Righteous Jews is also very political. The list publishes, openly and without apology, the names of those Jews who oppose the apartheid forced on the Palestinian portion of the population in the Occupied Territories. Hence, it opposes both the policies of the Likud and the Labor governments in Israel and the Democrat and Republican administrations in the United States that have unequivocally supported them. It is a list of people who demand equal rights of citizenship, not a fantasy state of Bantustans on a map that looks more like Swiss cheese than a contiguous, viable state. It is a list of those who favor a “one-state” solution, not an “Allon-Plan,” or an “Oslo-Plan,” or some other type of separation plan.
And, of course, a list of Righteous Jews, so defined, is provocative. It calls into question the term “righteous” which has so often been misused, particularly in the Holy Lands. It mocks the poisonous words of people like Pat Robertson, who contend, “Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land is a further bulwark that the God of the Bible exists and that His Word is true.” It mocks the sanctimony of people like Elie Wiesel, who speak volumes about human rights but not a word about human rights of Palestinians. It gives pause to people like Rabbi Marvin Hier (founder and Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center) who (quite rightly) demand that the Pope issue a document apologizing for Catholics who failed to help Jews during the Nazi period and cause to wonder if someday there will be a group demanding that the chief rabbis apologize for Jews who failed to help Palestinians during the Nakba or the 1967 expulsions or the more recent Jenin and Rafah “incursions.”
The list of Righteous Jews is even more provocative because it holds a mirror up to Yad Vashem, which is a prime symbol of what Norman Finkelstein has called The Holocaust Industry. The list honors Jews who stand for the principles and tenets of the great Jewish prophets. It cannot be dismissed as “unworthy” or anti-Semitic. It honors Jews for values that are central to prophetic Judaism. It does not criticize Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman (ADL), Morton Klein (ZOA), Daniel Pipes, and a host of others whom Israel Shahak (a Holocaust survivor) called “patriotic liars.” It simply shows that they do not make the “righteous” list.
The comparison of the two “righteous lists” is also notable for the intensity of the suffering of the two peoples. The Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews faced a killing machine, a deliberate program to exterminate, at least after mid-1941 when Hitler outlined his “final solution.” Righteous Jews who demand merely that Palestinians be treated as equal citizens are in far less danger, at least at the current time. In that sense the Righteous Gentiles list is more impressive than the Righteous Jews list, especially because the list of Righteous Jews is far shorter. The danger to Jews is far less, and yet there are far fewer who are willing to stand up and be counted in the support for equal rights of citizenship.
Palestinians are “only” being occupied. Their houses are only destroyed when roads for Jewish settlers need to have security buffer zones, or when they foolishly build without a permit, or when they are related to a suspected suicide bomber. They may be denied access to medical treatment in Jerusalem or forced to stand for hours to get a pass to go from one village to the next. Their schools are closed for security, Jewish security, of course; whose country do they think this is? If they would only not strap bombs to their children, Jews would not need to impose all those humiliating checkpoints and “incursions.” Jews would not need to drop a one-ton bomb on an apartment house in Gaza to kill a “suspected” terrorist; too bad about all the collateral damage, but what else could we Jews do? It is relatively easy for Jews to protest and speak out against such injustice. Even if they physically go to Gaza and the West Bank to help rebuild homes and shattered lives the danger is relatively slight. That is not the hard part.
The hard part of standing up and being recognized as a Righteous Jew is that you explicitly or implicitly are rejecting Zionism. It means rejecting the idea of a state for Jews only or a state where Jews have full rights and others have lesser or no rights at all. It is clear that Israel/Palestine is one state today: there is one currency, one water system, one electrical grid, and one external border. But it is very difficult for Jews (and Christian evangelicals and many others) to reject Israel as a Jewish state by giving equal rights to vote, to enter and exit the country, to own land, to have equal access to medical care and education, etc. to non-Jews, especially to Palestinians. Giving up the political Zionist dream of a Jewish state is in many ways more difficult for Jews today than speaking out against Hitler was for Dietrich von Bonhoeffer during the Third Reich.
Correcting Historical Discourse
Perhaps the real reason Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi have not been admitted to Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles has more to do with the date of their executions than the number of Jews they saved. They were hung on April 9, 1945, three years to the day before the massacre of over 100 Arab men, women, and children by Jewish terrorists of the Irgun and the Stern Gang. While these terrorists were not part of the mainstream Hagana, or Jewish defense force, their leaders were never tried for this crime against humanity and in fact two of them (Menachem Begin and Yitzak Shamir) later became Prime Ministers of Israel. The massacre took place at Deir Yassin; Israeli and Palestinian historians have both recorded its bloody details.
While April 9th means nothing to most Israelis, to the 4.8 million Palestinian Arabs living in Israel/Palestine and to the other millions living outside in refugee camps and in their diaspora (deliberately spelled with a lower-case d), Deir Yassin Day is remembered as a symbol of the ethnic cleansing they suffered in 1948 when over 750,000 were frightened out and driven out of their homes.
The Deir Yassin massacre has been deliberately flushed down the memory hole by Jewish Israelis and it is still denied by the Zionist Organization of America. This “black stain on the honor of the Jewish nation” (as Martin Buber called it) is barely acknowledged; after over half a century there is not even a signpost at Deir Yassin to indicate what took place there on April 9, 1948, just five years before the founding of Yad Vashem. In this land of over 1,000 war memorials honoring fallen Israeli soldiers, there is no memorial at Deir Yassin to honor its victims. After all, they were only Arabs. For Yad Vashem to remember Bonhoeffer might shed the faintest light into the Deir Yassin memory hole.
And that light might grow brighter. What would people think if they exit the Children’s Museum at Yad Vashem and are told that 1,400 meters to the north under the fuel tank, in clear sight, lie the bodies of the victims of Deir Yassin? They were dumped there, covered with fuel oil, and burned in smoke and stink that lasted several days. No, there were not six million, but their families suffered too. Victimhood does not belong only to Jews; the other half of the population has suffered also. They have been victims of victims; abused by the abused.
What would Bonhoeffer, who spoke up for Jews when so few others did, have made of the massacre of Deir Yassin and its proximity to Yad Vashem? On April 9, 2003 in a commemoration at the famous Chichester Cathedral Dean Nicholas Frayling offered an answer: “I have no doubt that Deir Yassin in all its horror, and with its ironic proximity to Yad Vashem, would have broken the heart of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”
The ironies are painful. The handsome young commander of the Irgun, Mordechai Ra’anan, boasted to journalists at a tea and cookies party on the evening of April 9, 1948 of how his brave men killed 254 Arabs at Deir Yassin. There were very few wounded; the “cleaning up” operations took care of them. This is clearly recorded in the New York Times on April 10th and 13th. In typical battles the number of wounded exceeds the number killed by a factor of three or four; in massacres the ratio is lower; the killed may far exceed the wounded. Deir Yassin was unequivocally a massacre. Jews committed it. Ra’anan never apologized for the massacre, but his daughter, Hagit, has worked tirelessly for peace between Jews and Palestinians and was one of the first to be included on the list of Righteous Jews.
A list of Righteous Gentiles suggests that those people not on the list are somehow less than righteous. In this sense the honor for those on the list becomes a dishonor for those excluded from it. This implies that most Christians (and even Muslims) were responsible for the atrocities of the Nazis, either willingly or by ignoring the bloody details, which have become so clear in hindsight. Acknowledgement of Christian responsibility for the Holocaust is often demanded as a step towards improving and cementing the relations between the two communities.
Likewise, a list of Righteous Jews suggests that those Jews who are not on the list are somehow less than righteous and that they are complicit in causing the suffering of the Palestinian people basically because most Palestinians are denied equal rights of citizenship. And how are they denied these equal rights in the land where they have lived for centuries? How can an American-born Jew claim citizenship in Israel, when Palestinians who were born there are prohibited from claiming equal citizenship? The answer is simple and racist: in Israel Jews are treated as a nationality (le’um in Hebrew), separate and preferred to other nationalities, e.g, Druze, Arab, Russian, Georgian, etc.
As Jews they have an automatic right to become Israeli citizens and they have rights that supercede the rights of non-Jewish citizens. Acknowledgment of Jewish responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians who are not citizens and for the unequal status of Palestinians who do have Israeli citizenship would clearly be a step towards improving and building better relations between these two communities.
Acknowledgement of past misdeeds is a beginning in asking for forgiveness; it is an important first step in reconciliation and the path toward peace. That point is so well recognized at Yad Vashem that it is literally carved in stone on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous (Gentiles). But it is shortsighted to say “Never Forget” the atrocities against Jews depicted on one side of the valley while saying “Never Mind” the atrocities committed by Jews only 1,400 meters away. Healing and reconciliation do not come from ignoring the painful history of the other half of the population, especially when you have caused that pain for whatever reason, justified or not.
Who Are These “Righteous” Jews?
A universal attitude of “healing the world” and being a “light unto Nations” has been a part of Judaism since the time of the prophets. There have always been Jews who have spoken out, often in disregard of the danger to their own lives, against injustice — not only injustice to Jews but injustice suffered by all people.
From its inception at the end of the 19th century in Eastern Europe, political Zionism has led Jews away from this universalistic outlook to a narrow, nationalistic one premised on two assumptions: (a) Jews are a separate people and (b) Jews are not able to be assimilated into general society. It followed that Jews need a state of their own and Palestine became the preferred location. Most Jews living in the West assimilated and rejected the assumptions. But the Third Reich and the horror it inflicted on Jews in particular — precisely because Hitler believed in the same two assumptions — led them to support the quest of political Zionists to build a state where Jews could have political and economic hegemony and hence be safe.
Today, most Jews recognize the racism of the first assumption, although they may still agree with it. But most Jews do not agree with the second assumption, i.e., that Jews cannot be assimilated into general society. This is particularly true in the United States where Jews have assimilated spectacularly and have a disproportionate share (based on their being only 2 percent of the population) of political and economic power, access to the media, and access to all walks of society. Nor would most Jews agree that they are safest in Israel or that Israel is the best (and only) place for them to live what Zionists like to call “a full Jewish life.” That is self evident by the very fact that most American Jews have been unwilling to move to Israel.
Nevertheless, memories of the Holocaust and the industry the Holocaust has generated have smothered the tenets of prophetic Judaism and silenced those Jews who believe in assimilation and universal human rights, including the rights of equal citizenship for Palestinians. Epithets of “self-hating Jew” and “traitor” or being shunned by the pro-Zionist portion of the Jewish community have silenced most Jews for over half a century.
Nor have believers in prophetic Judaism had any support from the larger Christian community. In part this has been due to what Marc Ellis refers to as the Ecumenical Deal, whereby if Christians legitimate or at least refrain from criticizing whatever injustices Israel metes out to the Palestinians, Zionists will refrain from demanding apologies and reparations from Christians who perpetrated the Holocaust, or at least condoned it with their silence. (It is painful to be reminded that Hitler was a good Catholic long before he was a good Nazi.) It is also due to the apocalyptic attachment to a Jewish state by Christian Evangelicals or Christian Zionists (like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham) and the unwavering political support of the so-called neo-conservatives (like Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith).
But, as Bob Dylan sings, “the times, they are a changin.” Zionism is losing its vice-like grip on the organized Jewish community. New Jewish voices proclaiming “Not in My Name” and “There is a Limit” are being heard and they are joining those of Buber, Menuhin, Lillienthal, Berger, Ellis, Finkelstein, Klepfisz, Rubenberg, Herskovitz, Tsemel, and others who have always stood up for the rights of Palestinians because it was the right and the very Jewish thing to do. Because Jews have suffered and because Jews have been chosen to spread the word of God (which is the real meaning of chosenness), they are called to feel outrage at the humiliation and the disruption of “ordinary life” inflicted in their name on the Palestinians. Righteous Jews do not behave with the passivity and the indifference of the ever-loyal, mythic German collaborator. They heed that call, feel the outrage, and are counted as opposing the degradation and destruction of Palestinian life.
Who Will Save The Palestinian People?
In March 2002 a Tel Aviv University poll found that 46 percent of Israeli Jews support the transfer of 3.5 million Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza and 31 percent say the same for 1.3 million Palestinians citizens living in Israel. Such Jews, from both the right and the left, want to finish the job they started in 1948. Who will stop this ethnic cleansing? Who will stop the daily killing of Palestinians, the destruction of their homes, the apartheid wall, and all the other “security measures” taken to achieve the Zionist goal of “pumping out” most of the Palestinians?
Will it be Christians, the same Christians who still sing proudly of the Crusades that killed literally thousands of innocent people in the name of “my God is better than your God?” There are exceptions, but the majority of Christians will remain silent, their lips sealed with the Ecumenical Deal. Or worse, they will encourage Israeli expulsions of the Palestinians so as again to drive the “infidels” out of the Holy Land and back to the “Moon God of Mecca” (as Pat Robertson so disparagingly refers to Allah).
Will it be the Palestinians themselves? In spite of incredible resistance and steadfast refusals to be again driven from their lands, they are likely to succumb to the overwhelming force of the Israeli army without even the threat of its having to use its weapons of mass destruction. Palestinians lack the organization and the basic foundations to build an independent state, particularly on the disconnected Bantustans to which they are confined in historical Palestine. After all these years, the Palestinian Authority is still corrupt, nepotistic, and misogynistic. And it lacks real support, particularly political and financial support, from Palestinians in their diaspora. The best thing Palestinians can hope for from the Palestinian Authority is that it will have the courage to dissolve itself and to plead to the world for “one man, one vote in a unitary state,” as was the plea by the majority of black South Africans during their Anti-Apartheid struggle.
Will it be the United States? This is almost a joke. The United States has stood by and even supported ethnic cleansing in East Timor, Guatemala, and the Balkans, countries where it had none of the “passionate attachment” that it has had with Israel since 1948, and especially since 1967. If Ariel Sharon wants to load Palestinians on buses (boxcars would be just too much) and ship them to Syria or Jordan, both Democrats and Republicans will fight to sponsor bills sending him more foreign aid.
Nor will it be the European Union, or Russia, or any coalition of Muslim or other countries. The only group who will effectively stop such a transfer scenario will be Jews, Righteous Jews and other Jews, who acknowledge that this is the odious result of building a Jewish state on land belonging to another people. Transfer is the culmination of creating a state for one people when the majority of the population is deemed to be an alien, inferior people, like the Palestinians. You cannot have a “Jewish State,” let alone a democracy, when the majority of the population is comprised of the Children of a Lesser God.
As the situation worsens and we approach the day of transfer, the ranks of RighteousJews.org will swell. Already we see Avraham Burg, Meron Benvenisti, Tony Judt, and Daniel Gavron choose Judaism over Zionism, simply by choosing equal rights of citizenship for all people in historical Palestine. But whether the “righteous” will prevail or whether Israel will follow the path of belligerent nationalism and racism leading to transfer of its Palestinian population, only time can tell.
Professor Emeritus of Economics: Hobart and William Smith Colleges, since June 1983.
Human Rights Delegate, Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Eyewitness Israel, summer 1989.
Founder and Executive Director, Deir Yassin Remembered, an international organization of Jews and non-Jews working to build a truth and reconciliation center at Deir Yassin on the west side of Jerusalem across the valley from Yad Vashem, 1994 to present.
Founder of RighteousJews.Org, an organization dedicated to honoring Jews who endorse equal rights of citizenship for all those living in Israel/Palestine, 2001 to present.
Academic Forensic Economics Consumer Economics
Fields of Macroeconomic Theory The Economies of West Bank and Gaza
Interest Personal Finance Monetary Theory & Public Policy
Interests Wood and metal shop, carpentry, automotive repair, hunting, fishing, hiking.
Professional Eastern Economic Association (Founding Member)
and Personal National Rifle Association (Life Member)
Affiliations Consumers Union (Life Member)
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
National Association of Forensic Economists
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