Epstein hopes Gazans will be ‘free to pursue their lives in dignity’

Hedy Epstein

July 07, 2010, Wednesday/ 17:28:00
Hedy Epstein has been fighting the good fight for more than 60 of her 86 years. She escaped death in 1939 by being placed on one of the British-sponsored Kindertransport ships that carried more than 10,000 children to England and Northern Ireland.

Both her parents and almost all of her family perished at Auschwitz. Arriving in the US in 1948, she embarked on a lifelong campaign of conscience, speaking out for reproductive rights, fair housing and peace. She has raised her voice in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Cambodia. “My lesson [from the Holocaust] is that when I see injustice -- I don't care who is responsible -- I must do what I can.”

In 1982, following the Israeli-sanctioned massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, her attention began to focus on Palestine and its suffering. In 2001 she founded the St. Louis chapter of Women in Black -- the international women's peace organization.

In 1982, following the Israeli-sanctioned massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Hedy Epstein's attention began to focus on Palestine and its suffering. In 2001 she founded the St. Louis chapter of Women in Black -- the international women's peace organization. In 2009 she joined the 1,000 activists on the Gaza Freedom March. Ms. Epstein spoke about her cases in an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman

In 2009 she joined the 1,000 activists on the Gaza Freedom March, which attempted to enter Gaza from Egypt. During that march she embarked on a hunger strike in solidarity with the Palestinians. She has visited the Occupied Territories five times since 2003. Most recently she was in Cyprus offering logistical support for the Gaza flotilla.

According to the website discoverthenetworks.org, “She proudly reports that she has rewritten the post-Holocaust motto, ‘Never again!’: ‘As I stood next to the 25-foot high cement wall in Qalqilya, I coined this phrase: “Never Again (for Jews), Again by Jews”.”

Her autobiography, published in 1999, is fittingly titled “Remembering is Not Enough.” Shortly after her return to the US from Cyprus, Ms. Epstein spoke in an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman.

Ms. Epstein, your critics claim that because you are a Holocaust survivor you should be especially sensitive to the survival of Israel. How do you reconcile that with your advocacy for Palestinian rights?

In some ways my being a Holocaust survivor has nothing to do with my criticism of Israel’s policies and practices. On the other hand, it is this very experience that has sensitized me to the suffering of others, especially of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli government and military. What is the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust? It is that the victims and their descendants should not become victimizers of “the other,” in this case, the Palestinians.

You describe yourself as “anti-Zionist.” What is the origin of that philosophy?

I was born in Freiburg, a village in the Black Forest. All the Jewish children belonged to a Zionist youth organization -- I was the only one who didn’t belong, because my parents were anti-Zionist. When Hitler came to power in 1933, I was 8 years old. My parents very quickly realized that they had to leave Germany. They were willing to go anywhere in the world: “nur raus!” -- just get out!

‘When I see injustice, I don’t care who is responsible,’ says activist Epstein.

But they would not go to Palestine because they did not believe in Zionism. As a young child I did not completely understand Zionism or anti-Zionism -- but if my parents were anti-Zionist, I was too.

In 1948, about the same time that Israel was created, I arrived in the US. I had mixed feelings then about Israel. On the one hand, I was glad that there was a place for Holocaust survivors who could not, or chose not to, return to their place of origin. But on the other hand, I remembered my parents’ anti-Zionism. What would happen I could not guess -- but I feared that no good would come of the birth of the state of Israel. I was new to the US, having new experiences and new things to learn and Israel/Palestine stayed on the back burner of my interest and remained there until 1982, when I read about the Israeli-sanctioned massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. I knew that I needed to find out exactly what happened there. Who was responsible? Who had been adversely affected? What had happened between 1948 and 1982, when I was paying little attention to that part of the world?

As I learned more, I became increasingly disturbed by the policies and practices of the Israeli government and military vis-a-vis the Palestinians and their land. I began to speak out against these policies and practices.

In 2003 I went to the Israeli-occupied West Bank for the first time and have been back there five times since, most recently with the Gaza flotilla. I have tried unsuccessfully four times to enter Gaza, but permission has repeatedly been denied. They say that I am a “security risk”! An 86-year-old woman!

Earlier this month, you told The Guardian, “The mainstream American Jewish community almost speak in one voice and if you dare to criticize Israel you are called anti-Semitic and if you are Jewish you’re called self-hating, a traitor.” How do you react to accusations that advocating for human rights in Palestine equals anti-Semitism?

Naturally, being called a “self-hating Jew” or “a traitor” is not among my most pleasant experiences. However, such remarks have not and will not stop me from doing what my conscience tells me is the right thing to do.

Last year, when you were in Egypt as a member of the Gaza Freedom March, you said, “My message is for the world governments to wake up and treat Israel like they treat any other country and not to be afraid to reprimand and criticize Israel for its violent policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians.” Why do you believe there is such reluctance on the part of the world’s governments? What are they afraid of?

Fear of being accused of being anti-Semitic. ... In Germany, guilt feelings about the Holocaust also play a significant role.

Despite the fact that there is a growing pro-Palestinian rights movement in Israel, the great majority of Israelis still believes that the current state of affairs in Gaza and Israeli policies are correct. Does this indicate a national apathy to suffering?

I believe this is changing, especially after the Israeli massacre in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 and especially after the attack on the Gaza flotilla.

The average Israeli who is not politically savvy believes the government mantra that Israel is constantly under attack and is the victim -- and he/she also believes in the demonization of the Palestinians. Most Israelis are not really aware of the extent of the suffering of the Palestinian people, who may live just a short distance from them.

Israelis do not visit the Occupied Territories because they have been ordered not to go there. Yes, there is apathy, of living smugly in a very small world, not knowing and not wanting to know what is really and truly taking place in their names.

What is the underlying reason for this national apathy?

There are several explanations: Fear of “the other,” who has been described as “a terrorist”... government-initiated PR ... a complicit media that serves only as a government tool by misrepresenting the reality and plays on the existing fear by fear-mongering.

Are you satisfied with President Barack Obama’s response to the flotilla murders?

Absolutely not! Surely, he knows better. In his younger years, when he befriended Edward Said, Obama was clearly advocating for Palestinian rights. But when he came to the White House, he surrounded himself with pro-Israeli neocons like Rahm Emanuel. Where is President Obama’s backbone? Why is he so afraid of AIPAC -- the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? Do the pro-Israel folks have something on Obama?

If you could meet President Obama what would you advise?

I will probably not have that opportunity, but if I did, I would ask only one question: “What would your mentor Edward Said say about your position on the Israeli-Palestine question?”

As you are certainly aware, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel and, furthermore, Jews have enjoyed a climate of tolerance in Turkey for more than 500 years. Are you satisfied with the reaction of the Turkish government to the flotilla massacre? What advice would you give Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?

Turkey’s reaction is much like what the reaction of what any other country would be in similar circumstances. The flotilla attack was an attack on the sovereignty of Turkey, but the relationship between Turkey and Israel has been deteriorating recently as a result of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s outspokenness. We can also recall the meeting between Israeli and Turkish diplomats at which the Turkish representative was purposely seated at a lower level than the Israeli.

But it would be presumptuous of me to give advice to the Turkish prime minister.

Are you optimistic about the future of Gaza?

I am an eternal optimist and so I continue to hope that some day Gaza and its people will be free and able to pursue their lives in dignity -- a dignity that will prevail, despite all odds against them.

Finally, may I add a message of condolence to the families of the Mavi Marmara victims?

It is impossible to express the deep sympathy I feel for you. I wish so very much that I could lift the feelings of emptiness and disappointment from your hearts. It is very hard to understand why something like this had to happen. Life is so very unfair at times. Words are so inadequate at a time like this. I do want you to know that the memory of your loved ones is in my constant thoughts, as are you, who have lost so very much.

There will be many difficult times and tasks ahead of you. At this distance (I live in the United States) I don’t know what I can do to be of most help to you, but I hope you will give me the opportunity to be your friend by letting me know if there is any way that I can be of comfort and assistance to you.

* Mark Lieberman is a lecturer at İstanbul Technical University.

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