I co-authored the following article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The Real Edith Bell,” with Nancy Bernstein (co-chair of J Street’s Pittsburgh chapter):
On Thursday, University of Pittsburgh Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace held a joint event commemorating the Holocaust. They invited Holocaust survivor Edith Bell to tell her life story, which spanned from her childhood in Hamburg, Germany, through four Nazi camps to her arrival at a kibbutz in British Palestine in 1947. Like so many Holocaust survivors, Edith Bell told an inspiring tale of endurance, persistence and luck. Unfortunately, the complexity of her story and its implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were lost on some in the audience.
What was unique about this event was that it allowed students who rarely, if ever, listen to the personal stories of Holocaust survivors to hear from Ms. Bell about her boyfriend who was picked up one night and never came back, the death of her father from starvation in Theresienstadt and her mother who was sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
Those in attendance heard Edith Bell celebrate the creation of the state of Israel as the place where people like her felt they belonged for the first time and were not merely tolerated. She told about a survivor she had met who was forced to live in a displaced-persons camp in Bergen-Belsen for years after the end of the war because she had nowhere to go.
Ms. Bell’s story upset the political worldviews of some in her audience. A student wearing a keffiyeh told Ms. Bell that this was the first time she had heard someone capture the feeling of home and belonging in Israel. Until that night, the student said she had only heard of Israel as an oppressor.
But while this was a truly educational event, some members of the Jewish community of Pittsburgh were incensed about it even before it had happened. Many called the chancellor’s office and the alumni department to voice their rage at the idea that Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace would hold an event commemorating the Holocaust. Leah Begman, the president of Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, posted on Jewish Pittsburgh’s Facebook page:
“I have been contacted today by over a dozen Jewish students and alumni concerning this article they read. I know many students on campus, Jewish and otherwise, are upset, frustrated and angry that the SJP is holding the event tomorrow on Holocaust Remembrance day.”
The article was the op-ed by Brian Albert, the mid-Atlantic campus coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America, published a day before the event in the Post- Gazette. In it, Mr. Albert argued that “the purpose of this event is not to commemorate the Holocaust but rather to vandalize the day by painting Israelis as modern-day Nazis.”
Mr. Albert, who is based in Washington, D.C., apparently had a premonition. He did not need to know Edith Bell, her story or her position. For him it apparently was enough that Ms. Bell had condemned Israel’s action in Gaza last summer by signing onto an ad in The New York Times that promoted boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel.
Needless to say, Thursday night Ms. Bell did not call to “destroy Israel through isolation and economic warfare.” Rather she told the audience that she believes in a Jewish state but feels time is running out on a two-state solution. She said she had signed the letter calling for a boycott understanding that it was a strong statement but thinking that perhaps “a boycott is what it takes to make [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu listen.”
We do not agree with a number of the political statements Ms. Bell made in response to questions, but that did not negate the importance for us of hearing her out. The essence of her message was ethical, humanitarian and prescient. She argued that the Nazis had to dehumanize European Jews in order to murder them. Only if the perpetrators no longer considered Jews human with families, friends and rights could they kill them with little weight on their conscience. Ms. Bell thinks that the “enemy” is dehumanized in all wars. Her message applies to the U.S. military’s use of drones to kill Yemenis, Hamas killing Israelis and, yes, Israel bombing Gaza.
The problem was that many in the audience were unwilling or perhaps incapable of digesting Edith Bell’s complex position. “Are you anti-Israel or just critical of Israel’s politics?” one student asked. “Do you agree that Hamas is a terrorist organization? And what about Israel’s right to self defense?” asked another.
Some people showed up to hear how pro-Palestinian student groups would use the Holocaust to accuse Israel of genocide. Others attended to hear a Holocaust survivor take an anti-Israel position.
Fortunately, Ms. Bell did not take the bait. She offered those open to listening her personal tale of survival and a unique opportunity to hear the other side — whether it is the story of a homeless survivor who found a place she could call her own or the story of an ethical woman who deems it immoral to bomb civilian populations.
Nancy Bernstein is co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh. Maya Haber is director of development and programming for Partners for Progressive Israel.