text size

International Holocaust Day is a Reminder of the Unexpected Protector

Top comments

{{ annotation.praises_count }} Likes
{{ annotation.creator_alias }}
{{ annotation.creator_score }}

There are no comments yet. Be the first to start comment or request an explanation.

Nabil and Yazan Al-Salkini, brothers and Syrian refugees age 14 and 19, arrived in Seattle with their family and immediately volunteered to feed the local homeless population to give back to the community that welcomed them with warmth. Their actions astonished some of the homeless individuals they were helping, who whispered amongst themselves, “but we’re at war with them." When our perceived enemy is our protector it makes it very difficult to indiscriminately hate. The concept of “enemy” is constructed. Which means it can be deconstructed. According to psychologist, Robert Sternberg, there are several dimensions to hate: fear or anger, belief systems and distance. Once you know that, it becomes possible to deconstruct it, sometimes with the most basic human action of literally or figuratively reaching out to the other. There is a reason the world observes International Holocaust Day. We know that forces advocating hatred have the power to lead to persecution and extermination. Evil can be normalized when a group is depicted as a monolithic bloc and presented as a threat. Civilians become targets because they are part of that « other » which must be feared. Evil didn’t happen during the Holocaust because Hitler simply implored people to kill various groups; instead he warned that these groups were a threat to the Aryan race and must be destroyed to prevent their own losses. The mechanized slaughter became the necessary and right action to take, even if sometimes difficult. It’s one of the reasons people could murder Jews by day and gently rock their child to bed at night. Fear is a tool to galvanize and mobilize the masses and we’re once again seeing rising suspicion, fear and hate across the world and here in the U.S. Isolated stories become the narrative that « they » are all dangerous and are a threat us. We sense danger and our obvious reaction is to want to protect ourselves. But history and human nature also show us that when the very person we see as our enemy becomes our protector, people change, and this change is often permanent. Even in the darkest times in history, people rose up as unexpected protectors and created an alternative narrative, that before seemed impossible. When German troops occupied a town in eastern Tunisia in 1942, Khaled Wahab ferried two dozen Jews in his van in the dead of night to his estate 20 miles away. He protected them from the area’s German unit until May 1943, when they were able to escape to safety. In Germany, Egyptian doctor Mohamed Helmy saved Jewish families. It’s little known, but Muslims from Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Pakistan and France stood up to protect Jews during WWII. In Albania, a Muslim majority country, the king and the Albanian people saved its Jews in adherence to their moral code of « Besa », which in Albanian, means « the promise », and calls on Albanians to protect the stranger as much as their own. So on International Holocaust Day, it is also important to not only tell the stories of hatred, but the stories of unexpected protectors who stood up across lines of divide. They did not let a fear-based narrative, even if believed by the majority, make them hate “the other”. Besa lives today. Muslims formed a « ring of peace », a human chain around a synagogue in Copenhagen to protect Jewish worshippers in response to increased anti-Semitic attacks in Europe; Jewish security patrols established to combat anti-Semitic attacks in London in 2013 answered a request from their Muslim neighbors to include local mosques on their patrols following increased anti-Muslim incidents. Germans are opening their homes to refugees, and Syrian refugees rushed in to rescue Italians after the recent earthquake. The American experiment gives each one of us the power to create community across religion, ethnicity, nationalities, guided by a shared belief that we can and must be each other’s protectors and reach out to those who fear us, as Nabil and Yazan did. About the Authors: Dani Laurence Andrea Varadi was born as a political refugee from Hungary in Switzerland, was extensively in the Middle East and lived in Paris before she moved to New York. She is the Co-Director of I Am Your Protector a community of people who speak up and stand up for each other in particular across ethnicity, religion, belief and perceived divide, change the way people perceive the “other” and inspire people to be each other’s protectors. Stephen D. Smith is Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation, which house the Visual History Archive of 54,000 video testimonies of witnesses to the Holocaust and genocide. He is UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education. USC Shoah Foundation provides resources linked to its Visual History Archive for teachers and students which include ; 100 Days to Inspire Respect ; and Countering Antisemitism through Testimony.