Article by Daniel Robinson, supporter of World Jewish Relief
Situation in Aleppo
It isn’t every day that you hear Lyse Doucet say that things are “bloody awful” but it is a mark of the never-ending calamity in the Middle East that the other day I heard this most measured and professional of BBC journalists almost lose it in answer to a question about Aleppo.
Yet it is increasingly difficult for us, the audience, to summon up that same sense of outrage.
Over the last year our senses have been numbed by the geopolitical gamesmanship of the superpowers whilst attempting to flush out ISIS. We have become anaesthetised to the thousands of lives cut short in Syria and Iraq through combat, starvation, malnutrition and disease by the sheer wealth of statistics and graphic imagery. Our emotions have become blunted by the constancy of bodies scooped out of the Mediterranean. If we have shown any emotion other than weariness, it would have been nervousness about the thousands of young men hovering near Calais.
Yet the label “refugee” should resonate with us. It is no coincidence that the term is rooted in the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Protection for refugees
Just as Israel was born on a wave of sympathy and a rare shaft of sunlight for a people all but exterminated in mainland Europe, so these protections for refugees were put in place by governments determined that the atrocities that had decimated us would not afflict others in future.
Indifference towards those who have a well-founded fear of persecution for the grounds stated in the Geneva Convention - their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, and the fact they are either unable or unwilling to seek protection from the authorities in their own country - is therefore and certainly should be an affront to our consciences.
As World Jewish Relief’s activities attest, helping almost 20,000 in Turkey and Greece this year, mankind has the capacity for huge good even if our reactions rarely rise to outrage.
What motivates us to do such good?
I wish I knew the answer. Maybe there is such a thing as the divine in all of us. Maybe it is because of a need to be something more than self-interested. As Hillel said “if I am only for myself, who am I?” Even if kindness is rooted in deep-seated self-interest it is arguably no bad thing, especially if it is reliable.
Whatever people’s rationale, there is, I believe, a sense of pure altruism amongst the many who wish to improve and change lives for the better.
Many are also motivated by the fact these horrors are so close to our home. It is not just that they occur on the doorsteps of Europe, and that if we were to dip our toes into the icy Channel these would be the same waters that little Alan Kurdi and his family drowned in.
When we see bodies washed up, blown up or pulled out of rubble we also remember our heritage.
Our family histories
We think of our family histories. We look at our family trees. We see bizarre asymmetry. British branches cascade their fecundity through the years uninterrupted. European branches stop around 1943 or 1944, entire branches lopped off, like hill-sides felled by logging companies.
It means a lot to us as Jews. For myself I can tell you that I stood on the bima for my son’s Bar Mitzvah in 2015 with my breast pockets bulging. In one was a list from Yad Vashem of 500 children, in the other the truncated family tree of my in-laws.
My mind had settled on just four names. Jakob Fisch, from Gyergyoszmiklos who died aged 10, Ytzkhak Ajzenman from Bedzin who died aged 1, and two of my wife’s many cousins - Martha and Boriska – who died aged 7 and 8. All had died at Auschwitz and all but Ytzkhak in 1944. Ytzkhak died in 1942.
There was no point whatsoever in doing this. All I was doing was stretching a nice new suit, but it was the closest these forgotten children would get to having a Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
At our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah three years earlier my thoughts were not far away. On that occasion I read about my wife’s paternal grandfather Abraham (“Adolf”) Schaeffer. I recounted how Abraham stood on the banks of the Danube in the centre of Budapest on the morning of Monday 15 January 1945. He was tied to people on either side of him. I said how he was seen dabbing his head with a bloodied handkerchief and that he was shot in the back of the neck taking his neighbours with him to drown in the icy waters below.
But even as we recall our own family calamities, we know that history is repeating itself. Ultimately, it does not matter that the Holocaust was the largest and most well-oiled murder-machine ever devised.
Those who have perished this last year in the Middle East and those who are dying right now as you read these words, perish every bit like Abraham, Boriska, Martha, Jakob and little Ytzkhak – terrified and alone.
As we watch civilians injured, dying or fleeing from Iraq and Syria, we should think of our family trees and repeat to ourselves the well-used refrain “never again”. Not just for ourselves, but so that the callous attitude to life that the memory of the Holocaust guards us against should stoke our anger and motivate us to stand up for the rights of all peoples.
As another year goes by, perhaps we can rekindle in ourselves a greater sense of justice and outrage. Not by dwelling on ever more sensationalist news stories but by simply reflecting on our own past. By looking at our family trees. By looking at the lives lost. Perhaps this simple act has the potential for greater durability and motivation than even the most startling of images.