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Chill Story in a Warmer Clime

We must never forget

It's a poisonous topic, but I'm compelled to write about it.

THE WINTER OF 1946-47 was long and cold in northern Montana. On Christmas Day my father pulled me on my brand-new sled to a neighbor's house, where we borrowed a load of firewood that we stacked on our back porch. I seem to remember that the thermometer read --55 that day, but childhood memories are notoriously suspect. Nonetheless, it was very cold. Flathead Lake froze so thick people drove across the ice for two months to save a 30 or 40 mile trip.

That two-week Christmas break turned into three weeks, thanks to a blizzard that left a 15-foot snowdrift across the road to the school. (We exultant students would have tempered our celebratory mindset had we known that we would have to attend school five Saturdays that spring to make up for those missed days.)

That winter probably seemed even longer and colder to my father, not long home from his Army Air Corps service on Canton Island in the South Pacific. He was superintendent of schools in our tiny sawmill town, and often brought home the school's 16mm sound projector on weekends—our television and movies. As 7-year-olds do, I learned to thread, project, and rewind that old Bell & Howell. Dad brought home a collection of films for that Christmas holiday, mostly Castle Films—cartoons, comedies, and his beloved westerns: Bob Steele, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson.

And a silent, black-and-white U.S. Army Signal Corps film that showed the entry of U.S. Army units into a death camp. I can never forget those images. The approach to the camp, hundreds of impossibly thin men in filthy striped uniforms, hands clinging to the wire fence, staring with huge, hollowed, unblinking eyes. Seventy years later I can see those eyes without shutting my own.

Then through the gates. The ghostly figures parted, the cameraman entered the buildings. Beds were nothing more than shelves. Shadowy light slanted through tiny windows. More staring eyes in the faces of people too weak to leave their bed.

Finally, deep into the camp, the trenches. Men standing there also, staring vacantly, standing at the edge of these vast trenches filled with bodies. Hundreds of bodies, thousands of bodies, naked bodies that were little more than bones with skin stretched over them, bodies stacked helter-skelter like jackstraws. The men standing at the trenches were as thin as the bodies in them; my 7-year-old mind couldn't understand how anyone could be so thin and still be alive, couldn't understand how there could be so many bodies.

Over and over I watched that Signal Corps film that long Christmas holiday, sitting in a cold, dark living room lit by flickering images on a sheet tacked to the wall, the only sound the whirring and clicking of the projector. My mother finally made me stop.

Fast forward 25 years. My wife and I are on the train from Munich to Salzburg, the Orient Express. Not far out of Munich, a woman asked if she could join us because her compartment was noisy and smoky. She wore a tweed suit and sensible shoes, spoke English with a plummy RP accent. We assumed she was British, but she told us she was German and learned English when she spent several years in England between the wars.

She and her husband and daughter lived in East Prussia. Her husband was killed at Stalingrad, and when the Russian army marched into Poland she and her six-year-old daughter fled. They walked hundreds of miles, to Munich. It was a harrowing tale of a frightful trip, filled with cold and hunger and fear and exhaustion and a near-rape.

They survived. She found a job with the U.S. Army as a translator, worked at the Nuremberg trials as a simultaneous interpreter. The trials, she informed us, were a sham, nothing but distortions and lies concocted by the Jews who controlled the American government and news media. We sat stunned, unable to trust ourselves to respond. We completed the trip to Salzburg in strained silence, too late regretting our failure to object.

Fast forward another 45 years. In Israel, Holocaust survivors are dying and taking their stories with them. Israel still struggles for a secure life. Palestinians, bitter and angry about their dispossession, carry violence into Israel's stores and cafes and homes, killing indiscriminately. Once again Israel faces hatred and violence from forces that have, for 70 years, vowed their determination to drive Israel into the sea.

But now I am told by my fellow Democrats to believe that Israel is at fault. The Israel Lobby—especially AIPAC—controls U.S. Mideast policy. Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip inevitably inspired violent reprisal. Israel is equally, if not even more responsible for what U.S. mainstream media erroneously labels terrorism. Palestinians have been so humiliated and persecuted that they have no choice but to strike back in whatever manner they can.

Never mind that Israel turned the Gaza Strip over to Hamas, I am told. The responsibility for the deaths of so many Palestinian women and children in assaults by the Israeli Defence Force lies not upon the Palestinians who used them as shields, but with the far right-wing zealots of Likud and its minions in the Israeli government and the settlers who have stolen the homes and livelihoods of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Divest all investments in the oppressive state of Israel, they cry, equating Israel's treatment of Palestinians with apartheid in South Africa. Never mind the Palestinians who live in Israel, who not only vote but hold office and serve as judges, who live middle-class lives. Some of my fellow Americans have gone so far as to compare the actions of Israel in the Middle East to the actions of Nazi Germany before and during World War II. They are quick, however, to insist that they are not anti-Jewish or even anti-Israel, but rather anti-Zionist, because Zionism is a credo based on hatred and subjugation of the true indigenous people of Palestine. Ground Zero for propagation of this chilling instance of newspeak is the U.S. college campus.

I cannot, I will not accept this perversion of truth, whose primary motivation seems not to be grounded in reality, but in ideology. I pray for peace, pray that a homeland can be found for the Palestinians who have paid so dearly for the existence of the state of Israel. It's time for the Arab nations to finally contribute to the solution rather than to continue their cold game of realpolitik by ruthlessly refusing to assimilate the Palestinians and using them as pawns in a PR war against Israel. It's a long-term strategy that has worked quite well.

If Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, and predecessor Palestinian groups such as the PLO, are to be believed, no one can doubt that were today's situation reversed—if Palestinians were granted the unchallenged military superiority enjoyed by Israel (with all that implies about the unwavering support of the U.S. Government)—that Israel would cease to exist, that its men, women, and children would be consigned to rot in hastily bulldozed trenches. When I hear the impassioned pleas to divest, to ostracize and stop supporting Israel, I hear the click-click-click of that 16mm projector and see those flickering black-and-white images in a cold, dark Montana living room 70 years ago.

Despite the increasing warmth brought about by climate change, I am chilled by my sisters and brothers who would abandon Israel to the tender mercies of those who long since made clear their solution to their Jewish Problem.

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