A Message to Europe
[A speech delivered to a visiting delegation of European parliamentarians in Jerusalem, 12 December 2004)
By Arnold Roth
The world is divided into two camps. On one side are those people who see terrorism as a warning of danger ahead. Unless something is done, they say, a catastrophe may happen. On the other side are those people whose lives have been turned upside down, never to be the same again, because terrorism has struck them, has fallen on top of them, has brought catastrophe right into their lives.
I want to spend a few minutes looking at the differences between these two camps, and to suggest some reasons why each camp seems to find it so hard to understand the other.
By what right do I speak? I am a professional person, a man in his fifties, educated, informed, with respectable qualifications. Still, I hold no academic position and no public office. I harbour absolutely no political ambitions and I take no part in public debate. Of the different ways there are to define me, the one I prefer - the one which best represents who I am and what I do - is that I am a husband and a father.
I brought my family to Israel in 1988 not because Australia was a miserable place and not because my wife and I were unable to earn a living. The opposite is true. We came to Israel despite the comfort and pleasure of life in Melbourne. There, we earned a good living, lived in a lovely home, had friends, felt safe and were safe. We moved to Israel to raise our children here because this is the historic home of the Jewish people, the right place for Jews to be. Our parents and grandparents and great-great-great grandparents dreamed of doing this but were not able. We were able, and therefore we did it.
Everything in our lives changed forever when Malki, our middle child, a delightful fifteen year old girl with a constant smile on her beautiful face, was killed on 9th August 2001. Malki died like more than one thousand other Israelis in the last four years - innocent and unprepared. She was not caught in the crossfire of some battle.
She was not a bystander. She was murdered with fourteen other Israelis in a restaurant in the middle of the day, in the middle of this city. The women and children in that pizza restaurant on a hot school-holiday afternoon were the actual target. The terrorists who planned the massacre took their orders from a pediatrician and from a minister of religion in a wheelchair. They picked their target with exquisite care. The bomber was the son of a land-owning wealthy family. The other gang members were mainly university-educated and well-traveled. To call them 'desperate', as many journalists have done, is to completely twist the meaning of the word 'desperate'.
On the day that the joy of life was turned into ashes for my family and me, men and women in villages close to where we are now sitting danced in the streets and distributed candies to their children. We have the pictures.
I said a few moments ago that I take no part in public debate, but this is not true any longer. My daughter's murder and the confusion and ignorance which we have seen around us compelled my wife and me to find our voice, and to speak and to write at every opportunity. We used to be the most private of people. Now we feel an urgent need to speak out. We try to shape abstract ideas for people so they can understand them. We try to give expression to the agony and the misery of the desperatefamilies around us - the Israeli families, desperate... for peace.
If, like me, you are ready to sit down and listen to Israeli families who have experienced murder at the hands of the barbarians, I can tell you what you will hear. Like almost every Israeli I have ever met, terror victim families want to see the Palestinian Arabs live productive lives, travel in safety, obtain a good education for their children, make money, receive good medical care. The miserable reality of their daily lives is far from what we wish them - and this brings absolutely no happiness or comfort to our side. The opposite is true. The struggle between them and us which is asymmetrical in so many respects is asymmetrical on this point too. If only they would feel protective of their achievements, if only they felt they have something to lose, if only they could experience the pride of a
Palestinian Arab winner of a Nobel Prize for physics or literature...
Forty years of a corrupt and incompetent regime has assured that there is almost nothing of worth which they can lose.
Instead, we Israelis today are obliged to cope with the actual day-to-day legacy of the Arafat regime and its kleptocratic leaders: the dozens of crooked men who have grown wealthy on the back of their people's misery; the teachers of religion who have hijacked a noble faith and turned it into a tragic parody; the teenage boys and girls, raised on a diet of racist hatred and on the glorification of violence and self-destruction.
In 1977 the great political analyst Walter Laqueur wrote this: "The disputes about a detailed, comprehensive definition of terrorism will continue for a long time, they will not result in a consensus and they will make no notable contribution towards the understanding of terrorism."
He was absolutely right. The United Nations via its many agencies has still not found the way to agree on a definition of terror. But terrorism, like pornography with which it shares some characteristics, is hard to define but not so hard to recognize when you meet it.
The hatred and the barbarism of the terrorists are not a component of the political struggle between Israelis and Arabs. They are outside politics, beyond it and largely unconnected to it. Terrorism is absolute evil. Unless it is stopped by necessary and sufficient force, it will neither evaporate nor crumble. It will grow, and change form, and expand and spread. It cannot be appeased, and it must not be understood. We suffer from a grotesque surplus of understanding, whose price is human lives. A force which can take deliberate aim at an infant's head and shoot, a force which can plant a bomb in a pizza restaurant, or in a railway station, on a passenger jet or in a kindergarten, is a force from Hell.
I was raised by parents who knew about Hell. My father, who died before Malki was born, grew up in the Auschwitz death camp. My mother lives in quiet retirement in Australia today, but she was there too. A month after her fifteenth birthday, my mother's little Polish town was over-run by Nazi forces and her father, my grandfather, was arrested for the usual crime of being Jewish. Before he could be
taken away, my mother threw herself at the feet of a German soldier and screamed for mercy. Somehow this worked, her father was released and the family remained together for several more months. My grandparents, like the grandparents of all of the friends I grew up with, were eventually murdered. My parents, like all of the Jewish
refugees who came to Australia after the second world war, came with nothing - no parents, no property, no education. But they brought with them a powerful sense of history - of their own history, and of the history of the Jewish people. They established schools, synagogues, social welfare agencies, sports clubs. They created a new life. They found within themselves resources of love and mutual concern and support.
Although the shape of their lives was marked by their experience as Holocaust survivors, hatred was unknown in the life they made for me and for my generation. They simply had no time for hating - they were busy building a future for themselves, their children and their community. This success, I believe, was their revenge over the Nazis.
I mentioned the experience of my mother when she was fifteen. In 1967, I was fifteen. I remember watching my parents and their friends as they grew deeply apprehensive about Gamal Abdel Nasser and his open threat to throw all the Jews of Israel into the sea and destroy the young Jewish state. For the first time in my life, I could see that there were people ready to annihilate the Jews. And I could see there were others like U Thant, the then-secretary general of the United Nations, who might have blocked Nasser's aggression but chose not to. Arafat was already in the picture, by the way - he had become the head of the PLO in 1964 when the number of Israeli occupied settlements and Israeli army checkpoints was, of course, zero. All of this made a deep impression on me. Then war erupted, a Six Day War as it turned out, and Israel was saved. For me, the distance between Jerusalem and Melbourne grew very small from that moment onwards.
Most of us in this room are parents. We know that fifteen is a young age. At fifteen we have some of our basic ideas, and the general shape of our personality is in place. But we still have a lot of growing up to do. Malki, my daughter, will never reach her sixteenth birthday. We honour her memory by a fund called the Malki Foundation. Like Malki herself, the foundation gives support to families who are caring at home for a severely disabled child. Our foundation has already managed to support hundreds of such families - Druze, Christian, Moslem, Jewish. Like my daughter, this work has no political character. Its goal is to add some light, some happiness to the lives of ordinary people facing an extraordinary challenge.
I had the great privilege of speaking to the first MedBridge group in Jerusalem a year ago. I introduced myself to the 170 distinguished politicians and parliamentarians as someone who is not at all involved in the political process - in fact, as someone who tries to keep himself and his family as far away as possible from politics and from politicians. Please excuse my bluntness. I am not among those
who seek truth from politicians, because I prefer to get my disappointments elsewhere.
I spoke then about how life can look very different depending on whether you are sitting on your sofa watching the television news, or standing on the other side - living the news. The three years that have passed since my daughter died at the hands of terrorists have taught me how different those two experiences are - how little information is given by the news media about the victims of terrorism. The frustration, the loneliness, the pain.
In the year since the first MedBridge group came to Jerusalem, I have met dozens of journalists and my understanding of how they do their work has gotten a little deeper and wider. The questions I had then, I still have. I have some additional questions. I'm puzzled by how a reporter from a serious newspaper or a journalist from an important television station can arrive at Ben Gurion Airport and know almost nothing about the history of the Israeli and Arab sides in this terribly long conflict. I have been asked questions where it's clear to me the person holding the microphone has almost no ability to understand the context of the events bring reported. Context is an important thing. Without it, almost nothing makes sense.
There are many other things about the work of journalists, film editors and other media professionals which completely baffle me. In fact, it was not clear to me how large are the questions that informed people have about the media until I found myself part of the news.
Earlier this year, three friends and I went to a conference in Europe. This was the first ever conference of victims of terror. Hundreds of people were in the hall when we arrived - representing the host country, other European countries, the United States, Latin America, North Africa. Some weeks earlier, the organizers notified us that citizens of Israel would be free to take part in this conference provided that we paid the admission fee and sat quietly in the audience. But as Israelis, we would not be permitted to speak from the platform, and no steps would be taken to give official recognition to an Israeli contingent in the conference. In simple
words, the message was "please don't come". So of course we came.
A few minutes before the start of the conference, one of the officials in the government of that country, a friend of Israel, approached me and asked if I would be willing to speak in the opening panel. Though I was unprepared, I said "of course" and that's when I learned that there were sitting in that hall, at that exact moment, in the conference of victims of terror, three special guests - the
ambassadors of Syria, Iran and Palestine. But the organizers did not want an official Israeli presence. The story is long, but I will make it short. From the panel, I spoke about the personal experience of victims of terror and it was immediately clear that many of the widows and orphans in that audience knew exactly what I was describing. Hundreds of people spoke with my three Israeli friends and me, all of us wearing small Israeli flag badges on our clothing. At the end of the conference, we met by chance with some officials of the foreign ministry of the host country, and in our polite Israeli fashion, we explained how really upsetting it was for us to know that they intended for us to be persona non grata in the conference and despite this, we found tremendous solidarity from among the participants.
The response was - please come to our foreign ministry tomorrow and we will have a conversation. So we did, and in this way we met some of the top officials of the foreign ministry including the deputy minister. This senior group explained to us that while there is authentic terrorism in Europe, in the United States, in Latin
America, we in Israel must recognize that ours is actually a political conflict, and the solution must be a political solution. One of my Israeli friends objected to this, and expressed some strong personal words, not so politically correct, about the broad threat to Europe of radical Islam. My impression is that his comments were
brushed aside or not heard. Three weeks later, most of the people with whom we met in that foreign ministry were out of a job. Madrid, the capital of Spain and the host of our conference, discovered in the hardest possible way that terrorism can take many forms. I was invited back to a second Spanish conference which took place in June. This time, I was asked to speak as an Israeli. Many things had changed for the Spanish since March 11th.
Your mission, as MedBridge participants, as political leaders concerned to create a better world for the people of the Middle East, is a complicated one - and I wish you the greatest possible success. The mission of my wife and me, and hundreds of other Israeli families, as people who want to go on living after our child or
husband or wife or parent or brother or sister was murdered by terrorists, is also complicated. We want to look to the future, but we can only do this by understanding the present and learning from the past.
There is, as I am sure you already know, a well-developed sense of history among us Israelis. We turn to history when we want to understand who we are, where we belong, what we can expect from others. I mention this, in closing, because I want to share with you the extreme pain I - we - feel when we read about certain recent developments in European society.
Last week, a German survey of German-born Germans found that more than half think there is no difference between Israel's current treatment of the Palestinian Arabs and what the Nazis did to the Jews. 68 percent of Germans believe that Israel is waging a "war of extermination" against the Palestinians. I could give you my theory
of how the media in Germany, in Europe and almost everywhere else contributes to ignorance of Israeli reality. I could tell you how journalists create, and at the same time are the result of, an almost total ignorance of what the Holocaust was. But if I did that, I would also have to point out to you that Germany happens to be one of the countries in Europe where they do make serious efforts to understand
the Holocaust and the truth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet they do not share our sense that Israel has been fighting one long defensive war of survival against an enemy that wants to ethnically cleanse Jews from their historic homeland for a century.
Also last week, the BBC published a survey showing that barely a third of young people in Britain have even heard the name Auschwitz and don't know what it is, where it is or what happened there.
I spoke of my experiences in Spain a few moments ago. A Spanish-born philosopher, George Santayana who died in the year I was born, wrote this: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I believe this statement carries with it a great deal of wisdom. My daughter does not belong to the past - at least, she doesn't when we sit together around the Sabbath table and enjoy one another's company in our family. We feel her presence. We feel her absence. We are determined to do whatever we can so that her memory will endure, that she will never become just another statistic.
As a family, as a society, we are in a perpetual struggle to remember the past, to hold a vision of a better future, and to do everything we can so that the fifteen year old children together with their goodness and their dreams - children on both sides of the sad conflict here in this land - can grow to productive adulthood, free
of the curse of hatred and of terror.
May your work be blessed.
Copyright (C) 2004 The Malki Foundation (www.kerenmalki.org) and
All of us -- all over the world -- are in this. We can grieve with those who have lost so much as we fight to bless this world with freedom or we can turn our backs and pretend "it can't happen here"...again. It's our choice.