D’var on Shoftim
Aug 30, 2014, 4 Elul 5774
(This d’var was inspired by my Fund for Teachers Fellowship in Sarajevo with Centropa and my training as a USHMM Teacher Fellow)
צדק צדק תרדוף למען תחיה וירשת את הארץ אשר יי אלהיך נתן לך
Justice, Justice shall you purse, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Our Sages teach that no word in the Torah is extraneous – they all have meaning and the repetition of tzedek – justice – must mean something. Is it just emphasis – you will surely pursue justice – does it indicate the way that we will pursue it – through courts as Rashi interprets it or perhaps in a just manner – the ends don’t justify the means but the means must also be just. This verse is found at the end of a commandment exhorting b’nei Israel to set up courts and appoint magistrates and officials for each tribe when they are in the land. It states that judges will not take bribes and will judge impartially. Is the pursuit of justice merely the purview of courts?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would say no and I agree. In his d’var on Shoftim from a few years ago, Rabbi Sacks speaks about the unique nature of Judaism which commands a social order without a political structure to support it. Jewish law is followed without a government to enforce it, without a nation to even practice it in for 2000 years. The observance of Jewish law – and pursuing Justice through the application of that law – is the responsibility of each Jew and is assured through education. To show the efficacy of this, Rabbi Sacks shares a story from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev:
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev once said: “Master of the universe, in Russia there is a Czar, an army and a police force, but still in Russian houses you can find contraband goods. The Jewish people has no Czar, no army and no police force, but try finding bread in a Jewish home on Pesach!”
Rabbi Sacks continues by speaking about Moses leadership and its impact on Jews throughout time:
“What Moses understood in a way that has no parallel elsewhere is that there are only two ways of creating order: either by power from the outside or self-restraint from within; either by the use of external force or by internalised knowledge of and commitment to the law.
How do you create such knowledge? By strong families and strong communities and schools that teach children the law, and by parents teaching their children “when you sit in your house or when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.”
Of course, as a teacher, the idea that education is the key to a just society is both appealing and not, at least to me, news. As many of you know, an area of passion for me is teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. I, of course, teach these because it is vital that my Jewish students know this important, and tragic, episode of our history. But I also teach it with a much deeper and, to me, important goal. We all say “never again” but we say it knowing that there is genocide occurring in the world as we are speaking these words. Never again has yet to be assured – just ask the Yazidi or Rwandans or Sudanese, or Bosnians. All of these people have experienced genocidal violence or are experiencing it right now. When I teach about the Holocaust I begin by teaching the steps – 8 or 10 depending on who you ask – that lead to genocide. Knowing these steps and what they each entail allows genocide experts to predict where genocide is likely to happen and work to help prevent the escalation of violence.
This summer I was honored to have been selected as a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow. As part of our training, we heard a lecture from Susan Benesch who specializes in the area of genocide build up connected to language and incitement of violence. We are all familiar with the idea of hate language or speech and the debates about whether or not it is a crime or is protected by the First Amendment. Susan actually goes further to classify some language as “dangerous speech” and sees this type of speech as moving a society towards genocide. There are five variables that Susan has determined for judging if speech is dangerous and they are:
- a powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience
- the audience has grievances and fear that the speaker can cultivate
- the speech act is clearly understood as a call to violence
- there is a social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including longstanding competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances, or previous episodes of violence
- and there is a means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience
Susan told us about how detecting the use of this type of speech and countering it with positive speech and education can actually avert violence. An example of this was an election in Myanmar. During the previous election cycle there had been dangerous speech used during campaigning and when the results were announced there was serious violence. When this dangerous speech began during the next election, an intentional counter campaign of “positive speech” was undertaken. The elections were held and despite things looking quite dicey, there was no violence. This was seen as an indication of the role that counter speech can play in preventing a society from becoming violent and potentially genocidal.
Imagine if in Germany in the 1930’s academics in Germany had stood by their Jewish colleagues and spoken out against the Nazi propaganda machine rather than abandoning them to it? What if teachers had refused to teach “racial hygiene” and other information that ran counter to what they knew to be true? It is my goal when I teach the Holocaust and genocide that I am helping to educate my students to be people who will stand up, who will recognize dangerous speech and engage in counter speech to keep violence from happening. One cannot be expected to pursue justice if one does not know what injustices are occurring. Sadly we live in a world where finding injustice is far too easy– tracking on all that is going on in the world can be overwhelming and difficult for an empathetic person. Feeling impotent in the face of such violence and hatred is depressing and disheartening. So, how do we all help to do our part to create the just society that God commands us to work for? How do we pursue justice, justly?
I turn back to education – something I am passionate about both as a provider and consumer. This summer I was in Sarajevo as part Centropa’s Summer Academy which was made possible by a Fund for Teachers Fellowship. Prior to my trip I did a lot of reading to prepare. I read 1941: The Year that Keeps Returning – a history of the Ushtasha and the genocidal violence aimed at Serbians by the Croats during World War 2. I read about the siege of Sarajevo in the ‘90’s and the crimes against humanity that occurred elsewhere in Bosnia then. Then I went there. Driving into Bosnia from the border of Croatia to Sarajevo was a journey through a war zone despite the passing of 20 years. Bombed out remains of houses sat next to intact homes with well-tended gardens. It was surreal and upsetting. Sarajevo is full of newly renovated or rebuilt buildings next to those still pock marked with bullet and rocket holes. In the middle of Sarajevo, next to a major church and in the shopping/tourist district sits a hollow frame of a formerly beautiful building. There is a tree growing out the top of the ruins and flowers in the cracks and crevices. I was told its ownership is in dispute and so nothing can be done with it.
This building became an icon for me of the situation in Bosnia. The three groups who live there – Bosniaks who are Muslim, Serbs who are Orthodox Christians and Croats who are Catholic- were divided by ethnic/religious status and, by order of the Dayton Accords which ended the war in the 90’s, this national identity determines the schools they attend. This means that children in these communities attend different schools. They are not learning together, they are not playing together and they are like this building – stuck in a legal wrangle that makes their future unsure. In addition, no one is learning about what happened in the 90’s – teachers are being asked to begin teaching about it, but don’t have a curriculum and if they did – Bosnians would learn a Bosnian narrative and Serbs a Serbian one. This will not help anyone learn to live together. Centropa, the organization that I traveled to Bosnia with, brought together teachers from these three communities for the first time and asked them to work together on a lesson plan for teaching the Holocaust. This was inspiring to watch and fraught with difficulty. Just being together was difficult. Just being in a majority Bosniak city was difficult for the Serbs. Visiting sites connected to the war in the 90’s was emotional and traumatizing. It also provided a teaching moment about the dangers of language.
We visited the museum of the Tunnel of Life – a tunnel dug under the runway of the airport in Sarajevo so that life sustaining supplies could be brought into the city and people could get out. This museum is private and staffed by the family whose home was at the end of the tunnel. As we learned later, the father usually gives the tours and is humorous and friendly. When we visited the son, who was about my age and lived through the siege as a young man, gave the tour. It was clear he was still very angry and had a great deal of trauma and aggression that he had not dealt with. He spoke about the actions of the “Serbians” whose goal it was to kill the Bosnians. His anger and hatred were clear and because of this I did not really give much credence to what he said. However, to the Serbs in our group, some of whom were only children in the early 90’s, his words were a personal attack accusing them each of being murderers and leaving them visibly shaken. When we returned to our bus one of the Serbians spoke to our group about what he had just experienced. He and I then spoke about the role of teachers in helping to educate so that people knew how to differentiate between the “Serbian Army of Milosovic” and Serbs who had no part in what happened and did not support his actions. There were Serbs who stayed in Sarajevo and suffered during the siege. You would not know that from our guide’s talk. We also had an hour long discussion as a whole group when we returned to the conference room. Each Serbian in our group and one Bosnian spoke about their feelings and concerns and helped us all to work through this situation and realize the power of words and the importance of using them carefully.
My experience in Sarajevo and my conversations with the Serbians and Bosnians convinced me that these people – these dedicated teachers – want their students to know how to live together but are not sure or in agreement about how to teach about the past in a way that will make a unified future a reality. It is important to know that during the 50 years between 1941 and 1991, under Tito and Communism, these three groups did mostly live in harmony. There was evidence all over Sarajevo and in the story of the siege that shows this unity is not unattainable. In “Logavina Street”, a book that tells the story of the residents of this street during the siege, it tells how prior to the war people intermarried and that everyone celebrated everyone else’s holidays along with them. We visited the public cemetery in Sarajevo where Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox are all buried together, literally on top of each other. There is a story from during the siege of a young couple known as the “Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo”. She was Bosnian Muslim and he was Serbian Orthodox Christian. He stayed in Sarajevo with her at the beginning of the siege and then they tried to leave to go to his family. They were shot, despite being promised safe passage – no one knows by who and both sides blame the other – and they are buried together in the same grave. It seems to me that in a city that is half Hapsburg Austrian buildings and half Ottoman Muslim buildings and where a Muslim and an Orthodox Christian can be buried in the same grave, unity and coexistence are clearly possible. But how when the very system upon which a just and unified society is built – the education of the youth – is unable to create the foundation for that existence?
It is my hope to be able to take part in helping the teachers of Bosnia create curriculum that will allow them to, as my Bosniak friend Asmir put it “Teach their history even if it makes them cry.” Teaching my own students to try to create a more just future is one thing, but participating in helping these teachers to educate the children of an entire country in a way that will move them towards a more just future would be amazing. I was fortunate to meet a woman at the USHMM who volunteers with a group that is working in Rwanda towards this same goal. She mentioned that the group is hoping to expand their work to Bosnia. I hope to be there with them – working to assure that 1941 or ’91 does not repeat – not for Jews, not for Bosnians, not for Serbs – not for anyone.