Download the attached PDF to read the full interview of me done by Emilija Talandzevičiūtė a 10th year student at the school where my dear friend Simonas teaches. The article was published in English as Emilija felt that was necessary to be sure to correctly capture what I said during our hour plus Zoom interview as well as my written answers to her very tough written questions.
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.
(This was written on 17 July, 2014 as I was leaving)
As the plane rises above Sarajevo, I think about all I have seen in this most fascinating of cities. From the mix of building styles and materials, to the mix of buildings old and new, to the mix of women in hijab and dresses to those barely covered, churches, mosques and even two synagogues – Sarajevo seems like a place where differences don’t matter. It looks like a place where East and West have met and agreed to get along. When one looks closer and sees the bullet holes and bomb scars on walls, the decaying facades of formerly grand buildings, and the many residents similarly faded and scarred, the truth becomes clearer. While harmony may be the first impression, and is the goal of all who I met here, it has not been the reality.
I have to admit I am a bit in love with Sarajevo. This faded beauty of a city located in the valley of the Miljacka River has won my heart. The people are funny and welcoming, the food delicious and, for an American, quite cheap. Gelato is .70 a scoop! It may not be Scotch flavored from Aldo’s, but it is good and cheap. Jacob Finci, a prominent member of the Jewish community is, despite all he has experienced, witty and full of positive energy. Eliezer Papo, our scholar in residence, was hysterical and full of sexual inuendos. His knowledge of the Jews of Sarajevo, and Sepharad in general, was so helpful. Eliezer and I discovered a common love of Russian literature and similar standards for judging all writing against Dostoevsky. All of the teachers I met from the former Yugoslavia, whether Serb, Croat or Bosniak, were comitted to a future where their students will build a better future for their countries and for the whole area of the Western Balkans.
Yesterday I walked the length of Logavina Street, an ordinary road made famous in a book of the same name. I felt like I had walked it before and that I knew the people there. Seeing familiar names on the plaques, commemorating those who died during the seige, outside the school near the top made me recall the stories of their lives and deaths. The cemetery with so many graves with the same year of death – 1993 being most common, was overwhelmingly sad. The mixture of new homes with old and war scarred buildings forced me to think about what the ordinary residents of this street endured for three years. So many reminders, and not in some country overseas that I might never visit, but on their homes, at the top of their street, around each corner. This makes the work of teaching young people to love, not hate, so much harder. Or does it make it easier? Are the lessons more easily remembered when the evidence of the high cost of ignoring them is right there, every day? Only time will tell. I hope to be able to come back and see for myself. I wish only peace for this lovely city that has stolen a little piece of my heart.
This morning I was privileged to learn an important lesson about the necessity of using proper terminology and language when discussing divisive issues. This was a painful lesson for those whose feelings were trampled by the poor use of language and I am grateful to them for sharing their pain to help all of us learn it.
This morning the Centropa Summer Academy visited the Tunel (sic) Museum or Tunnel of Life Museum. This is a family run museum at the end of the tunnel which was dug under the runway of the Sarajevo Airport in 1993. This tunnel was used to bring in gas, electricity, food, people, medical supplies and other necessities during the siege. It was completed on the 30th of June 1993 and was 800 meters long, a meter wide and 1.6 meters high. It was often filled with water, gas, electricity and artillery and it is amazing it didn’t blow up at some point. We were able to see the last 20 or so feet of the tunnel as the rest of it collapsed after the war.
When we arrived at the location, we were shown to a space to watch a video. Prior to the video a man spoke to introduce the video and speak about the tunnel. I did not know this at the time, but he is part of the family whose house was at the end of the tunnel and his family runs this museum. His father usually does the tours and is, as we were told, quite funny and not biased in his presentation. The son, however, clearly has much anger and hatred still about the war and his words were very hurtful and not carefully chosen. A little history to help understand why what he said –
The war in Bosnia was fought between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Serbia is now its own country and there are Serbians and Bosnian Serbians. At our conference we have Serbians from Serbia and Serbians from the area of Bosnia Herzegovina known at Republika Srbskia. The tour guide spoke of “Serbs” who kills Bosnians and laid the guilt for the war at the feet of all Serbs rather than those Bosnian Serbs who gave into nationalism and decided to kill their former neighbors. As Ed Serrotta said “Those who woke up one morning and decided the Muslim Bosnian living next door was actually a Turk and an oppressor and occupier and needed to die.” That was not all Bosnian Serbs let alone all Serbs.
After we returned to our bus, the Serbians on our bus, who are here to work together and educate their children towards a better future for all peoples, felt awful and were moved to speak to those of us on the bus. They stressed that there were victims on all sides and “victims are victims”. The Israelis on the bus expressed that they know the feeling with the divide of “Jews and Arabs” in Israel and an assumption that all in each group are the same. We had another discussion with the whole group when we returned to the conference room and all of the participants from Serbian areas spoke quite powerfully about their feelings and experience of this presentation.
Before the Serbians spoke, Ed Serrotta – the director of Centropa, spoke passionately about the work that Centropa is doing and why they invited teachers to this seminar, in Sarajevo, from various Balkan nations, Ed said that this has not been done before, and they knew it would be hard for these teachers, but that Centropa is about working without borders. Ed said that for people from the former Yugoslavia, coming to Sarajevo is always difficult. He spoke about the need to face the past and how no one likes to do it and that really very few countries are good at it. He mentioned Nelson Mandela’s quote about no one being born hating and that hatred needs to be taught and, according to Mandela, that it is easier to teach love. Ed disagrees with the second part, and said that it is much easier to teach hate and that it is hard to teach love. Ed’s history reporting on wars might have something to do with this, what some would see as, cynical view. He also quote Vaclav Havel who, when the leader of Germany visited his country, spoke about not blaming a language for what is said in it. “Nazis identified their affairs with the affairs of Germany…a language cannot be blamed for the tyrant who speaks it…to hate a language (and he is implying all who speak it)…is to assign collective guilt and to do so is to weaken the individual guilt of those who actually committed the crimes.”
The first Serbian to speak is a soft spoken woman who works for the Ministry of Education – she had also spoken on our bus about victims of all nations. Next Marko spoke, he is a passionate young man who feels very strongly about what was said by the guide. He is working with teachers in Serbian areas to help them use Centropa’s materials and to help them work together for a better future for this area. He spoke of the “normal, honest people who did not want war but rather wanted to live in one country, go to the coast, buy a new car, travel with their red passport…that this was all they wanted and that politicians and crazy people made an awful situation.” He emphasized that now we are together and must work to make a better future – a normal future. That the way that we, as teachers teach our students will determine that future. When Marko and I were speaking on the bus this morning he said to me “We, teachers, we are the most powerful people in the world. What we teach our students determines the future.” I laughed and said, “Yes, but you wouldn’t know that from how we are paid.”
One of the most moving pieces from the Serbians was from a young woman who said that after hearing the tour guide she asked herself “Who am I?” She shared that her parents were originally from Serbia, but both came to Bosnia. They met in Bosnia and she was born here and lived here for 13 years. When war came, her family went back to Serbia.l She wondered if that made her a “Bosnian Serb” and was she responsible for the war? I spoke to her later in the afternoon and told her how powerful I found this and how much it meant to me that she had shared it.
This to me is the real issue with words. This woman, who was 13 in 1992, was made to wonder if she was responsible for genocide because of the careless use of language by another person. Tying her identity to Bosnian Serbs versus “normal” Serbs leaves her with a question of guilt. Perhaps we need to be sure to add “aggressors” or “perpetrators” after Bosnian Serb to make it clear that we know there were Bosnian Serbs who did not participate in the war. There were those who stayed in Sarajevo and died alongside their Muslim neighbors, or lovers. After the tunnel we went to the Sarajevo Public Cemetery where we visited the grave of the “Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo”. This young couple, a Muslim girl and Serbian boy, were shot by snipers trying to leave Sarajevo. They had been together 7 years. He stayed in the city with her and she was now leaving with him. They had been promised safe passage, but were shot. Their bodies lay in no-man’s land for days as it was too dangerous to retrieve them. Surely one cannot assign collective guilt when such things show that not all were guilty.
My final reflection on the day is about the cemetery. Here in a city and in a country that has been torn apart repeatedly along religious lines, I was shocked to find that the public cemetery contains graves of Muslims, Catholics and Serbian Orthodox – and a Jew or two according to our guide though I did not see any Jewish graves – all mixed together. Literally Muslim beside Catholic beside Orthodox. Our two lovers are buried in the same grave – Muslim and Orthodox. The symbolism provided by the hodgepodge of graves in this hodgepodge of a city – Hapsburg style buildings next to Ottoman markets and mosques – is quite striking and gives me hope that the living can learn to live together as well as the dead seem to be doing.
Shalom. Tomorrow I leave for Vienna. It is the first stop on my four country, two continent summer of learning. I will be joining the Centropa Summer Academy (http://csa2014.centropa.org/) in Vienna, Zagreb and Sarajevo to learn about the causes of World War I, the connection between WWI and WWII and the Holocaust and also to learn about the ethnic/religious strife in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s and its connection to WWII and Sephardic Jews. As a history major in college, I learned that centuries never begin or end neatly on years zero and 99, but rather their beginnings and endings are determined, after the fact, based on historical events that fit a pattern. The 20th century, according to this system, began in Sarajevo with the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and ended there in 1992. This year is the 100th anniversary of the shooting – it was just over a week ago.
To prepare for the Summer Academy I have done a tremendous amount of reading – oh, but first a word from our sponsors! My participation in the Centropa Summer Academy is being funded by a Fellowship through Fund for Teachers (www.fundforteachers.org). This fabulous organization grants fellowships for thousands of teachers across the USA to do fascinating summer learning. I have perused the list of this year’s fellows and am, quite honestly, humbled to be included. These educators are doing amazing things and I hope their students appreciate the learning that will result.
Now, back to the reading. I have read, or am quickly trying to finish reading, eight or nine books to prepare for this trip. My favorites are The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon – one of my new favorite authors, The Hare with the Amber Eyes (which I read a couple of years ago and still love) by Edmund de Waal, Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard and Logavina Street by Barbara Demick. 1941: The Year that Keeps Returning by Slavko Goldstein was also an amazing read. These books, the ones related to Serbia/Croatia/Bosnia Herzegovinia in particular, have helped to prepare me for the learning we will do and the history we will encounter. I have also read The Trigger by Tim Butcher. This fascinating book is about Butcher’s journey, on foot, to follow the footsteps of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. All of this reading has me so excited to visit Zagreb – where we will have dinner with Slavko Goldstein – and Sarajevo – where we will have a Skype session with Tim Butcher. I am working my way through The Vertigo Years – Europe 1900 –1914 by Philip Blom – who we will also have a chance to meet.
So much attention is given to World War II and the Holocaust – but the events in Europe leading up to and after World War I set the stage for WW II. I am excited to be filling in some of the deficit in my learning and understanding of this time and the connections between the two. I am also looking forward to meeting survivors of the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990’s and to learn about the cooperation then between Jews, Muslims and Christians to create a true community center in the Jewish Community Center. If you click on centropa.org at the top of the Summer Academy site and then click on “films”, you can watch a short film about this entitled “Survival in Sarajevo”. It is quite moving and it will be an honor to meet these people who, in the face of ethnic/religious strife and killing, chose a different path. While you are on the film page you can also watch “El Otro Camino” (A Different Path) about how Jews got to Sarajevo in the first place. Heck, I recommend watching all the films there.
My second learning opportunity for this summer is as a Museum Teacher Fellow for 2014-15 at the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial. I will be flying from Sarajevo to Washington D.C. and will spend five days there being trained and planning a project for my Fellowship year. I am very honored and excited about this opportunity and the chance to bring some learning back to Seattle and the community here. I look forward to keeping you up to date with my learning and experiences, as well as some photos even.
Thank you for reading!