Spring of 1968: I was 28 years old. I was travelling from Denmark to Germany on a ferry. As I drove off the ferry, I found myself on the Autobahn, on which, strangely enough. all the signs were in German. I had planned to stay in Germany for a couple of days before meeting a friend in the Netherlands; but when I read the German signs, everything I had ever read about the Holocaust flooded over me. I stepped on the gas, and didn’t stop until I had reached the Netherlands.
Immature, over-emotional, of course: but a moment I thought back to in 1995, when the film, “Schindler’s List,” came out. After seeing it, I knew the time had come for me to teach a course on the Holocaust. I sat down at my desk, and within 15 minutes, because of wide reading in the subject, had drawn up a full course syllabus, including the reading list. I called the course “The Holocaust in Literature, Film and Theology,” and I was particularly interested in the varied theological responses to the Holocaust, both Jewish and Christian–of these Arthur Cohen’s The Tremendum remains in my memory as the most profound. On the reading list I placed Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, André Schwart-Bart’s The Last of the Just, Elie Wiesel’s Night, The Holocaust for Beginners, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and a number of historical works. Later I added Anne Michaels’ magnificent Fugitive Pieces.
I taught the course for nine years, until my retirement from SFU in 2004. During my last offering of the course, however, things changed. One of the students showed me a book called The Holocaust Industry, by Norman Finkelstein. When I started teaching the course, I offered it largely in a spirit of Christian guilt for antisemitism, later shifting, under the guidance of Gregory Baum, from guilt to grief. Guilt? No, I didn’t do it. Grief? Yes: I grieve that members of my religious tradition were guilty of crimes against Jews over many centuries, culminating in the Holocaust.
But when I read Finkelstein, a larger shift took place. Up until that point I had accepted the Jewish-Israeli narrative not as one narrative among others, but as the truth. After the tragedy of the Holocaust, the people of Israel had risen again on the soil of their own ancestral land. After centuries of saying “Next year in Jerusalem!” at Passover, they could celebrate Passover in Jerusalem itself–I found this very moving. From Finkelstein, however, I learned that there was another narrative, the Palestinian narrative–a narrative of catastrophe, displacement, occupation and brutalization. I learned that the memory of the Holocaust could be dishonoured, trivialized, manipulated for political purposes by the government of Israel.
Then in 2006 I went on what I call my Big Walk, in the UK, starting at Land’s End and ending in Newcastle–400 miles/620 km, one pair of boots, no blisters. I had undertaken this walk to draw a line between my teaching career and my third adulthood. Before leaving, I resigned from all my organizational responsibilities, meaning that on my return, my desk, so to speak, was clear. I sat at my beautiful, clear desk (the same one my parents gave me when I was about 11), acknowledged that I wasn’t going to live forever, concluded that I should focus on one concern, and asked God/The Universe what that concern should be. Within about 90 seconds the answer came: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gandhi speaks of how, when he was trying to decide what his next move in the Indian struggle for independence should be, he would just sit still until the answer rose up within him. With no intent to compare myself to Gandhi, I can say that my experience at this moment was similar. It arose as a conviction, rather than simply a possibility.
This conviction, after many conversations, resulted in my starting a public education program, now called Building Bridges Vancouver. If you keep looking at my blog, you will be sure to see some future postings on what BBV is doing and how I think/feel about it. For the moment, let me just say that I believe that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has the same moral claim on us in our time as the civil rights movement had on us in its time. I firmly believe that this is not an overstatement, even if the issue ranks low in the consciousness of most of my fellow Canadians. Manifestly, there is work to be done, and my colleagues and friends in BBV are committed to doing that work.