lindsey responds

with 3 comments

(N.B. The following was written by Lindsey B., in response to the ongoing bagel debate. Lindsey, as she describes herself, is a lawyer at some jewish organization, a freelance human rights activist, and a chronic time-waster, inter alia. For the record, as there’s been some confusion, I do not necessarily endorse the comments that I post. And though I agree with a great deal of what has been said and what is below, my opinion is far from perfectly aligned with the commenters’. I’ll throw my one and one cents in when I get a chance. )

I too prefer to avoid the language of conflict when possible, and I agree with much of what’s been said, by all, actually. I am going to tease out a few additional points and, where there is no way around it, I will state my incongruent opinions.

Let’s start here: I do not think the disagreement about whether and how to engage in battles about atrocities committed in the past (and perpetuated today) is inherently generational. It is not an act of vindictive revenge to seek out a murderer and bring him to justice. Rather it is an evenhanded pursuit (though no actor is without personal motivations, prejudices, etc), an attempt to begin to right a wrong, restore balance, and honor a victim. So much more so when the victim is a nation of people, decimated. There is no statute of limitations legally, and more importantly, morally, for murder.

But would it, at some point, be more prudent to forgive, or “focus on reconciliation,” and begin anew, recognizing a New Country, moving beyond 20th century atrocities? There are those who say yes, but I don’t think it is a generational position, just one that comes with lack of identification with said atrocities or, probably and hopefully, any atrocities. That is to say, we aren’t smarter or more evolved, we are just the products of our limited experiences. Of course, limited personal experience doesn’t invalidate an opinion. However.

The “let’s move on already” POV is simplistic and more significantly, unproductive, as it fails to foster peace and reconciliation. There is no peace without justice. There is no justice if there is no acknowledgment. Or worse. It is my understanding that M and J did not put on the bagel event as a way of moving on or glossing over the past. That would be deplorable, but a bagel event was not, as clarified repeatedly by the event planners, meant to be (or perceived by participants to be) some larger statement (of forgiveness).

Moving on and forgiving are not really options anyway, because forgiveness is not theirs or ours to give. As Simon Wiesenthal posits, only the victim can forgive. This impotence is frustrating, but that doesn’t change the reality.

Forgiveness has its limitations anyway.

But even if we could and should reconcile (and I think we can’t really and shouldn’t probably), there remains the problem of who may receive forgiveness; 65 plus years removed, most people in Lithuania are no longer the direct perpetrators of the crimes of the Holocaust. However, because of history, government policies, and to some limited extent, individual choice, there is a lack of recognition of the commission, scale, and nature of the murder of the Lithuanian Jewish population by the Nazis and Lithuanian citizenry. There are still battles to be fought, evil (not to be dramatic, sorry) to be uprooted.

The choices are whether to fight these battles and how to do so. The whether—that is a matter of personal affiliation and choice—and I’ll venture out on a limb and say that it strikes me as wrong, morally corrupt and intellectually lazy, to actively decide not to engage in any way. The how—for those that choose to think and weigh in—is about division of labor. People fight injustice by learning and disseminating information, volunteering, Nazi hunting, creating art, involving themselves politically, or supporting efforts of others financially and otherwise, etc etc. The how list is endless. To argue that discourse of this sort is only effective or most effective through art versus politics is silly. Change and revolution can be from the top down or bottom up but most often they happen in steps, little by little from everywhere.

So do what can, choose, and do best.

Tirelessly pursing the worst of criminals is certainly an admirable and necessary way to fight this battle. Thank you Efraim and others for dedicating your lives to this daunting task. But, and this has been said, throwing an event quietly showcasing some portion of modern American Jewish culture spawned from lost Lithuanian Jewish culture does not thwart those efforts; rather, it acts to buttress them.

Whose fault is it that the Lithuanian public doesn’t know or understand its own history? The government’s? Yes. Each individual? Maybe to some degree. But it probably doesn’t do much good to point accusatory fingers; I agree with Jake on this point. Since you are not trying to make change on a macro-policy-government level, but rather by interacting with, learning from and about, and making art for/about/with the Lithuanian, native or otherwise, and expat populations, blame probably should not be a centerpiece of the discussion. It sort of misses the point.

I think there is more to be said here about how to relate to, perhaps understandably and blamelessly, an ignorant population. Absolution of fault aside, the prevailing way of thinking and/or lack of orientation of the population on these issues, is still dangerous and should be challenged, otherwise discourse will be stunted at best. And no one wants that.

There is a limit to which one can engage with someone who remains a product of his or her surroundings to the extent that he or she buys into (knowingly or not), or fails to opt out of what are ultimately bigoted and ignorant beliefs. It may be valuable to have friends who see the world through different lenses, but when they disagree about fundamental issues of human dignity, rights, etc, WHY they do is less important (in a close relationship anyway) than the simple fact THAT they do. (From an advocacy standpoint, the why becomes strategically important; we cannot work to change viewpoints if we don’t understand them nor can we stem any tides unless we trace the ripples of ignorance to their source.)

That said, friendship, work, and even casual encounters, especially as the only American Jews some Lithuanians will spend time with, can be potent antidotes to ignorance, powerful vehicles for education and change. Hopefully we (you) wear those identities well rather than leaving the unacquainted with something unsavory, or a neutral encounter, which in my opinion is a wasted opportunity.

I understand that you do not choose to be activists in a traditional sense, so you wear those labels a bit uncomfortably. You may want to just be, rather than always be The Jew, connected to and representing something both grand and marginalized, spanning history and the globe. However, by going someplace like Lithuania, with its past, current climate, and supersmall Jewish population, that’s the burden you carry irrespective of whether that’s fair. We are looking to you as representatives, as are Lithuanians, I’m pretty sure. You can’t disrobe. Or you can, but as you note, that too is a statement, not the absence of one. As you say Jake, you are who you are and who you’re perceived to be, fair or not. And much more so when you throw a bagel party.

My understanding of the bagel event was that it was putting a positive, lighthearted spin on probably un- or ill-formed opinions about American Jewry and Jews generally. This certainly isn’t harmful. I think it is great—and changing or augmenting people’s impressions of Jews through food and togetherness is fun and fantastic.

Finally, flowing from fun and fantastic: The discussion about whether all kinds of levity are appropriate in all places, I think, is a valid one, though I am not going to concede quickly that life can or should be lived joylessly. When, where, how, and with whom factor in. Does that mean one cannot smile in Lithuania? I think not. And in this case, a bagel party is a fine time to do so. (M and J did not host Hug-a-Jew day, the appropriateness of which would have been…objectionable.) Also on happiness, let’s note that productivity—immaterial almost, how you measure or define it—is not necessarily diminished by having fun. This event doesn’t prevent anyone, the Fulbrighters in question included, from other “substantive” work, though for the reasons stated by others and now in my comments, I don’t see why anyone would discount this event and interaction with the Lithuanian community as devoid of substance.

The end.

Written by menachemkaiser

28 October at 09:17

Posted in bagel, rants

3 Responses

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  1. I really appreciate your truly level headed examination of the dialogue that has gone on here and the comments you had to offer in return. Being a chronic time waster as well, and an opinionated one at that, I hope you don’t mind a short response (which I hope will not be blog worthy as I think the debate is comfortably settling down).

    I think it is interesting that you ascribe what I called a generational perspective to experiences alone. Perhaps I can’t really argue this point with much substance, and perhaps I’m simply having trouble avoiding a deterministic view of history/philosophy, but I really do hope that there is a generational change occurring in the way we deal with genocide that goes beyond direct experience. I think Jake makes a pretty profound, and frankly radical point when he calls for a deterritorialization of suffering. That is not merely the result of our growing up in Arizona, never having personally known a genocide and certainly not a detached “let’s move on” perspective (which I hope I also didn’t accidentally endorse). It is a profound change in the way we think and the sign of an increasingly self-critical generation of intellectuals.

    I come from perhaps the most limited experience of any of the major commenters on this blog. And you spoke to that not invalidating an opinion but I think actually it offers a vantage from which to soberly examine notions like “justice” which can be awfully muddled for people who are more deeply involved. I concede that nothing you said is far from my opinion (I too have a great deal of respect for the human rights efforts that came before me), and also that it is likely coming from a much more informed place. But I also think that perhaps we, as activists (and I think we all are to some degree), are all too often speaking past each other.

    As with any great disaster in human history, my immediate reaction is a desire to prevent it ever happening again. For me, genocide is different only in the incredible complexity of the issue and the balance that must be struck to achieve something “fair” and ensuring stability. Remembrance, acknowledgment and punishment are all invaluable pieces to this puzzle of prevention. But invariably the glue that holds it together is reconciliation between human beings. If it is not reconciliation we strive for, there doesn’t seem much point to acknowledgment and punishment at all (beyond perhaps a turning of tables) and likewise it seems impossible to reconcile without acknowledgment and even (again, uncomfortably) punishment.

    I’ll just touch finally on something you said at the very beginning, about “an attempt to begin to right a wrong, restore balance, and honor a victim.” As an attempt to right a wrong and restore balance, efforts after a genocide are noble, but will ultimately be unsuccessful. No criminal can take back their actions, no family will be restored, and the pain from a generation lost is impossible to salve. It seems impossible to restore balance when human beings die and while the efforts are necessary and honorable, at some point I fear they forget their inevitable pitfall and the overarching goal after a genocide. And this brings me to honoring a victim or rather all the victims. It seems to me the only way to truly honor someone who has suffered something so unimaginable, and to ensure that their death or suffering is not in vain, is to prevent the next man, woman or child from becoming a victim. When I talk about a generational shift, or a change in the way we think, it’s really this that I am hoping for.

    Mitch Levine

    2 November at 22:39

  2. […] the last week, so this site got a little stale. Sorry. Two new comments on bagelgate: Mitch commented on Lindsey’s response (I’m not posting this one, just yet); and K.S. Keyes, an American […]

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