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Crimes Against Humanity

September 23, 2009

Last Friday I was fortunate to have the opportunity, along with a number of FCNL colleagues, to visit a recently installed interactive exhibit on genocide at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall. It’s part of their learning center and it is the first non-Holocaust related exhibition there, but it fits with the organization’s commitment to preventing future genocides and crimes against humanity. I was really impressed by this, because it puts the museum out in front saying “hey, we can’t stop at remembering the Holocaust–we have to act, so we can keep similar things from happening again.”

Whenever I see memorials of the Holocaust (including the one I most recently visited in Jerusalem, Yad VaShem) I become emotionally overwhelmed at what I sense is the historical continuity of such suffering among all the people groups who have been and continue to be systematically oppressed and killed, whether quickly or by slower methods. I think especially about my year experience living in the Palestinian Territories with Palestinians, a distinctive people whose identity is imperiled by a lack of a state and by occupation. As I view the horrific displays of the deliberate Nazi plans to erase the Jewish people entirely, I see signs of people worldwide whose identities are being erased by political, military, or cultural means. Darfur, Rwanda, and Bosnia may have now attained “obvious” genocide status, unarguably awful cases of ethnic-cleansing, but many people around the world suffer in gray, complex political situations that keep their lives in flux and deny them human rights while those in power look away until it is too late.

In the case of the Palestinians, I find it abhorrent how millions of people can be held hostage by an international ‘peace’ process that has done nothing to improve life for them since the UN took up the case in 1947–instead freedoms continue to be curtailed and some have embraced violent ideologies. Last week Richard Goldstone published the findings from his UN inquiry into “Operation Cast Lead”–Israel’s offensive into Gaza this past winter that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded. While Goldstone has extensive experience in studying other war crimes, he was heavily criticized for his report calling for further investigation which can be summarized as “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Hamas rockets fired caused damage and sometimes death and injury indiscriminately and the sporadic nature of the launches gave Israelis great fear and caused suffering. However, the Israeli incursion into the tiny Gaza strip after bombarding it for a week from the sky was a devastating blow to the massively over-crowded, under-resourced region, leading to an enormous humanitarian crisis in which aid and workers could not be dispatched quickly. I was in the West Bank, watching the news in stunned horror every day as a mostly unarmed, largely under-15 year old population was being pummeled by mortars, artillery, bullets, and white phosphorus.

While the actions of the Israeli army and Hamas will probably never come up before the Hague, the report generated a pretty substantial buzz and a few, like Israeli commentators Gideon Levy and Bradley Burston, dare to question their complicity in the affair. But the war in Gaza was really only a brief moment of publicity shed on the ongoing grievous situation there and for Palestinians in the West Bank as well, who live lives much diminished by the occupation of their land. Without a state and without an effective government, their humanity comes into question. Who will stand up for them? Who will make sure they do not turn from a vibrant community and culture into a tragic historical relic?

Which humanity is worth saving? The Palestinians are merely one of many examples of those people who fall through the cracks as our grossly inadequate international system of justice languishes.

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