I am on the campus of Columbia University September 21, 2011, but I might as well be in Austria in the days, months and years leading up to November 9, 1938.
The mentality of a Jewish Student I speak with here at a “Stand up for Human Rights in Iran” rally instantly reminds me of the exact mentality of the Jews in Austria who “never thought it could happen.” And then: Kristallnacht, the ‘Night of Broken Glass.’
Jewish homes destroyed. The glass windows of Jewish shops and Synagogues totally ransacked and set on fire. This is the beginning of Adolph Hitler’s ‘final solution’ and the Holocaust. Hitler’s plan to exterminate all Jews.
My mind flashes back to the first time I stepped into a Nazi Germany rail car that carried Jews to the Death Camps.
It’s 2006 and I am in Whitwell, Tennessee home of ‘The Paper Clips Project’ where middle school students studying the Holocaust back in 1998 put a call out to collect 6 million paperclips from all over the world to remember the 6 million Jews exterminated by Hitler between 1939 and 1945. The car – now a Holocaust monument uncovered on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9, 2001.
Flash to today. I meet Eric J. Shapiro a Junior at Columbia University from Tenafly New Jersey who is one of the organizers this event held here on campus. His flyer reads “Stand up for Human Rights in Iran.” The words “JUST SAY NO,” superimposed over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s face. “We’re here today because we believe that Ahmadinejad is guilty of serious transgressions against his own people. He’s committed atrocities in his country, curtailed human rights frequently and we don’t believe that should be a allowed and we have a voice and we insist that it be heard in opposition to that .”
I ask “What about the fact that he is a Holocaust denier?” Shapiro says “ Of course as a Jew, I take concern with that However, I think it’s more pertinent that we focus on what he’s actually done not what he said. Rhetoric is powerful, but actions are definitive and that’s what we really need to focus on today.”
I am reminded of Hitler’s rhetoric. His book; “Mein Kampf Volume 1 published in 1925 . Volume 2 in 1926. Do the math, that’s year before Kristallnacht in 1938.
I continue, “Well he (Ahmadinejad) would like to blow Israel off the map.” Shapiro’s answer; “But he hasn’t.”
“But he could,” I say. Shaprio “Sure well when he does I’m sure I will be at the front of that response. Until then I think we have what to focus on, he’s a horrible human being and I think that’s something we can conclude from his actions alone.”
Ahmadinejad has been quoted as saying the “occupying regime”(Israel) would be eliminated or “vanish from the pages of time.”
I press Shaprio, “As a Jewish person does that worry you ?” His reponse “Does what worry me? I answer “That Ahmadinejad is a holocaust denier and that he wants to blow Israel off the map.” Shaprio “Certainly, but I believe that those things can be resolved in the forum of open discussion that’s facilitated by the United Nations. I believe that his human rights record alone is significant and I think we really need to focus on that.”
I carry on “honestly you think that talking to him would stop him? “ Shaprio says “I believe that the International community has responded to what he has to say on the Israel issue and that’s not really what we are here for. We are for something more substantive definitive and historically verifiable that than.”
“And specifically him being a Holocaust denier, that doesn’t bother you ? Shapiro “ It certainly bothers me, that’s not what we are focusing on today because saying something is one thing, and if you are only a man of rhetoric I think we would have a much different question to address. But the fact of the matter is, that he is complicit in definite violations of human rights. And that is a more immediate issue I believe.”
I ask “So you are more worried about him and his own people than him taking actions against Israel and the Jews?”
Shapiro says “ I think that in so far as he has taken action against his own people that’s what we need to focus on that’s where the question really lies, and his Israel record, ya know if he chooses to pursue it that will be an issue that we will also address.”
I state “But it will be after-the-fact.” Shapiro says “I mean it’s all talk at the moment, that’s all I care to say on the subject.”
I am curious so I ask “What about his thoughts on 9-11 ?” Shapiro who is from Tenafly New Jersey just miles from where the World trade Center once stood tall “I don’t care to comment on that.” “It’s a conspiracy of the U.S.” Shapiro “I think that’s patently ridiculous I think you and I could agree on that.”
“And how about the fact they are calling for a Palestinian state today at the U-N and the mosque is opening at Ground Zero?” Shaprio “I don’t believe that those are necessarily Iranian issues. So I don’t think that really pertains to what we are doing here today.”
“Do you think that President Obama is doing enough on this issue ?”
Shapiro “ I think he’s made it very clear that he opposes the kinds of rights abuses that occur in Iran, I think that due to the sanctions placed on Iran certain trade agreements that we’ve come up I think we are doing the best we can without engaging in a more serious and consequential conflict.”
“Do you think the President, our President takes the threat of Terrorism seriously ?”
Shapiro “ I certainly do. I think that it’s unfair to assume that any human being with a reasonable moral compass would not take the threat of terrorism seriously.”
I state “I guess just the fact that I am Jewish, you’re Jewish, and when I hear someone like him make the threat that they want to blow Israel off the map, that they’ve re-written maps without Israel on it , that he’s a Holocaust denier, myself as a Jewish person I find that to be extremely concerning, and you?.”
Shapiro, “I think there are a number of issues at play within the Israel-Palestine question, I think that too equate Israel and Jewish is a very difficult logical over-extention. But I also think that Israel was founded on certain values, namely the idea that people living in an area should be able to self determine their own nation, and we have a population living in the West Bank and Gaza, that is predominately Palestinian. I think that if they choose to exercise the collective right to statehood that’s what the Jewish people were all about for all those years where they were in a diaspora, where they were exiled, and didn’t have a state of their own and they claimed it. And I think that to deny that same right a couple decades later to the Palestinian people, while there are certain exceptions in the framework that we have to operate under, I think its important that we address that.”
I wonder if Shapiro would feel the same way if he step foot in the small dark cattle car in Whitwell, Tennessee. A living remnant of the extermination. A symbol of pure evil. Standing in the death car back in the summer of 2006 I can picture and feel the presence of the Jewish people standing should-to-shoulder in this small coffin-like box. I remember thinking to myself, had they taken Hitler’s threat seriously, and taken him at his word back then, would their fate have been different? There is no shortage of evil in the world. History will absolutely repeat itself, if we do not wake up, listen and learn.
The audio of Robyn’s interview can be heard here;