Leaning to the left Area survivors say Israel is not practicing justice

But instead, the Berkeley woman is among a minority of survivors who believe that because of their Holocaust history, Jews should not turn around and inflict measures of collective punishment on another people, as they contend Israel is doing to the Palestinians.

"I believe in justice first, before anything else, and in the current circumstances of this conflict, justice is not on the side of the Israelis," she said.

While Herskovits concedes that she is among the minority of survivors who feel this way, she is not alone. As a participant of an East Bay group of child survivors called Yaldei Shoah, she takes solace in the fact that another participant feels the way she does.

Ruth Michaels, 77, also of Berkeley, was born in Vienna in 1924. While her family got out of Austria in 1938, she joined a survivors' group because almost her entire extended family was killed.

While Michaels said she believes it would be a "complete disaster" if a Jewish state did not exist, she disapproves of what she calls Israel's practice of "taking land from others," citing Israel's movement into the territories in the 1967 war, and the expansion of its settlements in the Palestinian areas.

Growing up in Vienna, Michaels can remember her father coming home one day, after being forced to scrub the street with a toothbrush while wearing a top hat. Around him, people stood and laughed.

"We were vermin," she said. And much to her dismay, she feels that many Israeli Jews feel the same way about Palestinians, thinking they are animals.

"This is exactly what happened to us in Vienna, we were given no respect, no dignity, humiliation all the time," she said. "When others are vermin, you don't care what happens to them, and this is what is happening with the Israeli-Palestinian situation."

Michaels considers herself a strong Zionist, and she lived in Israel for several years in her 20s.

Nonetheless, she feels frustrated with many of her fellow survivors, who will justify whatever actions the Jewish state undertakes in the name of security.

"I don't see how Holocaust survivors can feel that Israel is the victim, or how Israel is fighting for its life; I think it's really irrational," she said. "When the Israelis are demolishing Palestinian houses, and cutting down their olive trees, and ruining their livelihood…what more can they do?"

Herskovits said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's actions make it "rather clear that he never had any intention of making peace. It's so clear that he would like to remove all the 3 million Palestinians from the West Bank."

Saying she was completely supportive of those Israeli reservists who were refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza, she said of Sharon's invasions, "I have a feeling this will destroy Israel."

Hilde Gattman of San Mateo has an unusual vantage point from which to view the conflict — the perspective of her Palestinian friends. Gattman, who fled Germany in 1938, participates in the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.

In addition, ahe and her husband's daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren live in Israel, and their eldest granddaughter is currently serving in the Israel Defense Force.

Even so, Gattman feels that Israelis soldiers are often killing Palestinians indiscriminately. "The world hasn't really learned much from the Holocaust, and our people haven't," she said.

In dialogue group meetings, she often hears Palestinians liken the situation in Israel to another Holocaust.

"It doesn't make me feel good, but I don't like to compare," she said. "Often people are not speaking from knowledge."

At the same time, she added, when she hears of certain tactics used by the Israel Defense Force, she can't help but see similarities.

"To go into homes and just destroy without rhyme or reason, as the army has done, or to tie up young boys to scare them, I think that's horrible," she said. "I think all of these measures are just ghastly and will do nothing but turn more people against us."

Michaels said that while she has heard some of her survivor peers describe terrorist attacks against Israel as "another Holocaust," she does not agree with them.

She agrees with them in abhorring suicide bombings, but she detests what she calls state-sanctioned killing just as much.

"Justice and responsibility for other people is a Jewish quality. We should have learned that from the Holocaust, where the Nazis were the aggressors, and now we're doing this to others; I can't understand it."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."