September 26, 2018
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A tale of two occupations

Khalil Hamra | AP
Khalil Hamra | AP
Palestinian protesters burn tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Monday, May 14, 2018.
By Jenny Pressman, Tribune News Service

On May 14, during protests near the border fence with Gaza, Israeli military forces killed at least 60 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,000 others. No Israeli soldiers were injured or killed.

What is happening in Gaza is a humanitarian crisis. Israel and the United States are on the wrong side of history.

My parents and their extended family lived in Warsaw, Poland, during World War II. In 1939, the Nazis began to force Poland’s more than 3 million Jews into crowded ghettos. They were among the 400,000 people packed into a small walled-off area of Warsaw guarded by soldiers and surrounded by barbed wire.

Germans controlled who could enter and leave the ghetto, what goods, food and medical supplies were allowed in, and virtually every aspect of daily life. Thousands of Jews died from disease and starvation. My paternal grandfather died of typhus. My maternal grandfather was beaten to death by German soldiers. My maternal grandmother and most of her large extended family were sent by train to the Treblinka death camp, where they were likely immediately gassed and dumped in an unmarked grave.

When it became clear that the transport trains were taking Jews to extermination camps, the Warsaw Ghetto Jews fought back. Beginning on April 19, 1943, the first night of Passover, a ragtag group of adults and children fought Nazi tanks and machine guns with smuggled-in handguns, rocks and Molotov cocktails.

On May 16, 1943, the Nazis ended the uprising by incinerating the Ghetto, block by block, until nothing remained but ash and ruins. Most of the remaining 13,000 Jews died, about half of them burned alive or suffocated.

After the war, my parents, who had managed to escape the ghetto, fled first to Italy and then to the United States. My father’s mother and brother were among those who went to what was then Palestine, when other countries turned their backs on Jewish refugees. As the child of Holocaust survivors, I celebrated the story of the modern founding of Israel, a country where Jews would never again be oppressed and murdered for who they were. I did not even think to ask who lived on the land before my family.

Palestinians were displaced and forced into cramped areas, with limited food, water, supplies and opportunities. When they rise up in protest — with rocks, gasoline bottles and a few weapons — they are murdered by an overpowering army.

That horrific acts of genocide during of Holocaust led to the creation of the Jewish state of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians from their homes is tragically ironic.

There are, I know, important differences between the two occupations, and I also know that the Middle East has a long, complicated history of violence and anti-Semitism. I welcome a meaningful dialogue about any and all of this. But this is deeply personal for me.

I cannot support the Israeli occupation of Gaza. To do so would go against my personal and cultural belief in the right of all people to self-determination and freedom. It would also dishonor the memory of my parents, the enormous losses they suffered, and the hardships they endured during a brutal occupation by those who did not see them as human.

Jenny Pressman of Madison, Wisconsin, is a social justice activist and the daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors.

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