"Sandomierz is a beautiful little town in south-eastern Poland... Once, before the war, many of its inhabitants were Jews. As we walked along the streets that were once Jewish streets, this group of American and Australian Jews, there were no signs, nothing at all, to suggest that the Jews of Sandomierz had a history going back hundreds of years... The past sat in my heart like a stone. On the once Jewish streets of Sandomierz... lived Poles. I wondered whether they knew what had happened to the people who once lived here and if they did know, did the ghosts of the dead Jews ever come to disturb their sleep?"
So begins the soulful essay by former editor of The Age Michael Gawenda, in the January 18 edition of Fairfax's GoodWeekend magazine.
While it's perfectly natural for Gawenda to ruminate thus on his Polish-Jewish parents' homeland and the terrible fate of Poland's Jews under the Nazis, nagging questions arise.
Is it possible for a Jew, any Jew, who lives in an era when the lives of Jews are seemingly dominated by the fact of a powerful Jewish state, one moreover, which loudly proclaims that all Jews constitute one people and that it, Israel, represents them, to carry on as though Israel and its manifold crimes are in no way his or her concern?
Is it possible for a Jew to be alive to the fate of his father's forbears in Europe but dead to the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who were driven out of Palestine by the founders of the Jewish state, and whose homes are now inhabited by the descendents of Eastern European, including Polish, Jews?
Apparently, for Gawenda, it is.
Mind you, as the son of a Bundist father, Gawenda is by no means overtly Zionist. And yet, in his memoir, American Notebook: A Personal and Political Journey (2007), he can blithely invoke the Nazi genocide to marginalise and dismiss the 63 years of Palestinian suffering done in his name as a Jew as well as the next Zionist apologist:
"Is it really necessary to say that there is no comparison in reality, no analogous situation between the Nazi treatment of the Jews and Israel's treatment of the Palestinians? It seems that it is. The attempted genocide by the Nazis of European Jewry was almost successful. Whole communities were wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed by the Nazi killing squads that followed the German army into the Soviet Union. Of Poland's estimated 3 million Jews, 200,000 survived. At least a million people were killed in Auschwitz, among them hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women and children who were gassed shortly after their arrival. The characterisation of Israel as a Nazi state by some of its critics is based either on ignorance or on something much more malevolent." (p 157)
Gawenda here provides a perfect example of the following phenomenon so well described by Israeli activist and scholar Uri Davis:
"It is to Hisham Sharabi that I owe the insight that though the Israeli ethnic cleansing of 1948-49 and the Israeli occupation of 1967 are no less cruel than, for instance, the mass ethnic cleansing that had taken place in India and Pakistan at about the same time, or the French occupation of Algeria, the tragedy of the Palestinian Arab people is that their persecutor and occupier is identified in Western narrative not as a 'Zionist', nor as an 'Israeli', but as a 'Jew'. This, Sharabi pointed out further, unfortunately means that so long as the Israeli occupation does not mass transport the Palestinian people into death camps, annihilate them in gas chambers and dispose of their bodies in crematoria with columns of smoke curling out of the chimneys, the cruelty of the Israeli occupation and the truly horrific suffering of the Palestinian people remain invisible to enlightened public opinion." (Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within, 2003, p 18)
It seems that, safely inoculated by Holocaust memory, the ghosts of dead and dispossessed Palestinians will never disturb Gawenda's sleep.