There are some things you just don’t do. It doesn’t matter how unconventional you may think you are or how desperate you are to get a message out there. Some lines are simply not meant to be crossed.
Last week, a group of pro-Palestinian Israeli activists chose to demonstrate against Israeli policy in Gaza by spraying graffiti on one of the last remaining walls of Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto. The group, without a doubt, crossed that line.
The left-leaning protestors held a rally near the wall and then sprayed graffiti in Hebrew and English calling for all ghettos — including Gaza — to be liberated. The words “Free Gaza and Palestine” and “Liberate all ghettos” were displayed in Hebrew and English beside Palestinian flags that the group hung from the wall.
As an aside — or not — the timing gives pause for contemplation considering this week’s death of 90-year-old Nazi war crimes suspect Adolf Storm, who perished before being brought to trial. Storm was suspected of massacring dozens of Jewish laborers in Austria at the end of WWII and was the number four man on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list of most-wanted Nazi suspects.
The graffiti incident caused a stir in Israel’s press, as it would, and a group spokesman of sorts attempted to validate his and his colleagues’ actions by comparing his family’s plight to that of the Palestinians.
“Most of my family came from Poland and many of my relatives were killed in the death camps during the Holocaust. When I walk in what was left of the Warsaw Ghetto, I can’t stop thinking about the people of Gaza who are not only locked in an open air prison but are also being bombarded by fighter jets, attack helicopters and drones, flown by people whom I used to serve with before my refusal in 2003,” Yonatan Shapira was quoted by Haaretz, referring to his decision to publicly opt out of military duty earlier in the decade.
Shapira is no stranger to controversial acts. A former Israel Air Force pilot, he authored the 2003 “pilots’ letter“: a statement signed by 27 Israeli pilots who publicly refused to fly missions over the Palestinian territories. As a result, Shapira was ousted from reserve duty and lost his job as a commercial airline pilot.
Defending his actions in Warsaw, Shapira attempted to justify himself this week on Israel’s Army Radio.
“My action is not controversial,” he said on-air Monday. “I am not saying there is a comparison with the monstrosity of Nazi death camps, but I am saying we must talk about the silence in Israel and the world when people are confined in a ghetto-like place.”
He went on to accuse Israel’s public of apathy and said “we will do everything to wake it up, even spray graffiti on an abandoned ghetto wall. It may be difficult for Israelis to hear these things but that is no reason not to say them. No one is saying Israelis are Nazis. The message is that people are imprisoned in a ghetto, and a ghetto can take different shape — and this is something that cannot be.”
Wake up the public with a proverbial bucket of ice water he and his cohorts did, indeed. Even the farthest left protestors, columnists, and pro-peace advocates I know clucked proverbial, collective tongues and chastised the disgraceful act in social media arenas.
Shapira and company’s intention was to influence young people and express views, he said publicly. “I am … thinking about the delegations of young Israelis that are coming to see the history of our people but also are subjected to militaristic and nationalistic brainwashing on a daily basis. Maybe if they see what we wrote here today they will remember that oppression is oppression, occupation is occupation and crimes against humanity are crimes against humanity, whether they have been committed here in Warsaw or in Gaza.”
Maybe. Or perhaps they’ll perceive it as the act it was: skewed, twisted, and completely inappropriate, carried out by persons who have lost sight of the context of their mission.
The spokesperson of Yad Vashem, which describes itself as a “Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority,” issued a highly apt statement summing up the incident: “Yad Vashem is repulsed by Yonatan Shapira’s actions and statements. … We see in his actions a provocation that perverts the history both of the Holocaust and of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These actions, tainted with anti-Semitism, point to a person who has lost all factual and moral judgment. The use of the Holocaust in the way that Shapira has chosen to do so is a crass manipulation that warps the historical truth.”