Wrestling with the antisemitism of the past and of the present

I have wanted to write this for a while but kept postponing… and tried to understand why?! One of the simple explanations is that it is extremely difficult to write about national shame, inhumane ideologies, ordinary people with extraordinary hatred or indifference. It is difficult to say something about all of this without too many cliches, too much moralizing and too little personal reflection. But I will try to put my finger on a few very important and timely things…

November 30 is coming up and in Latvia it marks another remembrance day – the mass killings of Jewish people on November 30, 1941 in Rumbula forest near Riga. I don’t want to give the facts and statistics of how it happened or how many thousands got killed. There is plenty of information available online, plus I have written before how we as a society in Latvia are still in the process of talking about, reflecting upon and learning from these very painful and shameful events of our past.

In many ways here in Latvia we are on a very steep curve of learning and remembering while it seems that many people in Europe and around the world are on the downhill slope of unlearning and forgetting. Of course, not everyone in Latvia wants to know, to understand and to change their views or assumptions, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore it. There are more museums, more books, more media attention, more and more people who care to know.

This year we even have the first Latvian feature film about the Holocaust in Latvia which tells the true story of one amazing family, Lipke, in Riga who risked their lives to save more than 50 Latvian Jews during WWII. There were many others who were rescuers but Lipke family has their own unique story. (The English title of this new movie is “The Mover“.)

So, the movie is in the theaters, the remembrance day and lighting the candles at Freedom Monument takes place on November 30… meanwhile I turn on the news and watch programs about the rise of new kind of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere. It is on the far-right and the far-left and many shades of it in-between. And I ask myself what is going on?!

The experts – sociologists, psychologists, political analysts, historians, journalists, etc. – have their own wise explanations and we can easily find the research and survey data. But what does it tell me personally? For one, it tells that we live in a very fragile time filled with so much anxiety where many of the old mechanisms of dealing with insecurity, instability, rapid global technological and cultural change are being used. One of the classical methods is finding the scapegoat whom to blame for everything. “The Jew” is just so familiar and easy to revert to, but it can be “the Muslim”, “the Russian”, ” the immigrant”, “the black”, “the Mexican”, “the Christian”…

That is why I think antisemitism is also on the rise in those countries where the governing parties are very pro-Israel but very prejudiced against many different groups of people. In this sense any rise of nationalism is a rise of antisemitism. When we talk about ‘making our countries great again’ by which people often mean going back to some kind of ‘ideal’ past and ‘romanticized’ cultural identity we used to have, we are already on this downward slope. It is a whole package where it is very hard to pick and choose our prejudices for this kind of pride comes with strings attached.

The experts mention that many people would be classified as ‘antisemitic’ because they hate the policies of the current state of Israel, especially toward the Palestinian people. I do not support this hatred in any way. Still,  I understand a little bit about not liking a certain countries policies and the struggle to separate the issue. For example, I have many negative feelings and strong opinions about the current politics, ideologies and state of affairs in Russia and it is not easy for me to look at the Russian flag as something neutral or accept people who are very proudly Russian and nationalistic. I immediately start wondering if they support Putin or “Make Russia great again” which would put them in the ” other” camp. Some years ago I would have never imagined that my generation will have to have these inner struggles again of how to love the Russian people from our neighboring country while strongly opposing that country’s political direction.

I am very concerned that we forget so quickly… we forget the Holocaust, we forget Rwanda, we forget Cambodia, we forget the Apartheid.. We forget that every generation has their own ‘demons’ to face which often try to appear as the ‘angels’ or ‘idols’ of ethnic, religious, racial or national identity, infallibility, stability and self-protection…

As we continue to pray in our own brokenness: “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil…”

(The heading photo was taken at Riga Ghetto Museum and this exhibit tells the story of European Jews who were transported from various countries to  be shot and killed in Latvia)

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Photo from “The Mover” (2018), a movie about the Holocaust in Latvia

 

Facebook and the conundrum of hate speech

“As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media”, said Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

“I can’t live with or without you”, I considered such title but decided it would be too much. Facebook is a thing, not a person. Simply a social media platform and, most of the time, a useful one for certain interaction with friends, colleagues and work.

As we know, it easily connects people and just as easily breaks them apart. I usually ‘flee’ from the latest controversy, debate, back-and-forth comments because I 1) don’t think as fast as other respondents 2) think too much what words to choose and to use because words are important 3) would rather join face to face conversation 4) want to engage with friends and people I know because only they will value my opinion 5) don’t think I can actually change someone’s mind with few short comments 6) don’t want to get in ‘cross fire’ if the conversation is aggressive 7) and don’t want to spend time creating more and more ‘hot air’. If there is anything this world has more than enough, it is “hot air”.

But unfortunately and tragically this virtual ‘hot air’ can become real, violent and simply evil fire. Last week again there were two instances where Facebook as a community platform had to acknowledge it has been used effectively in stirring hate and prejudice. Facebook removed the pages of the anti-Islamic group ‘Britain First’ and its leaders because of repeated violations of FB community standards. I would say not just FB but most of the British society’s standards. I know friends in the UK who are working very hard to foster relationships and bring healing to hurting communities and they have criticized ‘Britain First’ for long time.

The other story was even more painful and more personal since it involved Myanmar/Burma. When I started ‘peaceroads’ blog three years ago, it was inspired by many years of working with refugees from Myanmar and living on Thailand – Myanmar border. And now U.N. human rights experts investigating abuses and violence against the Rohingya Muslim people in Myanmar say that Facebook has played a major role in spreading the hate messages and inciting the violence. I cannot read Burmese but I do know one racial slur which Facebook had already banned in 2017.

Fortunately I have not had to ‘censor’ any of my FB friends for hateful comments but many of us have expressed loads of stereotypes, fear of different groups and called for certain ‘exclusion’. There have been a few situations where I wrote my friends (in a personal message) and tried to explain why I thought their comments were not helpful, but harmful. And I have ‘unfollowed’ few people because their posts were too frequent and too zealous in their desire to prove their point. But I have never ‘unfriended’ anyone just because they have different opinion and views from mine. I don’t want to insulate myself with people who all think alike because that is exactly one of the big problems of our day. These group ‘bubbles’ we live in.

The people with ‘bad’ intentions do not hesitate to take advantage of social media while people ‘good’ intentions often wonder if it is worth it. It can also be very difficult and scary to express your opinion when you already know what possibly aggressive and angry reaction your posts will get. For example, if the Christians who are a religious minority in Myanmar were to stand up for the Muslims who are even smaller religious minority, they would be in a very difficult position. If the Karen or any other people who are an ethnic minority were to stand up for the Rohingya who are ethnic minority, they would be in a very difficult position.

In Myanmar, UK, Latvia, Russia, Nigeria, USA, (you name the country)… social media has been and will be used used to enforce prejudice, stereotypes and to incite discrimination against certain groups. Based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, social status, ideology and any other way we like to define the ‘other’.  As long as people (with growing robot enforcement) communicate, this issue of hate speech stays with us and we have to discern what contributes to it and what does not. And what to do about it.

My hope and desire is to use this blog as one of many tools to suck out some of this ‘hot air’ from our online interactions. What are your tools? Suggestions?

“Son of Saul” is hard to watch but so worth it

There are good movies and then there are special movies. There are stories and then there are powerful stories. I love movies that tell a good story and engage my emotions and imagination. A good story draws you in and helps you to relate to the main characters. It helps you to try to imagine yourself in their shoes.

“Son of Saul” (2015), movie made in Hungary, is a heartbreaking story. Sometimes we may think – why another movie about the Holocaust? We know the history, we know the suffering, we know the banality of this evil. What else can we say about this evil? What else needs to be said that has not been said already?

I must say that “Son of Saul” moved me more than most movies about the Holocaust. It follows two days in the life of Saul, a Hungarian Jew, who is forced to work as Sonderkommando. These were prisoners in extermination camps like Auschwitz who were made to dispose of the bodies. Saul tries to give a proper Jewish burial to a young nameless boy who could be his son.

What makes this story different from others? Many things. The soundtrack is haunting – there is no music but only the every day sounds of the camp. People, shovels, doors, prayers, screams, commands, whispers. Also there is no melodrama. The camera blurs the background where you can see the indescribable things but the focus is on the faces of main characters. It is a beautiful and unforgettable portrait of one guy trying to keep his humanity in this hell.

Saul is trying to survive but more than anything he is trying to survive as a person. He is desperately trying to hold on to something higher and deeper and eternal. He is fighting to keep his soul and not caring anymore if he loses his body. Looking in his face, I try to imagine his thoughts.

I like that the director found native speakers (sorry but I often don’t get convinced by an American or British actor) and all the characters speak in their own languages. Hungarian, German, Russian, Polish… I don’t know what it is about the language but it is such a part of who we are. There is a scene in the movie where a German SS officer who is deciding whether to keep Saul alive or not, says, “Hungarian is such a nice language.” The paradox of evil – to like the language and maybe even the culture but to kill the people who belong to that culture and language.

It is more than just a story about the Holocaust and I find it very relevant.

For me it is difficult to relate to Oscar Schindler or Władysław Szpilman but here I felt I could put myself in the time and place. Saul could be anyone. Saul is anyone and everyone. He could be speaking Latvian or Armenian or Rwandan or Arabic or Farsi or Hebrew or Rohingya… son of men.

 

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Images from the movie “Son of Saul”

 

 

Sons and daughters… kings and queens of love

It was a hot and humid evening in Kuala Lumpur. Our friend Darren is a good driver and I am glad because the traffic here gets bad. I don’t mind sitting in a passenger seat though when it gives more time for good conversations. And in Malaysia there is lots to talk about. People, the city, music, art, faith, history, current affairs… Darren is a good source for all these topics.

We were driving to a show featuring local bands. Seriously, there is so much musical talent in Malaysia! And the venue was really cool. “Merdekarya” is a combination of words for ‘independence’ and ‘art’. It prides itself for being a place of free expression and creativity and providing platform and support for local poetry, music and storytelling…

One advertisement that stuck in my head from years of watching CNN International news is “Malaysia Truly Asia”. It emphasized the natural beauty and the cultural, ethnic and racial diversity and it had a very catchy tune. I guess this ad worked… at least for me. No doubt it is one of the most diverse places and also this tropical land is one of 17 Megadiverse countries on earth, estimated to have 20% of the world’s animal species.  Most of the country is covered by tropical rain forests.

Malay, Chinese, Indigenous, Indian. I am glad that for my friends, English is a common language. Otherwise I would be lost. Still, I do get lost when they switch to Manglish, a mix of English, Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tamil… wow , they can talk fast! It is like listening on “fast forward”.

Our friend Darren used to teach English to foreign students in Kuala Lumpur. It gave him another deeper insight into cross-cultural living. Especially interesting for me were his observations about young people from the former Soviet republics like Russia, Tajikistan, etc. Most come from wealthy families and many are not as interested in their studies as they are interested in having a good time. Also, Darren had become aware of different prejudices and conflicts between these groups. For example, the prejudice toward people from Central Asian countries. For those of us who grew up in the USSR, all the derogatory terms are so familiar. And here they made it all the way to Malaysia.

I am aware that even in such a beautiful country like Malaysia not everything is ‘paradise’ and the rich cultural social tapestry has its reverse side. The advertisement of Malaysia Truly Asia leaves out these kind of things. There is a history of tensions and from time to time it comes to violence, aimed at ethnic or religious communities. I am no expert on Malaysian history or all the current causes for these fractures, but I do know that there are fault-lines in all our societies.

At the show I was listening to an amazing young band from the south of Malaysia, accordingly named “South and The Lowlands”. Music is a very powerful tool in peace building and reconciliation.  One of their songs “Sculptures” (lyrics by Daniel T.) has a beautiful message and a story to tell that is very relevant to all our lives…

“Many faces and places… Many hopes and dreams shattered                                                              Many hurts and bruises… Many roads and paths taken

Different colours, covered by the same blood… Different shades, but after one heart

Sons and daughters… Kings and queens of love                                                                                      More than sculptures… Crafted by God

Shine bright tonight… One heart… One soul… One mind ”

Malaysia has words, songs and stories to tell the world. I am blessed by friends like Darren and Daniel  and others who are passionate about challenging our prejudices. They use their talents while inspired by faith in God who rains Love, Truth and Forgiveness on everyone – good and bad.

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A must-visit venue in Kuala Lumpur

Latviski:

Kualalumpūrā ir karsts un sutīgs vakars. Mūsu draugs Darens ir labs šoferis, un es to novērtēju, jo te mēdz būt pamatīgi satiksmes sastrēgumi. Turklāt man nav iebildumu būt pasažierim, ja ir daudz laika labām sarunām. Malaizijā ir ko pārrunāt – cilvēki, pilsēta, mūzika, māksla, reliģija, vēsture, jaunākie notikumi… Darens labprāt runā par visām šīm tēmām.

Mēs braucam uz koncertu, kur muzicēs vietējās jaunās grupas. Goda vārds, te ir tik daudz labas mūzikas! Un pats mūzikas klubs ir superīgs. “Merdekarya” ir vārdu salikums, kas malaju valodā nozīmē ‘neatkarība’ un ‘māksla’. Ar to arī šis klubs lepojas, ka veicina un atbalsta neatkarīgo mākslu un vietējos dzejniekus, mūziķus un rakstniekus.

Tā kā daudzus gadus skatos CNN starptautiskās ziņas, tad galvā iesēdies viens reklāmas rullītis. “Malaizija Patiesa Āzija”. Tur tika reklamēts dabas skaistums, un lielā kultūras, etnisko grupu un rasu dažādība. Turklāt šai reklāmai bija ļoti lipīga melodija. Tātad šī kampaņa nostrādāja. Vismaz manā gadījumā. Nav šaubu, ka te ir šī liela dažādība. Turklāt Malaizija ir viena no 17 valstīm pasaulē, kuras tiek uzskatītas par supervalstīm dabas daudzveidības jomā. Te ir apmēram 20% no pasaules dzīvnieku sugām. Lielāko daļu valsts sedz tropu meži.

Malaji, ķīnieši, aborigēni, indieši… Es priecājos, ka mūsu draugi savā starpā sarunājas angļu valodā, savādāk es apjuktu. Es jau tā apjūku vai arī atslēdzos no sarunas, kad viņi pāriet uz vietējo angļu sarunvalodu (Manglish), kur sajaucas angļu, malaju, mandarīnu, tamilu, hokienu un citas valodas. Turklāt viņi runā tādā ātrumā! Liekas, ka kāds būtu ieslēdzis pogu “paātrināt”.

Mūsu draugs Darens agrāk mācīja angļu valodu ārvalstu studentiem, kuri mācās Kualalumpūrā. Viņš daudz ko uzzināja un iepazina dažādas kultūras. Konkrēti mani interesēja stāsti par studentiem no bijušajām PSRS valstīm, piemēram, Krievijas, Tadžikistānas un citām. Lielākā daļa ir bagātu ģimeņu atvases, kuriem gribas ne tik daudz studēt, kā labi pavadīt laiku. Zīmīgi, ka Darens ātri uzķēra dažādos aizspriedumus šo studentu starpā. Piemēram, attieksmi pret tautībām no Centrālās Āzijas. Mums, uzaugušajiem PSRS, šīs iesaukas un citi apzīmējumi ir labi pazīstami, bet tagad tie atceļojuši līdz Malaizijai. Darens man ļoti precīzi izskaidroja, kas ir ‘čurkas’.

Taču es zinu, ka arī skaistajā Malaizijā nav “paradīze”, un krāsainajam sabiedrības tepiķim ir otra neglītā puse. Protams, ka reklāmas rullītis to nerādīs. Arī šeit ir vēsture ar konfliktiem starp rasēm un tautībām un dažādas reliģiskas neiecietības izpausmes, kas reizēm pārvēršas vardarbībā. Skaidrs, ka šīs plaisas ir visur pasaulē.

Koncertā klausījos vienu jaunu un ļoti talantīgu rokgrupu no Malaizijas dienvidiem, kuru attiecīgi sauc “Dienvidi un zemienes” (South and The Lowlands). Mūzika vienmēr ir bijis spēcīgs intruments, ko izmantot miera celšanai. Viena no grupas dziesmām “Skulptūras” pildīja tieši šādu uzdevumu caur savu skaisto vēstījumu…

“Daudzas sejas un vietas… Daudzas cerības un sapņi

Daudzas sāpes un brūces… Daudzi ceļi un gaitas

Daudzas krāsas, ko apklāj vienas asinis… Daudzi toņi, bet viena sirds

Dēli un meitas… Mīlestības valdnieki un valdnieces

Vairāk kā skulptūras… Dieva radītas

Lai deg spoži… Viena sirds… Viena dvēsele… Viens nodoms”

Malaizija dod vārdus, dziesmas un stāstus visai pasaulei. Paldies Dievam par tādiem draugiem kā Darens and Daniēls un citi, kuri cīnās ar mūsu aizspriedumiem. Viņu instruments ir mūzika un māksla, un viņu motivācija ir ticība Dievam, kurš izlej savu Mīlestību, Patiesību un Žēlastību pār mums visiem – labiem un sliktiem.

 

 

 

 

 

Latvians and our blind sides

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. The more I reflect and the more I try to practice it, my experience tells me that these words are very true. I cannot change situations and attitudes around me if I am not willing to do some deep soul-searching first. How can I help someone or even confront someone if I have ‘a log in my own eye’.

This comes out in our conversations – opinions, arguments, discussions… Every ‘hot topic’ reveals our prejudices and preconceived ideas (an opinion formed beforehand without adequate evidence) that have not been challenged. For example, the current discussions about receiving asylum seekers or even economic migrants in Latvia. One objection I hear is that ‘those people just want to come here to get our government’s support. They do not want to work and have no work ethic. They are lazy or just seeking an easy life.”

Few thoughts on this. First of all, it is totally untrue. Yes, there are always some people who take advantage of anything they can get for ‘free’. The vast majority of the people I meet around the world want to work because work gives dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23) says “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” Work is not a privilege; work is a right!

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Secondly, such statements imply that we, Latvians, are always hard working; that we never take advantage of our government and social welfare system; for sure we don’t take advantage of benefits in other wealthier EU countries like Ireland and UK and Sweden; we never seek ‘easy life’ and we would never take anything for ‘free’.

When someone mentions our own tragic history when after WWII thousands of Latvians were forced to live in exile, we are quick to think or say, “Yes, Latvians needed international help but we were always so good to our host countries. We were very good immigrants – never causing any trouble, hard working, integrating into out host cultures, speaking the language, etc. Plus, we were white, church going and cultured.”

Sorry for the sarcasm but doesn’t this smell of self-righteousness? I am not speaking on behalf of the generation that suffered during the war. I have no right to do that and I cannot be in their shoes. Still, I had two uncles who lived in exile in Ireland and Sweden. And I know that there were tensions and prejudices between the asylum seekers/immigrants and the local people.

What about stories of Latvians currently living and working in UK and Ireland, etc? If I was to base my opinions on some of the media stories, I would think that British people are hosting lots of ‘drunks, murderers, trouble makers, drain on social benefits’ and so on.

And then there is the talk about the drug smugglers and criminals who will try to disguise as ‘refugees’. Nice to know that I am from a small country that has no drug dealers, no crime, no illegal trade, no smuggling, no human trafficking, no corruption, no alcoholism…

I will let Martin Luther King Jr. say the final words on this topic. “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Protest against immigration in Latvia

Image by © VALDA KALNINA/epa/Corbis

Latviski:
Latvieši un mūsu paškritikas trūkums
Gandijs teica slavenos vārdus: “Tev pašam jābūt tām izmaiņām, ko vēlies redzēt pasaulē.” Jo vairāk es to pārdomāju un jo vairāk cenšos tā dzīvot, es piedzīvoju šo vārdu patiesumu. Es nevaru izmainīt situācijas un apkārtējo attieksmi, ja neesmu gatava pārbaudīt pati savu sirdi. Nevaru palīdzēt citiem, kur nu vēl kaut ko aizrādīt, ja man pašai ir ‘baļķis acīs”.
Tas atklājas mūsu sarunās – uzskatos, argumentos, diskusijās… Katra ‘karstā tēma’ izgaismo mūsu aizspriedumus un nepamatotus uzskatus, kas nav tikuši izaicināti vai apšaubīti. Piemēram, patreizējās diskusijas par patvēruma meklētājiem Latvijā, vai arī runājot par ekonomiskajiem imigrantiem. Viena no pretenzijām, ko dzirdu, ir šāda: “Tie cilvēki grib vienkārši dzīvot uz mūsu valsts rēķina. Viņi negrib strādāt; viņiem nav darba ētikas. Viņi ir slinki un laimes meklētāji.”

Dažas domas šajā sakarā. Pirmkārt, šis apgalvojums ir galīgi nepatiess. Jā, protams, vienmēr būs kādi cilvēki, kas izmantos visas iespējas dabūt kaut ko par ‘velti’. Taču lielākā daļa cilvēku, kurus satieku pasaulē, grib strādāt, jo darbs piešķir cilvēkam cieņu. Vispārējās cilvēktiesību deklarācijas 23. pantā ir teikts: “Katram cilvēkam ir tiesības uz darbu, uz brīvu darba izvēli, uz taisnīgiem un labvēlīgiem darba apstākļiem un uz aizsardzību pret bezdarbu.” Darbs nav privilēģija; darbs ir mūsu tiesības!

Otrkārt, no malas tas izklausās apmēram tā: “Mēs, Latvijas iedzīvotāji, visi esam ļoti strādīgi. Mums ir vislabākā darba ētika. Mēs nekad neizmantojam savu valsti vai kādus sociālus pabalstus ļaunprātīgi. Mēs nekādā veidā neizmantojam ES bagātākās valstis, piemēram, Lielbritāniju, Zviedriju, Īriju, jo mēs neesam nekādi laimes meklētāji, un mēs nekad negribam neko par ‘velti’.”

Diskusijā tiek pieminēti arī Latvijas cilvēki, kuri devas bēgļu gaitās pēc Otrā Pasaules kara. Tad mēs ātri iebilstam gan domās, gan vārdos: “Jā, latviešiem bija nepieciešama starptautiska palīdzība, bet mēs vienmēr un visur bijām par svētību. Mēs bijām ļoti labi imigranti – nekad neradījām problēmas, smagi strādājām, uzreiz integrējāmies mītnes zemēs, iemācījāmies valodu, utt. Turklāt mēs bijām baltie, kulturālie un kristīgie.”

Atvainojos par sarkasmu, bet vai tas neož pēc paštaisnības? Es nerunāju trimdas latviešu vārdā. Šī paaudze gāja cauri lielām ciešanām. Man nav tiesību viņus vērtēt. Bet manai vecmammai arī bija divi brāļi, kuri nonāca Īrijā un Zviedrijā. Un es zinu no viņu stāstiem, ka bija sava veida spriedze un pat aizspriedumi starp patvēruma meklētājiem un vietējiem iedzīvotājiem.

Un kā ar mūsu tautiešiem, kuri dzīvo un strādā Lielbritānijā un Īrijā un citur? Ja es vadītos tikai no ziņām masu mēdijos, es domātu, ka britiem jāpacieš “dzērāji, kaušļi, slepkavas, laimes meklētāji, pabalstu izmantotāji” un tā tālāk.

Vēl tiek argumentēts, ka starp patvēruma meklētājiem ielavīsies narkotiku un ieroču pārvadātāji. Cik jauki, ka es esmu no mazas valsts, kur šobrīd nav ne narkotiku dīleru, ne noziedznieku, ne kontrabandas, ne cilvēku tirdzniecibas, ne alkoholisma…

Beigšu ar Martina Lutera Kinga, Jr. citātu: “Nekas pasaulē nav tik bīstams, kā patiesa nezināšana vai apzināta muļķība”.