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Monthly Archives: February 2015

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Source: The Times of Israel, February 20, 2015

FUKUYAMA, Japan (JTA) — In the auditorium of Japan’s main Holocaust education center, a teenage actor explains the dilemma that faced a Japanese diplomat during World War II.

“My conscience tells me I must act a certain way, but doing so means defying my commanders,” says the actor portraying Chiune Sugihara, the Empire of Japan’s wartime vice consul in Lithuania. In 1940, Sugihara rescued 6,000 people by granting them transit visas to Japan in defiance of Tokyo’s orders. Some of them survived the war.

To Western ears, the play’s message of placing independent thought above blind obedience may seem banal. But in an increasingly militaristic Japan, Sugihara’s story is instructive — a tool for sensitizing children to the dangers of nationalism not only in Europe, but also in Japan.

“It’s a bold position to take in a society that has remained ultra-conservative and extremely hierarchical,” said Alain Lewkowicz, a French Jewish journalist who has studied Japanese society’s attitudes toward the Holocaust.

Since it opened in 1995, the Fukuyama Holocaust Education Center — situated just outside Fukuyama and about 60 miles from Hiroshima, the site of an atomic bomb in 1945 — has welcomed tens of thousands of Japanese schoolchildren. Founded by Beit Shalom, a Kyoto-based Christian pro-Israel organization, the center relocated in 2007 to a larger, donor-funded 20,000-square-foot facility.

Beit Shalom’s theater troupe’s is now preparing for its first international tour in nine years. The group, which will perform in the United States this spring, is composed of 20 Japanese girls who sing in Yiddish and Hebrew about such themes as life in wartime Jewish ghettos.

At the heart of the building is a Holocaust museum with a display about the buildup of hate against Jews in Germany and replicas of the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the Auschwitz gate. The center also features a replica of the Amsterdam room inside the annex where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis, as well as objects that belonged to her family. The garden is home to a statue of the teenage diarist and a sapling that is actually a cutting from the tree that once grew outside the building where the Frank family hid.

While Anne Frank is well known in Japan, the strong alliance and similarities that connected the island nation to Nazi Germany — during World War II, Japan, Germany and Italy made up the Axis alliance — are rarely taught in schools here. Similarly, speaking about Japanese war crimes of the 1930s and ’40s — including mass murder in Nanking, China, and the forced sexual slavery of tens of thousands of Korean women — is largely taboo in a country whose right-wing prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has repeatedly visited a shrine that was built for some of the perpetrators.

Abe’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine remains a major point of contention between Tokyo and the capital cities of Beijing and Seoul. China and Korea have warned Abe not to backtrack on his partial admission to Japan’s wartime atrocities when he delivers a speech later this year on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.

Abe has promised “a departure from the postwar regime” and said he regretted that he had not visited Yasukuni sooner. Meanwhile, he has been expanding Japan’s military capabilities to unprecedented levels after ending in July a ban on operations abroad that had been established soon after World War II ended. His government is also encouraging military recruitment and exploring for the first time in decades the possibility of acquiring offensive weapons.

Against this backdrop, independent NGOs like the Holocaust Education Center are “taking up the educational task that the government is neglecting on purpose because it wants to promote a more nationalistic agenda,” said Naoki Maruyama, a professor of history at Japan’s Meiji Gakuin University.

The passage in 2003 of controversial education reforms that reintroduced such nationalistic elements as obligatory anthem singing, patriotism lessons and the flying of the national flag in schools, he added, suggests that it might be a while before schools tackle any of these divisive issues in a manner comparable to what has been done in postwar Germany.

“We have not given much attention to educating children to think about why the war happened and how to prevent a reoccurrence,” said Makoto Otsuka, a reverend at Beit Shalom and the center’s director. “More than anything else, this is what the Holocaust Education Center tries to do.”

Japanese educators, he added, typically teach about the use by the United States of atomic weapons in Japan to “show how much Japan suffered as the victim,” but have failed to follow the example of Germany, where “it is now required to look back objectively at the facts of history.”

Neither the Holocaust nor Japan’s wartime occupation of Asian countries and human rights abuses against prisoners of war are mandatory subjects in the national history curriculum of schools.

And the Holocaust Education Center here does not deal directly with Japan’s war crimes either, said Akio Yoshida, the museum’s deputy director, citing the “need to focus on that uniqueness of the Holocaust to prevent it from blurring with other events that were war-related, including the actions of Japanese troops in Korea and China, or the atomic bomb.”

Instead, Yoshida said he hopes that teaching the Holocaust in Japan “will expose children to the process of indoctrination that preceded the murders, and leave it to them to make the final conclusion about which path they want their society to take.”

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Source: The Times of Israel, February 10, 2015

Prominent Jewish rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Monday condemned an Estonian modern art exhibition for making light of the Holocaust, claims the curator denied.

The “My Poland: On Recalling and Forgetting” exhibition in eastern Estonia features eight works of contemporary art — ranging from photography to video to installation — that address the aftermath of World War II in Poland, 70 years on.

One staged video [by Artur Żmijewski] shows a group of naked adults playing tag in the gas chamber of a concentration camp. Another artist restages a photograph from the camp’s 1945 liberation by replacing the survivors with random smiling people.

“While the exhibition attempts to deal with trauma through humor, the result is a sickening mockery of the mass murder of European Jewry and the important ongoing efforts to commemorate the victims’ memory and impart the lessons of the Holocaust,” Efraim Zuroff, director of the Center’s Jerusalem office, said in a statement.

Exhibition curator Rael Artel told AFP that it was not the artists’ intention to make jokes: “These are not humorous works.”

“They (the Wiesenthal Center) have totally missed the point. I think these statements are emotional …

“I was hoping that, maybe through these works, we could have a kind of starting point to approach this very unpleasant and uncomfortable historical event,” she added.

The exhibition runs until March 29 at the Tartu Art Museum in the eastern city of Tartu.

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Source: The Jerusalem Post, February 10, 2015

The US civil rights group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) urged the Urban Outfitters retail chain on Monday to remove a garment it was selling in its stores for being “eerily reminiscent of the prisoner gray and white stripes and pink triangles that gay male prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps.”

“Whether intentional or not, this gray and white stripped pattern and pink triangle combination is deeply offensive and should not be mainstreamed into popular culture,”  Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director said Monday.

“We urge Urban Outfitters to immediately remove the product eerily reminiscent of clothing forced upon the victims of the Holocaust from their stores and online,” Foxman added.

This past summer, retail clothing chain Zara issued a public apology following an outcry over one of its T-shirts that some claim bears a resemblance to a concentration camp uniform.

The blue and white striped boy’s shirt with a yellow six-pointed star was intended to convey a wild west aesthetic, according to parent corporation Inditex, and will no longer be sold.

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Source: Matt Schiavenza, The Atlantic, January 31, 2015

Charlie Hebdo‘s decision to put a drawing of a weeping Muhammad on the cover of its latest issue, the edition published after gunmen massacred 12 at its Paris office, has sparked widespread protests throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. But two cultural institutions within Iran have expressed their displeasure in a different way: The House of Cartoon and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Complex announced last Saturday that they will hold an international cartoon contest centered on the theme of Holocaust denial. The winner of the contest will receive a cash prize and will have his work displayed in the Palestine Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran.

This isn’t the first time Iran has held this contest. After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Postenspublished cartoons depicting Muhammad in 2005, the two organizers held the first International Holocaust Cartoon contest, attracting over 1,200 submissions from around the world. The entries selected for recognition took two basic editorial positions. The first was that the Holocaust didn’t happen at all. And the second was that even if it did, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is hardly better. The first prize went to a Moroccan cartoonist named Abdellah Derkaoui, whose drawing featured an Israeli crane constructing a wall around Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. A concentration camp is painted on the wall.

The purpose of the contest, according to the organizers, is to highlight Western hypocrisy over the value of free speech. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, people around the world expressed solidarity through the ubiquitous “Je Suis Charlie” slogan, indicating a defense of the newspaper’s right to satirize religious piety. Critics of the newspaper, though, pointed out that Muslims weren’t offended by Charlie Hebdo‘s irreverent speech. They were instead insulted that white Parisians mocked religious values held by France’s immigrant population, a group that has long been marginalized within French society. And according to Massoud Shojai Tabatabai, one of the organizers of the 2006 conference, the Western commitment to free speech doesn’t always include denying the Holocaust, which remains a criminal offense in countries like Austria.

“Why is it acceptable in Western countries to draw any caricature of the Prophet Mohammed, yet as soon as there are any questions or doubts raised about the Holocaust, fines and jail sentences are handed down?” Tabatabai told The Observer that year.

But there’s a difference between drawing an offensive caricature and participating in the negation of an established historical fact. And while Holocaust denial didn’t begin with Iran, Tehran’s contribution to the practice has been especially shameful. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president from 2005 to 2013, claimed that the Holocaust was a “myth” designed to protect the existence of Israel. In 2006, the year of the first cartoon contest, Tehran sponsored an international conference to “review the global vision of the Holocaust.” Ahmadinejad’s successor Hassan Rouhani acknowledged and condemned the Holocaust upon taking office in 2013, but neither he nor his suave, U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Mohammed Javed Zarif have expressed regret for their country’s role in its denial. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader and the man who controls the country’s foreign policy, has called the Holocaust a “distorted historical event.”

Iran’s Holocaust cartoon contest arrives amid worsening anti-Semitism across Europe. In France, Jewish people comprise 1 percent of the population—yet they are the victims of almost 40 percent of all hate crimes in the country. Jewish community leaders say that nearly 100,000 French Jews have left the country since 2010, and many more have made plans to follow them. Two days after theCharlie Hebdo attacks triggered international outrage over terror attacks on free speech, Amedy Coulibaly took several hostages inside a Jewish grocery store. Six died, Coulibaly included, when police raided the store.

The Iranians who organized the cartoon contest believe that shunning Holocaust denial means Western commitment to free speech is shallow. The real hypocrisy, though, is that by the deliberate offense of the world’s Jewish population, the cartoonists are mocking a group that in many ways is as threatened and marginalized as they are.