Apr 11, 2011

Tolerating Intolerance at the Museum of Tolerance

In January, a friend and I went to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. We spent the majority of our time in the Holocaust exhibit, comprised mostly of video presentations. Museum guests walk into the first area, see a video and then walk to the next area for another video, and so on.

The exhibit covers the rise and fall of Nazism from 1920 to 1945. Particularly haunting was the fact that most of the world pretended to not know or, worse yet, simply didn’t care what the Nazis were doing and essentially did nothing to stop it. This was due in substantial part to the false distinction between “us” and “them” that’s always lurking around anytime particular groups of people are singled out for violence. People who didn’t consider themselves to be potential targets of the Nazi regime sat with their heads buried in the sand for fear of being targeted, which is exactly what allowed the Nazis to seize most of Europe. This theme, that people did nothing to stop the Nazis, recurred throughout the Holocaust exhibit, for good reason. I can’t say it better than it’s already been said:

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

It was with this thought and of course the horror of The Holocaust on my mind that I made my way to the last video presentation.  As I was watching the video, I realized that the rest of our group had skipped ahead. We didn’t know why, until we finally became so distracted by a loud voice coming from around the corner that we walked over to see what was going on. For several minutes, our group had been standing in a circle around a small, elderly woman, listening to her speak. We assumed correctly that she was a Jew who had survived Nazi occupation, so we were as eager to listen as the others.

-We found out later that the woman’s name was Dorothy Greenstein (her Polish name was Devorah Kirszenbaum) and that she grew up the daughter of a Rabbi near Warsaw and survived the entire Nazi occupation of Poland.-

When I got close enough to hear what she was saying, though, I realized Ms. Greenstein wasn’t talking about her experiences in Poland. Rather, I had caught her in the middle of a long, bigoted diatribe against Muslims.

“You know they rape and kill teenage girls right? It’s called an honor killing. When the girls won’t marry who they’re told, their fathers kill them."

"It’s called Sharia law. They’re trying to spread it all over the world. They have Sharia courts in England and now they want to have their courts in the United States. It’s not right.”

“You know I was talking with someone from Australia and he said the Muslims are trying to invade his country too. But they don’t handle it in Australia like they handle it in Europe. He said, ‘We tell the Muslims if you don’t want to live like us, get out.’ And I think that’s the way it should be.”

“They’re trying to take over the world and we can’t let that happen. They’re crazy.”

Ms. Greenstein had no apparent appreciation for the irony of her remarks. Once she had concluded her racist rant and the guests who had been gathered around her quietly walked away, I went over to her and introduced myself. I had seen her handing out flyers and asked her if I could have one. The flyer identified her as having been a volunteer at the museum for ten years, contained a brief synopsis of her life story on one side and a short article written about her on the other. Under the article’s headline “Holocaust Survivor spreads message of tolerance in L.A.” was a quotation from her, in bold letters: “Hate burdens you.”

If anyone should know that, it’s Ms. Greenstein. (Given her experiences, it would seem more likely for Ms. Greenstein to speak with prejudice against Nazis or Germans than against Muslims but I guess that just shows that bigotry is inherently unreasonable.)

The comments I heard her make, on behalf of the Museum of Tolerance no less, are a perfect example of the Western groupthink that has for centuries justified wars and countless atrocities against the Arab world. From The Crusades, which involved the murders of millions of Arabs by European Christians, to the anti-democratic meddling by the United States and Western Europe that occurred throughout most of the 20th century and the entire current one so far, the West has more Middle Eastern blood on its hands than it could wash off in a million lifetimes.

The preeminent justification for our actions toward the Arab world is that “it’s just not like here.” In other words, the brown people who live in the desert don’t want democracy and they are pre-destined, due to their brownness, to be perpetually led by autocratic, dictatorial regimes that constantly wage war. In addition to being grounded in racism and ethnocentrism, this view is obviously wrong, as demonstrated by the remarkable number and magnitude of civilian protest movements in Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East this spring.

It’s become acceptable in this country, unfortunately, to not only harbor but publicly espouse bigoted and prejudiced beliefs about others as long as they happen to be Arab or Muslim. Of course, there’s always at least one lame excuse offered: “The Qur’an is full of violent rhetoric about taking over the world”; “The terrorists are all Muslim, right?” The people making these statements should bear a few facts in mind. 1) If you’re Christian or Jewish, you need look no further than the Old Testament or Torah for examples of unspeakable violence by both God and his followers (in his name), including slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing and God ordering Abraham to chop his own son’s head off, stopping him at the last second because he was just testing him. (The whole head chopping off thing should sound familiar to anyone acquainted with groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda.) 2) There are over a billion Muslims in the world and their faith is just as fractionated, nuanced and varied as are the Christian and Jewish faiths. 3) You are literally thousands of times more likely to be the victim of the Taliban, Al Qaeda or another militant Islamic extremist group if you are Muslim and live in the Middle East than if you are an American.

Because Ms. Greenstein’s comments seemed to be representative of the way many Americans feel toward Muslims and Arabs – that they are all terrorists, I felt compelled to write about my trip to the museum. So in a way, I guess you could say that Ms. Greenstein inspired me. As a humor writer, though, I’ve also been inspired by the absurd irony of a "tolerance" museum spewing hate. That’s why I have plans to open my own museum this summer: the Museum of Modern Feminism. Admission for chicks is free as long as they show cleavage, blow one of the security guards and sign away their right to vote.