Why a Manhattan secretary won't let Israel forget the massacre at Qana

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The Independent Online
When Eva Stern's grandfather Aaron Hersh climbed off the transport at Auschwitz extermination camp in June 1944, along with her mother Hannah and two aunts from their ultra-orthodox Jewish family, he was still holding his prayer shawl. "A Polish prisoner warned him he'd die if he didn't hand it over, but he refused," Eva Stern says. "Then a German officer ordered my grandfather to give the shawl to him while he was waiting in line for selection for the gas chambers. He again refused. So he shot my grandfather in the head. That's how he died."

In the lobby of the Manhattan hotel, Eva Stern speaks quickly, in an almost subdued voice, recalling the terrible story which her mother told her of the family's doomed journey from Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz. "She was only 17 and tried to save one of her sister's children by holding it in her arms. But another prisoner snatched it away and gave it back to her sister - because they would all die if Mengele saw both women with a child. So her sister and her children were all selected to die. And my mother lived.

"At least 70 members of her family were murdered. She was taken to Ravensbruck concentration camp and was eventually liberated by the Red Army. The incident with the child had the greatest impact on her. I can honestly say that my mother hasn't slept for 50 years."

But it is the death of Eva's grandfather Aaron Hersh - a Talmudic scholar by the age of 20, who was shot after refusing to surrender his tallith (Jewish prayer shawl), that has marked her life.

With scarcely suppressed anger, she opens a thick file on the seat beside her. Entitled "Israel's Operation `Grapes of Wrath' and the Qana Massacre", it is her own work, a compilation of photographs and news reports - some from The Independent - of Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon a year ago, in which more that 170 civilians were slaughtered. Ms Stern flicks her finger in fury at one of the pictures which shows Israeli soldiers standing in front of their battle tanks on the Lebanese border. The newspaper caption reads: "Israeli soldiers briefly halt their shelling to commemorate Holocaust Day." And Ms Stern looks at me to see if I understand why she is enraged at the picture.

"What would my grandfather say of this? What were those Israelis thinking as they were putting on their prayer shawls? Were they praying, `Father who art in heaven, help me to kill as many `Arabushim' as possible'? Do they now have a right to kill without any guilt?"

`Arabushim' - a racist term for Arabs in the Hebrew language - was later used in an Israeli newspaper interview by one of the artillerymen who fired into the United Nations base at Qana last year. At least 109 civilians sheltering in the camp were killed, 55 of them children. Ms Stern has included an English translation of the interview from Kol Ha'ir in her file, a set of documents which she has sent to the UN, to the Lebanese delegation to the UN, and to prominent American journalists in New York.

She hoped to persuade the latter to mark the first anniversary of the Qana massacre on 18 April.

Ms Stern's sense of outrage is as brave as it is lonely; although many American Jews are troubled by the behaviour of Israel's right-wing government and the bloody adventures in which Israel has been involved in Lebanon over the past 20 years, most will not take kindly to Eva Stern's concern for the truth to be told.

"My feelings started slowly," she says. "I always had a problem with unquestioned obedience to authority. And when I thought about the atrocities committed by the Israelis, I felt that as an American taxpayer and an American Jew, I had an obligation to speak out. If ordinary Germans living under total oppression can be held responsible for the crimes committed by the Nazis - because they did not speak out - how much more responsible are we who live in a country where we have the freedom to speak out? If ordinary Germans were guilty for not speaking out, then surely we are also guilty in remaining silent about Qana. Because we don't live in fear of death squads. What I am doing is not courageous - it is the decent thing to do.

"If enough decent Germans had spoken out at the time, perhaps the Holocaust would not have happened."

Ms Stern does not draw false parallels between the Nazis and the Israeli army. "I'm not saying that the level of atrocities committed by the Israelis is on the same scale or in any way comparable to those of the Nazis. Of course not. But I know that I have paid as a taxpayer for the shells that rained down on Qana. And therefore if I'm silent, I'm no better than those Germans. Israel claims to be the representative of the Jewish people. It's important for people to know that they clearly do not speak for world Jewry. They clearly do not speak for me. So I have a duty to speak out."

Although only a secretary in a Manhattan business - she was educated in an ultra-orthodox Brooklyn girls' school - Ms Stern was encouraged in her campaign by Professor Noam Chomsky, one of America's foremost philosophers who is himself Jewish, and by the work of former Warsaw Ghetto survivor and chemistry professor, Dr Israel Shahak, whose history of Israel she quotes by heart.

"He wrote that `any support of human rights in general by a Jew which does not include the support of human rights of non-Jews whose rights are being violated by the Jewish state is as deceitful as the support of human rights by a Stalinist.' That really influenced me."

Ms Stern's father Chaim was a Hungarian Jew who also survived a concentration camp. "My mother was his cousin and they married in 1949. I was born seven years later," she says. "My parents are still alive and know my feelings about Israeli atrocities. They are sort of ambivalent about it. They believe I'm right in condemning it. But because of what they went through, they believe all the world is anti-semitic. So when there's a terrorist attack against the Israelis, they are unable to see it in the context of the Arab-Israeli dispute. I strongly condemn any terrorist attack. But my parents see it in terms of `the Arabs are anti-semitic and that's why there's a terrorist attack'.

"I refuse to condemn my parents for these feelings. They see all Germans, for example, as Nazis - because, in their experience, they only met Nazis. And for most Palestinians, the only Jews they know of are the oppressors. The Palestinians in the refugee camps in Lebanon have probably never met a decent, moral Jew."

It was the killing of a Lebanese boy by a booby-trapped bomb that prompted the pro-Iranian Hizbollah - who blamed Israel for the incident - to launch rockets across the Lebanese border last April.

Israel responded with its three-week blitz on Lebanon. Israeli troops were planting booby-trap bombs inside the UN zone of Lebanon on 18 April when they came under mortar attack from Hizbollah men who were firing 600ft from the UN base at Qana. Israel claimed its subsequent 17-minute shelling of the refugees there was a mistake, but the UN concluded that it was not an error.

Ms Stern's attempt to persuade American journalists to mark the first anniversary of the bloodbath met with little more than indifference. Not a single mainstream American newspaper carried a paragraph - not even a brief news report on the UN-attended ceremony held in Lebanon to mark the first anniversary of the bloodbath.

Unlike Eva Stern, American journalists remained silent.

n New York (AP) - The UN General Assembly voted yesterday to call on Israel to pay about $1.7m (pounds 1.04m) in damages for shelling the Qana peace- keeping base last year. The vote was 66-2 with 59 abstentions. Israel and the US voted against the measure.