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Holocaust survivor speaks amidst controversy

By Dale Shoemaker and Mark Pesto / The Pitt News Staff

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Some called it a remembrance, but others called it a repurposing. 

In a joint effort, Pitt’s branch of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace hosted Edith Bell, a Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor, to speak in the William Pitt Union on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, Thursday evening at 6 p.m. About 100 organizers, Jewish and non-Jewish students on campus and community members gathered to hear Bell’s talk. 

Before Bell even made it to Pitt, however, a column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Wednesday surrounded the event in controversy by blaming organizers for repurposing a day of remembrance to talk politics.

Brian Albert, a mid-Atlantic campus coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America based in Washington, D.C., publically opposed the event in the column, calling Bell’s scheduled appearance at Pitt anti-Semitic. 

Bell, who has, according the American Civil Liberties Union website, taken a “pro-peace” view on the conflict in the Middle East, denied claims that the event was anti-semetic at her talk, 

In his column, Albert argued against Pitt offering students Outside of the Classroom Curriculum credit for attending Bell’s talk, therefore “legimitizing” the event. He wrote that by relating the current situation in Gaza to the Holocaust, members of SJP are “trivializ[ing] the crimes committed against the Jews.”

At the talk Thursday night, Bell said she was “furious” when she read Albert’s editorial and argument that “SJP and Edith Bell will claim that the descendants of the ghetto fighters are the new Nazis.”

“I thought, ‘He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know what I’ve said, what I stand for, but magically he knows what I’m going to say tomorrow night?’” Bell said. “I guess I disappointed him because I didn’t say what he expected me to say.”

Bell instead devoted the majority of her speech to a description of her experience during and after the Holocaust.

“It’s hard for me to criticize Israel, but I feel that Israeli policies are wrong [and] self-defeating in many ways,” Bell said.

Before the event, Zach Schaffer, Pitt junior and president of the Hillel Jewish University Center, said as a result of the event, he received multiple phone calls and text messages from upset Jewish students and Pitt alumni. They felt SJP was repurposing an important day for Jewish people, he said.

“We’re deeply upset that SJP is repurposing this day rather than using it as a day of remembrance,” Schaffer said.

Dara Levy-Bernstein, a member of the leadership board of Jewish Voice for Peace in Pittsburgh, a national organization that co-hosted the event with SJP, rebuffed accusations that the event was anti-Semitic.

“Obviously, since we’re a Jewish organization, we find it hypocritical and absurd to call a Holocaust remembrance event anti-Semitic,” Levy-Bernstein said before the event.

Levy-Bernstein added that she thought the timing of the event was legitimate.

“We just want to hear Edith Bell speak and hear what she has to say,” Levy-Bernstein said.

Before the event Thursday, Kenyon Bonner, vice provost and dean of students, confirmed in an email that the OCC offered students credit for attending Bell’s talk but said the views of student organizations “do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Pittsburgh.”

“OCC designation does not imply University endorsement of an event’s stated and/or implied viewpoint,” Bonner said. “As an institution of higher education, the University values freedom of thought and expression.”

Bonner added that students could receive OCC credit in the global and cultural awareness goal area “based on the description [of the event] provided by SJP.”

According to that description, SJP invited students to hear Bell discuss “her life under the Nazi regime, her later experiences in Israel and how her overall life experiences and witnesses have affected her stance on Palestine,” according to the OCC website. 

“Open and civil discourse amongst and between members of our community is valued even on contentious issues,” Bonner said in an email Thursday afternoon.

Pitt spokesman John Fedele said Pitt was not considering taking any action in response to the controversy. 

At her talk, Bell refrained from talking politics and told her story of surviving the Holocaust. 

Although her family moved from their native Germany to the Netherlands in an attempt to escape Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies, the Nazis deported Bell and her parents to concentration camps soon after Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. She spent the next five years as a prisoner at camps including Westerbork, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. 

“I tell my story because we tend to forget that when we talk about the numbers, the cold numbers, that each of those numbers — each person — had family, friends, community … a whole society is affected by their death,” Bell said.

Soon after a group of Russian soldiers liberated Bell in 1945, she returned to Amsterdam, where she married a man she had met in Westerbork. The newly-wed couple emigrated illegally to Palestine in December 1947 but became Israeli citizens when the United Nations founded the state of Israel in May 1948.

“I loved it. I got adjusted very well,” Bell said. “It felt good, being somewhere where you were wanted … I didn’t know about the Arabs and the other peoples that had been displaced.”

Bell said her sister, who escaped the Holocaust entirely when she moved to Palestine in 1934, and the rest of her family still live in Israel.

Schaffer said although Bell’s speech was peaceful and her story was inspiring, he felt that the atmosphere of the question-and-answer session that followed Bell’s speech was hostile toward Israel.

“I felt hate in their questions,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer said although Bell’s talk wasn’t what Albert’s column said it would be, a few of her statements troubled him, particularly her claim that, because Hamas was democratically elected, she didn’t consider it a terrorist organization.

“To hear her defend Hamas really hurt,” Schaffer said. “The U.S. classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization. They shoot rockets at my friends and family in Israel.”

Raghav Sharma, a sophomore politics and philosophy major and SJP board member, denied claims that anti-Semitism motiviated them to invite Bell to speak.

“It’s by no means a repurposing of the Holocaust,” Sharma said. “Bell’s perspective on the Holocaust is something everyone should be paying attention to.”

Demetri Khoury, vice president of SJP and a sophomore electrical engineering major, echoed Sharma’s statements.

“We are in no way at all using this Day of Holocaust Remembrance for anti-Semitic purposes,” Khoury said. “Our club’s main goal is to promote peace and seek justice. We just want the voices of the Palestinians to be heard.” 

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Holocaust survivor speaks amidst controversy