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Myanmar has learned the lessons of the Holocaust. All too well.

'Never again' must also mean that Israel will not abet a genocidal regime
Rohingya women cry and shout slogans during a protest rally to commemorate the first anniversary of Myanmar army's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)
Rohingya women cry and shout slogans during a protest rally to commemorate the first anniversary of Myanmar army's crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Last May, a very proud Tzipi Hotovely published a post on her twitter feed, with the caption “An education agreement with Myanmar, continuing cooperation with our friends around the world.” The agreement declared that the two countries would “cooperate to develop programs for the teaching of the Holocaust and its lessons”. But it seems that the government in Myanmar has already carefully studied the Holocaust, and internalized its darkest lessons about human apathy. And that Israel is not in any position to teach it otherwise.

Yesterday, a damning report released by the United Nations documented the way in which these “friends” mounted a brutal, premeditated, carefully planned program of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority in August 2017. The Rohingya have suffered increasing systematic discrimination, demonization and dehumanization by the government since the military coup which brought military rule to Burma in the 1960s. In 1982, the Rohingya people were effectively stripped of citizenship, and collectively declared “illegal immigrants”. They faced restrictions on freedom of movement, and on the ability to hold civil service and state education jobs. Bloody pogroms against the Rohingya were actively encouraged by the government. The UN report details how nationalist political parties stoked hatred and fear, warning of the existential threat they posed, and quoting Hitler in order to argue “that ‘inhuman acts’ were sometimes necessary to ‘maintain a race'”. After a recent round of violence, in 2015, the Simon-Skjodt Centre of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement warning that the Rohingya are “at grave risk of additional mass atrocities and even genocide”.

But Myanmar had learned the lessons of the Holocaust. They understood that some propaganda and some token symbolic actions would be sufficient to make the world again turn a blind eye as they implemented a brutal program of ethnic cleansing to rid themselves of the Rohingya minority. Although a large build-up of troops was already put in place in early August, they capitalized on an attack which killed 12 officers at the end of August to begin what they referred to as “clearance operations”. Their ultimate goal was stated clearly, in English, on Facebook, for the world to read, by the Commander-in-Chief of the military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. “The Bengali problem was a long-standing one which has become an unfinished job despite the efforts of the previous governments to solve it. The government in office is taking great care in solving the problem.” This final solution consisted of an operation which killed, by the most conservative estimates, 10,000 people over the course of a month, and caused the mass exodus of 70% of the Rohingya population, creating 700,000 refugees and a mounting humanitarian crisis. As described in the UN report: “Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled, without shelter, food or water. They walked for days or weeks through forests and over mountains. People died on the way, some succumbing to injuries sustained during the attacks. Women gave birth; some babies and infants died. An unknown number of people drowned from capsized boats, or crossing rivers.”

And where was Israel as our “friend” committed this genocide? After violence against the Rohingya flared up again in October 2016, a petition was made to the Supreme Court asking that it instruct the Israeli Defense Export Controls Agency (DECA) to cease all weapons exports to Myanmar. Although Israel does not publicize any information regarding the countries to which it exports weapons, high ranking Burmese military officials reported touring Israeli military industries in September 2015 (a few months after the above-mentioned statement of the Holocaust Memorial Museum) and ordering, among other things, a Super Dvora attack craft. But despite these, and other, public declarations of Israeli military support of the Burmese military, the Supreme Court delayed the discussion of the case until September 2017, and then placed a gag order on its final decision, citing “concerns of security and diplomacy”. In other words, it is incontrovertible that Israeli weapons were in the hands of Burmese forces while they committed crimes against humanity, and it remains unclear whether, and to what extent, these sales were stopped. Israel did not stand idly by as genocide occurred. Tragically, it stood by, and continued to support the perpetrators, with Israel’s deputy consul general in New York going so far as to adopt their official propaganda, claiming that “both sides are committing war crimes”.

Perhaps before we teach Myanmar about the Holocaust, we are due for our own refresher course about what “Never Again” means to us as a sovereign state.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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