The cycle of abuse and injustice

I recently read the book The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. This is a story of Warsaw during the German occupation of World War II, told through the eyes of Antonina, the wife of the Jan Zabinski, the head of the Warsaw zoo. They both worked for the Polish underground and over several years sheltered in their villa over three hundred Jews as they tried to escape from the ghetto and get to freedom. The book is based on the diary of Antonina and recounts the tales of the refugees and of the animals under their care. It gives some first person insights into what life was like under Nazi occupation and during the Warsaw uprising.

One thing that I learned from the book that I did not know before was that “the Nazis were ardent animal lovers and environmentalists who promoted calisthenics and healthy living, regular trips into the countryside, and far-reaching animal rights policies as they rose to power. Goring took pride in sponsoring wildlife sanctuaries (“green lungs”) as both recreation and conservation areas, and carving out great highways flanked by scenic vistas.” (p. 86)

The well-known obsession of the Nazis about racial purity also extended to the animal kingdom and they had a particular interest in exotic species that generated some weird ideas, such as trying to bring back to life ‘pure-blooded’ species that were now extinct. In pursuit of this goal, they raided zoos in the countries they occupied, in search of animals that most closely resembled extinct animals so that they could do breeding experiments with animals that showed specific desirable traits. Lutz Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo, was a key advocate of this idea.

Heck’s reasoning went like this: an animal inherits 50% of its genes from each parent, and even an extinct animal’s genes remain in the living gene pool, so if he concentrated the genes by breeding together animals that most resembled an extinct one, in time he would arrive at their purebred ancestor. The war gave him the excuse to loot east European zoos and wilds for the best specimens. (p. 80)

During the occupation, the people in Warsaw received rations of bread that were carefully calculated: Germans got 2,613 calories per day, Poles 669 calories per day, and Jews 184 calories per day (p. 104). No doubt German scientists had calculated precisely the minimum calories needed to maintain life. The Nazis also believed in the abominable practice of collective punishment, where in response to an act by a single individual, retribution was immediately meted out to the members of their family and even the extended community. “[I]n Poland harboring a Jew was punishable by immediate death to the rescuer and also to the rescuer’s family and neighbors, in a death-frenzy deemed “Collective responsibility”.” (p. 116)

In reading this I was struck by how Israel now practices collective punishment in the occupied territories by imposing a policy of restricting food supplies to the people of Gaza and also committing such acts as bulldozing the homes of the extended families of anyone suspected of any terrorist action.

In response to my series of posts denouncing the Israeli siege on Gaza and the attack on the relief flotilla, one commenter defended Israel’s actions and produced data suggesting that the physical health of Gazans was not that bad compared to people in some other developing countries. I did not respond to that comment, thinking that most readers here would recognize that you cannot justify a policy of deliberately restricting food reaching people merely by saying that other people are worse off. The point is that willfully brutalizing people, deliberately keeping them hungry and miserable, and denying them basic due process is wrong, whether or not the targets of such actions look emaciated as a result. Deliberately denying entire populations of people equal access to food and medicine and other staples of life based on their ethnicity, religion, or nationality is simply monstrous, whether done by Germans to Poles and Jews or by Israelis to Gazans, and also irrespective of whether any single groups receives minimal amounts.

Reflexive Israel supporters like Senator Chuck Schumer said, to enthusiastic applause from other Israel supporters: “And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go, makes sense.” He should be roundly condemned for these disgusting remarks. He seems to think that collectively punishing an entire population because he does not like who they elected is just fine as long as the people of Gaza have just enough food so as not to starve to death. And this man is a US senator. Why are there no widespread calls for him to resign?

You would think that any people who have suffered harsh injustices at the hands of others and know what it feels like would resolve to prevent such acts anywhere to anyone in the future. But the sad truth is that not only do they not oppose such actions, they even inflict them on others, perpetuating the cycle of injustice and oppression. We find on a collective scale the cycle we see in individuals, where the victims of abuse often become abusers themselves.

The US was born of anti-imperialist sentiment but that has not prevented it from becoming an imperialist power now, applying brute force on country after country. When I see the hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions that are being used against Hispanic people, I often wonder if this does not originate in fear. Some whites may think that when white people in America become a minority, as they are projected to do sometime in the not-too-distant future, they may be treated as badly as they treated minorities.

The cycle of abuse and injustice must be broken. The only way to do that is to break free of the sense that allegiance to our particular tribe (whether ethnic, religious, or nation) is more important than our allegiance to human rights and justice.

POST SCRIPT: Brilliant Marcus Brigstocke rant on the three Abrahamic faiths

It is hard to disagree with anything he says.


  1. Josh Friedman says


    Sorry for the late response, I’ve been out of town, but I’d like to clarify that I posted that data not to support Israel’s policies but to point out bias in a world media and blogosphere that seems to focus on the Gazans like a laser while ignoring vast amounts of gross injustice elsewhere.

    I’d also like to point out that it was not the democratic election of Hamas that lead to the blockade, but the violent takeover that ensued -- during which hundreds of Palestinians were killed and injured as Hamas assassinated or forcibly removed Fatah officials from Gazan government. It would be as if Democrats killed and exiled all Republican officials after winning majorities in 2008. Democratic elections don’t alone make a democracy.

    After decades of war and two recent and violent Intifadas, Israel (and Egypt) overreacted to the hostile terrorist controlled state sitting between their borders. I cannot defend Israel’s policy, and I think the blockade does more harm than good. But absent any alternative, I can at least understand why Israel enforced it.

    More relevant to this post, I’m in the unique position of having been to both Warsaw (decades after the Holocaust) and the Palestinian territory (prior to the 2nd Intifada). The two cannot be compared. Nazi persecution of Jews was based on irrational hatred fueled by media propaganda. Israeli action (while perhaps draconian) is based on existential security concerns. As long as those concerns continue, it will be harder for Israel to back down.


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