NEVE SHALOM – A makeshift sign tacked onto an olive tree is for now the only clue to the grand plan in store for this stretch of woods overlooking the Ayalon valley in central Israel. “Honoring the Circassians who saved the lives of Jews,” it reads.
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If all goes as planned, this several-acres-large plot will become the site of an ambitious memorial project commemorating courageous individuals around the world who, during periods of war, ethnic cleansing and genocide, risked their lives to save others. Alongside the tree commemorating the tiny Muslim Circassian village in the Caucasus that saved 32 Jewish children during the Holocaust, there will be others — many others, in fact.
Within the next few years, according to the latest blueprint, the entire area will be covered with plaque-bearing trees and other monuments paying tribute, among others, to Turks who saved Armenians during the World War I genocide, Palestinians who rescued Jews during the 1929 Hebron riots, Jews who saved Palestinians during the Jerusalem riots that same year, Armenians who saved Jews in Budapest during the Holocaust, Jews who saved gypsies from the Nazis, as well as Hutus who rescued Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide — in short, any rescuer, no matter their origin or creed, not officially acknowledged by Israel’s state institutions.
As locations go, this one carries special symbolism: Situated halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace in Hebrew) is the only community in Israel jointly founded by Jews and Muslims — a tiny hub of peaceful coexistence in a region long associated with deadly conflict.
“Anyone who risks his life to save another human being, and it doesn’t matter who that human being is, for me that is the ultimate act of grace,” says Yair Auron, a resident of the village and the driving spirit behind the new “Forest of the Righteous” project.
“Such individuals,” he adds, “must be honored.”
The official declaration establishing the “Forest of the Righteous” states that its purpose is to honor “those who during dark periods of man-made humanitarian disasters, ethnic cleansing and genocide did not succumb to the popular current.” The Neve Shalom site has already been incorporated into the “Garden of the Righteous Worldwide” network, an Italy-based organization that has helped launch similar projects around the world, most recently in Rwanda, Armenia and Poland.
Yad Vashem, the Israeli national institution responsible for Holocaust commemoration, has a large department devoted to “Righteous Among the Nations” — the term it uses to honor non-Jews who put their lives at risk to save Jews during the Holocaust without demanding compensation in return. Since its inception, it has honored more than 26,000 such rescuers. Still, many applications for “Righteous Among the Nations” status are rejected by Yad Vashem, either for lack of evidence or failure to meet its criteria. That would include the case of the inaugural honorees of the Neve Shalom memorial — the 32 Muslim Circassian families from the small Caucasian village of Besleney, who, at great risk to their lives, each provided shelter to a Jewish orphan.
Yad Vashem has said that not enough evidence was provided to substantiate this claim.
His forest, Auron promises, will serve as an alternative commemoration site for these and other rescuers who have not passed muster at Yad Vashem and, therefore, never received the acknowledgement they deserve.
A scholar of genocide studies at The Open University, Auron developed a first-of-its kind academic program in Israel to teach the subject. Much of his recent professional life has been devoted to getting Israelis to understand that Jews are not the only people in the world who have experienced terrible suffering. In a country still living under the trauma of the Holocaust — where challenging the singularity of this event is often considered heresy — his message has not always gone down well, with Yad Vashem expressing criticism over his project.
"Yad Vashem applauds the actions of the brave men and women who saved fellow human beings throughout history. We believe that these people should be praised and celebrated, and that their actions should emulated and taught as lessons to all humanity," the institution said in a statement.
“Nevertheless, the term Righteous Among the Nations is rooted in Jewish tradition, and the title Righteous Among the Nations has been established throughout the world to indicate those ‘non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust,’ as stated in the Yad Vashem Law passed in 1953. Over the past six decades, Yad Vashem has recognized over 26,100 non-Jewish people as Righteous Among the Nations. They come from over 50 nations and include Christians of all denominations, Muslims and other religions.
“Therefore, using this term Righteous Among the Nations for the acknowledgement of other humanitarian deeds not related to its historically and widely accepted meaning is a conflation of varied and distinct historical narratives, and thus is not only misleading, but also diminishes the uniqueness of the title."
Auron is the first to admit that his campaign to get the Israeli government to officially recognize the Armenian genocide has become a personal obsession of sorts. More recently, he has been waging a low-key battle with Yad Vashem over its refusal to recognize Circassian rescuer — a story he spent years researching and which eventually became the subject of his Hebrew-language book, “The Banality of Compassion: On the Rescue of Jewish Children in a Muslim Circassian Village in the Caucasus in 1942” (RESLING Publishing, 2016).
Since the recent groundbreaking ceremony at the brand new “Forest of the Righteous,” Neve Shalom has hosted several events honoring rescuers, one paying tribute to Palestinians who saved their Jewish neighbors during the 1929 Hebron riots and another to the Circassians who saved the Jewish children. The latter was attended by four relatives of the rescuers who hail from the Israeli Circassian village of Kfar Kama in the Galilee.
Partnering with Auron in this rescue commemoration project is his neighbor Dyana Rizek, director of Neve Shalom’s soon-to-be-launched Peace Museum. Born in Nazareth, Rizek is one of the original residents of Jewish-Arab village, having moved here more than 30 years ago. As a Palestinian whose people have been victimized, she says, the project resonates with her in a personal way. “It is important for there to be solidarity between victims of persecution,” she says. “Humane actions unite us at the level of our common humanity.”
Together, they have already recruited several prominent Jewish and Palestinian sculptors to the project. Both Dani Karavan, a Jewish Israeli, and Nihat Dabit, an Arab Israeli, have agreed to donate special commemorative monuments to the site, Auron and Rizek say.
A small area at the bottom-most part of the designated plot has already been cleared of debris to make room for these and other installations. The final design, though, is still under discussion and it is unclear when the memorial will open to the public.
The project has already obtained approval from the local zoning authority, and enough seed money has been raised to begin basic infrastructure work. But Auron says his greatest challenge lies ahead: finding enough space on the plot to commemorate every act of rescue recorded in his already bursting files.