From the Desk of Avi Benlolo: Planting Seeds of Hope and Peace

February 10, 2017


Planting Seeds of Hope and Peace

Tonight Jewish communities around the world join Israel in celebrating Jewish 'Green Day'. Not, of course, the famous rock bank, but the holiday celebrated in the land of Israel for more than 2,500 years: Tu B'Shevat (the 15th day of the month of Shevat in the Hebrew calendar).

An agricultural commemoration of renewal typically celebrated by the planting of trees, this 'New Year of the Trees' is, in fact,  the original 'green' movement - one that recognizes the significance of land stewardship and the importance of a healthy ecology to all living things.

This Jewish connection to the land and nature is fundamental to the Israeli ingenuity that 'made the desert bloom'. The greening of a desolate and arid land stems from the Jewish belief in life as the highest value. The understanding of the sacred nature of the land has made Israel one of the greenest countries in the Middle East. By honouring the natural world, Tu B'Shevat is in essence a joyous celebration of life itself.

Just as Israel is committed to nurturing the land through the planting of trees, so too do we at Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) work to nurture humanity by planting our own seeds of hope and peace. Our methods are education and outreach; like waiting for a seed to grow into a tree, this process takes time and patience - but the end result is often just as magnificent.

I can think of no better example than FSWC's upcoming presentation of the film "Come out Fighting" with Holocaust survivor Max Eisen in recognition of Black History Month. The film is the story of the segregated, African-American 761st Tank Battalion of the U.S. Army - an American fighting unit that liberated Ebensee concentration camp on May 6, 1945. The film was named for the battalion's motto "Come out fighting." Eisen, who credits the unit with saving his life, will lead a Question and Answer session after the screening on Thursday, February 23 at 7.00 p.m. Email for details and registration.

This story is just one profound and moving example of compassionate understanding overcoming animosity and hate.

Here's another: this week the New York Times ran an article about an unusual sentence handed down to five teenagers who defaced a historic black schoolhouse in Virginia with antisemitic and racist graffiti: they were ordered to read books by Elie Wiesel, Chaim Potok, Leon Uris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood and many others. As one of the lawyers in this case noted, "We are seizing the opportunity to treat this as an educational experience for these young men so they may better appreciate the significance of their actions and the impact this type of behavior has on communities and has had throughout history."

This is the philosophy that fuels FSWC's annual Speakers Idol competition for students in Grades 6 - 12. On March 29, 2017, 10 student finalists in two age categories will present their speeches on Simon Wiesenthal's observation: "For evil to flourish, it only requires good men/women to do nothing." Vying for prizes and academic glory, these young contestants - well versed in issues of justice, tolerance and human rights, are the fruit borne of the seeds of hope we continue to plant in workshops and programs across Ontario every single day.

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