Lessons from the ‘Hanukka train attack’

by Edward I. Koch & Dr. Rafael Medoff

“I just did what I had to do – my parents raised me that way.”

These simple yet powerful words, spoken by Hanukka subway hero Hassan Askari, offer one of the most important moral lessons of our times.

Askari is the 20 year-old Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh who leaped to the aid of four Jewish subway riders in New York City when they were assaulted by 10 anti-Semitic goons during Hanukka. Askari suffered two black eyes and a sore nose, but in doing so helped save four innocent people from a much worse fate.

It goes without saying that Askari deserves the praise and admiration of every New Yorker. What a refreshing change from the stereotype of New Yorkers as callous or indifferent to the pain of others. It takes a long time to erase images such as the infamous 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death in Queens, New York, while dozens of neighbors refused to intervene or even call the police. Hassan Askari has done his share to bury that shameful episode in the city’s past.

Media coverage of the incident played up the fact that Askari is Muslim and the people he helped were Jews. These days, we are so used to hearing about Muslims attacking Jews that the phenomenon of a Muslim helping Jews apparently strikes some people as newsworthy in itself.

But Askari, to his credit, did not try to politicize the incident. He didn’t claim he acted because he is a Muslim or because the victims were Jews. Instead, he simply credited his parents for raising him to do the right thing. In doing so, he articulated a powerful lesson for all of us: what parents teach their children really does matter.

Parents have important choices to make. Hassan Askari’s parents chose to teach him to be a good person. Not all parents do. Earlier this month, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a program on official Palestinian Authority Television featured a schoolgirl reciting a poem with the words, “We will wipe out the people of Zion, and will not leave a single one of them.” One can only imagine what that little girl’s parents have been teaching her.

LAST YEAR, the Israeli press quoted a counselor at a Gaza summer camp as saying, “We teach the children the truth. How the Jews persecuted the prophets and tortured them … As long as Jews remain here, between the [Jordan] river and the [Mediterranean] sea, they will be our enemy and we will continue to pursue and kill them.”  Senator Hillary Clinton has correctly described such education as “child abuse.” She’s right.

The New York Post headlined its story about the Hanukka attack “PEACE TRAIN,” evidently a reference to the 1970s song by Cat Stevens, envisioning a world of peace and brotherhood. Ironically, Stevens himself later embraced militant Islam and was not long ago barred from entering Israel because of his connections to Hamas support groups. One shudders to think how Stevens is raising his children.

History reminds us of the consequences of raising children to hate. At a press conference in 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt pointed out that one of the most frightening omens of future Nazi aggression against France was the message of militarism and martyrdom that the Nazis were imparting to German children. To illustrate his point, FDR told an anecdote about a little German boy so inculcated with Nazi propaganda that each night he prayed, “Dear God, please permit that I shall die with a French bullet in my heart.”

Some of the governments that are today sponsoring hate-education, especially in the Middle East, are recipients of US aid. That gives Washington leverage to push for change – change that will ensure children are taught to be like Hassan Askari, not like the German children of the 1930s or the Gaza children of today.

Koch, former mayor of New York City, and Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, are authors of The Koch Papers: My Fight Against Anti-Semitism, which will be published in March by Palgrave-MacMillan.

(As published in the Jerusalem Post – December 24, 2007)

December 2007