A Voice and Presence Passes: Remembering Stéphane Hessel (1917-2013)

A Voice and Presence Passes: Remembering Stéphane Hessel (1917-2013)

Stéphane Hessel, 2013 (Photo: Facebook/Vague Blanche pour la Syrie)

Knowing that many American Jews like to think of themselves as liberals whose Judaism is somehow suffused with a commitment to human and civil rights, I have developed a more effective strategy for engaging them than jumping immediately into issues of the Israeli Occupation. I challenge them by suggesting that there are two genuine Jewish heros of the 20th century that they have never hear of. Their curiousity piqued, I introduce them to two towering but virtually unknown figures who played key roles in bringing human rights to our world: Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer and Holocaust survivor who coined the term “genocide” and doggedly shepherded the international covenant on genocide through the UN, and Rene Cassin, a French-Jewish jursist, one of the main authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 and is buried, with other heros of the French Republic like Rousseau and Victor Hugo, in the Pantheon in Paris.

On Tuesday of this week, February 26th, a third towering figure passed away at the venerable age of 95, my friend Stéphane Hessel, son a German-Jewish father, Holocaust survivor, prominent fighter in the French Resistance, a colleague of Cassin in editing the Universal Declaration, a political ally of Eleanor Roosevelt in pushing it through the UN system, and an indefatigable advocate for Palestinian human rights. I happened to be in Paris the day he died, and the outpouring of grief yet affirmation of his life and principles was something to behold, especially among the young who spontaneously congregated at the Bastille. Indeed, Stéphane was more a figure of the young generation than of the distant past. His angry and passionate epistle Time for Outrage! (Indignez-vous!), unleashed on the world in 2010 and selling 4.5 million copies in 35 countries, begins:

Ninety-three years. I’m nearing the last stage. The end cannot be far off. How lucky I am to be able to draw on the foundation of my political life: the Resistance and the National Council of the Resistance’s program from sixty-six years ago…. The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage. We, the veterans of the Resistance movements and fighting forces of Free France, call on the younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas. We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry! Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy…. To you who will create the twenty-first century, we say, from the bottom of our hearts,

Time for Outrage! is credited with having sparked and inspired the Occupy movements around the world, including Occupy Wall Street, Spain’s Indignados  and the Arab Spring.

I got to know Stéphane and his wife Christiane during their many trips to Israel/Palestine where Stéphane never tired of advising local peace and human rights organizations. I would always ask him to tell me something about working with Rene Cassin, and listened as he explained that human rights could never be disconnected from politics (or love or caring or nonviolence), but as instruments and a set of guiding principles they could help ensure that conflict was followed by justice.

My last association with him was through the Bertrand Russell Tribunal on Palestine, on which he served as a juror. In the session in which I took part, that in Capetown, South Africa, where I gave testimony regarding Israel turning itself and the Occupied Territories under its permanent control into a new apartheid regime – even worse, into a regime of warehousing Palestinians – Stéphane reacted much the way Bishop Desmond Tutu does to tales of injustice: taking it almost personally, reacting physically as if he is actually being attacked, crying out loud at injustice, then responding in a loud and passionate voice with its mixture of rich, highly articulated French and exaggerated facial expressions, mixing outrage, reference to human rights and international law, humor, a long institutional memory and exhortations to envision a better world – all presented with great logical and moral clarity.

Not all mourned his passing. Less we think that the organized Jewish community in America has the monopoly over mean-spirited tunnel-vision when it comes to defending Israel, you should read the shameful statement issued by the roof organization of French Jewry, CRIF (The Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France). CRIF characterized Hessel, who in 2011 was named by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of top global thinkers “for bringing the spirit of the French Resistance to a global society that has lost its heart,” as “a master of non-thinking.”



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