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Israel's building of wall stirs ghetto comparison

Published June 22, 2003

Among the most moving exhibits at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, is the story of the Warsaw Ghetto. But black and white photos can only hint at the horror that began in 1940 when the Nazis erected a brick wall around the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, Poland, and condemned thousands of Jews to a terrible fate.

From the somber halls of Yad Vashem, it's always a relief to step back into the sunlight and gaze from the Mount of Remembrance at the luminous city of Jerusalem spread out below. But another dark story is unfolding just a few miles away.

In the West Bank, contractors are building a 25-foot wall - twice as high as the one in Warsaw - as part of an elaborate barrier that eventually will stretch more than 200 miles and restrict Palestinian movement into Israel.

In Gaza, 1.2-million Palestinians have been sealed into a narrow strip of land, and may enter or leave only with Israeli permission.

It's a good bet more than a few visitors to Yad Vashem reflect on certain disturbing similarities between the notorious Warsaw Ghetto and what is transpiring in the Palestinian territories. But a British member of Parliament, whose mother is a Jew, dared put into words what others have only thought.

"No government should be behaving like that - least of all a Jewish government," Oona King says.

On a recent visit to the region, King found conditions in Gaza are "the same in nature but not extent" as those in the Warsaw Ghetto. "The very, very big difference," she acknowledged, is "Palestinians are not being rounded up and put in gas chambers."

"But what makes it similar," King told a London news conference, "is what happened to the Jewish people in that time, which was the seizing of land, being forced from property, torture and bureaucracy - control used in a demeaning way over the smallest task. On top of that, building a wall around them ... is building a political ghetto.

"I felt it was an apartheid system and it is certainly getting worse."

King's view might be controversial, but it's worth considering, coming as it does from someone whose heritage is a mix of races, religions and cultures.

Her father, Preston King, is a black American who refused to appear for a physical exam in Albany, Ga., in the 1950s because the all-white draft board persisted in calling blacks by their first names. Convicted by a white jury, King fled to Britain where he earned a doctorate degree and became a political philosopher of international renown. President Clinton pardoned him in 2000.

During his 40 years in exile, King married a white Jewish teacher and in 1967 the couple had a daughter, Oona. Educated at the University of California at Berkeley, she later worked as a researcher for the European Parliament, where she met her Italian husband and wrote a column for London's Daily Mirror.

In 1997, King became a Labor Parliament member from London's poor East End, once home to Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe and now to Bengalis and Bangladeshis. She was the second black women elected to Parliament.

"She is tenacious, talented, sharp and tough, as well as exuding immense charm, and must be counted the sexiest woman in the House of Commons," one biographer wrote.

King quickly became known as one of "Blair's babes" and observers predicted a bright future for her in the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. But she nearly lost re-election this year after she was accused of betraying her largely Muslim constituency by supporting the war against Iraq.

King was unapologetic: "If I didn't vote with the (British) government, then more Muslims will die because of sanctions, because of Saddam Hussein."

But with typical bluntness, King said agreeing with the Bush administration on anything "is enough to make me reach for a bucket to puke into."

King regards the United States as an autocratic superpower with a "terrifying" capacity to change the course of the world. She also accuses the American government of "double standards" for demanding Iraq and other countries honor U.N. resolutions while not pressing Israel to do the same.

King, a member of Britain's Jewish Council for Racial Equality, said she recognized the terror Israelis face from the constant threat of Palestinian suicide attacks.

But her trip to the Mideast also convinced her that hundreds of thousands of innocent Palestinians are being walled into a ghetto, just a short distance from where Yad Vashem memorializes one of the most shameful episodes of World War II.

- Information from the Guardian of London was used in this column. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]

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