Saturday, October 24, 2020

Stéphane Hessel: Holocaust survivor and Palestinian human rights advocate

By Anna Germaine - February 27, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Features]

On Tuesday, February 26, 2013 French author, intellectual luminary, Holocaust survivor and Palestinian human rights advocate Stéphane Hessel, age 95, died in his sleep. 

Stéphane Hessel was born in Berlin in 1917, but his family soon thereafter immigrated to France. During World War II, Hessel joined the French resistance against the Vichy government while in exile in London. There, he was captured by the Gestapo and deported to German concentration camps due to his Jewish heritage. He was tortured with waterboarding, and after several failed escape attempts and death threats—where he only escaped hanging by exchanging identities with a fellow inmate who was dying of typhus—he managed to escape to Hannover, Germany while being transferred to another camp.

Once the war ended, Stéphane Hessel helped Eleanor Roosevelt edit the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now one of the key official legal documents advocating for the right of return of Palestinians to their homeland. In Article 13 of the document it explicitly states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”

In October 2010, his best-selling book Indignez-Vous was translated into 15 languages sold 3.5 million copies around the world. In addition to criticizing the extreme inequality between the rich and the poor and calling for amnesty for immigrants, he also critiqued the Israeli occupation of Palestine and treatment of Palestinians, calling upon his readers to read the Goldstone Report (Richard Goldstone’s exposé of the war crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead) for a more complete picture of the war crimes committed by the Israeli army towards Palestinians.

Through the book’s popularity, he brought the Palestinian cause to many readers, incorporating it into a broader narrative for international justice. 

In addition to highlighting the Palestinian cause in Indignez-Vous he was also an avid champion of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Although Hessel championed several causes during his lifetime—from income inequality to immigrant rights to the need for the youth to rise up—he was most criticized for his support of Palestinian human rights. Many criticized him for being Jewish, a Holocaust survivor and yet critical of Israel to the point of advocating for sanctions on the country. However, for Hessel these elements of his identity only furthered his conviction in the Palestinian fight for justice, making him one of its most outspoken international advocates.


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