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Essay contest opens teen's eyes to U.S. indifference

Bella Buckner

Bella Buckner, a freshman at Gonzaga Prep, was in the eighth grade at Saint George's School last spring, when she wrote an essay on "Indifference and Action" for the 2023 Yom Hashoah essay contest.

As first prize winner for middle school, she will read her essay at the 2024 Observance of the Holocaust at 7 p.m., Monday, May 6.

Bella opened the essay with recognition that Americans during World War II "were indifferent to the events of the Holocaust because they were primarily looking out for their own self-interests, influential voices discouraged Jewish immigration and moral outrage was disconnected from practical action."

To move from indifference to effect positive social change, she calls for communities to educate themselves on the benefits immigrants bring, to offer resources that help people see different perspectives and to share personal stories.

While Bella enjoys cross country, track, basketball, figure skating, biology and violin in her school life, her perspective is shaped by experiences of living abroad with her family.

In her preschool and kindergarten years, she lived in Scotland, where her father, Forrest Buckner, chaplain at Whitworth University, was studying for a doctoral degree in theology at the University of St. Andrews after earning a master's in theology at Fuller Seminary in California.

Bella not only read books on the Holocaust to learn about America's role, but also lived in Israel twice—when her father was on sabbatical from February to April 2022, and when he took Whitworth students in January 2023.

"For the essay, I appreciated learning about America's impact and found it sad how America was indifferent toward the Jews during World War II," said Bella, who attends both St. Luke Lutheran and Whitworth Chapel.

"Learning about it in detail was helpful," she said, like learning that the St. Louis, a ship filled with Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust, was turned away, and influential people did not want Jews to come to America.

"For me, it seems crazy that we have so much land and so many opportunities, but the system was set up so we did not help them. It is sad and hard to hear the horrors that happened, especially from reading Elie Wiesel's writings, which helped me see the experiences and perspectives of Jewish people."

Bella also learned that not all Americans ignored and shut Jews out. Some people worked to help the Jews.

"Sometimes it's hard for people to do what's right, instead of just looking out for themselves," she said, aware that Americans were detached from the war until Pearl Harbor. "It would have been easy for people who were busy with their own lives to ignore it—and many people did—but there were also people who knew what was happening and were concerned."

Many felt "we were not doing anything wrong. We were not hurting them. It's not so bad," said Bella, "but I think that actually affected the character of those people. Not helping hurt not just the Jewish people, but also the people who didn't help. When we don't do something, it's almost as bad as doing something bad, because we just let bad things continue to happen."

Bella knew there was limited information then about what was happening to the Jewish people, so most Americans didn't fully know the horrors that were happening, but there were rumors and information people could have accessed.

"Being aware of what happened in the Holocaust can help remind us what happens when we don't do anything and shows us that we need to work to have better awareness," she said. "Even little things, like helping refugees or donating money, make an impact and help us to be better people."

"The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel was unacceptable," she asserted.

From living in Israel, Bella is aware of conditions under which Palestinians and Israelis have been living. From interacting with Jewish families in 2022 in Jerusalem and from staying part of the time in 2023 with Palestinian families on the West Bank, Bella learned that Palestinians need passes to enter Israel and their limited access to water could be shut off randomly.

She also found an amazing sense of community in Palestine.

"They are like a giant family," she said. "Most are loving people and do not like Hamas or want violence. We have Christian friends in Palestine who are helping each other."

She also learned from Palestinians of their fear of Israelis and from Israelis of their fear of Palestinians as terrorists.

"The Jewish people have been hurt so many times, and fear they will be hurt again," said Bella, concerned that some Israelis, out of fear, may treat Palestinians like they were treated.

Even though there is no ocean separating Israelis and Palestinians, as there was separating Europe and the U.S. in World War II, Bella found Israelis and Palestinians unaware of each other's experiences.

"There are also groups of Palestinians and Israelis working for peace and reconciliation between Palestinian and Israeli people, aware that both have been hurt and it's hard for everyone," Bella said.

Because the situation is complicated and she sees hate on both sides, she knows peace will be hard, but she cares what happens because she knows and cares about people who are Palestinians and Israelis.

In her essay, Bella offered three ways communities can make positive social change and move beyond indifference.

First is to educate people on the benefits of welcoming refugees who often strengthen the economy and enrich American culture.

Second is to have diverse information sources and know media biases.

Third is to share personal stories, as did one college student who lived in Israel and Palestine for three weeks, told about the plight of two college-aged girls, and raised funds toward their education.

"Personal stories lead people to connect words to action," Bella said.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April 2024