In September 1995, France resumes its nuclear testing program at Moruroa Atoll in the South Pacific with a series of five underground nuclear explosions. Worldwide protests ensue, including the boycott of French wine.
Greenpeace is at the forefront of these protests. The organization sends a fleet of ships to Moruroa to protest this egregious activity, which in previous decades, starting in the 1960s, had severely damaged the integrity of the atolls and spread widespread radioactive contamination throughout the region.
One by one, over several weeks, the Greenpeace ships are illegally seized in international waters by the French navy.
To sustain the “bearing witness” protests, Greenpeace charters the 47 foot sailing boat, Karamba. I am invited to be the lead campaigner on what was to become Greenpeace’s final voyage to Moruroa. With six of us on board, we set sail on the 16-day roundtrip from Papeete, Tahiti.
I am not a sailor and have never sailed in a small boat on the high seas before. It is close to hurricane season and the French military has a history of violence against Greenpeace.
More than once the French have resorted with violence to Greenpeace protests. French foreign service agents blew up the original Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland Harbour (July 10,1985) killing one Greenpeace photographer, Fernando Pereira. And during the 1995 protests Greenpeace vessels had equipment smashed and crew members manhandled by the French navy. What if the French again use unrestrained and excessive force?
What if something goes utterly wrong? What if I die?
I reflect with sadness on the horrors of nuclear weapons and the mindset that rationalizes the explosion of thousands of nuclear bombs upon our home planet. At the same time I think about the many other ways that humans are undermining nature’s capacity to sustain life.
And in my heart I know that this mission is absolutely “the right thing to do” and that my whole life’s journey has prepared me to stand in opposition to such mindless destruction. It is an opportunity to take action on the world stage. Should the worst happen, acting on my beliefs is not a bad way to leave this life.
Most of the time the Karamba is under autopilot. We all take turns at the helm. Under the big starlit Pacific nights, as the Karamba glides through the voluminous dark waves, with no other human presence around us, I feel so small and insignificant in the universe.
Our arrival to the 10 kilometer exclusion zone around the Moruroa test site, which in my mind has become the scene of a heinous crime, coincides with the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. As the bomb goes off my incredulity turns to deep grief. I weep. Mother Earth has just been raped.
What brought me here? What family experiences, historical events, and societal influences steered me to an activist way of life? What predisposes me to look for pain in the world and routinely ask, “What can I do to try to make it better?”
Looking back to my early childhood, I recognize three streams of influences that shaped my worldview: being born immediately after World War II into a Hungarian Jewish family that had been shattered and traumatized by the Holocaust; having the sense of being an outsider within in a Christian milieu inclined to antisemitism; and the indoctrinating appeal of Communist ideology, which permeated the first 10 years of my life.
The lives of my parents and grandparents in Hungary were, more often than not, a series of adaptations to the shifting sands of history—the ravages of wars, political upheavals, redrawn borders, regime changes, and opportunistic swings in governmental policies towards the legal status and civil rights of ethnic minorities, especially those of the Jews.
I never met my maternal grandparents. Yet their lives, as much as their deaths, had a profound influence upon my brothers, myself, and multi-generations in our family.
Grandfather Dr. Joseph Lõvi and grandmother Anna Abrahamsohn-Lõvi were murdered on June 4, 1944 in the gas chambers of Birkenau. They were deported by Nazis and fascists from Slovakia/Hungary.
Dr. Joseph Lõvi was a highly respected physician and a man of letters. He spoke many languages, wrote poetry, and translated French and German literary works into Hungarian. In his medical practice he treated the poor free of charge, and in return the community maintained a seat of honor in the synagogue for him and the family. He was active in the fledgling Zionist movement, fervently believing that the Jewish people needed to build a nation state of their own in Palestine.
Anna Abrahamsohn both fulfilled the traditional role of a Jewish mother and was a community organizer. She established a dining hall for poor Jewish students and was one of the founders of a Jewish orphanage.
As children, we learned about the compassion, activism, and tragic deaths of our grandparents. One of my earliest memories is trying to comprehend our grandparents dying in the gas chamber. How could the world allow that? How could one human do that to another?
Family stories of courage and survival also permeated our childhood. Our mom, Judith Lõvi Maté, had survived the Holocaust in the Budapest ghetto with her baby son, my brother Gabor. At one point, to save her 11-month-old baby from starvation, she made the courageous decision to ask a complete stranger to deliver Gabor from the ghetto to another branch of the family. For weeks she didn’t know that Gabor had survived.
Our father, Andor Maté, was conscripted into the Jewish Forced Labor Battalions of the Hungarian Army. Several times he saved the lives of others. Once, at great risk to himself, he physically stopped the severe beating of another Jew by the drunken sergeant.
Our family was not religious. With the exception of the High Holy Days, our parents rarely went to synagogue. Nevertheless, we identified ourselves as Jews. We therefore were, by definition, different from the mainstream, and were seen by our neighbors as not fitting in.
Living with this sense of being an outsider has provided me with a clearer insight into the narratives by which destructive practices are rationalized by the mainstream. It helped me peel away society’s denials. But mainly it instilled in me compassion for the powerless and a desire to pursue justice.
These sensibilities, in theory at least, were reinforced by the Communist education system, the movies and plays we saw, the songs we learned, the books we read, the holidays we celebrated, the May Day parades we participated in as part of a global movement. Communism invited us to embrace the ideals of peace, equality,freedom, fairness, and respect for human dignity. As children, we were oblivious to the hypocrisies of the system.
On October 23, 1956, as students and workers took to the streets in protest, a popular revolution broke out. The regime responded with force and an armed struggle ensued. Armed men were running on our street. A few bullets ricocheted off our apartment building.
Antisemitic graffiti soon appeared throughout the city. Our parents decided to flee Hungary after an acquaintance told father, “You are a good man, but all other Jews can go to Hell.”
On the morning of November 23rd, we took a train jammed with would-be refugees to the border town of Sopron, where father hired a local peasant to lead us across into Austria.
It had been raining for many days. We slogged through ankle-deep mud. Our mother, whose ability to walk is hindered by muscular dystrophy, kept falling. Mud filled her boots and rubbed the skin off the back of her ankles. Occasional search flares lit up the night. A border patrol holding a German shepherd approached us, and our guide vanished into the dark. Father handed the soldiers his watch, along with whatever cash he had. They took the bribe and pointed us in the right direction. Our guide mysteriously reappeared. We proceeded. Finally we saw the faint headlight beams of several Jeeps belonging to the International Red Cross and the Austrian Border Police.
We had arrived.
We were now refugees. My childhood had ended.
Many years later, when a colleague commented, “Crossing the Austro-Hungarian border at the age of 10 was your first direct action,” I thought about the courage of our parents, who with two young sons, a couple of suitcases in hand, and virtually no financial resources, left everything behind to create better prospects for their children.
After a stormy ten-day voyage across the Atlantic, we arrived in Halifax, Canada.
As we felt marginalized in Hungary for being Jewish, in Canada we felt marginalized for being DPs (displaced persons). I was once attacked by a group of Italian boys, who in Italian accents yelled, “You dirty DP, why you no go back where you come from.” Several other similar incidents resulted in fist fights. I was acutely conscious of being the outsider who spoke with an accent.
Finally, I found a haven in Ichud Habonim, a socialist Zionist, kibbutz-oriented youth movement. One of the youth leaders greeted me with just the words I needed to hear: “Having an accent means that you have a more interesting background.” I quickly developed a sense of belonging, and for the first time in my life, a positive identification with my Jewish background.
The central tenet of Habonim’s teaching—“hagshama atzmit,” or self-realization through living your ideals—presented us with a passionate, empowering, activist philosophy. It called us to action: to eventually makealiyah, live on a kibbutz, and thereby help build a just Jewish state. It engaged us in the universal themes of peace and social justice, and imbued us with a positive, secular sense of being engaged in the Jewish historical process.
The ’67 Six-Day War is looming, and Israel calls for volunteers. I find myself, rifle in hand, patrolling the boundaries of Kibbutz Urim, near the Gaza border. Without ever having fired the old Czechoslovakian 303, we are told to shoot anyone who fails to provide the requisite password. Night after night we patrol the darkness, listening to the crescendo of every whisper of sound.
Fearful, I experience a sense of unreality, as if I am in a movie. I have no control over events, over my life. I am swept away by history. Should the need arise, I shall have to shoot or be killed.
But all along my sense is that I am in the right place. I am living my beliefs.
Over the years I have engaged in numerous humanitarian, animal rights, and environmental issues. Often such engagement requires non-violent civil disobedience, or so-called direct action. At times I have been arrested. And in the midst of it I often think of my grandparents and parents, and dedicate my involvement to their legacy. And always, I trace my activism to my formative years in Habonim.
Today I understand activism as a way of life. It is living with the conscious choice to keep one’s eyes open and to bear witness. It is striving to peel away society’s denials and having the courage to speak and act on the truth as I know it.
I fear for the future of my grandchildren. Human activity is already stressing nature’s limits. I worry that within their lifetime cataclysmic changes will come.
Often, the human response to the constant barrage of bad news is moral fatigue and cynicism. There are two antidotes to moral fatigue: appreciation for what life offers in the present, and taking action even when opposing forces seem insurmountable.
The activist’s challenge is to keep the light burning, to maintain a better vision as to how humans can coexist in harmonywith nature and with other humans. When a critical mass in awareness is reached in the world, change comes about—as in 1996, in the wake of the international outcry against its nuclear testing program at Moruroa, when the French government was compelled to cancel all future nuclear explosions and dismantle the testing facilities.As for me, I look into the eyes of my grandchildren knowing I am trying my best to secure their generation’s future.
Janos Maté is in environmental, peace, human rights, and animal rights activist. A Greenpeace campaigner since 1989, he has recieved awards from the United Nations Envrionment Program (2007), the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (2012), and the Governor General of Canada (1993).
Reprinted with permission from Reform Judaism magazine, published by the Union for Reform Judaism.