Monday, 16 April 2012

Yom Ha Shoah, Ahmadinejad and why we need to break the Holocaust narrative

After publishing Letter to Anne Frank in January, I hadn't planned to say anymore about the Holocaust this year. But I feel compelled to return to the subject now as we reach the Jewish day of Holocaust remembrance, Yom Ha' Shoah, on April 19th.

So why come back to the Holocaust so soon?

In a word: Iran

Listening in March to Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to AIPAC (America's mighty pro-Israel lobby) and then reading the commentators who have supported his position since (try Melanie Phillips from the UK's Daily Mail), has demonstrated to me, once again, just how easily the Holocaust is recruited into the propaganda campaign to justify Israeli actions, in this case, airstrikes on Iran.

For Netanyahu, Iran is the new Nazi Germany, Ahmadinejad the new Hitler, and his nuclear programme is an underground Auschwitz in the making. This analogy displays not only a wilfully ignorant presentation of Middle East politics but a poor grasp of European history too. No matter though. For what it does do, is allow Netanyahu to accuse the world (and in particular Barack Obama) of abandoning the Jews to a terrible fate once again. No doubt this week will provide more such opportunities.

Netanyahu builds up his stockpile of radioactive moral blackmail hoping to ensure America will back Israeli airstrikes. And if you still feel uncomfortable about Ahmadinejad's calls to 'wipe Israel off the map' you may like to read this piece from the Washington Post's 'Fact Checker' which puts the whole thing into a less hysterical perspective. All of this beating of war drums, as I've said before, keeps the Palestinians well off the international radar while maintaining the fiction of Israel facing an existential threat that trumps all other moral issues.

For a rounded assessment of the human and environmental impact of dropping bunker bombs (containing depleted uranium) on Iran's nuclear facilities, take a look at Marsha B. Cohen's article at Lobelog. Thanks to Jerry Haber at the Magnes Zionist for drawing my attention to this piece.

History should certainly inform our understanding of contemporary events but Netanyahu's (and others) misuse of the memory of the Holocaust for political advantage has become so acceptable that most people don't even realise it's going on.

So what has happened to our understanding of the Holocaust and how can we counter what has become such a narrow and partial understanding of its meaning in Jewish and world history?

Catastrophe and Redemption

The truth is, the rhetoric of Israeli politics has become so entangled in the Nazi genocide that it's become all but impossible to untie the knots of ethical misappropriation. We have become locked in a narrative of catastrophe and redemption that is now being used to justify immoral actions.

Rather than a profound lesson on the values and behaviour of Western civilisation in the mid 20th century, the Holocaust has become an exclusively Jewish piece of property, an emblem of unique Jewish suffering, our symbol of eternal victimhood. The State of Israel is presented as our justified salvation and the necessary state apparatus to prevent a second Holocaust occurring.

This paradigm of Holocaust understanding is closely guarded by the Jewish establishment and any attempt to break through it is quickly repelled with accusations of anti-Semitism or even Holocaust denial.

After the Holocaust, many Jews in the diaspora see Israel as an essential personal and collective 'insurance policy'. It needs to exist in case 'things turn bad again'. Israel is the Jewish life-raft. But Netanyahu's Iranian rhetoric turns this idea on its head. The life-raft itself is now presented as the target of a new Holocaust. If you accept this thinking then, for a Jew, the most dangerous place on earth to live is now Tel Aviv. If this is the case, then one of the great dreams of Zionism - to normalise the condition of the Jews - has become a nightmare.

Alternative voices

Marek Edelman, Warsaw Ghetto fighter

One of the most-read posts on Micah's Paradigm Shift in the last year has been Lost Jewish Voices (part two) in which I gathered together some pre-1948 Jewish thinkers whose views on Zionism are now considered far beyond the Jewish pale. My aim was to demonstrate the plurality of Jewish opinion that flourished in the first half of the 20th century, in the hope that these views (rooted in Jewish ethical thinking) could be rediscovered by a new generation.

In this blog-post I'd like to do something similar with the Holocaust. Below I've brought together opinions that go against the mainstream Jewish/Zionist narrative on the meaning of the Holocaust, the lessons that should be learnt and how it should guide our understanding of current events.

The life and actions of Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, challenges several commonly held views about the nature and meaning of the Holocaust.

Rather inconveniently for the Zionist reading of history, Edelman was a Bundist, a Jewish socialist who refused to accept the notion that the Jewish people had no future in Europe. To the Bundists, the Zionist were prepared to abandon the battlefield of racism to the enemy instead of staying and working for a society of respect and tolerance for minorities.

Edelman did not see the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as a step on the road to necessary Jewish empowerment. After the war in stayed in Poland, became a well-respected heart specialist, campaigned against the Soviet backed communist government and in the 1980s became an activist in Solidarity, the independent trade union opposition. You can read more about Edelman in this obituary from the UK's Daily Telegraph in 2009.

Here's what Edelman said about the meaning of the uprising and the accusation that Jews went passively to their deaths. Behaviour, argued the Zionists, that would never be repeated by the Jewish State:

"We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning," Edelman recalled. "We fought simply not to allow the Germans alone to pick the time and place of our deaths. We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka." Edelman believed that far from going passively, those who went to Treblinka had shown the ultimate courage. "Their death was far more heroic. We didn't know when we would take a bullet. They had to deal with certain death, stripped naked in a gas chamber or standing at the edge of a mass grave waiting for a bullet in the back of the head. It is an awesome thing, when one is going so quietly to one's death. It was easier to die fighting than in a gas chamber."
Another familiar accusation that Israeli leaders, Binyamin Netanyahu in particular, like to present is that the world stood idly by while the Jewish people were systematically destroyed. It all adds to the myth of an eternally persecuted people who are now owed special privileges by those who 'abandoned' them. The Israeli novelist and commentator Shulamith Hareven counters this view in her 1986 essay 'Identity: Victim':

"During the Second World War, not only did the world not remain silent, it lost more than sixty million men fighting Hitler. True they were not fighting because of us, and certainly they would not have offered aid for our sake only. They were fighting against fascism in general...but the loss of more than sixty million men in war does not exactly mean that the world sat by with it's arms crossed...sixty million families suffered losses, and those of us who survived, including the small number of us then inhabiting Israel, survived because of them."
Another important observation from Hareven is how children, Jewish and non-Jewish, grow up today knowing only one thing about the the history of the Jews in Europe - and that's the Holocaust. It's as if two thousand years of Jewish history count for nothing apart from an endless catalogue of persecution culminating in genocide. The development of rabbinic Judaism, the rich cultural achievements of European Jewry in literature and science, the massive contribution to Western civilisation, it all gets forgotten. It's as if the story of the Jews in Europe is nothing but an unfortunate aberration, a deviation, an interruption, from the story of Jewish statehood. In fact, we are what we are today because of the experience of living outside of the Land of Israel. Harevan sees the moral danger of this partial view of Jewish history:

"If I and only I occupy the throne of the victim, then no stranger can occupy it....under no circumstances are we to forget our tragedies. But whoever bases our identity on them and them alone, distorts the greatness of this people."
Poet, feminist and political activist, Irena Klepfisz' father fought alongside Marek Edelman in Warsaw, but was killed on the first day of the uprising. In an essay written in 1989, she asks if the horror inflicted on the Jews has numbed our ability to measure right and wrong:

"As long as hundreds of Palestinians are not being lined up and shot, but are killed by Israelis only one a day, are we Jews free from worrying about morality, justice? Has Nazism become the sole norm by which Jews judge evil, so that anything that is not it's exact duplicate is considered by us morally acceptable? Is that what the Holocaust has done to Jewish moral sensibility?"

Avraham Burg is a former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset and now an out-spoken critic of Israel. His 2008 book 'The Holocaust is over. We must rise from its ashes' was in part an examination of the Israeli national psyche. Like Hareven and Klepfisz, he identifies how Holocaust understanding has limited our ability to relate to the pain of other genocides and shrunken our moral imagination:

"Never again? We have made 'never again' possible for ourselves. What about never again for others? Never again? On the contrary, it happens again and again, because of indifference. This apathy to their fate was made possible primarily by the operating system that was installed in me at birth: The Holocaust is ours,and all other killings in the world are common evils, not holocausts. Well, if it is not a holocaust then it is none of my business. Therefore I am not responsible. Therefore I do not have to cry out in protest. The lives of many thousands, perhaps millions, could be saved if the State of Israel, and the Jewish people, myself included, had stood at the head of the international struggle against hatred and the annihilation of any people anywhere, regardless of colour gender, creed origins, or residence. We did not stand at the head of this struggle. And the swords are still drawn."
David Grossman has been described by Jacqueline Rose as almost a 'non-Zionist Zionist', he's certainly one of Israel's outstanding 'critical friends' and an internationally respected novelist. Here, writing in 2003, he wants to emphasise the universal aspects of the Nazi years:

"I don't belong to those who believe, that the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish event. As I see it, all civilised, fair minded persons must ask themselves serious questions about the Holocaust. These are not Jewish questions. They are universal questions."
I hope these quotes illustrate how the dominant Holocaust narrative should be radically challenged to create an outward looking, inclusive response to the horrors we have experienced.

In the meantime, we face the prospect of thousands of Iranians being killed, generations to come affected by a uranium polluted atmosphere, a destabilised Middle East, a stalled Arab Spring, a world economic recovery reversed, and an upsurge in militant Islamist terrorism. And all this in the name of an unsubstantiated threat that relies for its moral underpinning on the misuse of Holocaust memory.

Let me conclude with words from the UK's Reform Judaism prayer for Yom Ha Shoah. This prayer recalls not only the six million who perished but also the many non-Jews who had the courage to stand outside the mob and suffer with us. These words sum up for me what ought to be the lessons of the Holocaust for all humanity:

"May such times never come again, and may their sacrifice not be in vain. In our daily fight against cruelty and prejudice, against tyranny and persecution, their memory gives us strength and leads us on."

P.S. Please note the new descriptor for Micah's Paradigm Shift: Israel-Palestine from a UK Jewish perspective. Rescuing the Hebrew covenant one blog post at a time.