Israel is squandering the memory of the ‘war against the Jews’ to the point where it can actually boomerang – and just has Three recent news items relating to the Holocaust – one concerning a statement by the actress and director Natalie Portman, another having to do with a blistering summer heat wave at Auschwitz, and the third regarding an upcoming symposium that will look at both the Shoah and what the Palestinians call the Nakba – have been eliciting strong reactions here.
THE JEWISH, Israeli-born Portman wondered aloud to a British daily two weeks ago whether the Holocaust had been assigned so much importance and prominence in the Western zeitgeist that it now might be overshadowing – and even blocking out – other genocides, including those happening today.
“I was shocked that [the Rwandan genocide] was going on while I was in school,” she told The Independent. “We were learning only about the Holocaust, and it [Rwanda] was never mentioned.... That is exactly the type of problem with the way it’s taught. I think it needs to be taught, and I can’t speak for everyone, because this was my personal education.”
According to her biography, Portman and her parents left Israel for the US when she was three, and the future Oscar winner attended American Jewish day schools prior to entering high school. So it’s not quite clear where the “problem” was, although I’d venture to say that the Holocaust is given just as many, if not more, classroom hours in US schools (and not only Jewish day schools) than other genocides, save, perhaps, for that of the Native Americans.
Yet in Israel, where the 20th-century destruction of European Jewry is a major component of school syllabi and warrants an entire day of nationwide memorialization and reflection that comes a close second only to Remembrance Day for soldiers and those killed in terrorist attacks, the Holocaust can probably be described as the third rail of political discourse. So the reactions, almost all negative and most even scathing, were not long in coming.
One exception arrived in a letter to the editor from a well-versed reader of The Jerusalem Post. Portman, the reader wrote, “could be onto something far more important than a mere truism,” as the “nonstop mantra ‘Never again’ rings hollow when similar atrocities occur again and again, and not only is the world silent, but – let’s be honest here – Israel and the Jewish people are silent as well.”
Meanwhile, some 3,500 kilometers due north and slightly west, the people who run the museum at the site of the wartime Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps recently installed misters in the unshaded entrance area to help visitors keep cool during an almost unprecedented spell of Polish hot weather.
After Israeli media, including the Post, reported on the incident – providing photos showing a crude misting contraption that, with not much imagination, could be construed as resembling showers – news outlets around the world jumped in. All quoted one man, an Israeli named Meir Bulka (or Bolka, depending on the report).
“As a Jew who has lost so many relatives in the Holocaust, they looked like the showers that the Jews were forced to take before entering the gas chambers,” he told the Post, diverging only slightly from the historical accounts that have the Nazis luring their victims into the gas chambers with promises that they would be able to take a shower there. “All the Israelis felt this was very distasteful. Someone called it a ‘Holocaust gimmick.’” Certainly, anyone for whom the event the historian Lucy Dawidowicz called the “war against the Jews” is a central touchstone – as it clearly is in the Jewish state – would most likely look at those misters with a bit more than just a jaundiced eye. So it’s not surprising, at least to me, that the media’s plaintiff in the Auschwitz Shower Affair was from Israel.
Finally, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute will early next week hold a symposium based on a book it just co-published called The Holocaust and the Nakba: Memory, National Identity, and Jewish-Arab Partnership.
“The book invites the readers to think of ways to remember and discuss the Holocaust and the Nakba together, and investigate the possibility of such combined thought – not because the events are identical or even similar, but because they are both traumatic and identity-constructing,” the institute’s website proclaimed.
Nakba, for the uninitiated, is Arabic for “catastrophe.” It’s how the Palestinians refer to Israel’s War of Independence.
The subject came under close scrutiny a few years ago after Israel’s Arab citizens began marking May 15, the day after the Gregorian date in 1948 on which David Ben-Gurion proclaimed independence, as Nakba Day.
Lawmakers, most of them (but not all) from the political Right, responded by ramming through legislation to withhold funds from any organization that spends public money to commemorate the date in such a way – a move that some on the Left have misrepresented ever since as outlawing such commemorations altogether, which is not true.
If anything, the matter placed the term squat in the Israeli lexicon, and you might now call any talk about Nakba Day the country’s “fourth rail” for political discourse, for as with Portman’s public pontification about the Holocaust, the Van Leer book and symposium elicited a bracing outcry, too.
IT’S INDEED clear, of course, that there is little if any similarity between the Holocaust and the Nakba as historical periods. In fact, one Post reader, in another letter to the editor, actually welcomed next week’s symposium, “for it shows how inapt a comparison it is of these totally different historical events.”
Yet while one would be safe in wondering how these high-voltage rails actually came to cross, a good part of the answer is not too difficult to discern, for it is we Israelis who throw the Holocaust into so many major issues – whether it’s what we believe to be the coming Iranian nuclear bomb or the prospect of a false peace with the Palestinians – that the other side has no trouble finding an opening for throwing it back.
To take Portman’s argument a step further, we rail against Holocaust denial and revisionism, and also argue passionately about the special place that it, and it alone, should hold in history. So far, so good. But we then link it to every possible existential issue that might confront us (and even to some non-existential threats). In so doing, we squander any due sympathy by falling back on a currency (please pardon the expression) that we’ve been dining out on for decades, often as an excuse for entirely inexcusable behavior.
If we really took the Holocaust as seriously as we like to think we do, we wouldn’t be allowing so many of the real victims among us to live in poverty and die like paupers. If we really took it seriously, we wouldn’t allow the sacred memory of the six million (including relatives of mine) to be demeaned each time we’re confronted with a threat, real or perceived, no matter how existential or not, and then so blithely unsheathe the decade of what Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel called “night.”
As I wrote in these pages several years ago, “some Israelis think there’s actually too much emphasis on the Holocaust, that it has taken over our national ethos to the point that, even with a viable state and a strong military, we’ll always look upon ourselves as perpetual victims.”
You can count me as being among those who think this way.