Expropriating the Holocaust

Longevity is one of the more striking distinguishing marks of anti-Semitism.

The end of the Holocaust 521 (photo credit: Indiana University Press)
The end of the Holocaust 521
(photo credit: Indiana University Press)
The image of a resurgent global anti-Semitism looms like an ominous dark cloud over Alvin Rosenfeld’s lucid volume, which shows how Holocaust representation operates in contemporary culture and politics.
Rosenfeld’s pessimism is fueled in part by the claim that as we move further away in time from the Shoah, our awareness of its massive criminality is being steadily eroded.
Moreover, the horrors of the Holocaust have, in recent decades, increasingly been expropriated for a multitude of problematic victim narratives while, at the same time, being trivialized, relativized or cheapened by the needs of the popular entertainment industry. Such concerns had already been expressed many years ago by writers like Primo Levi, Jean Améry, Imre Kertész and Elie Wiesel, survivors whose work Rosenfeld analyzes with his customary sophistication and astuteness.
At the heart of Rosenfeld’s book is the nagging anxiety that the severance of the Holocaust from its historical moorings has opened up a Pandora’s box of false analogies (Israeli Jews as “Nazis” etc.) and a vulgar “Americanization” that insists on “happy endings” to every story. This sentimentalized flattening of the Shoah – alongside its globalization as a universal metaphor for human suffering – clearly has serious ramifications for the perception of contemporary Jewry and the State of Israel.
Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism at Indiana University Bloomington, appears to be telling us that the successful entry of the Holocaust into the Western cultural mainstream comes at a price: the memory of the Shoah has become, in some cases, a boomerang against the Jewish people.
Nobody reading Rosenfeld’s sobering analysis can doubt that distortions of Holocaust memory have considerably diluted whatever remaining effectiveness this cataclysmic event may still have as an antidote to present-day anti-Semitism.
If anything, it seems more plausible to assume that contemporary Judeophobia derives at least, in part, from a feeling of resentment that Jews have “monopolized” the martyr’s crown of pain and persecution.
The Hungarian Nobel Prize laureate Imre Kertész somewhat bitterly summed up this perverse syndrome when he observed in 1998 that “the anti-Semite of our age no longer loathes Jews: he wants Auschwitz.”
Longevity is one of the more striking distinguishing marks of anti-Semitism, along with its near-ubiquity, its seemingly endless contradictions, non-sequiturs and sheer irrationality. Yet its tenacious vitality is also linked to the proven ability of Jewbaiters in every generation to adapt their pathological obsessions to changing political circumstances and new intellectual fashions.
Thus, during the past decade, anti-Semites of all stripes have focused their hatred against the Jewish State. The scale of this vitriol is addressed briefly at the end of Phyllis Goldstein’s new book but without sufficiently conveying its exceptional virulence.
Goldstein’s study is a laudable effort to come to grips with the historical phenomenon of Jew hatred. While breaking no new ground, it does provide a concise pedagogical primer, perhaps best suited for high-school students. It is driven by the optimistic belief that animates its publishers, Facing History, that a liberal educational approach based on accurate, objective information can provide effective answers to racist bigotry.
Unfortunately, I doubt this to be true. It may be valid to a certain (limited) degree in the United States, but experience elsewhere is much less encouraging – particularly in the Muslim-Arab world, where the most basic premises of the Western Enlightenment and liberal democracy have scarcely taken root. There is, moreover, a deeper problem, which underlies Goldstein’s entire approach to this painful subject, namely the assumption that anti-Semitism really is (as the book maintains) a “convenient hatred.”
This is a rather unsatisfactory, not to say superficial, formula. Essentially it amounts to saying that the Jews have been and remain a useful if arbitrary scapegoat – a foil for opportunist political leaders, benighted clerics, demagogic rabble-rousers and diverse social groups in distress. But no convincing explanation is offered as to why the Jews have provided this permanent and expedient “scapegoat” – rather than some other “chosen” minority.
We never really move past the somewhat banal notion that anti-Semitism fulfills a persistent social need for those who would seek to mobilize “us” against “them.” That may be true in a very limited sense, but it has little explanatory power.
Goldstein’s book is not based on any original research and it is restricted to secondary English-language sources, which by no means always reflect the best or most up-to-date scholarship in the field. Moreover, the author, while cataloging many of the more outlandish falsehoods, repulsive myths and dehumanizing antisemitic stereotypes, provides us with few, if any, organizing concepts with which to navigate through this raw historical data.
For example, it might have been helpful to students as well as more general readers to understand more clearly the changing patterns of anti-Semitism from pagan antiquity (when it was primarily social and political) to the Christian Middle Ages (increasingly theological/demonological); or the transition from 19th-century racial anti-Semitism to the dominant post-Shoah brand of “anti- Zionist” Jew hatred. Also missing here is any serious discussion of the phenomenon of intellectual and cultural Judeophobia, which seems to me essential to grasping both the peculiarities and perverse uniqueness of the anti-Semitic obsession.
A Convenient Hatred, it should be noted, treads extremely cautiously when handling the issue of Muslim anti-Semitism. For example, its description of early Islamic hostility, especially as recorded in the Koran or hadith, strikes me as being far too benign; and this approach also permeates its analysis of the current demonizing of the Jews and Israel in Iran and the Arab world. The impact of the Nazi anti-Semitic poison in the Arab Middle East is also unfortunately somewhat downplayed. As a result, the reader remains unaware of the continuities in genocidal anti- Semitism over the past 70 years.
There are other significant omissions. For example, while there is some mention of anti-globalization among anti-Semites on the far Right, there is almost nothing about antiglobalization as a mantra of the radical Left, which has become equally prone to conspiracy theories. Again, Goldstein does invoke the Cold War but the post-war mutation of the Soviet Union and the East European Communist world into an anti-Semitic bloc is never adequately explained. Similarly absent is any significant discussion of the complex relation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, of Jew hatred “without Jews,” or of Jewish responses over the centuries to Judeophobia.
Nevertheless, despite these omissions and weaknesses, Goldstein, an experienced writer and educator, has still produced a readable, useful and accessible introduction to the hatred that refuses to disappear.