Genocide, universalism and the degradation of memory

The attempt to de-Judaize the Holocaust is quite shocking

holocoust311 (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Every Holocaust Remembrance Day and every Independence Day the public and the world Jewish community is subjected to a soft barrage of messages. The central thread in them is that the Holocaust is not a unique event, that Jews are exploiting their genocide in some way and that the Palestinian Nakba (“tragedy” of 1948) is somehow linked or equivalent to the Holocaust.
This degradation has at its core a supposedly positive message: The Holocaust was a universal event from which all humanity must learn and the Palestinians can better understand the Jews if they think their Nakba is like the Holocaust and if the Jews also accept this. Last year one of the messengers was Bradford Pilcher who titled his article in the on-line magazine Jewcy: “The Holocaust... not just for the Jews.”
Pilcher tells us that the Jews practice “one-upsmanship” by daring to think of the Holocaust as an event that affected them and did not equally affect others such as homosexuals and Roma. He writes, “We shouldn’t be drawing up borders between Jewish suffering and others’” because otherwise the Holocaust will reflect merely our “bitterness.”
This year the message began on March 23 with the revelation that Hanna Yablonka of Ben-Gurion University and head of the Education Ministry’s advisory committee on history studies had claimed “studying details of the Shoah has no educational value” and merely constitutes a “pornography of evil.” There is no use in people learning “how Jews were murdered, the stages of the final solution.”
The next day she was one-upped by an unnamed senior figure in one of the institutes for Holocaust studies who claimed “there was too much emphasis on the Jewish aspects of the Holocaust.” Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer followed with an editorial entitled “The Holocaust isn’t just about the Jews.” Pfeffer asked if “Jews [can] honestly demand to reserve sole usage rights of the Holocaust for political purposes?” The Holocaust “has an immense universal meaning as well.”
THE ATTEMPT to de-Judaize the Holocaust is quite shocking, as much as it is tempting and ultimately false. The 2001 BBC/HBO film Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Branagh, depicts the Wannsee conference of 1942 in which the Nazis decided on the final solution. The film follows the transcript kept by leading executioner Adolf Eichmann. In it the word “Jew” is used multiple times per minute in a meeting that lasted 85 minutes. Other groups persecuted by the Nazis are not mentioned, except for a short reference to the euthanasia program used against mental and handicapped patients.
The Wannsee conference participants might be annoyed to think their plans for murdering the world’s Jews was not about the Jews, but had some nebulous universal message. Perhaps they would also smile in satisfaction at the thought that the people they attempted to exterminate debate whether the extermination was about them at all.
What is more perplexing is if one considers that it is the Holocaust, alone among the tragedies of the world’s peoples, that’s bent and degraded into a “universal message.” The same well-meaning person who wants the Holocaust to have a broad “human” message is the same one who bows his head in sorrow during Black History Month and sobs crocodile tears for African-American slaves. Does anyone honestly ever claim that slavery in the US is anything but a story about African-Americans, the evils done to them and the lasting affects it has had on the US and blacks?
Does anyone attempt to take the Armenians out of the Armenian genocide, except the Turkish government which denies it? And does the Palestinian’s Al-Kuds daily ever have editorials telling its readers that the “details” of the expulsion of the Palestinians is unimportant for educating the youth and that “the Nakba isn’t just about the Palestinians”? No. The “Nakba” is about the Palestinians and no one denies that, even if they don’t agree with how the Palestinians memorialize it.
Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, demands that the 1904 genocide of the Herero, an African tribe, be referred to as a “holocaust” much as Robert Fisk of the Independent speaks of an Armenian “holocaust.” It seems everyone gets their holocaust except the Jews. Why is it the Jews alone must have one of their central traumas turned into a universal story that applies to everyone?
People accuse Israel and the Jewish people of, in the words of Burg, “expropriating and monopolizing” the Shoah. Pfeffer speaks of a “Zionist reading of the Holocaust that cannot be the only one young Israelis are offered.” Muhammad Barakei, who was lauded for recently claiming that Arab schools should teach about the Holocaust, claims there is a “commercialization of Holocaust Remembrance Day and [an] attempt to commercialize it for Zionist purposes.”
They have gotten it wrong. The Shoah is not a “Zionist narrative,” it is Jewish narrative.
No one expects that other nations should not understand the Holocaustin their own terms. Of course non-Jews should understand it in auniversal or personal manner. But why should Jews have it stripped fromthem at the same time?
No one wags a finger at African-Americans and tells them to stop“monopolizing” slavery. The Pfeffers and Yablonkas could learn from thePalestinians in this respect. They could learn that the details areimportant and that national tragedies are, well, national and shouldstay that way.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.