The world and us

Jews don’t own the narrative of WWII.

Haredi man in Jerusalem  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi man in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On February 24, a spokesman for the Polish Foreign Ministry announced that “The Holocaust Law” will not be implemented before Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal reviews the issue. Also, it was announced, a Polish team is expected to arrive in Israel to discuss the matter. The spokesman said the decision was made due to Israeli pressure.
The following day Poland’s Foreign Ministry issued a clarification which denied the alleged “freezing” of the law, but in reality did not dispel the claim. Nevertheless, on March 1 a group of Polish diplomats did arrive in Jerusalem and held bilateral discussions with Israeli counterparts on the matter.
It is not yet clear if the entire drama is nearing its end, though its first chapter is definitely about to be closed. This is not a story where at the end a victor is declared.
Sadly the narrative has neither winners nor losers. However, there are valuable lessons to be learned, for the Poles, for the entire world and, more importantly, for us, the Jews.
We don’t own the narrative of WWII.
Neither do we own the Holocaust. We did, but not anymore. In the past 30 years we have created a narrative of one of the greatest calamities of the 20th century, consisting of the pure evil perpetrators, the honorable victors and the Jews as the only victims. We used the system of political correctness (born out of the guilt for the unprecedented murder of six million of our people) to silence any dissent against this overly simplistic reading of history.
The guilt has dissipated with the passing of generations, and now we find ourselves unable to defend our title of “chosen” victims of the war. We are faced with extremely the complicated stories of the Poles, the Russians, the Ukrainians and other peoples. These national narratives intertwine and at times conflict with our own. Moreover, they spring from a historical context which at times makes us “uncomfortable” by exposing members of our tribe as willing participants in other horrendous atrocities of the same century.
How did we fool ourselves into this fallacy? The root cause lies in a very shtetl-esque view of the larger world we inherited from our predecessors. It may be summarized by the following claim I have heard from a few Chabad rabbis: when one learns Jewish history one learns the rest of history as well. According to this dreidel of thought, Jews have been involved in every significant event of the history of the human race, they have the only objective story to tell and if Jews are not involved then the story is not worthy of being told.
This approach makes Jews perfect victims and the Holocaust the greatest and only crime of the war. Sadly, it also makes the Holocaust the most important event of thousand years of Jewish history. For the Jews in Diaspora, the centrality of the Holocaust creates an absurd situation.
This results in Jews viewing the entire history of their people as a three-episode series: Fiddler on the Roof, The Holocaust and The post-Holocaust. The byproduct of this historical amnesia is our “well wishers” starting to think along similar lines.
When US president Barack Obama in his Cairo speech declared the Holocaust to be the reason for the creation of the State of Israel he was not being antisemitic as many of his detractors claimed. The majority of American Jews would make the same very statement without thinking twice. Thus by reducing our past to the murder of six million innocents we are robbing ourselves of our own history, making us unable to defend our own rights with tools other than guilt.
Yet another revelation of this Polish-Jewish crisis is Israel becoming the most important political force defending the Jewish people on the world stage and the American and Diaspora Jewish organizations becoming irrelevant. If one were to believe the Polish spokesman it was the pressure by Israel and not by the World Jewish Congress, ADL or AJC that forced the Poles to reconsider.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center even issued the following statement: “A Travel Advisory would urge Jews to limit their travel to Poland only to visit ancestral graves and Holocaust-era Death Camps.”
It is difficult to imagine more absurd and irrelevant travel restriction. Israel is now de facto representative of the world Jewry.
With American and Diaspora organizations slowly fading away, this new reality will have ground shaking effect on how the future of the Jewish people is to be navigated.
We must never forget the Holocaust. We must continue studying and understanding it. However, we must also remember the events surrounding it. We need to learn how to talk logically and convincingly to other nations about those events of almost a century ago. These people may have their own stories to tell. We need to respectfully disagree when history is being rewritten, but, and equally important, we need to learn to listen and admit (firstly to ourselves) that our story is not the only story and us being wronged is not the only wrong. For we need to dwell among the nations proudly and as equals.
The author lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.