Reclaim the holocaust
The holocaust memorial industry is doing nothing to either remember or warn against other genocides, writes Tony Greenstein
What is remarkable is that, the further away we get from the holocaust, the greater is the desire to ‘remember’ it. You might have thought that in the years immediately following the end of the war American Jewry would be obsessed by nothing else. Not a bit of it.
The only group in American society who regularly warned people to “Remember the six million murdered” was the Communist Party, although in the era of McCarthyism communists were the last people that the Jewish establishment wanted to be seen with. And, as author Peter Novick writes, “on one point there was striking unanimity among the principal Jewish agencies: the danger that promoting a widespread consciousness of the holocaust would inevitably promote the image of the Jew as victim”.1
On three separate occasions - 1946, 1947 and 1948 - the major Jewish organisations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress, Jewish Labor Committee and Jewish War Veterans, vetoed the idea of a holocaust memorial in New York.2 And, as Nathan Glazer, the American neoconservative, observed in 1957, the holocaust “had remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry”.3
It was the same in Israel. Novick describes how Israel Gutman, a historian at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto resistance, told how Jews in Palestine listened to survivors’ stories with “a forced patience” that was soon exhausted: “American Jews, or Jews in the Yishuv, would have been incredulous at the idea ... that survivors’ memories were a ‘precious legacy’ to be preserved.”4
In a 220-page Israeli history textbook published in 1948, just one page was devoted to the holocaust, compared to 10 on the Napoleonic wars.5 The survivors were considered an embarrassment and Israelis described them as sapon (soap - this was based on the myth that the murdered were turned into soap).6 Hanzi Brand wrote of how, when she settled in a kibbutz, the other members “talked about their war to avoid hearing about hers. They were ashamed of the holocaust.”7
According to Novick, in Israel there was the constant theme of the “survival of the worst”. In fact Ben Gurion described holocaust survivors as “people who would not have survived if they had not been what they were - hard, evil and selfish people, and what they underwent there served to destroy what good qualities they had left.”8
So what is it that has changed, such that we now have an abundance of holocaust memorials and artefacts? Even the bogus International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism implies that it has a connection with the murdered Jews. Both Norman Finkelstein and Novick suggest that the holocaust industry sprang up only after the victory over the Arab countries in the war of 1967.9
Over 30 years ago Israel “exploded”, in Daniel Blatman’s words, when professor Yehuda Elkana published The need to forget. Elkana, a child survivor of Auschwitz, argued that the time had come to forget the holocaust. It should no longer be commemorated on a national basis. Worship of the holocaust served nationalist and racist ends.
In 1999 Elkana became president of the Central European University, set up by George Soros. It is ironic that at the end of last year that university announced that it would close and relocate to Vienna, when Hungary’s anti-Semitic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, refused to allow it to remain in Hungary. The campaign against Soros was supported - indeed initiated - by the Israeli government and Binyamin Netanyahu, who, like Orbán, saw Soros as an enemy.
Even the title of this article is likely to be subject to criticism since any mention of the holocaust must be accompanied by solemnity, awe and reverential distance. As befits any religion - and the holocaust has become a secular religion - its basic tenets cannot be questioned. It is an experience that must be mediated via holocaust scribes, academics and organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust and Yad Vashem.
Above all, the holocaust can never be fully understood. According to Elie Wiesel, the Auschwitz survivor and arch-Zionist, “Auschwitz cannot be explained, nor can it be visualised ... The holocaust transcends history ...”10
If the holocaust cannot be explained and does not belong to history, then it carries no universal lessons. Its only explanation lies in the very existence of the Jews - in other words, eternal and unchanging anti-Semitism. That is why for Israel the holocaust has become a foundational myth, whose only purpose is colonial.
In a macabre re-enactment - only 59 years too late - Israeli fighter jets overflew Auschwitz in 2003 to rub home the message that if only Israel had been in existence at the time there would have been no holocaust. The National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau deplored this crass display. As Ehud Barak, former chief of staff and later prime minister of Israel, stated, “We have arrived 50 years too late.”11
Zionism salvages its conscience about its record during the holocaust by fantasising about what might have been if Zionism had achieved its state earlier. What it does not ask is how and why the Zionist movement impeded rescue. The dead of Auschwitz have been summoned in a macabre parade in the cause of Israel’s military might.
The use to which holocaust remembrance is cynically put is evidenced by the Israeli state’s close connections to the far-right Polish government, which, when not actively encouraging anti-Semitism, engages in its own sophisticated form of holocaust denial. This is the meaning of the Polish government’s holocaust law, which Netanyahu’s sordid agreement legitimised. Israel’s sanctification of the holocaust is intended to manipulate the past in order to shape the present and distort the future.
There are many lessons that can be learnt from the holocaust. One is to be vigilant against the rise of racism and fascism. Another is to understand that if Germany, with its cultured society, could turn to racial fascism and genocide, then so can any people. All peoples, given the right set of circumstances, can become murderers and accomplices to genocide. And Jews are no exception.
Every year thousands of Israeli schoolchildren visit Auschwitz and take part in the ‘March of the Living’ just before Israel’s Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). The programme for this year’s event states:
The International March of the Living is an annual educational programme, bringing individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hatred.12
Wrapped in Israeli flags - which to Palestinians is what the swastika was to the Jews - these Israeli marchers represent Zionist military might and ethnic cleansing. It is in this way that Israel has subverted and corrupted the meaning of the holocaust. It is no wonder that all the evidence points to Israel’s youth becoming even more racist and rightwing than their parents’ generation.
In her article, ‘Why are Israeli kids so rightwing?’, Naomi Zeveloff quotes a 2016 survey, in which 40% of Jewish teenagers aged 15-18 and 44% of Jewish young people (21-24) said they “think that Arab citizens of Israel should be prohibited from being elected to the knesset”.13
Gideon Levy wrote:
I have yet to hear a single teenager come back from Auschwitz and say that we mustn’t abuse others the way we were abused. There has yet to be a school whose pupils came back from Birkenau straight to the Gaza border, saw the barbed-wire fence and said, ‘Never again’. The message is always the opposite. Gaza is permitted because of Auschwitz.14
Despite visiting Auschwitz on “patriotic brainwashing trips”, Israeli schoolchildren know nothing of what led up to the Final Solution. “At most they can tell you it was because of anti-Semitism, an explanation that suits the victim identity nurtured from childhood.”15
Far from combating racism, holocaust remembrance increases and reinforces the existing high level of racism in Israeli society. It provides Zionism’s racism with a moral legitimacy.
As Richard Silverstein noted in his article, ‘Yom HaShoah and its false premises’, Israel’s veneration and sacralisation of the holocaust is in inverse proportion to its treatment of Israel’s living holocaust survivors.16 Despite taking billions of dollars from the German government as reparations, Israel has kept them in abject poverty.
The elevation of the Jewish holocaust above all other acts of genocide not only suggests that it is unique, but that it has nothing to tell us beyond the fact that it occurred. If the purpose of remembering and commemorating acts of genocide is to prevent their reoccurrence and to act as a warning against their repetition, why single out one act of genocide? The genocide of the gypsies and the disabled are all but omitted from holocaust museums, such as Yad Vashem and the Washington US Holocaust Museum. The genocide of Africans in the slave trade or of Armenians forms no part of Holocaust Memorial Day.
Indeed from the days of Herzl onwards there has been a determined refusal by Zionism to acknowledge the Armenian massacres and genocide. Lucy Dawidowicz, a prominent Zionist historian, went so far as to say that, unlike the Nazis, the Turks had a “rational” reason for massacring Armenians. Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz and Arthur Herzberg, all prominent Zionists, withdrew from an international conference on genocide in Tel Aviv when the sponsors refused to remove sessions on the Armenians.17 The Zionist lobby in the United States has repeatedly opposed any commemoration of the Armenian holocaust.
Yehuda Bauer, professor of holocaust studies at the Hebrew University Jerusalem, in a debate with Dr Sybil Milton, the senior resident historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Council, argued:
… the tragedy of the gypsies, whilst being no less poignant, and no less horrible, was nonetheless not part of the holocaust. Whilst it happened at the same time as the holocaust, and there are, of course, many similarities, yet it appears to me that the holocaust is very much a unique case. If someone prefers to call it Judeocide, that is his/her privilege. It is exactly the same thing: it is the mass murder of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.18
For Zionism the holocaust is a ‘Jewish only’ affair. Sybil Milton, who was herself Jewish, responded succinctly:
(The) Nazi genocide, popularly known as the holocaust, can be defined as the mass murder of human beings because they belonged to a biologically defined group. Heredity determined the selection of the victims. The Nazi regime applied a consistent and inclusive policy of extermination - based on heredity - only against three groups of human beings: the handicapped, Jews and gypsies.19
We are now living in an era where Israeli rabbis in an elite pre-military training school can tell their students that Hitler was right, even if he chose the wrong victims. For all their commemoration of the holocaust, even the most basic and elementary anti-racist and anti-fascist sentiments are missing in Israel. It is, after all, a state where the term ‘leftwing’ is a form of abuse and where Donald Trump is more popular than in any other country. Commemoration of the holocaust serves a wholly nationalist and militarist agenda.
Zionism has appropriated the holocaust and subverted it. When I was involved in the Anti-Nazi League - a mass, anti-fascist movement, which defeated the National Front in the late 1970s - our posters proclaimed: ‘Never again’. This also became the slogan and title of a book by Rabbi Meir Kahane of the Judeo-Nazi Kach movement.
However, this focus by political elites on the holocaust has had no effect on the occurrence of genocide. In the late 1970s, as a direct consequence of America’s secret war in Cambodia, there occurred the genocide of nearly two million Cambodians. In 1994 there was another genocide - in Rwanda, when up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by the Hutu Interahamwe, as French troops stood by and even protected the murderers. This is the same France that has all but made BDS illegal in the name of ‘anti-Semitism’.
Bill Clinton, who waxed lyrical about the Nazi holocaust when opening the US Holocaust Museum in 1993, refused to intervene the following year in Rwanda. The US administration was specifically warned about a “final solution to eliminate all Tutsis”, but decided against intervention.
What makes Israel’s use of the holocaust particularly obscene is the role of Yad Vashem. It openly welcomes through its doors people like Viktor Orbán, who last July faced an unprecedented picket by holocaust survivors and others, when he visited the museum. Orbán, fresh from his campaign against Soros, praised as an “exceptional statesman” Miklós Horthy, under whom nearly half a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
Following him last September was Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, who has compared himself to Hitler. And Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro paid a visit in April to Yad Vashem. He described the Nazis as “leftists”, whilst ‘forgiving’ them for the holocaust. In 1976, South Africa’s prime minister, John Vorster, who was interned during the war for his support for the Nazis, visited Yad Vashem. This prompted professor Israel Shahak, a child survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and Belsen, to speak of the behaviour of such politicians at Yad Vashem as “vile and truly beneath contempt”.
Daniel Blatman, a holocaust researcher at the Hebrew University described Yad Vashem as a “hard-working laundromat, striving to bleach out the sins of every anti-Semitic, fascist, racist or simply murderously thuggish leader or politician like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.”20
Matti Friedman in the New York Times described the reaction of staff at Yad Vashem to the long list of far-right visitors. One staff member told him:
There is distress here, and even anger, because many of us see a collision between what we believe are the lessons of the holocaust and what we see as our job, and between the way Yad Vashem is being abused for political purposes.21
Of course, this should be taken with a pinch of salt, given its record.
Friedman described an incident last June, when Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz was told that the names of Austria’s lost Jewish communities, which were on a wall he was passing, had recently seen anti-Jewish incidents involving members of the Austrian Freedom Party, whose first two leaders were former SS officers. Kurz’s government is in coalition with the Freedom Party.
His guide, Deborah Hartmann, mentioned to the chancellor that some of his allies were people who “need to be informed what the holocaust was”. The Austrian embassy “made a rare official complaint” and Yad Vashem issued an apology.
Blatman noted the absence of Yad Vashem from the 5th Global Conference on Genocide in Jerusalem in 2016. Why? It has nothing to say on anything bar the Jewish genocide. Blatman wrote of how
None of the hundreds of scientific events organised by Yad Vashem has been dedicated to the holocaust and genocide .... You have to look hard to find any reference to the destruction of other populations in the holocaust, and its chief aim seems to be to silence criticism. Similar museums in Paris and Washington hold regular activities on these topics.22
Whilst Yad Vashem studies what happened to the Jews in Polish or Ukrainian cities, “they rarely address Nazi atrocities against other ethnic groups”. They study the minute detail of what happened to the Jews without ever seeing the wider picture. Yad Vashem “helps keep the holocaust in a narrow Jewish ghetto that serves the xenophobic manipulations Israel makes of it”.
That is why Yad Vashem has never given birth to a comprehensive book on the holocaust, such as Gerald Reitlinger’s The final solution or Raul Hilberg’s Destruction of the European Jews. Holocaust research in Israel has done nothing to combat racism.
That was the conclusion of Professor Elkana in The need to forget. If what Elkana wrote was true 31 years ago, it is even more true now. For Zionism and the Israeli state, the holocaust functions not as a warning against the dangers of racism, but as means of silencing their critics. The holocaust is Israel’s ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Elkana wrote:
Lately I have become more and more convinced that the deepest political and social factor that motivates much of Israeli society in its relations with the Palestinians is not personal frustration, but rather a profound existential ‘Angst’ fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the holocaust and the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us, and that we are the eternal victim. In this ancient belief, shared by so many today, I see the tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler. Two nations, metaphorically speaking, emerged from the ashes of Auschwitz: a minority, who assert: ‘this must never happen again’; and a frightened and haunted majority, who assert: ‘this must never happen to us again’.
Elkana cited Thomas Jefferson as having written that democracy and worship of the past are incompatible. Elkana’s conclusion was: “For our part, we must learn to forget! ... They must uproot the domination of that historical ‘remember!’ over our lives.”
Gideon Levy similarly wrote:
We have to forget as quickly as possible and make others forget to the degree possible. The time has come to get past the past. We needn’t erase it, but put it in its place; it’s over.23
The holocaust cannot be forgotten. The question is how it is remembered, by whom and for what purpose. Zionism’s abuse of holocaust memory has to be challenged. Under capitalism all memory serves a purpose and holocaust remembrance is no different. Levy wrote:
The legacy of the holocaust has caused Israel fateful damage: it solidified nationalism and validated militarism, instead of shaping humanism, justice, morality and compliance with international law, which in Israel 2019 are considered treason or weakness.
Levy argues that what drives racism and hatred of Arabs is “self-victimisation”. That is because: “After the holocaust we are permitted to do anything and, of course, only with force.”
The holocaust needs to be reclaimed by the left and anti-fascists. For too long the Zionist movement has got away with harnessing it to the chariot of racism and ethnic cleansing.
P Novick The holocaust in American life Boston 2000, p94.↩
Quoted in ibid p105.↩
E Zertal Israel’s holocaust and the politics of nationhood Cambridge 2011, p94.↩
T Segev The seventh million London 2000, p183.↩
P Novick op cit p69.↩
N Finkelstein The holocaust industry London 2003, p26; P Novick op cit p148.↩
P Novick op cit p211.↩
P Novick op cit pp192-93; N Finkelstein op cit pp69-70.↩
The History Teacher Vol 25, No4, August 1992, pp513-21.↩