Holocaust Still a Political Football

Friday, 04 September 2009 13:25 By Ira Chernus, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

Morris Kornberg, and his wife Herta.
Morris Kornberg, 91, was held at in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. At the time Morris was released by Russian military forces he weighed 60 pounds. He met his wife, Herta, 80, when he was released in 1945. (Photo: Chiaki Kawajiri / Baltimore Sun)

    Matthew Rothschild and I both thought of Edward Said when we read about two Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council insisting that Gaza's schools should not teach the history of the Nazi Holocaust. Cleric Yunis al-Astal said this would be "marketing a lie" and a "war crime." Jamila al-Shanti commented, "Talk about the Holocaust and the execution of the Jews contradicts and is against our culture, our principles, our traditions, values, heritage, and religion."

    I knew that Said would have spoken out in protest. Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, proved it with these pertinent words written by Said, the late Palestinian luminary who taught for many years at Columbia University: "The history of the modern Arab world ... is disfigured by a whole series outmoded and discredited ideas, of which the notion that the Jews never suffered and that holocaust is an obfuscatory confection created by the Elders of Zion is one that is acquiring too much, far too much currency."

    "This insistence by Hamas on denying the reality of the Holocaust is as reprehensible as it is astonishing," Rothschild added. "And it will only harden the opposition in Israel to reaching any true peace with the Palestinians."

    Such comments will no doubt turn some Israelis more firmly against any rapprochement with their Palestinian neighbors. They are all too eager to assume that the words represent the thinking of all Palestinians, forgetting that there are plenty who would agree with Said.

    And Rothschild is surely right that Holocaust denial is reprehensible. But are the words of these Gazan leaders so astonishing? Let's take a closer look at the two individuals who spoke them.

    Last year, the same Yunis al-Astal declared: "Very soon, Allah willing, Rome will be conquered ... Rome is the capital of the Catholics, or the Crusader capital, which has declared its hostility to Islam." Rome would then become "an advanced post for the Islamic conquests," he predicted, "which will spread though Europe in its entirety, and then will turn to the two Americas."

    Which just proves that Gaza is not much different than the good ol' USA, where religious fanatics may be strange birds, but certainly not rare birds. In other words, should we take anything this guy says seriously? I'll bet that serious Gazan political leaders don't.

    Jamila al-Shanti is another case altogether. She is the most senior Hamas woman in the Palestinian Legislative Council and chair of its Women Affairs Committee. In a 2007 interview, she advocated "relentless efforts to guarantee women's rights," including "instruct[ing] women to reject violence against them.... This emanates from our understanding of the true Islam. We are totally against violence and repression of women's freedoms," though she noted sadly that too many Palestinian men still don't get it.

    Oh, yes. Two more things about Jamila al-Shanti. She is the widow of the famed Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, who was assassinated by Israeli missile attack in 2004, leaving their six children fatherless. And two years later, the Israelis used the same crude method to try to kill al-Shanti herself. Though she survived, her sister-in-law was killed, leaving al-Shanti's eight nieces and nephews motherless. Might that make the woman more than a bit enraged?

    But with so many justifiably angry words that Gazans can aim at Israel, why would an otherwise intelligent and enlightened woman choose the foolishness of denying education about the Holocaust. Why would anyone turn the horrors of human suffering on an unimaginable scale into a political football?

    That's a good question to ask the Israelis. In this, as in so much else, Palestinians are promoting their own nationalism using tactics they've learned from their enemy. A recent blog by Reuven Greenvald, on the web site of the premier Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, notes that "since 1948 [when Israeli was created], Israel has been telling us that it is the safe haven for Jews around the world with video montages for that claim beginning with Shoah [Holocaust] refugees. Likewise, does any Jewish trip to Israel skip a visit to [the Holocaust memorial] Yad Vashem? Does Israel ever host a visiting dignitary and not include Yad Vashem?"

    The message of all the video montages and visits to Yad Vashem is always obvious: They tried to kill us once; they'll do it again if they can; so whatever we do in the name of security - even using bombs as assassination weapons, not knowing whom we might kill - is justified. The "they" is a conglomerate of Nazis, Arabs, Iranians, and anyone else the Israelis may deem a threat to Jewish security.

    How can so many Jews facilely equate all Palestinians, or even all Arabs, and now Iranians, with Nazis? The influential Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim once quoted an Israeli psychologist who said it was due to Israel's "holocaust psychosis." Fackenheim offered this quote to support his claim that the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and all the violence it entailed, was not merely a moral but a sacred act. Israel has been using the Holocaust as a political football for over six decades, and there's no sign of a letup yet.

    On his recent visit to Germany, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that one lesson Israel drew from the Holocaust was that threats to its existence could not go unchallenged and must be "nipped in the bud.... We cannot allow those who wish to perpetrate mass death, those who call for the destruction of the Jewish people to go unchallenged." In case anyone missed the point, a Reuters correspondent explained that the Israeli leaders was "alluding to past threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the map."

    The correspondent neglected to mention the difference between Hitler's call for extermination of the Jewish people and Ahmadinejad's call for the elimination only of the particular political form under which Israeli Jews live. That huge distinction is usually ignored in the Western mass media, which certainly helps to keep alive the "Holocaust psychosis." Since Israel's political use of the Holocaust is so pervasive and well-known, why would blogger Greenvald even bother writing about it? It turns that he out was countering a claim by the highly regarded Ha'aretz journalist Aluf Benn, who was given space on The New York Times' op-ed page to chastise Barack Obama for his failure to communicate well with Israelis.

    Among Benn's points: "Mr. Obama's stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial, immediately after his Cairo speech, appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel. Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle - not guilt over the Holocaust - brought Jews a homeland. Mr. Obama's speech, which linked Israel's existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis."

    Greenvald retorted that, insofar as American Jews credit Israel's existence to guilt over the Holocaust, "then Israel is partially to blame for this perception.... Isn't Benn overstating his claim about which narrative Israelis are taught? Israel is paying the price for this PR campaign," which invokes the Holocaust over and over again as justification not merely for Israel's existence, but for its military excesses.

    In fact, Israeli culture has always be torn between the two views of the Holocaust being debated here. And it has tried to avoid confronting the conflict by having it both ways. Israeli Jews do treat the Holocaust as an indelible lesson that must never be forgotten, lest it happen to Jews again; the moral is "Never Again" and "by any means necessary." But they also treat the Holocaust as an embarrassment to be covered up with endless demonstrations of "determination and struggle" - the very qualities that so many Israelis feel (or fear) were lacking among the European Jews who were shipped off to Nazi extermination campaigns.

    Both views can be kept alive because both point to the same conclusion, one that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stated pointedly just the other day. Israelis are "a generation of fighters," he told a high school class. "In the Middle East there is no mercy for the weak and there will not be a second opportunity for those who do not know how to defend themselves."

    Barak is a politician struggling to keep his own and his party's fading fortunes alive. Perhaps, he raises fears of weakness and insists on Israeli strength because he knows that's what the voters want to hear.

    He recently told The New York Times: "Many Israelis fear that what Palestinians want is not two states but two stages," meaning an end to Israel in phases. He also said that by [the Obama administration] focusing solely on settlement building and not on what the Arab countries should also be doing for peace, Israel felt that it was being driven to its knees and delivered to the other side.

    Barak may not know the facts very well; the Obama administration is putting plenty of pressure on Arab countries, too. But he knows his voters. The "Holocaust psychosis" that equates Nazis and Palestinians has been rejected by a lot of Israelis, but enough still believe it to make a big political difference. He knows how easy it is to make Israelis, ever afraid of weakness, feel that they are being "driven to their knees." And as defense minister, he knows how the political symbolism of the Holocaust, which reinforces that feeling, can whip up martial enthusiasm.

    As long as the Holocaust plays that role in Israeli culture, it will continue to be a political football among Israeli Jews - and therefore among their Palestinian opponents.

    This background may help us understand why some Gazans would resist lessons about the Holocaust in their schools. But why would any apparently stoop so low in expressing their concern? Since I don't read Arabic, I'm stuck with the few sound bites the Western news media gave us, devoid (as usual) of much of context.

    But this one piece of context did catch my eye: The Washington Post reported that an incident started when the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) announced a new curriculum unit for its schools in Gaza. It would include teaching about the Holocaust as a small part of a larger unit on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "The Universal Declaration was issued by the United Nations in December 1948," the Post explained, "in the aftermath of World War II and in recognition of Nazi atrocities."

    What's the link between the Holocaust and universal human rights? South Africa's Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu happened to be in Israel when Netanyahu went to Germany and invoked the Holocaust as reason for Israel's military strength. Tutu told Ha'aretz that he drew a different lesson from the tragedy: "The lesson that Israel must learn from the Holocaust is that it can never get security through fences, walls and guns.... In South Africa, they tried to get security from the barrel of a gun. They never got it. They got security when the human rights of all were recognized and respected."

    There are many ways to use the Holocaust as a political football. Perhaps if the Gazans saw it as Tutu does, they would encourage lessons about the Holocaust as the best way to shame Israel into recognizing Palestinian human rights. But from 10,000 miles away, I'm hardly in a position to tell suffering Gazans what they should or should not do.

    I am in a much better position to look in my own backyard and ask how the Holocaust as political football has bounced up on America's shores. In many ways, it turns out, as the eminent historian Peter Novick demonstrated in his scholarly work, "The Holocaust and American Life." But now Novick's own work has become entangled in an emotionally charged debate about when the Holocaust first became a major issue here in the US.

    Novick argues (among other points) that there was no great concern about the Holocaust here in the US before the mid-1960s. Now, another skilled historian, Hasia Diner, has attacked Novick's claim. The title of her latest book, "We Remember With Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence After the Holocaust, 1945-1962," makes her point clear.

    Yet, a third historian, Jerome Chanes, reviewing Diner's work, offers this judicious assessment: "There was no 'silence' about the Holocaust [in the US before the mid-'60s - far from it. But the reality is that whatever memorials and other programs took place, overall these were marginal to the core agendas of American Jews, both individually and as a community."

    That matches my own recollection growing up as an active and observant Jew in that era. The Holocaust was a rather distant memory, until intellectuals began to notice it with a spate of books in the mid-'60s, prefiguring the huge popular explosion of interest in the Holocaust triggered by the Six-Day War of 1967. That war moved the question of Jewish strength and weakness to the top of the Jewish-American agenda, where it remained for too long a time and still competes for top billing.

    Why all the fuss about how much attention US Jews paid to the Holocaust a half-century or more ago? I know nothing about Professor Diner's own motives. But it's pretty clear what could be at stake here.

    If US Jews have been concerned about the Holocaust since 1945, simply because the awfulness of it deserves remembrance apart from any political contexts, then the Israelis' constant invocation of the Holocaust might be explained in the same morally benign way.

    But if American interest in the Holocaust first emerged in the '60s as a result of specific political and cultural events, then it is easier to see the Holocaust as a political football used by various groups to serve their own interests. And it's more obvious that Holocaust remembrance is a function of the deep Jewish concern about weakness - now acted out largely through Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, which range from dubious to outrageous on any scale of moral sensitivity.

    Moral sensitivity is ultimately the issue here, too, when we consider the politics of the Holocaust. Beyond the ways its been used to whip up support for Israeli actions against Palestinians, there are other disturbing questions. For example, a reviewer of Peter Novick's book commented: "One wishes that more people would ask, as Novick does, what kind of a country would spend millions of dollars on a museum honoring European Jewish Holocaust victims instead of a monument to its own shameful history of black slavery." Well, plenty of us have asked. And we suspect that we know the depressing answer.

    When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enters the conversation, more disturbing questions arise. Suppose the schoolchildren of Gaza get to learn about this document, the most universally agreed upon response to the Holocaust. They won't find anything in it about a right of every national or ethnic group to form its own political state. There's only the cryptic statement, "Everyone has the right to a nationality."

    But they will find a more clearly worded clause that sounds especially pertinent here in the US today: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care."

    When all of the world's nations assembled in 1948 to figure out what human rights ought to be affirmed in the face of the Nazi horrors, they included a guarantee of medical care for every human being, regardless of employment status, income or preexisting condition. Who knew? Very few Americans. Our leaders, our educators and our mass media have worked hard for decades to keep it that way (though they are quick enough to cite the Declaration's promise that "everyone has the right to own property ... No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property"). So the Holocaust still echoes in our most contemporary political debates, here at home as well as in the Middle East.

    It would surely have been better if the victims of the Holocaust, and the survivors and all their loved ones had been left to rest in whatever peace they could find. But historical events of such magnitude never work that way. They always become political footballs. The best we can do is to follow the example of Edward Said, Archbishop Tutu and the authors of the Declaration of Human Rights and see to it that the memory of the Holocaust enters the political playing field in ways that raise, not lower, the moral level of our world.

Morris Kornberg, 91, was held at in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. At the time Morris was released by Russian military forces he weighed 60 pounds. He met his wife, Herta, 80, when he was released in 1945. (Photo: Chiaki Kawajiri / Baltimore Sun)
Last modified on Saturday, 05 September 2009 08:11