January 21, 2007

The Political Exploitation of Genocide

Some who write about the murder of the Jews of Europe (The term "Holocaust" is a misnomer) contend that the proper approach is simply silence in the face of the enormity of the deed:
According to Steiner, Auschwitz and the atrocities of the Third Reich are literally unspeakable, they cannot be adequately expressed or communicated in language for two reasons. First, because of the misuse of language in the Nazi regime, language, and particularly the German language, has suffered a destruction so total that it cannot resume its previous function as the vessel of humane rationality and truth. Secondly, the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime were of such a nature that they transcend any words we could use to characterize them. Their barbarity goes beyond the referential and representational capacity of language. In an essay contained in the same volume, "The Retreat from the Word," Steiner urges us to follow oriental metaphysics and Wittgenstein and consider silence as a response to the ineffable.
The appropriateness of silence may be one reason why I write about almost everything else except golf and rotisserie football, but have written very little on the subject. I also suppose I've bought into the belief that the Jews went passively to their deaths, which if true might be understandable but hardly praiseworthy. Dave Kopel, whom I respect, says it's not true, and in fact Jewish resistance to the murderers was noteworthy.

Still, I hesitate to write. I am reminded of the Seinfeld scene where to his parents' outrage it comes out that Seinfeld was kissing one of his sexier girlfriends in the movie theatre while Schindler's List was playing. I've never seen Schindler's List, and many decades have passed since I've necked in a movie theatre (alas!), but whatever one says about the subject is likely to offend someone, because it may seem insufficiently respectful of the dead and their suffering.

Another reason, and it's this one I wish to discuss now, is that I believe and have believed for years that the whole subject has been exploited for political and other purposes.

Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, for example, has said that the 614th commandment for Jews is not to give posthumous victories to Hitler.
Fackenheim explains the concept this way:

... we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auchschwitz would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.

This line of thinking is simply emotional blackmail. Rabbi Schulweiss rejects it:
We abuse the Holocaust when it becomes a cudgel against others who have their claims of suffering. The Shoah must not be misused in the contest of one-downsmanship with other victims of brutality....The Shoah has become our instant raison d'etre, the short-cut answer to the penetrating questions of our children: 'Why should I not marry out of the faith? Why should I join a synagogue? Why should I support Israel? Why should I be Jewish?' We have relied on a singular imperative: 'Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.' That answer will not work. To live in spite, to say 'no' to Hitler is a far cry from living 'yes' to Judaism.
To put it more bluntly, must I refrain from wearing linsey-woolsey and eating pastel M&M's because the Nazis killed the Jews of Poland? In fact, the invocation of the genocide provides a rationale, albeit not very successful, to preserve the loyalty of the young to an American Jewish culture that has fragmented and lost its footing.

Why is there an American Holocaust Museum in Washington, but no Museum of the Middle Passage, or for that matter, a Museum of American Jewish culture? The answer, of course, lies in the political power of groups who will call you an anti-Semite if you point to the fact that they have political power, and who are calling upon the horrors suffered by the dead to justify their waning claim on the loyalty of the living.

The kind of emotional blackmail implicit in Fackenheim's position finds its way into the political sphere. Thus Benny Morris, who earlier in his life exposed as propaganda the notion that the Zionists were blameless in the nakba, or Arab exodus from Israel in 1948, now invokes the Nazi genocide to add emotional force to his warning about the threat to Israel of an Iranian nuclear bomb, for which he offers no strategic solution. Indeed, his article ends with an anecdote of heart-rending, nauseating horror.

Deborah Lipstadt, she of the David Irving libel trial, writes a column in the WaPo criticizing Jimmy Carter's latest book, which calls the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza "apartheid." In addition to calling Carter's claim that an American politician who moves away from the Zionist line would be committing political suicide an "anti-Semitic canard," which it isn't, inevitably invokes the genocide as a rationale for Zionism:

His book, which dwells on the Palestinian refugee experience, makes two fleeting references to the Holocaust. The book contains a detailed chronology of major developments necessary for the reader to understand the current situation in the Middle East. Remarkably, there is nothing listed between 1939 and 1947. Nitpickers might say that the Holocaust did not happen in the region. However, this event sealed in the minds of almost all the world's people then the need for the Jewish people to have a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. Carter never discusses the Jewish refugees who were prevented from entering Palestine before and after the war. One of Israel's first acts upon declaring statehood was to send ships to take those people "home."

A guiding principle of Israel is that never again will persecuted Jews be left with no place to go. Israel's ideal of Jewish refuge is enshrined in laws that grant immediate citizenship to any Jew who requests it. A Jew, for purposes of this law, is anyone who, had that person lived in Nazi Germany, would have been stripped of citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws.

The Palestinians don't find it convincing that because Hitler murdered Jews, they should give up their villages to American Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn. Iran's Ahmadinejad, whose Holocaust-denial conference was creepy and offensive, and in its own way an exploitation of Hitler's genocide, in this instance made a point that is hard to refute.

There are all kinds of reasons, legal, moral and practical why Israel should stay where it is, notably the approximate equality in the numbers of expelled Jews and Palestinians, the right of conquest, and the murderous violence any solution that included the elimination of Israel would require.

The most emotionally charged argument, however, flawed thought it is, is that the Nazi genocide must not be repeated, and the fear that it just might be. The political exploitation of the murders on all sides, will, therefore, continue.

I prefer silence.

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