May 11, 2009

The Boots Are Always On the Staircase

There was a time that the central story of the Jews, commemorated in ritual and prayer, was God's freeing of the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, let by the prophet Moses, followed by wandering in the desert and the reception of the Law. The Passover Seder, the last ritual retained by secularizing Jews such as my own family, commemorated and discussed this.

No more. To be sure, observant and semi-observant Jews still have Passover Seders, and the Sabbath is a remembrance both of Creation and of the Exodus.

A new story, however, has replaced the Exodus in public discourse. Although the Nazi murder of the Jews was not given much prominence immediately after World War II, more recently, it has come to be central in Jewish discourse and in discourse about the Jews. Thus we have a National Holocaust Museum, but no national museum of Jewish culture or history.

When one dissents from the Likud-Zionist line, the enforcers invoke the genocide. This thread from Commentary's blog, contentions is a good example. With rhythmic regularity, the Holocaust is invoked to condemn the critic:
"From German: “put paid” == Die Endlösung == “Final Solution”."

"Judaize - how shocking. Can’t go around Judaizing places.
Julius Streicher wouldn’t approve."

Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life demonstrates the political agendas behind the increasing prominence of the Holocaust in American public discourse. Norman Finkelstein is considerably more radical and less measured in his account, but presents valuable information nonetheless.

Not only has the mass murder gained prominence over the Exodus, it has provided the basis for a revision of Jewish history. This history is now presented as simply an endless martyrdom. The Jew is not a scholar, a merchant, a middleman, an intellectual--simply a victim.

Increasingly, Zionists and other professional Jews describe Jewish present, not in terms of rescue from oppression, but as one in which the boots of some new SS are always on the staircase. The Reform Jewish rabbi Emil Fackenheim argued that a new commandment to the Jews was to not give posthumous victories to Hitler. Fackenheim was a Zionist who ultimately left Canada for Israel.

These are tendentious misreadings of the Jewish past and the present. Jews are not the only people to suffer from war and massacre, and they were not always poor; indeed, at many times, as a middleman caste, they did rather well for themselves. A cousin of mine went to Poland, and found the apartment where his father had lived as a boy. My liberal cousin was a bit disappointed to find the place comfortably bourgeois. As it turns out, an unsympathetic stepmother was the cause for his father's emigration, not so much oppression and not poverty.

As for the perpetual "boots on the staircase" theme, it lives on for two reasons.

First, it is politically useful. Benjamin Netanyahu calls the narrow pre-1967 waist of Israel an "Auschwitz border," not merely a strategic problem. Iran's Ahmadinejad, in spite of the fact that Iran is home to the largest remaining Jewish community in the Near East, represented in Parliament, is invariably compared to Hitler.

Second, many Jews have responded to this propaganda, and family history, by adopting the Holocaust story as the Jewish story.

Hence, when I point out that to the refrain about the Arabs wanting to throw the Jews in the sea, must be added the fact that the Jews of Jaffa, among others, really did take to the sea when they fled the Zionists, I am not merely reciting an inconvenient or unreliable claim, not merely dissenting from Zionist orthodoxy, I am said to be advocating a "Final Solution" and emulating Julius Streicher, editor of the antisemitic propaganda paper, Der Stürmer.

Factually, this is nonsense, but it's effective with many committed and older-generation Jews, far more so than arguing about what really happened or whether the US "special relationship" with Israel is in the national interest.

The shift in stories (nowadays called 'narratives' to sound more impressive) is also a response to the rapid abandonment of things Jewish by recent generations of Jews in America, with the exception of the 10% minority that remains traditional. Trading the parting of the Red Sea for the death camps, however, won't bring back the backsliders. The Lord delivering slaves from Egypt with a mighty hand can be inspirational. Thugs slaughtering one's relatives cannot be, not for any length of time.

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