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Holocaust Hegemony

. . . and its moral pitfalls.

Jan 3, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 16 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Last month, the Canadian journalist Richard Klagsbrun drew attention to a newly submitted Master’s thesis at the University of Toronto’s ed school: “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education.” Proud author Jennifer Peto told a reporter for the Canadian Jewish News that Canada’s Jews push the Holocaust narrative because only “a victimized Jewish identity can produce certain effects that are beneficial to the organized Jewish community and the Israeli nation-state.”

Holocaust Hegemony

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust opens, Oct. 14, 2010.

Photo Credit: AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes

Of course there is nothing novel about Peto’s view that Jews exploit the Holocaust, as can be seen in a casual rifle through past issues of the London Review of Books or the writings of left-wing scholars like Norman Finkelstein. The beauty of Peto’s formulation is that it can be used without alteration both by Holocaust-affirmers (like Peto) and Holocaust-deniers: The Jewish Lobby has been deploying Holocaust history (whether faked or real matters not) only to obscure the Gestapo-style tactics used to oppress Palestinians. But the real genius of Peto’s attack on Canadian Holocaust-educators is that it can produce the same effects as Holocaust-denial. The many admirers of the immediate object of her study​—​a long-established Holocaust-education tour of concentration camp sites in Europe​—​were hurt, shocked, and enraged.

Peto and her comrades in the anti-Zionist Israel-Apartheid movement don’t really care whether Holocaust education is disinterested or not. Their aims are bolder: the bloody dissolution of the state of Israel, among all the countries of the world. Distracted by Peto’s cruelty, the outraged defenders of the March of Remembrance and Hope pleaded (accurately) that their tour teaches “universal lessons of tolerance and empathy.” But they neglected to refute the underlying claim of the anti-Zionist movement: that Israel as a state deserves to be annihilated and its citizens dispersed; that Jewish citizens of Western democracies are bad Jews and disloyal citizens (of America, or Canada, or Sweden) if they believe Israel ought to exist; and that they are good Jews and good citizens only as long as they regard Israel as malign and unconnected to themselves (I cannot claim credit for the elegant terms “good Jew” and “bad Jew”​—​I borrow them from Professor John Mearsheimer).

The sad truth is that a real “hegemon” needs followers​—​and, measured by its effects, Holocaust education has none. Jennifer Peto is dead wrong: Far from being the creation of sinister Jews who wanted to be regarded as victims rather than “white,” Holocaust education was to be a gift from the Jewish community to the world at large. European Jewry was destroyed, but its legacy would be a redemptive technique that was intended to prevent future genocides of others. Kofi Annan described the ideal of Holocaust education perfectly last year in an op-ed: “a vital mechanism for teaching students to value democracy and human rights, and encouraging them to oppose racism and promote tolerance in their own societies.” The former U.N. secretary-general confesses that he thought Holocaust education should have helped “to prevent future acts of genocide,” but it has not: The op-ed murmurs the words Cambodia, the Congo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. Annan proposes to look into “better teacher training.”

The idea of Holocaust education really took off in 1993 with the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. The notion is simple, and there is something ineffably ’90s about the enterprise. Vice President Al Gore​—​an iconic ’90s figure​—​explained how it was to work in a speech on the first anniversary of the museum’s opening: “In order to prevent such an atrocity from ever happening again, those who care must tell the story.” And that would be it. Give me a child, the Holocaust education movement said to the world, and after passing through my exhibits and taking one of my courses, I will give you back a woman like Samantha Power or a man like Warren Christopher or even Kofi Annan​—​a warrior against future genocides, or at least a person immunized forever against racism and the desire to murder thousands of civilians with a stroke of the pen.

The aim was lofty, and like so many ideas that germinated after the end of the Cold War, it seemed attractive because it didn’t demand much effort or expense. In Britain, Tony Blair’s government enthusiastically instituted a Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001. Remembering the Holocaust as a nation would, he said, “reaffirm the triumph of good” over evil. Home Secretary Jack Straw was confident that remembering the Holocaust suffered by the Jews would benefit all: “The universal lessons of the Holocaust make this commemoration day relevant to everyone in our society. We all have a shared responsibility to fight against discrimination and to help foster a truly multicultural Britain.” Starting in the ’90s, many European nations (France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and a dozen others) unhampered by common-law traditions of free speech began to do their bit on the punitive side, initiating laws that forbade Holocaust-denial.

Holocaust remembrance and education is one of those ideas which really has been tried. If students learn any history at all, it is the history of the Holocaust. Genocide Studies has become an academic specialty and a fundraising bonanza, with professional organizations and prizes. Great books have been written and beautiful museums have been built​—​all in the conviction that they will prevent the production of future mass murderers and their willing executioners. Of course, people are only human and thus have produced versions of Holocaust study that are vulgar, distorted, oversimplified, inhumane, and unintentionally comic and undignified. But even shallow and trashy expressions of “Holocaust awareness” are not lacking in genuine piety and concern, and share the belief that they are engaged in a virtuous struggle against hate.

The Jews and the state of Israel were not much of a concern for the movement’s founders. It did not occur to anyone that anti-Semitism would reemerge, except among a few Holocaust-deniers. And as for Israel, its future was to be secured by the Oslo peace process, which was put on track by the same president who opened the U.S. Holocaust Museum in the same year of 1993, and shared some of the easy confidence of that decade.

The theory of Holocaust education, I think all except Jennifer Peto will agree, has been one of the great failures of our time. But it’s important to know how it has failed​—​and even more, to understand that our sentimental attachment to Holocaust memorialization can fail us with greater consequence in the future, as can our sentimental horror at those villains who deny the reality of the Holocaust. What happened as we learned about the Holocaust? Generally, nothing at all. Those politicians who speechified at the Holocaust Museum in the ’90s looked the other way, just as their predecessors in the 1930s did, as mass murders continued to take place. On the anti-Semitism front, the Maginot line of Holocaust education, human nature has not only refused to improve, but seems to have gotten worse. In one European country after another, observers​—​non-Jewish observers​—​remark levels of anti-Semitism unprecedented since 1945, despite Europe’s generous application of the Holocaust-memorial carrots and Holocaust-denial sticks. Jewish populations in Sweden are leaving entire cities; the retired chief of Holland’s major conservative party last month advised Jews who are “identifiably Jewish” to leave the country, because the Dutch state cannot protect them from anti-Semitic violence. It’s not Holocaust-deniers who commit attacks on individual Jews in Dutch cities; far from it. The Amsterdammers who jostle and taunt Rabbi Raphael Evers on streetcars are well informed, shouting “Joden aan het gas”​—​Jews to the gas chambers.

Holocaust education may have done more than fail. It might also have produced an unintended, but measurable effect that is even worse. One thinks of the little girl who objected to being taught the Ten Commandments in Sunday School: “They don’t tell me what I should do and they just give me ideas.” The current generation of university students​—​Holocaust-educated from the nursery on​—​have been given ideas. And on campuses around the world, not just in Protestant Europe, it is fair to say that the more the current student generation have been taught about the evil of the Holocaust, the more Israel seems to them to resemble Nazi Germany rather than itself. Even if we resist the false suggestion that Israel is conducting a genocide of Palestinians, our Holocaust-instruction has left us all with an equally false notion: that Israel was created by Europeans in the Middle East in order to make amends to European Jews for a European Holocaust.

The falseness of this idea is not merely a matter of historical interest; it is false in a brilliantly focused way. Because in fact, quite apart from the unbroken continuity of Jewish life in Palestine since antiquity, and the recurring affirmation of the connection of the Diaspora to the land of Israel, the creation of Israel was an event that coincided with the creation of most of the modern states of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The Jewish state in Palestine was created by those who fought and won the First World War, not the Second; and its raw material was the same as the raw material of the majority of the members of the EU and the Arab League: the broken territories of the great colonial powers, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The beneficiaries of this impulse were to create new states for Arabs and Arabic speakers throughout the Ottoman empire, for South Slavs, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians. Israel’s origin, then, is postcolonial, not imperialist. And those concerned with Israel’s survival should properly be concerned with the survival as free democracies of other postcolonial states on the periphery of tyranny elsewhere, such as Lebanon, Georgia, Ukraine, and even Lithuania and Poland.

It is fun to make sport of the naïveté of Gore, Blair, and Annan. But we need to be just as hard on ourselves now when we think about our own proud but sentimental attachment to the idea of the Holocaust and its lessons for humanity. We need to be smarter than they were about the political and moral costs to our own interests as Americans and sustainers of liberal democracy. We’re not.

Determined and skillful enemies of human freedom (and even Jewish existence) in Israel, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere are making clever use of our fondness for clichés about the Holocaust and memory. Nor are these enemies of human freedom necessarily Holocaust-deniers or historical fabricators. They are simply playing on the historical anxieties of the Jews and other peoples who have emerged from a long history of religious or colonial domination.

Consider the postcolonial relations between Poland and its former Russian masters. Last month, the Russian Duma finally acknowledged Stalin’s responsibility for the 1940 Katyn massacre, in which 22,000 Polish officers, priests, professors, and other notables were murdered by the secret police, the NKVD. That Katyn was a Communist party crime has never been in doubt. So why should the Poles care about what the Duma says now? The Duma passed the resolution out of a desire to get the better of Poland. A leading deputy told the Moscow Times: “We have said this many times before, and now [the Poles] wanted to hear it again from us.” “In return,” he added, “Polish public opinion about Russia should improve.” And among modern Polish notables, so it did. Poland’s leaders are now more willing to pay high prices to Russia’s Gazprom for natural gas they could extract from their own shale reserves. Whether Polish conciliation of Russia’s ambitions is a good thing or not is for the Poles to judge​—​but clearly Russia can manipulate Polish opinion by a trivial gesture about a great and grave crime. Putin​—​an alumnus of the KGB with institutional descent from the NKVD mass murderers​—​could see how eager the Poles were for this acknowledgment, and how little it would cost him to satisfy them. A great deal for Gazprom is worth a meaningless concession to “history.”

Here is the plot: A tyrant with blood on his hands, interested in extending his power, makes an “okay” statement to an innocent about historical mass murder; innocent collapses in gratitude. Readers of Atlantic.com this summer saw such a mise-en-scène live-blogged from Havana. Our hero, the ingenuous Jeffrey Goldberg; the villain, unsportingly overmatching him, was Fidel Castro. Castro confessed, one gentleman to another, that the crude anti-Semitism of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the flamboyant Holocaust-denial of Iran’s Ahmadinejad were rather embarrassing to a man of the world like himself. This was enough to win the heart of Goldberg, who quickly dialed Haaretz to tell them how impressed he was that Castro felt “genuinely offended” by Holocaust-denial (a generation after Castro had removed the burden of their businesses and other property from Cuba’s own Jewish community).

Giddy with his discovery that Castro was salonfähig, Goldberg was willing to overlook a number of character faults far more consequential than Holocaust-denial to current Cuban dissidents, political prisoners, nonwhites, gays, and the rest of the long-suffering Cuban people. Castro’s fellow dictators, however, could take the hint. The Boston Globe reported the results: “Chávez has tolerated and even promoted virulent anti-Semitism in Venezuela. But a day after Castro’s condemnation of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitism, Chávez said he would meet with Jewish community leaders and declared: ‘We respect and love the Jewish people.’ ’’ A couple of years ago, Chávez called Jews “Christ-killers”; a couple of months ago Chávez issued the threat that if he were to lose the next election, he would call out the army to keep himself in power. Can he really think that by making the proper noises to American journalists, he can count on many happy years of dictatorship? Alas, Chávez is not as stupid as he looks. He has found that affirming the historic truth of the Holocaust to the right naïf may be the price of sustaining a present-day dictator in power. And Goldberg is no more naïve than any number of supporters of liberal democracy.

How far can Holocaust attachment take us into the moral swamp? If Holocaust-consciousness can ever be described as a fetish, then we must nominate Rabbi Abraham Cooper as its Sacher-Masoch. In January 2010 the good rabbi issued this thundering press release from his office at the Simon Wiesenthal Center: “Dropping International Holocaust Memorial Day Would Be World’s Final Insult to Survivors; Would Spur New Wave of Anti-Semitism.” The idea that the Holocaust-denial barnacle controls the anti-Semitic aircraft carrier is absurd​—​but it’s merely an extreme version of our attachment to the truth-value of the Holocaust. The result is that well-meaning liberals in the West have unintentionally given more power, not less, to Holocaust-deniers, sincere or cynical.

Of course Holocaust-denial is repellent. But how often is it sincere? Authentic Holocaust denial no doubt exists​—​and it is an excellent marker for anti-Semitism, madness, and really impressive bores. But consider a dangerous genocidaire-manqué like Ahmadinejad. His Holocaust-denial is too smart to be authentic. He understand that staging fetes for Western Holocaust deniers drives his enemies wild​—​and when his enemies are worrying about David Irving they are not thinking about how best to support Iranian student dissidents or to delay the deployment of his nuclear missiles. 

The truth about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism is this: Most anti-Semites are perfectly well-informed about the actuality of the Holocaust; so are most people who believe that the time has come for the state of Israel to be eliminated. Most anti-Semites authentically regret the destruction of European Jewry; they are also likely to openly regret that those European Jews who escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Palestine were not murdered as well. Tell them that their loathing of Zionism is a symptom of true Jew-hatred, and they will be shocked and hurt but they will happily explain to you the likeness between the IDF and the Einsatzgruppen. Holocaust education, however well its teachers are trained, will never pry such people loose from their defects of character and judgment​—​or from their underlying feelings about Jews as individuals and fellow-citizens.

A last example of the unintentional destructiveness of Holocaust education hegemony. This fall, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder published a well-regarded and beautifully written book called Bloodlands, telling the story of the Hitler-Stalin collaboration in the destruction of Poland and a good many of its citizens, Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, and other minorities. Most reviewers praised it​—​for revealing a new dimension of the Good War: that Stalin and Hitler worked together on many ghastly projects and their collaboration in barbarism was synergistic (I think informed readers will learn far more from a disregarded book published this year, Alexander V. Prusin’s The Lands Between). Reviewers like Anne Applebaum foresaw the danger Snyder was tempting, and spent a lot of time explaining that Snyder was not equating the crimes of Stalin with the crimes of Hitler. But his reviewers didn’t save him, and the poor fellow had to defend himself in Britain’s Guardian on the charge of moral equivalence.

In the eyes of the Guardian leftists, Snyder is an unwitting abetter of the “double genocide”—the notion that Hitler’s crimes were one genocide, and the crimes of Stalin, though different in many respects, were another. Communists and fellow travelers are passionate adherents of the notion that the Jewish Holocaust is nonpareil. So is Efraim Zuroff, an admirable Nazi-hunter in the Israeli branch of the Wiesenthal Center, who says that the notion that the “Communist crimes were just as terrible as those of the Nazis” would “unjustly rob the Shoah of its universally accepted uniqueness and historical significance.” And so is Dovid Katz of the Litvak Studies Institute in Vilnius, who in the Tablet accuses those who call for a memorial of the European victims of communism, led by Vaclav Havel, of wanting to whitewash Nazi crimes and “delete the Holocaust.” Katz, Zuroff, and other well-meaning Jews who are familiar with the sometimes unpleasant politics of present-day Lithuania, are enthusiastic warriors, along with the Russians, the Communists, and various Trotskyist factions, in the struggle against the two-genocide theory. The leader of the British Communist party, for one, is outraged that Havel’s group asserts that “Lenin’s definition of revolution meant that it must take power through armed violence, deny democratic principles, and commit crimes against fellow citizens.” Think of it!

Consider again the former colonial power of Eastern Europe, Russia. Russia is now threatening a number of the small countries the USSR ruled by right of inheritance from the czar. It has waged hot war against Georgia, wars of assassination and intimidation against Ukraine, and threatens the internal politics of Poland, the Czech Republic, and the three Baltic states. All of them have dreadful historic memories of conquest and mass murder by successive waves of Russian and German imperial enterprises, first Czarist, then Wilhelmine, then Bolshevik, then Nazi. But the Russians are still around, and the left is renascent, in its latest postcolonial and postnationalist garb. Those who hold on to the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the Nazi “gold standard” of evil are unwittingly allying themselves with the hard-left activists who are leading the ideological war against Israel’s existence and against the ability of democratic states to maintain their identity and protect their citizens. Nazis no longer threaten western democracy or Jewish existence​—​the danger lies elsewhere. 

The left (which encompasses young Jennifer Peto and aging Communists) is entitled to its obsession with the Holocaust. As proud and programmatic minimizers of Communist mass murder, they should feign, if not feel, indignation at any attempt to compare the two savageries. This is not because they care about the Holocaust but because they want to put Socialism on the offensive again​—​in alliance with anti-Zionism when possible, with anti-Semitism if necessary, and, fervently, with any kind of anti-Americanism whatsoever, even to the extent of apologizing for terrorism. On the other hand, here are the rest of us, whose Holocaust education seems to have made so many uniquely gullible about the real enemies faced by Jews and liberal democracies today.

Sam Schulman wrote about the prosecution of Geert Wilders in our November 22 issue.

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