Thursday, February 14, 2008


Do we, Western Europeans and Americans, talk too much about the Holocaust? Tony Judt, the historian whose views of America and Israel are, shall we say, not among the most charitable, thinks so:

My final worry concerns the relationship between the memory of the European Holocaust and the state of Israel. Ever since its birth in 1948, the state of Israel has negotiated a complex relationship to the Shoah. On the one hand the near extermination of Europe's Jews summarized the case for Zionism. Jews could not survive and flourish in non-Jewish lands, their integration and assimilation into European nations and cultures was a tragic delusion, and they must have a state of their own. On the other hand, the widespread Israeli view that the Jews of Europe conspired in their own downfall, that they went, as it was said, "like lambs to the slaughter," meant that Israel's initial identity was built upon rejecting the Jewish past and treating the Jewish catastrophe as evidence of weakness: a weakness that it was Israel's destiny to overcome by breeding a new sort of Jew.

But in recent years the relationship between Israel and the Holocaust has changed. Today, when Israel is exposed to international criticism for its mistreatment of Palestinians and its occupation of territory conquered in 1967, its defenders prefer to emphasize the memory of the Holocaust. If you criticize Israel too forcefully, they warn, you will awaken the demons of anti-Semitism; indeed, they suggest, robust criticism of Israel doesn't just arouse anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism. And with anti-Semitism the route forward —or back—is open: to 1938, to Kristallnacht, and from there to Treblinka and Auschwitz. If you want to know where it leads, they say, you have only to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or any number of memorials and museums across Europe.

I understand the emotions behind such claims. But the claims themselves are extraordinarily dangerous. When people chide me and others for criticizing Israel too forcefully, lest we rouse the ghosts of prejudice, I tell them that they have the problem exactly the wrong way around. It is just such a taboo that may itself stimulate anti-Semitism. For some years now I have visited colleges and high schools in the US and elsewhere, lecturing on postwar European history and the memory of the Shoah. I also teach these topics in my university. And I can report on my findings.

Students today do not need to be reminded of the genocide of the Jews, the historical consequences of anti-Semitism, or the problem of evil. They know all about these—in ways their parents never did. And that is as it should be. But I have been struck lately by the frequency with which new questions are surfacing: "Why do we focus so on the Holocaust?" "Why is it illegal [in certain countries] to deny the Holocaust but not other genocides?" "Is the threat of anti-Semitism not exaggerated?" And, increasingly, "Doesn't Israel use the Holocaust as an excuse?" I do not recall hearing those questions in the past.

My fear is that two things have happened. By emphasizing the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust while at the same time invoking it constantly with reference to contemporary affairs, we have confused young people. And by shouting "anti-Semitism" every time someone attacks Israel or defends the Palestinians, we are breeding cynics. For the truth is that Israel today is not in existential danger. And Jews today here in the West face no threats or prejudices remotely comparable to those of the past—or comparable to contemporary prejudices against other minorities.

I can understand how the class of people who think like Judt are eager to see the Holocaust in the rear view mirror -- and to convince or bully everyone else into seeing it there, too. But as I suppose that also requires everyone to be convinced that the statement "Israel today is not in existential danger" is a "truth" (not an informed opinion, even), he's got a long way to go. And lecturing thus to the Europeans, and printing it in the NYRB, is preaching to the tenors.