Palestinians Pay the Price for Israel’s Slavery to the Memory of the Holocaust

When saying ‘Never again’ is the only way Israel engages with the past, it can be used to justify undemocratic, militaristic rule over the Palestinians - and now, annexation

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Israeli soldiers block Palestinian demonstrators near the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, near the West Bank city of Nablus. Feb. 21, 2020
Israeli soldiers block Palestinian demonstrators near the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, near the West Bank city of Nablus. Feb. 21, 2020Credit: Majdi Mohammed,AP

This week, the 35th government of the State of Israel will be sworn in, 75 years after the end of the Holocaust. In its coalition agreement, the new government declares that it plans a vote of the government and/or in the Knesset on annexing parts of the West Bank (the Jordan Valley and the settlements), on the basis of the Trump administration’s "peace plan." 

This plan is one more step in the direction of anything but a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It is nothing short of catastrophic.

Historically, the fact that Israel is a functioning liberal democracy – often called the only democracy in the Middle East – has been its main political capital, a capital also based on a claim to exemplary morality which has been at the root of Jewish existence throughout history. 

One of the central declarations of the Torah, echoed in many injunctions, is "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue." The pursuit of justice has indeed been a fundamental tenet of Judaism since its very beginning. Jewish tradition’s universal teachings about responsibility toward all human beings and to the entire world reflect a deep commitment to the ethical principles of righteousness and justice. 

But Israel is spending this historical capital at warp speed, for two interconnected reasons: the ethics of its memory of the Holocaust and its continuing treatment of the Palestinians.

At the end of the 19th century, Theodor Herzl had a beautiful dream of the Jewish homeland. But unfortunately, only a few years later, a lie snuck into the narrative: Palestine as "A land without a people for a people without a land."

This was simply not true: in 1914, the Jewish people comprised only 12 percent of the total population of Palestine. No one can honestly claim that Palestine was then a land without a people (for a people without a land,) and this fact is at the core of the Palestinians’ historical inability to accept the existence of the State of Israel. 

That opposition has no connection to hating Jews. Accusing the Palestinians of being anti-Semitic is unacceptable, because their refusal to accept a Jewish presence in what today is the State of Israel has a clear historical basis. It has nothing at all in common with the wide-spread European anti-Semitism which found its most horrific expression in the Holocaust.    

Israel only remembers the past of the Jewish people. But it has lost its capacity to recollect. To remember means to recall from one’s memory whereas to recollect means to collect one's thoughts again, especially about past events. The perfectly correct necessity to say “never again” when speaking of the Holocaust must not be the only form of engagement with the past. There has to be an additional constructive aspect attached to remembering, there has to be recollection.

Of course, the Holocaust must be recognized by the whole world including the Palestinians, it must be studied and understood so that it is not allowed to be repeated. At no time and nowhere. Edward Said understood this perfectly, and fought against the stupidity and cruelty of Holocaust deniers

He was clear that a lack of understanding of the human devastation of the Holocaust and its racist denial would be opening the door to a repetition and would be cruel, both to the memory of those who perished and the reality of those who survived. 

But understanding in the Spinozian sense has another, deeper meaning: Knowledge and understanding are distinct. Knowledge is something you accumulate but understanding comes from a profound process of reasoning and leads to freedom. 

Applied to the memory of the Holocaust, this means that acquiring knowledge through the understanding of its very essence will allow us to not to be a slave to a memory we must not forget. Otherwise it will offer justification of undemocratic and militaristic tendencies which gravely endanger the present and future of both the Israeli and Palestinian societies. 

The horror of the inhumanity of the Holocaust and its tragedy belongs to humanity as a whole. I am convinced that only the ability to see it as such will give us the necessary clarity of thought and emotional capacity to deal with the conflict with the Palestinians. If it is true that the Palestinians will not be able to accept Israel without accepting its history, including the Holocaust, it is equally true that Israel will not be able to accept the Palestinians as long as the Holocaust is its only moral criteria for existing.

So what about Israel and its new government? Not only are its ethics of memory flawed, but maintaining the occupation and creating new settlements, and now even planning to annex additional territories, have made the Palestinians morally superior. 

But Israelis and Palestinians are and will be permanently interconnected. Israelis are not only the occupiers and Palestinians are not only the victims. Each is an "other" but only taken together, they make a complete unit. 

Therefore, it is essential to each to understand not only their own narration, but also the human experience of the other. We can learn this from music: Music never tells a single narrative, there is always a dialogue or counterpoint. If in political debate there is only one voice, it is a rigid ideology. That could never happen in music.

Daniel Barenboim is general music director of La Scala, the Berlin State Opera and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Together with the late Edward Said, he co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a Seville-based orchestra of young Arab and Israeli musicians

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