Opinion

Expiating Western Guilt

Germany's national Holocaust memorial sit in front of the Reichstag, Berlin, May 3, 2005
AP

Before the 1970s, there were few Holocaust memorial ceremonies. Survivors were “the other,” and we – the “pioneering subject.” This narrative had only one advantage: No one appropriated the suffering of “the other.”

Gradually, though, we all became victims, and the culture of memory in the school curricula, on television, in ceremonies, in the endless verbiage, only deepened the process of self-victimization. Now, “the state of the Jewish nation” – most of which doesn’t want to live here, and most of whose population, when all the territories under its control are included, aren’t Jewish – is hosting the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, bringing this process to a new, louder phase.

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Remembering the Holocaust has flourished in the West as if it was there since the extermination ended. But it is only since January 27, 2006, in the wake of a UN resolution, that the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is marked as a global day of remembrance, following a German resolution from 1996. Why did Germany wait until then? Why didn’t it pick a different date? (the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws? Kristallnacht? The Wannsee Conference? The liberation of Bergen-Belsen, a camp inside German territory?). These are questions about the shaping of German memory. Remembering the extermination, like the extermination itself, remains far away, in Eastern Europe. Where was the Holocaust before the 1990s? In the place allotted to it by the victors during the war, the sidelines.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is embarrassing for several reasons. Many UN members are states with a cruel colonial past, including genocide. There is no reason for Holocaust remembrance to come at the expense of remembering the millions of Africans and native Americans who were slaughtered by their conquerors. And yet, the fact is that there is no day devoted to commemorating the annihilation of American Indians, or the millions killed in Africa. The guests coming to Jerusalem wash their hands of this horrific past.

It’s too superficial to regard Europe’s awakening consciousness as “historical justice that took time.” It’s too easy to blather on about a “collective sense of guilt” while evading the question why this “sense of guilt” arose specifically in a generation that, along with that of its parents, has nothing to do with the crimes against the Jewish people.

Why did it take until the Soviet Union disappeared before the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated, along with the terrible price paid by its soldiers in January 1945? We have a Red Army Forest in Israel, but the West used the remembrance of the Holocaust to seal a vacuum that was created with the disappearance of the conflict between the right and the left in the age of neoliberalism. There are no more struggles of “a good future against a bad future.” We’re all against the evils of the past. Annihilating Jews is forbidden!! This issue – remembering the Holocaust and wartime Europe, where the anti-fascist left is now dead, requires a separate discussion.

What is more worrisome about the way in which the Israeli version of the Holocaust blended into Western discourse is not just the way in which the Holocaust is co-opted for the benefit of the last colonial state in the world, the “state of the Jewish people,” but the suppression of questions about the isolation of our people during the Holocaust, the manhunts, the Jews in hiding who were betrayed by their neighbors, and the few exceptions. Our story should not merge with theirs. The United States, for example, was exposed it all its ugliness in its treatment of Jews before, during and immediately after the war, when it preferred to absorb war criminals rather than Jewish refugees. Why cause this to be forgotten?

Cheapening the memory is also seen in how the story of the West is now being told: There were Nazis, they were defeated, and from now on, anti-Zionism is “anti-Semitism.” International Holocaust Remembrance Day and our own Holocaust Remembrance Day cheapen the memory of the horror with live broadcasts of ceremonies and speeches, with the “state of the Jewish people” reaping the gains of a “moral advantage.” After all, in the neoliberal age the truth lies with the victim.