Opinion

Redundant Monuments and the Contest of Victimhood

Canada and Britain have declared us Jews the victors of the prestigious contest of who is the greatest victim, but the really big winner is the State of Israel

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tours the National Holocaust Monument with Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly, and survivor Philip Goldig in Ottawa, September 27, 2017.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tours the National Holocaust Monument with Minister of Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly, and survivor Philip Goldig in Ottawa, September 27, 2017.Credit: Adrian Wyld/AP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

We haven’t yet calmed down after the fuss over the Holocaust memorial in Canada, where the plaque initially neglected to mention Jews, and already we have news of the winners and losers in the competition for the design of a similar monument in London. One can dispute but not argue with the personal need of people – of any religion, community or gender – to preserve the memory of their loved ones in stone or in any other timeless structure in the public sphere, particularly if they died under brutal circumstances.

One can also understand the need of groups throughout human history to commemorate their dead and their heroes. But when commemoration comes from above – state-ordained, well-covered by the media and costing piles of money – it has motives that are extraneous to the feelings of relatives and communities, and to the declarations accompanying these events. This kind of commemoration is designed to exploit the social capital of the representatives of the victims, turning it into political capital.

Why should Canada and Britain, two countries that were not conquered by Nazi Germany and which did not suffer its genocide policies, have to add another memorial to commemorate the murder of Europe’s Jews? Is it really because they refused to take in Jewish refugees in time and in numbers that would have enabled saving many, or because these countries have Jewish citizens who are survivors or children of survivors? Who needs another large-scale monument when the Holocaust is already commemorated and mentioned in the West more than any other dark period in history?

Paraphrasing, one could say that official monuments are erected by the victors. There are enough memorials to tell us that the Allies won. Why add another one? Is the victor meant to be the Jewish people, who lost six million of their sons and daughters forever, with all their human, cultural, intellectual and experiential richness? Here, the term “victory” is particularly strident and is incompatible with decimation on such a large scale. Perhaps, then, the victory lies in the competition over victimhood, over who is the biggest victim in the world.

The losers in this competition are the victims of the British Empire. These were the Africans who were traded as slaves, the states it conquered in its colonial quests, First Nations who lost their lands, were killed or expelled from what later became Canada – hundreds of millions with all their human, cultural, intellectual and experiential richness. In my internet searches, I failed to find any reference to similar government-ordained memorials, flush with funds and covered extensively by the media, commemorating the victims who are the direct responsibility of Canada and Britain. I did, however, find some fascinating articles from which I deduced that there are almost none (please correct me if I’m wrong).

I learned that out of the 30 official monuments in Ottawa, there is only one devoted to First Nations, and even that one commemorates only the war veterans among them. Indeed, there is now a trend in Canada to remove public mentions of persons who were involved in repressing First Nations and trying to assimilate them (mainly through a network of boarding schools). So far, a proposal to erect a national monument to commemorate the victims and survivors of those schools and their underlying philosophy has been rejected.

In Britain, there are monuments and memorials to the abolitionists. However, “the way they are conceived and executed has generally favoured a conservatively self-congratulatory and defensive political agenda which has consistently marginalized the experience of enslaved Africans,” writes history professor Madge Dresser in the October 2007 issue of “History Workshop Journal.”

Has anything changed over the last ten years? Apparently not, according to a tantalizing article by James Smith published in the “New Statesman” last week. Smith is a co-founder and president of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottinghamshire, U.K. He calls for using the new monument to clarify the direct link between the Holocaust and white racist supremacism, in which Britain played such a central part when it enabled the slave trade. “European genocide was trialed in Africa, before being unleashed in Europe,” he writes, providing devastating examples of direct connections between British and American philosophers who avowed white racial purity and Nazism.

Canada and Britain find it easy to erect monuments to commemorate murdered Jews since they are not directly responsible for the Holocaust. The uses they make of the global social capital of Jews, formerly the victims of white supremacism, helps them bury the holocausts they themselves perpetrated. Their political capital lies in their evasion of material, political and moral responsibility toward other nations that survived but are still suffering from those holocausts. When Britain celebrates the Balfour Declaration, it denies its destructive colonial past in the Middle East and its part in the expulsion of the Palestinian nation from its homeland.

Canada and Britain have obviously declared us Jews as winners in the prestigious contest of who is the greatest victim. But the really big winner is the State of Israel, which presents itself as the representative of the entire Jewish nation, past and present. While exploiting victims of the Holocaust, it refuses to part from its legacy of expropriation and expulsion of the Palestinians and refuses to advance to a new historical phase, a fair and secure one for both nations living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The West, which regards itself as enlightened, stands to one side, allowing successive Israeli governments to continue dragging us toward disaster. This is the political capital which Israel, too, garners from those redundant monuments.