Opinion |

The Crumbling Consensus That Jews Were the Ultimate Holocaust Victims

The liberal world order is falling apart with Trump and Netanyahu's help, heralding bizarre new Holocaust narratives

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visits the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during WWII, in Markowa, Poland, Feb. 2, 2018.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visits the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews during WWII, in Markowa, Poland, Feb. 2, 2018. Credit: Alik Keplicz/AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

I remember the first time I met an adult person who hadn’t heard about the Holocaust. It was more than a decade ago, and in Germany, of all places. I was taking a course with an engineering student who was a member of the Chinese minority in Indonesia. We were walking around the city, when suddenly it turned out that this was the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

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A ceremony was being held in the plaza in front of a synagogue. A rabbi was singing the Hebrew folk song “Heveinu shalom aleichem” (“We have brought peace unto you”), and melancholy Germans were standing in a circle, holding hands. The student asked me why they were singing. “It’s about the Holocaust,” I said. “The what?” he asked. I repeated myself, but he still didn’t know what I was talking about. “You never heard of the Holocaust?” I asked, astonished. “Does it have to do with Hitler?” he replied. “I heard he did something disgusting to the Jews, but I didn’t understand what.”

Since then, I’ve met other people who never heard of the Holocaust. Most of them were Asians, from whose geographical and historical viewpoint cases of genocide in Europe were simply far less important. But in every case, an encounter with someone for whom the Holocaust is nonexistent was incomprehensible to me – at the least it was like talking to someone who’s never heard of the sun, or who doesn’t know what water is.

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In Israel, the Holocaust is the first thing you have to know. If someone here knows anything at all about the past, it’s about the Holocaust. Not the discovery of America, not the moon landing, certainly not the French Revolution, not even the Revelation at Mount Sinai – first of all, the Holocaust. For a certain period, it was possible to think that it was the same outside Israel. In America, as in many other parts of the world, children in recent decades have learned about the Holocaust from an early age. It’s basically perceived as the formative event of the modern era, against which the central political values of our age were shaped. Suffice it to try to imagine how people reviled their political adversaries a century ago, when the words “Nazi” or “fascist” still had no meaning.

A man crosses the iconic rails leading to the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.Credit: Alik Keplicz/AP

But that situation is now changing rapidly. Many people were stunned in recent weeks by Poland’s legislative efforts in regard to the remembrance of the Holocaust, and by the statements of the Polish prime minister to the effect that in the Holocaust there were Jewish criminals to the same degree that there were Polish criminals.

It was argued, justly, that the shock displayed at the Polish stance was often tainted by hypocrisy (considering, for example, that Israel has a law prohibiting publicly funded institutions from using the term to the “Nakba” – Arabic for “catastrophe” – as Palestinians refer to the country’s founding). But we need to look at the Polish context in which the statements were made. The assertions of the right-wing Polish government in regard to the Holocaust are intended as an act of defiance against the Holocaust consensus that has taken root and become sanctified since the 1990s.

The essence of the consensus is that the Jews were the ultimate victims of the Holocaust, and that the other European nations were complicit in the crime that was perpetrated against them and are obligated to learn the lesson and teach it.

This is quite a new consensus. For example, the term “Holocaust of European Jewry” did not exist in the communist bloc, where all those who were murdered or perished in World War II were described as “victims of fascism” without distinction of nation or religion. It was only the advent of the global world order following the fall of the communist bloc that posited the Holocaust of the Jews as an ideological element that was not to be blasphemed against. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington, the Holocaust monument in Berlin and International Holocaust Remembrance Day represented the enshrinement of this memory. Everyone was called upon to remember, according to a rigid protocol. Every public statement about the Holocaust is monitored by experts, journalists and international organizations. Every deviation from the official line draws condemnation.

But we are now seeing the collapse of this world order. Events such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rise of Trump and the Brexit crisis are three of the biggest cracks that have emerged in it. The consensus concerning the Holocaust of the Jews was fundamentally linked to that political order. It is the European Union and other global institutions created since the 1990s that disseminate the official version of the Holocaust of European Jewry and enforce its preservation. So it comes as no surprise that the disintegration of the world order and its institutions has also given rise to the unravelling of the consensus on the Holocaust.

Liberal disorder

The message written by U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania, is seen in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum guestbook in Jerusalem May 23, 2017. Credit: \ POOL/ REUTERS

And this is only the beginning. In the coming decade, we may face increasing forms of heresy against the official version of the memory of the Holocaust. Like Poland, other countries revolting against the liberal global order will articulate their own accounts of the traumatic past. Already now, we can see leaders such as Trump, Marine Le Pen, Duterte in the Philippines (and earlier, Ahmadinejad in Iran) expressing unconventional views about Nazism and the Holocaust – perhaps to prove that they do not flinch from slaughtering the holiest of the liberal sacred cows or denying the civil religion of the age of globalization.

Two additional processes are accompanying these political shifts: the death of the last of the survivors, and the rise of such global powers as China and Brazil, for which the Holocaust does not constitute a formative event. Thus, the Holocaust consensus is fraying at the edges.

But there’s no need to look at remote cultures. Politicians in Israel, too, have been making statements about the Holocaust of a kind that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. The most striking example is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that it was the mufti of Jerusalem who persuaded Hitler to murder the Jews. But his inflationary use of Holocaust comparisons during the campaign against Iran also generated a distorted and ridiculous version of that event. Netanyahu’s Israel is a leading participant in undermining the liberal order, and as such is contributing also to the disintegration of the accepted conventions concerning the memory of the Holocaust.

Surveys are occasionally conducted in different countries about the way the Holocaust is perceived there. The appalled surveyors note that the citizens of Spain or Saudi Arabia harbor false notions about Nazism and the annihilation of the Jews. But what would the results be if such a survey, about conceptions of the Holocaust, were to be conducted among Israel’s citizens?

The survey would reveal that, despite half a century of indoctrination, many Israelis hold frightful views of the Holocaust. Ranging from the religious conception that the Holocaust was a divine punishment inflicted on Europe’s Jews in reprisal for the Enlightenment and assimilation; to the right-wing view, according to which Jewish communists brought the Holocaust on themselves and other members of their people.

As the historian Moshe Zuckermann has argued, the memory of the Holocaust in Israeli society has undergone fragmentation, disintegration. In light of this, we should prepare for the emergence of increasingly bizarre and grotesque narratives about Nazism, the Holocaust and World War II, which will gradually insinuate themselves into the heart of the consensus. As we progress further into the 21st century, the Holocaust will sound radically different.

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