April 15 is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The following is a slightly expanded version of my “Viewpoint” article in the March-April edition of Jewish Currents magazine (I serve on its editorial advisory council), “Politicizing the Holocaust”:
Sadly, our remembrances of the Holocaust are being sullied by politicization. These horrible events are still within living memory, but the violent renewal of the Israeli-Arab conflict, following the encouraging gains of the peace process of the 1990s, has rendered the Islamic world into a hotbed of anti-Semitic passions. This is the backdrop for Iran’s shameless Holocaust-deniers’ conference, which really was about the denial of Israel’s right to exist.
And an anti-Holocaust narrative is gaining force among the activist left in the US and internationally. It’s increasingly hard for progressives to hear discussions of the Holocaust without some dismissing these — especially when coming from Jews — as attempts to justify Israel’s existence or its policies vis-a-vis Palestinians. Anti-Semitic passions unleashed, ironically, at the “Anti-Racism” conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, was a particularly traumatic event for Jewish participants (See the “Anti-Semitism on the Left” subsection of Column Left, Israel Horizons, Winter 2005, pp. 3-4).
It’s with the left that I argue the meaning of the Holocaust. For example, I’ve been in a long-term e-mail dialogue with the now retired pacifist and Socialist Party leader David McReynolds and some of his friends and comrades. McReynolds himself insists on characterizing the Holocaust as not an exclusively Jewish event. He includes other victims of the Nazis and refers to 11 or 12 million rather than six million dead. He gets indignant when I point out that the others were murdered due to a brutal occupation but — with the exception of Gypsy groups — they were not explicitly slated for collective annihilation. Also, the Nazis used anti-Semitism as a mobilizing ideology of central importance, over and above their other numerous hatreds.
We are now increasingly living in a post-post-Holocaust era; the initial post-Holocaust decades were marked by contrition in Germany and the West for Holocaust-era crimes and the anti-Semitic habits of thought and practice that made them possible. But today, the political uses of the Holocaust are increasingly being turned against the Jews, who are being unfairly identified with the so-called neoconservatives, a tiny political current that is largely but not entirely Jewish, and has been conflated with the overwhelmingly liberal majority of American Jews. A crude chain of causation, which echoes pernicious anti-Semitic conspiratorial tropes, is widely believed in the world: Jews + Israel = Neoconservatives = Bush administration = Aggressive War.
I recently engaged in an inexact but illuminating exercise to get at the immensity of the Holocaust. Using the approximate start date of June 22, 1941, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, for its beginning — the Einsatzgruppen began their mass shootings of whole communities at this time — I calculated that an average of over 29,000 Jews were murdered each week until the war ended on May 8, 1945. This was over 4,000 per day; in other words, the European Jewish population of 11 million suffered the equivalent of more than one and a third 9/11 size catastrophes everyday for three years and ten months.
It is being argued with increasing frequency that Jews are now more vulnerable in Israel than in the Diaspora, and there is statistical evidence for this contention. As an argument this smacks of blaming the victim, but it does counter the earnest Zionist hope that Israel would be the Jews’ safehaven. And, sadly, the threat continues, magnified by the possibility of nuclear doom at the hands of crazed agents of Iran or Al Qaeda. Still, the death toll of all Israel’s wars, skirmishes and terror attacks since 1948 totals about 23,000 — equivalent to less than six days of the Holocaust.
These facts do not make Jews better than anyone else, but they do entitle us to recall the bitter memories of our past, and to consider the ongoing threats to our future, without apology. We are entitled to compassion and understanding from the rest of the world, not least being those who profess humanitarian and universalist values as activists on the left.