Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Politics of Holocaust Memorial Day

"Invoking the biblical enemies of the Jewish people, Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, marked International Holocaust Memorial Day [January 27] with a warning that Jews once again faced annihilation. Speaking on Wednesday to Holocaust survivors who had gathered at the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland, where more than 1 million Jews were murdered during World War II, Mr Netanyahu said such murderous hatred must be stopped in its tracks. Quoting the biblical account of the attacks on the Jews by the people of Amalek as Moses led them out of Egypt, Mr Netanyahu urged Jews today to 'remember what Amalek did to you'. 'I have come here today from Jerusalem to tell you: we will never forget', Mr Netanyahu said, then made an oblique reference to Iran... In Berlin, Shimon Peres became the first Israeli president to mark International Holocaust Memorial Day on German soil. Like Mr Netanyahu, he drew parallels between the dangers of the regime in Tehran and the Nazi dictatorship, and referred to Germany's moral duty to protect Israel from outside attack." (We will never forget, says Netanyahu at Auschwitz, Jason Koutsoukis, Sydney Morning Herald, 29/1/10)

What is going on here? Why do European leaders pander so to such seasoned hucksters as Netanyahu and Peres? Is there, perhaps, some method in their madness? You bet! Read on:

"In Europe, the Shoah has duly become the image of everything that the Europe of today is not: dictatorship, intolerance and hatred of Israel. Thanks to it, modern Europeans know what is their opposite. But why now? Why is it that, in the aftermath of the Nazi defeat, the genocide was only a reference point on which the victors could agree, whereas today it has become the symbol of the Second World War in its entirety - in the cinema, on television, in political cliches, school syllabuses and state celebrations. One answer is that during the unification of Europe, the Genocide and the Jews served in the construction of a European identity. The European subject who, at an earlier epoch, had succeeded so well in differentiating himself from the Jew ('he is not like us'), is now eager to demonstrate how much he loves him: first because now 'he is like us', and second because he no longer lives here. This is a hypothesis which would have to be verified for every European state.

"Ironically, Germany has donated the darkest chapter in its history to be the symbol of the new European identity: Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is worth returning to the choice of date, not only because Germany's decision on this has been taken up by the other states, but also because it shows most clearly the process of amnesia through which remembrance constructs itself. Germany did not set a date to remember all Nazi crimes. It did not choose the day of Hitler's accession to power as the date for its official day of commemoration, or the day the anti-Jewish racial laws were passed, or November 9, the day the Nazis chose to unleash what they themselves called Kristallnacht and which for years was a non-official commemoration day for many parts of West German civil society - until it was replaced by the new official day. Nor did it choose the day Poland was invaded, signaling the start of the Second World War. Germany does not commemorate May 8 or 9, the date of the fall of the Reich. Why exactly has it chosen January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz?

"The German Federal Republic was not, of course, born anew in 'Year Zero'. As many have pointed out, the judiciary included many magistrates who had served under Hitler. The post-war ban on Nazi Party members working as civil servants was quickly rendered meaningless under American influence. The appointment of Hans Globke - a jurist who had assisted with the Nuremberg Laws and anti-Semitic legislation in the Nazi-occupied territories - as Adenauer's Under Secretary of State and chief of personnel from 1953 to 1963, on the grounds that he was not formally an NSDAP member, was only the most blatant symbol of continuity during those years. The German economic elite that had provided the material infrastructure for the genocide also remained in place. In the postwar period, soldiers who had deserted the Nazi Wehrmacht received no pension; those who had served in the SS did. In lieu of any official self-examination, the German state has preferred to elide all the questions arising from the Nazi period into that of Auschwitz. No political price would then need to be paid by the Globkes, the Krupps, IG Farben and the SS pensioners; nor would any compensation need to be paid to those who did resist. Remembered only as the Holocaust, the past now consists solely of victims - the Jewish people - and executioners, the Germans of the past.

"This process reached its apotheosis in the aftermath of German reunification. As a stable republic, solidly established within an instiutionalized Europe, Germany moved to complete the reconstruction of the past: transforming the memory of Nazism into that of the genocide, and the genocide into remembrance of the Holocaust. Over 8 million Soviet soldiers were killed in the fight against Nazi Germany; some 16 million Soviet citizens are estimated to have died overall during the Second World War, many of them civilians from Ukraine or what is now Belarus. Official remembrance of those deaths seems set to follow the USSR into oblivion; there is scant place for them on Holocaust Day. The same question might be asked of the vast monument to the Jews constructed in the center of Berlin: Would it not count for more if the tens of millions of non-Jews who perished were also honored, in due proportion? Are their deaths of less significance than the others?

"Again, why choose Auschwitz in particular; why not Bergen-Belsen, for example, which is at least in Germany? Even if the worst atrocities were concentrated in the former camp, doesn't the choice of the site nevertheless repeat what the Nazis did - relegating the horror to 'over there', outside the homeland, far away to the east among the 'inferior Slavs'? (The school trips to Poland organized by Israel's Ministry of Education also serve to relegate the Jewish genocide to the margins of Europe; it is harder to imagine these visits taking place in Dachau, Bergen-Belsen or Buchenwald, in the heart of Germany.) ...

"Another feature of the new philosemitism is the attempt to forge a German 'Judeo-Christian' identity. A few years ago the tabloid Berliner Zeitung front-paged a story on September 11, 2004 about a mass Evangelical Christian pray-in at the Brandenberg Gate, with the blue-and-white of Israel's flag prominently displayed across the center of the layout. The German mass media determinedly attach Israeli images in this way as if offering a humanist guarantee of 'the other'. What could be more convenient for the representatives of German culture, whether Christian, Liberal, Green or Social Democrat, in the city with one of the highest Muslim populations in Europe - and a country in which racist attacks on them are on the rise - than the symbol of Jewish, that is, Israeli 'Otherness', precisely on the occasion of a Christian gathering? The Israeli flag, like the Berlin streets named after Yitzhak Rabin and Ben Gurion, become symbols through which German identity is thought. The bogus Judeo-Christian tradition does not correspond to any concrete history; it is an ideological invention invoked against Islam, in which the Jew plays the role of the imaginary other.

"In Berlin, the culture of philosemitism takes on a particularly frenetic character. A whole array of (Ashkenazi) folklore is on offer: exhibitions on Orthodox Judaism, performances of klezmer or Hassidic music and dance. In this respect, the Germans differ from other Europeans, but only in degree; in a large part of Western Europe, the violence directed toward the Other hides itself behind this need for an Other who is like us. This is another effect of the reduction of the Nazi experience to remembrance of the Jewish genocide: this newly constructed past - the Jew as absolute victim - seves as a cover for a new Islamophobia that cannot but recall attitudes that Europe once had toward the Jews: Muslims must modernize, they must become 'like everyone else', in other words, like Europeans." (The Myths of Liberal Zionism, Yitzhak Laor, 2009, pp 23-29)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating interpretation of the dance of evasions by both Israel and Germany.