Today is Yom HaShoah, an international day of mourning for victims of the Holocaust. I have written often here on this subject. When I was a graduate student I compiled the oral history of an Auschwitz survivor, publishing it in the Los Angeles Times on Yom Hashoah 1977. In the 1990s, I visited Theresienstadt while leading a New York Jewish Federation mission to central Europe. In the 1930s, one of my grandmother’s brothers left this country disillusioned because, as he said in Yiddish, t’iz a g’nayvishe land (“it’s a land of thieves”). He later perished in Poland.
GIven all this, how can one justify the mockery that is made of the day by Israel and many who exploit it for political purposes? Israel has turned it into a national spectacle. Somber speeches are made. Lessons are offered and learned. But they are largely the wrong ones.
The Zionist ideology underpinning Israel is based on rejection of the Diaspora (known in Hebrew as zilzul ha’galut). The lesson the nation learns tomorrow is that the only thing important about the Holocaust is that it led to the creation of the State of Israel. The 6-million victims offer a moral (though a false one), that the only place a Jew is safe is Israel. That Jewish existence outside Israel is doomed. In fact, living as Jew in Israel is at least as dangerous, if not more so, than being one in the Diaspora.
If you dismiss this argument, you have only to look at how Holocaust survivors, who made aliyah to Israel in the hundreds of thousands after they survived the War, have been treated by the State historically. Yes, Israel accepted billions in reparations from Germany to expiate its guilt. And the State gladly accepted this lucre. But the nation has little use for actual survivors. It has left them to rot in squalor and poverty. Survivors are not real people, they are ciphers for a greater Zionist cause.
I was deeply disturbed during my visit to Theresienstadt to see Israeli flags draping every possible historical artifact there. As if Israel was the only possible answer to this horror. I’m also disgusted that the Polish government permits IAF F-16s to flyover the Auschwitz site, as if Israeli military might is the only proper response to this indelible historic suffering. Let’s not forget the prophet’s admonition: “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.”
I’m deeply troubled by the parochialism of Jewish attitudes toward the Holocaust: it is a unique event in the history of the world. It is our tragedy. No one else’s. No one can plumb the depths of our suffering. And no one may question or doubt any act that we take as long as we invoke the Holocaust to justify it.
No, the only thing unique about the Holocaust is the number of dead and perhaps the methodical industrial organization of the killing. There have never been 6-million killed in any previous or subsequent genocide (yet). But that does not mean that there have not been other genocides or that there will not be genocides in future. Genocides are not unique to Jews. Tribes, religions and ethnic groups of all stripes have shared in such suffering throughout human history: the Tutsi of Rwanda, the Rohingya of Burma, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and finally the first modern genocide, of the Armenians, perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks (an event Israel refuses to officially recognize). The ancient Israelites even exterminated some of the tribes which occupied the land when they first entered it.
And now I will say the forbidden: yes, I can even imagine how the current State of Israel, as it slides rapidly into fascism and racial supremacism, could join the ranks of the genocidaires. We are not there yet. But in 1933, German Jews said they were not there yet, too. Anyone who argues that this would never be possible should take a close reading on the post I wrote about the Israeli state-employed rabbis who taught their future-IDF soldier-students that Hitler was right, that Jews are racially superior to Arabs, and worse. These are not outlier views in Israel. Not by any means.
Jewish communal leaders solemnly declare, “Never again,” a slogan first popularized in this country by Meir Kahane to justify his campaign of terror against first, the Soviet Union, and later against Blacks, Arabs and even leftist Jews. Shmuley Boteach repeats the phrase, adding a new twist by warning that it could happen again. But of course he means that it could happen to JEWS again. Because that’s all that interests him.
My basic objection to the mainstream Jewish approach to the Holocaust is that it separates us from the rest of humanity. We insist on being put up on a pedestal and our suffering recognized as being unparalleled in the history of humanity (or at least modernity). But if we put the Holocaust into the context of all the other genocides, we could unite with all those who’ve similarly suffered to ensure that this doesn’t happen to any human group ever again. Solidarity should trump singularity.
This is one of my many quarrels with the International Holocaust Remembrance protocol circulated around the world, after it was devised by two figures, one closely allied with the U.S. Israel Lobby and the other with what Norman Finkelstein would call the Holocaust industry. IHRA only recognizes the Holocaust in the context of any others in a peripheral fashion. And most unfortunately, it links the Holocaust directly to Israel, claiming falsely that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.
The truth is that just as Israel has no monopoly on Jewishness, and should never claim to speak on behalf of all Jewish people, it also has no monopoly on the Holocaust. Israel is not the ineluctable result of the Holocaust. Israel is only one of many responses to the Holocaust by world Jewry. All Jews, including those outside Israel have had to grapple with the meaning of this tragic historic event. That’s why we now have an academic field of genocide studies, and museums around the world (not just Yad Vashem) dedicated to the subject.
And we should not forget that Israel can get things very wrong in addressing the Holocaust. For example, Yad Vashem makes a fatal mistake in welcoming to its sacred sanctum some of the worst Holocaust deniers and brutal dictators in the world today. Duterte, Orban, Bolsonaro, etc. are bloody anti-Semites and Holocaust admirers. Yet the Israeli museum rolled out the red carpet for them. Why? Because it was politically expedient to do so in advancing the interests of the State.
This is precisely the danger of conflating such a profound historical tragedy that befell an entire people, with the political interests of a particular state. Israel is not the same as Judaism (as I repeat endlessly). Zionism is not the same as Judaism. Israel does not own all of Jewish experience, and certainly not the Holocaust.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.