As a general matter, national days of Holocaust Remembrance strike me as, at best, not worth the effort, and, at worst, harmful.
In theory, I suppose, such days are meant to sensitize gentiles to the evils of anti-Semitism and to forestall the recurrence of future outpourings of hatred against Jews. More likely they only serve as a further irritant to anti-Semites of all stripes, from the mild to the virulent – another example of Jewish guilt-tripping, whining, and finger-pointing at the goyim.
If the day is given prominence in the educational system and the media, it becomes for the anti-Semites but one more example of the Jews’ ability to bend the centers of power to their will. And if it is not, then the Holocaust is reduced to the level of national petunia day – yet another one of the endless days or weeks that serve as the occasions for the issuance of orotund proclamations hammered out upon demand by a team of speechwriters who excel at that type of thing.
Nor are such remembrance days beneficial for non-observant Jews, who tend to be their staunchest supporters. They are meant to instill some form of Jewish pride. But Jewish pride in what: That we are history’s champion victims? That we have suffered more and longer than any other people? Does the reduction of Jewish history to one long mural of suffering offer to the young, marginally identified Jew any reason to explore his or her identity more deeply? Why should it? In order to add his or her name to the long scroll of Jewish victims?
True, there will be Jewish youth who will ask the question: What is unique about our people that could explain the demonic fury so often directed against us? Others will feel some obligation to honor that for which their ancestors gave their lives. And some may even ask: What power did they find in their relationship to G-d that made it worth enduring the ceaseless pograms and exiles? But they will be few and far between. In the main, the lachrymose view of Jewish history as a series of endless tragedies fails to offer uneducated Jews a positive reason for learning more.
That does not mean, however, that I view all Holocaust education as pointless. I have witnessed the impact of Meyer Birnbaum’s memories of the liberation of Buchenwald on groups of frum post-high school students, many of them descendants of survivors. And “Lieutenant” Birnbaum’s memories are those of a liberator coming face-to-face for the first time with the victims of Nazi barbarity.
Even more powerful is the testimony of the victims themselves, like Mrs. Erica Rothschild, a”h, a survivor of Auschwitz, who lectured regularly in Switzerland, including on TV and in universities, on her experiences. Mrs. Rothschild first realized the need for witness like hers when a young nurse in a hospital saw the numbers permanently etched on her arm and commented, “Oh, Mrs. Rothschild, how clever of you to put your phone number on your arm like that.” But as the ranks of the survivors thin, there are fewer and fewer to bear witness.
In general, national days of Holocaust commemoration occasion neither any in depth study of the Holocaust nor any testimony to convey the enormity of the evil through the experience of individual victims. Commemoration ceremonies tend to become a form of being yotzei zein by those with scant knowledge of the Nazi horrors, and often serve little purpose other than to confirm the exquisite sensitivity of those who proclaimed the Day of Remembrance in the first place.
WHATEVER THE VALUE of days of Holocaust Remembrance, however, the recent proposal by Moslem advisors to Prime Minister Tony Blair that Holocaust Day be replaced by a Genocide Day, which would also commemorate, inter alia, “genocidal” Israeli policies against the Palestinians, must be fought tooth and nail.
Blair’s Moslem advisors complain that Holocaust Day is too exclusive. They envy our special day. We Jews, however, would be only too happy to trade our “exclusive day” for the 6 million lost in the Holocaust.
The fight against an all-inclusive Genocide Day, which would inevitably focus on the suffering of the poor Palestinians, need not be an exclusively Jewish affair. From a purely British point of view, it would be hard to think of a more disastrous approach to the Moslem community than giving in to this demand.
Moslems in England may have legitimate grievances that should be addressed. But if so, the goal should be to make them feel more fully part of British society. Encouraging them to identify with the pan-Arab or pan-Moslem world, especially with the Moslem world’s insatiable sense of grievance, is the very antithesis of that goal.
The most benign characterization of the proposed Genocide Day – at least, if it came from other sources — would be that it is part of a general process of Holocaust trivialization. The Holocaust has become an all-purpose metaphor for anything of which someone disapproves. To PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), for instance, the slaughter of animals for human consumption, is another Holocaust.
As a consequence of this trivialization, the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust is lost: Under the Nazis, the eradication of one people – the Jews – from the face of the earth became the highest goal of the state, and that goal was pursued with ruthless, mechanical efficiency, using all the tools of modern technology, even at the expense of the German war effort. Pol Pot murdered millions of Cambodians and Stalin deliberately starved to death millions of kulaks. But in those cases, perpetrators and victims were one people. Machete-wielding Hutus may have hacked to death hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, but they lacked the Nazis’ technological efficiency.
That is not to minimize these horrors, just to insist that they are not the Holocaust.
The application of the term “genocide” to the Palestinians, however, goes far beyond a misunderstanding of the unique nature of the Holocaust. It is a monumental lie that would be laughable on its face were it not so widely repeated and so widely believed.
Over half of Germans, according to a December 2004 poll, agree with the statement that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is “not so different” from the Nazi’s treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. And in the same poll, 68% subscribed to the proposition that Israel is waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians.” A poll conducted by a leading Italian paper had 40% of respondents affirming the statement, “the Israeli government is perpetrating a full-fledged genocide and is acting with the Palestinians the way the Nazis did with the Jews.” The same equivalence is taken for granted by much of Europe’s educated elites.
The mind boggles at the comparison. How do those who accuse Israel of genocidal policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians reconcile those accusations with the exploding Palestinian population? How do they explain the rapid growth the Palestinian economy after 1967, the drastic drop in infant mortality, the rising levels of literacy? How does the security fence built to keep out Palestinian terrorists morph in the Western imagination into the barbed wire fences around the killing camps designed to prevent Jews from escaping? How does the inconvenience, even the great inconvenience, of security checkpoints – again necessitated by Palestinian terrorism – become the equivalent of the Nazi gas chambers?
During the 1970’s, the West Bank and Gaza was the fourth fastest growing economy in the world, and from the onset of Israeli rule until the signing of the Oslo Accords, the per capita GNP of Palestinians increased tenfold. Between 1968 and 2000, infant mortality dropped from 60 per 1,000 births to 15, and life expectancy increased from 48 to 72. All these figures were way ahead of neighboring Arab countries, and all positive indicators plummeted after Oslo.
In short, if Israel were embarked on genocide against the Palestinians, it is making a manifestly poor job of it – indeed an inexplicably poor job, given Israel’s overwhelming military and technological superiority.
The suggestion to turn Holocaust Day into Genocide Day drips with bitter irony. A day originally designed to commemorate the near successful extermination of the Jewish people is being used to lay the stage for the next great assault on the Jewish people: the destruction of Israel – home to nearly five million Jews. The message of Genocide Day, as conceived by Prime Minister Blair’s Moslem advisors, is the equation of Nazis with Jewish oppressors and Jewish victims with Palestinians. The goal is not the creation of a Palestinian state, or an Israeli return to the 1949 Armistice Lines, but the destruction of Israel.
Purveyors of the Nazi/Israeli equivalence invariably speak of a half century of oppression of Palestinians, and locate the source of Israel’s Nazi-like evil in the “racist” doctrine of a Jewish state. The logic of this equation leads inexorably to one conclusion: If the Nazis were the ultimate expression of total evil, and the state of Israel is the modern expression of that radical evil, then Israel must be destroyed, just as the Nazis were destroyed.
Perhaps that is the the best argument against special days of Holocaust Remembrance: they are too subject to being kidnapped by those who dream of the next Holocaust, chas ve’shalom [Heaven forbid].
This article first appeared in the London Jewish Tribune of September 22, 2005.