Sunday, 27 January 2013

They of all people

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, which has been officially marked in Britain on this date since 2001. Let me say to begin with that I've never been very keen on either the concept or the reality of Holocaust Memorial Day. It smacks too much of official self-congratulation. It gives too easy a platform to politicians, religious leaders and other public moralisers to deliver pious platitudes. It lends itself to unattractive one-upmanship in the game of victimhood and to posturing by politicisers of history (Why not us? What about our genocide?). A crime as enormous as the slaughter by the Nazis of 6 million Jews (and of course gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, the physically and mentally disabled and political dissidents) simply doesn't need an annual day to keep it in human memory. As though it would otherwise be forgotten!

Some anniversaries are the organic products of a nation's history: November 5th, the Fourth of July, Bastille Day. Others attempt to raise the consciousness of the world to a current problem that needs fixing; events such as International Women's Day and Aids Awareness Day fall into this category, though they too can often become pious and self-serving. But Holocaust Memorial Day is neither of these. Rather it attempts to fix an approved narrative of history, one that enshrines the Jews as a victim people. On Holocaust Memorial Day, and throughout the year in schools and documentaries, this sanctified, half-mythologised slaughter is reduced to the status of a trite moral parable. As memories have faded and the number of first-hand survivors have dwindled, Holocaust Memorialism has become an international industry feeding on self-righteousness and guilt.

At the same time, Holocaust commemoration encourages the idea that genocide on the scale of the 1940s is a present danger rather than a unique crime. It leads modern politicians to fancy themselves as Churchill or Roosevelt, and to glib assertions that every foreign bad guy who comes across their radar screen, every Saddam or Gaddafi, is a new Hitler. "Never again!" they cry, even as they fail to prevent smaller genocides from being a recurrent feature of our world. Is it, perhaps, that the Nazi Holocaust, marked out by its cold-bloodedness and systematic industrialisation, is simply too atypical to make it a useful moral lesson?

The most important thing to remember about the attempted extermination of the Jewish people during the Second World War is that it failed. The Jews survived Hitler as they survived the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Seleucids, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition and the Tsars. Within a few short years of the Nazi cataclysm, Jewish people had resumed what seems to be their natural place at the forefront of Western scientific, cultural and, yes, economic life. They also built in the Middle East what is, for all its many shortcomings, a uniquely vibrant democracy. Such things were not achieved through being pitied and being pitiful but by being strong. Israel isn't just a long-desired national homeland for a people who spend most of their history in conscious exile. It's also the greatest possible Fuck You to the Nazis.

But the Jews in the death camps didn't save themselves. They were in no position to fight back, and by and large they did not. Most walked with docility into the gas chambers. Those who survived did so because the combined forces of the Soviet Union and the Western Allies ultimately proved too much for Hitler's once invincible army. They were rescued. It is dangerous to see in the Holocaust a message of good defeating evil, of right prevailing over might. A more pragmatic and useful lesson to be drawn is that a people without the wherewithal to defend itself can end up at the mercy of those who would exterminate it.

Contemplating the Holocaust in today's approved manner can all too easily produce morally absurd utterances such as that by the Lib Dem MP for Bradford East David Ward, who said last week on his blog:


Having visited Auschwitz twice – once with my family and once with local schools – I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.

In what was apparently a clumsy attempt at damage-limitation, Ward later added,

The Holocaust was one of the worst examples in history of man’s inhumanity to man. When faced with examples of atrocious behaviour, we must learn from them. It appears that the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treated.

Because how dare the Jews not learn their lesson? What on earth was the point of killing six million of the blighters if not to teach them the virtue of compassion, after all? And their attitudes pre-Holocaust were obviously in need of transformation. Unlike those of David Ward and his ilk, of course, who care very much about the Holocaust, as proved by their mastery of all the approved soundbites, and are thus in an ideal position to lecture the descendants of its actual victims on how they should respond to it.

Ward has since sort-of apologised for the "unintended offence" that these remarks caused, but it's clear from the tone ("I will continue to make criticisms of actions in Palestine in the strongest possible terms for as long as Israel continues to oppress the Palestinian people") that he hasn't really understood where he went wrong. A fellow Lib Dem, the MEP Chris Davies, is equally at sea, to judge by a series of Tweets he posted yesterday.

Glad that Lib Dem MP David Ward says he will continue to criticise Israeli policy towards Palestinians. He speaks for the vast majority.

David Ward's words could have been better chosen, but why do people who have suffered so much now inflict suffering upon Palestinians?

Lib Dem leadership quite wrong to 'reprimand' David Ward. Makes Nick look like being in Israel's pocket. In fact he is a fierce critic.

Nick will be thanking Mr Davies for that last last one. Not.

Do I really need to spell it out to moral idiots like Davies and Ward?

Firstly, however much you disagree with Israeli policy in the West Bank and elsewhere (and I'm not a big fan) there is no valid comparison between an over-the-top security operation intended to preserve the territorial integrity, indeed the very existence, of the state of Israel, and the systematic attempt by the Nazis to wipe an entire people from the face of the earth. None. It's remarkable how many, especially on the Left, seem to think that there is some equivalence to be made. I remember a deranged outburst on Start the Week a few years ago from the late Eva Figes, who said of the Israelis that, "They're just like the Nazis. They don't have gas chambers, but that's largely because they would be found out."

The Israelis are not like the Nazis. If they were, they would be busy shovelling Palestinians into gas ovens. That's point number one. This really ought to go without saying.

Second, Israel is not "the Jews". And Israeli policy today has no connection whatever with what happened in the greater German Reich during the 1940s. It's a response to a security situation, not a response to a crime of several generations ago.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Jewish people have no special responsibility ("they of all people") not to oppress others, simply because they were themselves the victims of oppression. The conceit is oddly pervasive, despite the fact that throughout history once oppressed people have turned the tables on their former oppressors. Christians no sooner took power in the Roman Empire than they began persecuting pagans (and Christian heretics). The French Revolution soon led to a bloodbath of aristocrats. The people of Tlaxcala, oppressed by the Aztecs, needed no encouragement from the Spanish conquistadors to loot and burn Tenochtitlan in 1521. As Shakespeare's Shylock put it manfully, "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

It is dangerous and wrong to look up to the Holocaust's casualties and survivors as paragons of victimhood or as moral exemplars. They were just people, caught up in a situation of unspeakable barbarity, but no better or worse than the general run of humanity. Having been persecuted does not make people more noble, more tolerant, more empathic, more sensitive to the plight of others, and there is absolutely no reason why it should. If anything, the reverse should be the case.

That's not to say that among the Holocaust's survivors there were not many extraordinary stories of forgiveness and moral insight, of people who transcended their own horrendous experience to find a universal humanitarian vision. Some of those who lived through the Holocaust or died during it deserve to be acknowledged as saints. But it is asking too much, far too much, to expect all the Holocaust's victims to react like that. A more natural human reaction would be abiding hatred of Germany and all things German. It's asking more still to expect others to be (in Ward's word) "transformed" simply by virtue of belonging to the same ethno-religious group.

But I'm afraid that by institutionalising a bunch of lazy, officially sanctioned moral platitudes in an occasion such as Holocaust Memorial Day, that is precisely the sort of nonsense you're going to get.