Shut up with the Holocaust psych-101-UPDATE


Over at Commentary’s Contentions blog, Jonathan Tobin has had it up to here with writers who arrive at smug, facile conclusions about the place of the Holocaust in Israel’s consciousness:

The vast majority of Israelis understand that they are not living in the Warsaw Ghetto. But they also understand that they are locked in a conflict with an adversary that views Israeli concessions as invitations for more terrorism (such as the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005). Most rightfully understand that the only condition under which Jews can live with such dangerous neighbors is a position of strength, but that doesn’t make them Holocaust head cases. It just means that, unlike Glucroft and others whose ideology blinds them to Palestinian realities, Israelis understand that they are living in 2009 and not in a mythical future where hostility to Zionism has ended.

Telling the Jews to shut up already about the Holocaust in order to falsify the present situation is a unique form of dishonesty. Such writers would do better to try convincing their Palestinian clients that their own paranoia and Jew-hatred ought to be junked if peace is to have a chance.

Setting him off is the Christian Science Monitor piece by Bill Glucroft. Tobin’s got a point — Glucroft, for instance, takes his municipal geography a trifle too seriously:

It’s no accident that Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, is physically connected to Har Hertzl, Israel’s national cemetery. The symbolism hits you over the head: Israel was born out of the Holocaust, and the price to protect the Jewish people from another one is steep. There is truth in that, but also danger. Binding too tightly the slaughter of Jewish civilians by Nazis and the deaths of Israeli soldiers by Arabs turns every threat to Israel into another Holocaust.

Let’s see, I live in Arlington Va., where the nation’s military cemetery, established during the Civil War by northerners … is next to the Pentagon! Which is next to a mall!

Nuke the South! And buy American.

It makes about as much sense as Glucroft’s conclusions.

UPDATE: A friend emails the following:

On Jonathan Tobin… I spent a few years of my childhood in Israel, in the public school system. The link between the Holocaust and statehood was significantly and deliberately drummed into our heads. The proximity of Har Herzl and Yad Vashem is no accident at all, nor is the juxtaposition of Yom Hashoah week to Yom Hazikaron/Yom Ha’atzma’ut week. Tobin does not, in fact, have a point. More likely, he has a syllogism. Israelis and Jews invoke the Holocaust for all sorts of purposes, including on Iran, but Heaven forbid a non-Jew or a Jew with whom we disagree should use the Holocaust metaphor. I propose a universal moratorium on invoking the Holocaust for anything other than addressing the events of 1933-45.

If anyone is guilty of a syllogism, it is not Tobin, but Glucroft and my friend. It would go something like this:

* Israelis commemorate the Holocaust;

* Israelis enjoy their sovereignty;

* Israelis enjoy their sovereignty because they commemorate the Holocaust.

Glucroft’s absolutist attachment of Holocaust remembrance to present-day attitudes is reductive in the extreme. Tobin does not deny the role that the Holocaust must play in Israel in the holistic consideration of present-day dangers, but to suggest that Israelis continue to be mired in an imaginary Warsaw Ghetto ignores the real threats Israelis face — which is not to say that how they respond is beyond criticism. It’s just that’s it’s not helpful for the likes of Glucroft to metaphorically tap their temples with their forefingers.

It is a perception, weirdly, that I find attaches more to outsiders who believe they "get" Israel than to Israelis. In the summer of 1993 I covered for the AP Operation Din v’Heshbon (accountability), Yitzhak Rabin’s  response to continued Hezbollah rocket attacks. I had an editor with the kind of flexible personality that made sure that whatever perspective he took to a story was the "right" one: i.e, if the Israelis in the office objected, it was because we knew Israel too well and were stuck among the trees and missing the whole forest; if an editor in New York complained, it was because he was an ignoramus who knew Israel not at all.

Anyway, sometime in the middle of the eight-day mini-war, I was in a bomb shelter with a Kiryat Shemona family, gathering quotes for the AM-er, the main morning paper story. He called with a request for a PM-er (evening papers! Remember them?): What did the common folk think of the acquittal of John Demjanjuk of charges that he was the mass murderer, Ivan the Terrible, at Treblinka? It surely was haunting them…

Well, no. What was preoccupying the family was the prospect of the next katyusha. They were baffled when I brought up the subject. They had hardly noticed Demjanjuk’s acquittal, even thought it was the top of the hourly radio news bulletin. I had to coax them back into the very school-taught pieties my friend above remembers to extract a story, one that was a sham and which I regret to this day. A friend, a Reuters reporter, who was with us in the bomb shelter could not suppress her very loud laughter throughout the interview.

That’s because Israelis outgrow those pieties; I’ve found that among high school students, soldiers and college students, consideration of the Holocaust is much more nuanced; no one has any answers.

My screeds last month about complaints that President Obama made exactly such an equivalence had to do with my belief that he did not; he saw the bigger picture, but was focusing on the Holocaust in an address to a Muslim polity where denial has become promiscuous and prolific. It’s crazy to say that the Holocaust is not an element in Israel’s founding and consciousness; it’s equally crazy to say that it is the only element. (Which is not to say that there are not Israelis or Jews who make it the only element; but they are not only not determinative, they are marginal.)

It’s true that Yom Hashoah is eight days before Yom Ha’Atzmauth; this mostly is because the secular founders wanted very much to attach commemoration to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But that occurred on Passover eve, so the day was marked a suitable (not suitable enough for some, it’s true) distance from the joyful holiday. And yes, Yad Vashem, the military cemetery and Herzl’s grave are all on "Har HaZikaron," Remembrance Hill, also called Mt. Herzl. Partly because of the similar experiences they offer, but also because it was the prettiest perch available to Israel in Jerusalem from 1949-1967, and also the farthest, within municipal boundaries, from the Jordanian borders; it was the safest site to bury precious remains and still assert Israel’s claim to the city as its capital. And today, there is one entrance for Mt. Herzl cemetery and another for Yad Vashem; one doesn’t run into the other, they’re about a mile apart on Herzl Boulevard, which during business hours is choked with exhaust and traffic; better to drive than to walk, believe me. I can’t remember being able to see the military graves from Yad Vashem, nor the Holocaust memorial from the cemetery.

Which is to say that the Holocaust is hardly ever the only, or even the overwhelming consideration in how Israelis encounter themselves and history. And to see it as such in the proximity of Yad Vashem to Mt. Herzl cemetery is to willfully wish it so.

I do, however, agree with my friend’s final recommendation. The Holocaust ended with the liberation of the camps; to imagine it beyond the winter of 1945 is to abuse it.

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