This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Try this one out, after the Hitler Youth false start, if it was, because the Nazified young, or the attempt to Nazify them, were all around these mountain woods. Had to be. Too much Nordic scenery. Vistas where the Nazi world view appeared real as the mountains.
Still, on the other side of the coin, listen to the German youth of today wandering in Jordan and Lebanon, being regaled with “Hitler was right stories” and how proud they must be to come from a land where Jews were on the run. Admired for something they are so ashamed of. How’s that for a reverse historical confrontation of the first order?
Imagine that one, these idealist young, wanting a different world and, at least, a different history – slate wiped clean – and find that they are celebrated for the hate crimes of the century and beyond.
Another boomerang, though, if American Jewish youth of a certain age remember, weren’t we celebrated after the 1967 war as if we had vanquished the Arab/Third World menace? This was long before September 11th, when another round began. This time the links with Israel were turned around, at least for a few days. I remember those first days when even the national media were asking how dangerous the American connection with Israel had become. In the background, the Twin Towers smoldered.
Youth of all kinds are confronted with history they didn’t make. Their thought, why not make news of our own rather than assume the burden of the past. Because, at some point, even victories turn sour. Few Jewish youth today burst with the kind of 1967 pride we once had, just the opposite. An Israeli-toting rah-rah machine is almost as hard to find as a rah-rah pro-Vietnam war tee shirt.
The same question applies to 1967 as to Vietnam in our present historical understanding. A Palestinian Memorial Wall in Jerusalem like the one that honors the fallen in Viet Nam in Washington, D. C.?
Deir Yassin Remembered, a group I once was part of it before it went south on Holocaust Denial Road, wanted Israel to erect a memorial to the victims of the massacre there in 1948, a massacre that Martin Buber referred to as a “black stain’ on Jewish history in a New York City lecture in the 1950s (if my now Austrian encased memory serves me well). So when I co-edited a book on the subject, I found a Palestinian who envisioned a model for a Palestinian memorial to the fallen of Deir Yassin for the book.
Quite interesting for Jews to visit, even in a virtual way, a memorial to our victims. Reversal of our innocence theme, big time. It’s shocking really. Try it. Attend a Nakba commemoration and see how that fits with your self-image. See how your colonial Jewish self that you thought was essentially de-colonized handles the message that you haven’t gone far enough. You might walk out of the event with more anger and a sense of bewilderment than you thought possible.
I know, since I’ve been there on my global lecture tour trotting, Zimbabwe in the 1980s for example, at a conference featuring Third World theologians. The evening’s entertainment was a powerful Zimbabwean dance group whose shouted refrain was the Jewish Israeli genocide of Palestinians. This was part of their “freedom for South Africa” tour. A few years later, outside of Chicago, I attended a church service that commemorated the Nakba. I followed the printed hand-out and heard the amens all around. I walked out of both events shaken to the core.
Well, if everyone has to sit through our theatrical and liturgical renditions of the Holocaust, why shouldn’t we sit through the Palestinian evocation of their catastrophe as part of our (re)(re)education as Jews. (More about Jewish (re)education below.)
I happened onto a book some years ago where Israeli soldiers remembered their experience in the 1967 war. To put it mildly, it isn’t the kind of romanticized memoir of the war that American Jews loved to read or still retain in our minds. Do we really think that the 1967 war didn’t include every type of disillusioned war stories that accompany every war?
Yes, then the October 1973 war, followed by the Lebanon war and beyond. Israeli war stories aren’t always what we want to hear. We don’t hear them, do we?
In the development of Holocaust consciousness – variously called Holocaust Theology – Israel’s victory in the 1967 war plays a huge role. It was in the wake of the war that the Holocaust became central to Jewish identity. Simply put, Jews named Jewish suffering when Jewish power was assured.
The connection between Jews in America and the Israeli soldiers in war is a fascinating one, the connection of connections, American Jews cheering Israel’s warriors on. The Israelis doing the dirty work of war, which can’t be admitted as dirty, lest the romanticized myth of Jewish innocence, so crucial in the identity and public arena, falls away. As in, the American Jewish/Jewish Israeli honeymoon is over. Admittedly the divorce proceedings have already begun behind closed doors but then American and Israeli Jews were only seen snuggling in public view. Seen any of that lover’s sweet talk lately?
Reading the Israeli narratives give an alternative view of the miracle of 1967. The fear, close calls, buddies lost, wanton killing of Arabs, PTS for Israeli soldiers – again, everything we now know about war was there – for the victorious Israelis. Of course, it was hidden from view even in Israel. To admit weakness in any sector has been the (un)Sabra thing. Now, the Sabra thing isn’t talked about much either. The identity fad one day is in the historical garbage bin the next. The 1967 war as “clean” violence. The American Jewish love affair with Israel. The Israeli love affair with Israel. Jewish innocence in the suffering of the Holocaust and in the empowerment of Israel. As if alone among the peoples of the world, Jews can assume power and retain innocence. No one believes that anymore. Not even Jews.
After the innocence is gone, what to do? The connection between the Holocaust and Israel – Holocaust consciousness itself – fading. Israel continuing to invade and expand. Not a picture that plays well anywhere. Where do Jews go when victory is sullied and new histories pick up where eye witness testimony leads them? It’s just a matter of time. It is time. Time has already moved on.
Jewish youth, now, when they travel the inversion is upon them. The blank stare of my German students when Hitler’s glass is raised as a welcome salute. Jewish blank stares when Palestinians around the world, their allies, and those who follow the news, demand answers to Israeli policies which they don’t really know, can’t control and don’t want to be confronted with. That Jews aren’t innocent and don’t regal us with the Holocaust, it’s too late and there’s too much water under the bridge to use the Holocaust or the fear of Israelis for their security etc., etc.
You see the Jewish youth point? Jewish youth are nowheresville and the Jewish community preparing them to answer the charges against them won’t do much in the long run. It’s just encasing them in a further ignorance and deflection that their parents are already encased in.
Jewish (re)education. It’s been going on for a long time. Starting with the lead up to the Holocaust, continuing in the lead up to the birth of Israel, then from there follow the (re)education trajectory. What does it take for Jews to survive history, to make history, to survive the making of history, all the while retaining the innocence platform? It’s not easy. It won’t be getting easier.
The “cosmopolitan” Jews that Yitzhak Rabin mentions in his autobiography – who couldn’t quite do the ethnic cleansing they were ordered to do. They had to be (re)educated. But think on a broader scale, what Jews have “learned” in the last decades, what we are still learning, the knowledge that is sponsored and the knowledge that is buried. The inadequate language we have now. How difficult it is for us to be honest – with others and with ourselves.
My German students having their history thrown in their face. Being saluted. Strange days for them and for us. Historical inversion, reversion.
The bridge with too much water flowing underneath it. The sullied river that is now Jewish history.