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.
‘What if Hitler had access to the internet?’ As reported in the New York Times, that’s one of the big questions the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum asks as it celebrates its 20th anniversary next year.
The national advertising campaign accompanying the museum’s anniversary is fascinating in and of itself. The campaign focuses on the ‘extraordinary brand’ the museum – and the Holocaust – represents.
That’s according to Lorna Miles, chief marketing officer for the museum. In her words: ‘I do feel that the museum has an extraordinary brand, and that its reputation is impeccable. And my job as the chief marketing officer is not just to protect the brand, but also to promote it.’
When Miles promotes the museum she promotes the Holocaust, too. The museum’s ‘extraordinary brand’ is the Holocaust. Or is the Holocaust the museum’s product to sell?
If the Holocaust is a commodity, it must be marketed like any other commodity. Like, for example, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or DisneyWorld.
It’s interesting to speculate what Miles thinks ‘protecting’ the museum/Holocaust brand entails.No doubt, this has to do with protecting the museum’s Holocaust narrative – making sure what’s allowed into that narrative and what must, at all costs, be kept out.
The most obvious narrative intruders are the Palestinians. They’ve been symbolically knocking on the museum’s doors since its opening. If Palestinians were let in, if only as the victims of the victims, what would that portend for the museum and the Holocaust brand?
Including the Palestinians would certainly sully the Holocaust brand – from a certain perspective. From another point of view it might revive the Holocaust brand by investing it with honesty. I doubt the museum will take that risk.
The Times article contains interesting nuggets about the future of Holocaust consciousness itself. First off, the amazing attendance figures of the Holocaust museum. As of last July, 34 million people have come to the museum – more than 1.5 million a year. That’s a huge number to be sure.
The breakdown along religious/ethnic lines: about 90% of the museum visitors were non-Jewish. I assume that the great majority of them are Christian in background. This raises the issue of what the museum’s primary function is. Is it to commemorate the Holocaust or inculcate the majority Christian population with Holocaust memory for political reasons?
The Times article doesn’t provide a breakdown of where the museum-goers come from. The international component is important, though. Exporting the Holocaust beyond Jewish and American shores is an important – and political – goal of Holocaust consciousness.
34% of the museum visitors were school children. This means that a significant proportion of the children’s visits were organized through schools they attend. Thus the Holocaust museum, funded by the national government, is likewise recognized and officially sanctioned by the American education industry.
The Americanization of the Holocaust continues apace. The museum-goers are educated about the Holocaust in America’s capital. The museum carries the implicit – and sometimes explicit – sense that America saved Jews from annihilation. If it didn’t then, it should have and would today, another tip of the hat to Israel as a beacon of light besieged by those who would do it harm.
The museum’s corollary message is important.The Holocaust could only have happened in Europe because, in America, our protected freedoms and history of tolerance, prohibits events such as these. The museum doesn’t get into the messy historical details of the history of Native Americans and African slaves. The story line of American innocence, now buoyed by the Holocaust, remains.
I doubt the disturbing questions that follow won’t be touched during the 20th anniversary of the museum. Does the Holocaust narrative now function as a prime inoculator against trenchant criticism of American history and foreign policy? Does the Holocaust narrative, and thus the museum itself, bear some responsibility for American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the sanctions against and preparations for the bombing of Iran?
These questions bear on the Holocaust brand, Miles promotes. Is she promoting the historic suffering of European Jews and America’s global reach? The same can be said about promoting Israeli power. I assume that the great majority of visitors to the museum leave with a sense that the Jews of Israel, like the Jews of Europe, are besieged.
Strange that out of the Holocaust of unimaginable suffering we are left with a museum and a brand. Like every other brand, the content of the Holocaust brand has to evolve to remain relevant. Though the brand keeps the same name – the name ‘Holocaust’ is a huge part of the brand – every rebranding campaign emphasizes aspects of the brand that appeal to the next generation.
Like Israel’s short and unsuccessful attempt to rebrand itself, however, sometimes historical reality gets in the way. From the beginning, rebranding Israel was mired in controversy. Palestine intruded quite quickly. Brand Israel hasn’t recovered.
The Holocaust – and its brand – is fading. Time has taken its toll. So have Israeli policies toward Palestinians.
As it turns out, it may be easier to build a real wall around real Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank than it is to build a virtual wall around a Holocaust narrative on the defensive.
Of course, both walls will fall eventually.
Increasingly the Apartheid Wall and the Holocaust Wall are one and the same. No daylight between them. When they fall, they’ll fall together. Then what?