Exile and the Prophetic: The Holocaust and Jewish power

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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.

The evolving Holocaust brand is fascinating to think about.  It’s a case study in the commodification of suffering, repackaged for each generation.

That is why the upcoming 20th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum needs further probing.

The events that the museum is placing front and center in its 20th anniversary celebration target certain demographics.  The cities chosen as venues have high proportions of Holocaust survivors and – this is interesting in terms of the Americanization of the Holocaust – World War II veterans who helped liberate concentration camps. 

In Holocaust literature, American soldiers are mostly absent or serve as silent witnesses to the Jewish tragedy.  Emphasis on American soldiers in recent years is telling yet hasn’t been explored for its significance. 

On the one hand, highlighting the connection between the Holocaust and American involvement in the war represents another merging of Jewish and American sensibilities.  It links Jewish and American history as if they are one.  On the other hand, the emphasis on American liberators shows the dwindling population numbers who understand the Holocaust as a pivotal point in history.  Though we are counseled to never forget the Holocaust, time takes a toll on memory.  When your target demographics are in their 80s, attracting new audiences is already a problem. 

Perhaps that is why the other target demographic of the museum is youth.  A new generation has to be educated into the Holocaust.  Otherwise the handwriting for Holocaust consciousness is on the wall. Interesting, though, the older generation was educated into the Holocaust, too.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the mass death of Jews was seen largely within the context of the destruction and death in World War II.  The singularity of Jewish death came later, a singularity which is now part of the Holocaust brand.  Otherwise, why would there be a museum dedicated to the Holocaust which overwhelmingly features Jewish suffering?

That singular branding may be difficult to maintain over the long run.  That’s why the major events of the museum’s 20th anniversary use the Holocaust to launch a series of contemporary questions about genocide in the 21st century. 

Yet this begs the question of the passing of time and the singularity of the Holocaust itself.  Many are asking why each genocide event doesn’t stand on its own. For the Holocaust brand the possibility that an event has already occurred or will occur in the future that might become a new reference point for judgment and action regarding genocide prevention is a danger. 

Protecting and enhancing the museum and the Holocaust legacy means managing the interpretation of genocide events.  Keeping the primacy of the Holocaust intact requires a lot of hard work.  Does this effort actually help prevent genocide in the future? The cycle of violence and atrocity continues unabated. 

There seems to be little reflection on why the Holocaust lessons aren’t applied – at least successfully.  Could it be that the Holocaust, as the museum defines and narrates it, doesn’t raise the foundational questions of injustice and violence in the world?  Does its naiveté about American abuse of power – today as well as in history – truncate what needs to be communicated about the Holocaust?  

The fact that Jews participate in the cycle of violence and atrocity after the Holocaust and more, do so while using the Holocaust as the reason for Jewish power over Palestinians, mitigates, if not eviscerates the ‘lessons’ of the Holocaust.  The Palestinian intruders on the Holocaust narrative remain the primary challenge to the Holocaust brand.

In anticipation of its 20th anniversary, the museum’s website offers suggestions for actions to prevent future genocides.  They include inviting Holocaust survivors and veterans who liberated the camps to speak at various venues, signing an online pledge to address genocide today and encouraging local schools to adopt Holocaust education programs.  The capstone of the celebration will be a two-day commemoration next year in Washington featuring – you guessed it – Elie Wiesel.

While noting that Wiesel was appointed chair of the council to plan the Holocaust memorial, the Times doesn’t mention that Wiesel resigned that position because many thought he lacked the organizational talent to bring the museum into reality.  There was internal criticism as well that Wiesel was using the museum platform for personal and career status enhancement. 

Wiesel also feared that the Holocaust was being spread thin by demands that the Roma and the Sinti be included in the museum’s Holocaust narrative of populations targeted by the Nazis for genocide.  Wiesel believes that the Holocaust is exclusively a Jewish preserve. 

Despite his fears and resignation, the museum largely honors Wiesel’s sense of the Holocaust.  His branding of the Holocaust has won out.  That branding includes support for Israel as the response to the Holocaust.  The effect is that Israel doesn’t have to be explicitly named.  By not having to name Israel, the Holocaust brand’s support for Israel can be moved  out of the political realm and exist, as it does for Wiesel, as a moral issue.

Yet what kind of moral issue doesn’t include the political?  It’s abundantly obvious that if the Holocaust is about Jewish suffering, at issue today is Jewish power.

Targeting the older demographic for the 20th anniversary of the Holocaust museum is a sign of the times.  There are too many younger folks who know that the Holocaust brand score.  That score is less about Jewish suffering and more about Jewish power.



About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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