Exile and the Prophetic: The Holocaust and Jewish power

on 28 Comments

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

Other posts by .

Posted In:

28 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    December 21, 2012, 12:00 pm

    “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.”

    This reminds me of the audiences for classical music, especially classical chamber music. In NYC we all recognize each other, at least as types: we’re mostly elderly. Lot’s of kids graduating from the conservatories who play music really well — who will listen to them?

    Had the Holocaust not been captured by the Zionists it would have been worth remembering. As it is, as it has been used, I hope its audiences die off and are not replaced. All those museums can perhaps become part of the Smithsonian’s Native American museums (Native Americans, too, suffered from massive racist calamities).

    As to the “meaning” of Holocaust remembrance, Ellis correctly remarks that a lot of killing these days is at the hands of the USA (as was the removal of the Native Americans): he reminds us of “American abuse of power ” and also of Israeli abuse of power. A bit hard to be simultaneously pitying the victims of power and cheering for the victimizers who use power. Oh, Holocaust, how shall we think of you?

  2. Stephen Shenfield
    December 21, 2012, 2:18 pm

    Yes, better the Judeocide be forgotten than “remembered” in a form designed to fuel the Zionist war machine. But it was never wholly captured by the Zionists. As Zionism is based on specific distortions of the historical record, restoring that record is necessary in order to deprive Zionism of its appeal.

    First of all, we need to place the Jewish victims of Nazism back into the context of the totality of its victims, who belonged to many different ethnic groups including the Germans themselves. The atrocities, in turn, need to be remembered as an expression of fascism — an ideology with adherents in many different ethnic groups. The resistance to and final defeat of fascism similarly needs to be remembered as an achievement of people belonging to many different ethnic groups, again including Germans.

    Another reason why the Zionists need to remove the Judeocide from its original context is that earlier generations correctly perceived it as part of a political struggle in which the fascists embodied the right and their opponents came mainly from the left. In the interwar period anti-fascism was a left-wing cause, while conservatives supported fascism as a bulwark against the left.

    All this had to be forgotten during the Cold War because it got in the way of cementing a new Western alliance against the former ally. At that time the Judeocide was also played down because it was remembered in the context of fascism and anti-fascism. Its “memory” was revived later, as a Zionist object lesson, when the context in which it had originally been embedded had faded. And those who have revived it for their own purposes are themselves an integral part of the right-wing forces in the world — the same forces that earlier gave rise to fascism. That is why (or at least one of the reasons why) they do not want people to remember the context in which the Judeocide took place.

    • Klaus Bloemker
      December 22, 2012, 12:29 pm

      Jewish victims of Nazism … totality of its victims … many different ethnic groups including the Germans themselves.”
      as much as I dislike that the Jewish victims are assigned (or assign to themselves)
      a special (often superior) status, one has to distinguish victims as those killed for racist reasons (Jews and Gypsies) and those killed for political reasons (among them many Germans).

      This is an important distinction. The latter were killed for what they DID, the former for what they WERE. (I of course do not imply that what people did was
      a legitimate reason to kill them, but it was a systematically different one.)

      • tree
        December 22, 2012, 3:49 pm

        Slavs and Russians were also killed by the Nazis, often not for what they did but for who they were, in other words, for German ethnocentric reasons. Nazi Germany’s plans for the east involved forced mass starvation. The only significant difference between the two groups is that there were fewer Jews than Slavs so therefore Nazi plans were easier to implement against Jews. Nazi attitudes towards both groups were similar.

        And many Germans were also killed by the Nazis, not for what they did, but for what they believed.

      • Antidote
        December 22, 2012, 3:52 pm

        the first victims of the euthanasia program were, as genocide-researcher Gunnar Heinsohn points out in this interesting article, were Aryans, i.e. the mentally and physically disabled, and soldiers wounded severely during the attack on Poland. Were they killed for what they did or what they were? Or merely for the pragmatic reason that hospitals/ beds were needed during the war, resources were limited. The timing would suggest the latter. Why not kill the disabled much earlier if racial improvement was of great importance?

        Would a Jewish communist or criminal be killed for what they did or what they were? It’s not like a person is limited to being a Jew and nothing else. What do we make of the Jewish soldiers in the Wehrmacht, more than during WW 2? Was Hitler even a racist? Not uncontroversial either:


      • Shmuel
        December 23, 2012, 8:17 am

        Thanks, Antidote. Robert Wistrich takes a similar, “extermination of an ideology” view, in Hitler and the Holocaust (published a year after Heinsohn’s essay), rejecting the notion of “another planet” or “inexplicability”.

      • Mooser
        December 23, 2012, 3:53 pm

        Antidote, I think we are obviously dealing with a man (actually a couple of people) whose entire world-view will fall to pieces if there isn’t a way to say who everybody is. It becomes way too confusing if we’re all just people, cause then they don’t know everything. And that can be very frightening if you’re used to omniscience.
        What people do can be changeable. But what they are? That’s constant (“there is no resignation”) and can be judged! And action taken, with complete assurance and justification.

        If only I knew a name for that kind thinking?

      • Stephen Shenfield
        December 23, 2012, 8:19 pm

        Many of the disabled Germans killed in the “euthanasia” program were simply mentally retarded. They need not have used up any hospital beds. Hitler waited for the outbreak of war for the “cover” it provided.

        Many Poles and Serbs were killed for what they “were” (to take a couple of examples). Poles belonging to certain social groups thought capable of providing leadership, e.g. the intelligentsia, were systematically killed. All those killed to avenge the killing of Germans by the resistance (at ratios of 50 or 100:1, often whole villages) were killed for what they “were.”

        I could go on, but that should suffice to demonstrate that Jews and Gypsies were far from alone in being killed for what they “were.”

        In any case, I would like to ask Klaus why he considers this an “important” distinction. Important for what purpose? Is killing people for what they are intrinsically worse than killing them for what they do, and why? It does seem to me that this distinction is often made for the purpose of elevating Jewish above non-Jewish victims of the Nazis.

      • Antidote
        December 24, 2012, 12:32 pm

        “rejecting the notion of “another planet” or “inexplicability” ”

        so do I. Ill have a look at Wistrich, thanks. I know Heinsohn’ contributions to the explaining the European witch hunts, which caused scholarly controversy and objections to his monocausal approach. I’d agree and would expect controversy about his contribution to the Holocaust along similar lines.

        I do think that looking at Nazi racial ideology as an explanation gets us no further than blaming religion/Catholocism for the witch craze

      • Antidote
        December 24, 2012, 12:41 pm

        Stephen – mentally retarded people need beds, too, whether it’s a hospitl or institutional bed or whatever. The outbreak of war did not break enough cover because the program for the metnally ill had to be stopped when it became known what was going on

        Jews were a different victim group, for various reasons. One of them being the “hostages for world jewry” logic. Substitute Sinti and Roma or gypsy for “international Jewish financiers” or “Jewish warmongers”, the “Jew-ridden Churchill, Roosevelt” etc.

        The prophesy speech: “If international Gypsies unleash yet another world war, the result will not be the Bolshevistion of Europe, but the destruction of the Gypsies in Europe”

        Sounds mentally retarded.

      • Mooser
        December 23, 2012, 3:39 pm

        “as much as I dislike that the Jewish victims are assigned (or assign to themselves”

        Uh, Klaus, look, uh… just between you and me: The “Jewish victims” can’t “assign to themselves” any damn thing. They’re, like, dead.
        Can we stop blaming them now, do you think?

        And as far as the rest of your comment goes, Klaus, if I had teeth, I would grind them every time I think of the Seattle tunnel project. You could have done it two threads.

      • Mooser
        December 23, 2012, 3:44 pm

        “one has to distinguish victims as those killed for racist reasons (Jews and Gypsies) and those killed for political reasons (among them many Germans).”

        Sure, Klaus, cause if there is one thing that isn’t political, it’s race and ethnicity. They are intrinsic!
        Rip Van Winkel got nothin’ on you, Klaus.

      • Mooser
        December 23, 2012, 3:47 pm

        “The latter were killed for what they DID, the former for what they WERE.”

        It’s a much better reason to kill someone! After all, people can change what they do, but they can’t change what they are. It’s intrinsic!

      • Mooser
        December 23, 2012, 3:58 pm

        I’m gonna embarass myself, here goes: As a Jew, one of the first things I believe in (after monotheism, and boiled-than-baked, the important stuff) is the right of every person to not be a Jew if they so desire. It’s not much, but I think it helps. For all I know it’s heretical, but there it is.

      • Annie Robbins
        December 23, 2012, 4:00 pm

        the right of every person to not be a Jew if they so desire

        thank you so much mooser, i appreciate you acknowledging my right to be other than jewish.

      • Mooser
        December 23, 2012, 7:48 pm

        “thank you so much mooser, i appreciate you acknowledging my right to be other than jewish.”

        Our loss is the Church of your choice’s (or maybe the NFL’s) gain. A lot of people go to the early service, and catch the game later. You know, of course Annie, if you were Jewish, you would have your entire Sunday free to celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday.

      • Mooser
        December 23, 2012, 7:57 pm

        “the right of every person to not be a Jew if they so desire”

        And the fact that we (jews) have this right (to not be a Jew) gives us the freedom, for the first time in history, to be Jews. Instead of being determined as Jews.
        Now, given Jewish history, why would any Jew not want to take full advantage of that freedom? More importantly, why would any Jew want to cloud or obfuscate that freedom to any other Jew, especially if you are instructing children. Why on earth?
        It’s the most radical and fundamental change in Jewish history, innit? And it’s benefitted more Jews in more ways than any other ‘system’ we have lived under? Would that be fair to say?
        And yet some people want make that distinction, between Judaism under a system which allows them to be individuals, and the systems in which “Jew” was an imposed identity, unclear. Now, what kind of person would see an advantage in making Jews think they “belonged to a club from which they couldn’t resign?”

      • Klaus Bloemker
        December 23, 2012, 8:45 pm

        “the right of every person to not be a Jew if they so desire”
        Annie –
        I tell you a little story on that matter. I quote from a book on Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper:

        “Being Jewish has been rightly described as belonging to a club from which there is no resignation. … For instance, 1969 brought an inquiry from the then editor of the Jewish Year Book as to whether, as he was of Jewish descent, Professor Sir Karl Popper would like to be in the Who’s Who section, ‘which includes Jews of distinction in all walks of life’. – To this Popper replied that he was of Jewish descent but the son of parents baptized years before he was born; that he was baptized at birth and was brought up as a Protestant. And he continued:
        – ‘I do not believe in race; I abhor any form of racialism or nationalism; and I never belonged to the Jewish faith. … I do sympathize with minorities, but I do not consider myself a Jew.’ ”
        ‘Wittgenstein’s Poker – The story of a ten-minute argument between two great philosophers’, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, London 2001

      • Klaus Bloemker
        December 23, 2012, 10:49 pm

        Mooser –
        Why did you need 5 (five) comments to reply to 1 (one) comment of mine?

      • eljay
        December 24, 2012, 12:01 am

        >> Mooser – Why did you need 5 (five) comments to reply to 1 (one) comment of mine?

        5:1 is pretty solid. Any less, and he’d only be a “Vealer” or a “Lamber” instead of a “Mooser”. ;-)

    • Mooser
      December 23, 2012, 3:37 pm

      “As Zionism is based on specific distortions of the historical record, restoring that record is necessary in order to deprive Zionism of its appeal.”

      And I’ve been stammering and yammering, and stumbling and ironicising and sarcasticising and parodising, and in breezes Stephen Shenfield and puts everything I’ve been struggling to say in one, neat, well written sentence. Thank you. Your comment is general, but I am sure as more of the facts are explicated, the true relationship of Judaism, Jews, Jewishness and Zionism will become apparent. It won’t be pretty, and it will be hard to face up to the deficiencies that made it possible.
      Or maybe we could blame the Gentiles? Yeah, that’s the ticket! (Sorry….sorry, can’t resist)

  3. Keith
    December 21, 2012, 9:18 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “There seems to be little reflection on why the Holocaust lessons aren’t applied ….”

    Any honest review of history will quickly reveal that mass-murder is the rule, not the exception, hence, I am unsure what “lesson” the Jewish Holocaust can teach us that would be in any way different from what could be learned from other episodes of mass-murder, including current events for which the US bears considerable responsibility. In fact, the laser-like emphasis on the Jewish Holocaust is tantamount to holocaust denial in regards to all of the other episodes of mass-murder, including the murder of six million Blacks in eastern Congo (see below). Mass-murder is an inevitable consequence of imperial power-seeking, and the empire plans to continue.

    “The United States has financed and given overall direction to the worst genocide since World War Two, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since 1996, Washington has drenched Congo’s eastern provinces in the blood of over six million people. The governments of Rwanda and Uganda, the direct perpetrators of this holocaust, are in every sense of the word agents of U.S. foreign policy, who operate with impunity under the imperial umbrella.” (Glen Ford)

    “…up to a certain point, the Nazi war crimes consisted largely of inflicting on white Europeans levels of brutality that had previously been reserved only for Asians, Africans, and the native populations of North, Central, and South America.” (Bertram Gross)

  4. talknic
    December 22, 2012, 2:41 pm

    Anyone care to guess at how many Holocaust Museums are in the US …

Leave a Reply