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.
Some different sides of the Holocaust brand – since I’m been writing about it over the last days. One comes from some years ago when I spoke my piece as an officially invited speaker at the research arm of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The obvious shadow-side of the Holocaust brand is the use of the Holocaust as a lever of power against Palestinians. This is the elephant in the Holocaust museum. Every day it isn’t addressed is a lost opportunity with devastating consequences.
It remains to be seen if the suffering of Palestinians can be addressed within the Holocaust narrative. The Holocaust narrative might collapse under the weight of Palestinian suffering. Since the Holocaust narrative survives, bolstered by the museum, it seems to some that the Holocaust narrative can remains as it is. Palestinians can be excluded.
Yet the relevance of the Holocaust in today’s world is more and more questioned. We’ve just come through a decade or more of attaching other genocides to the Holocaust brand in order to expand the audience receptive to Holocaust claims of centrality.
For a time, looking at the Rwandan genocide through the lessons of the Holocaust gained popularity. Now it’s mostly about ‘futuring’ the Holocaust and genocide. What does the Holocaust teach us about predicting genocides and thus allow us to intervene and prevent genocides in the future?
Many who experience this evolution of the Holocaust brand leave conferences and events with a feeling that central issues haven’t been addressed. Though the issue of genocide prevention is huge, it seems like a Holocaust brand deflection. After a Holocaust and genocide event I attended, one participant confided he felt the Holocaust analogy was stretched too thin. It was like trying to keep the Holocaust alive – on life-support.
I don’t know everything that’s been discussed in the Holocaust museum or its ancillary programs in its almost twenty years of existence. I do know that the Palestinian elephant in the room was addressed head-on at least once – by me. That was in 1995 when I was invited to speak at the research part of the museum. I used the occasion to address the use and abuse of Holocaust memory in relation to the issue of Palestine and Palestinian suffering.
In my lecture and question and answer period, I broached the possibility of organizing a tour of the museum by Palestinians. Afterward, they would hold a press conference and produce a statement for the press. What does the Holocaust say to Palestinians? How does such a prominent museum about the Holocaust function in relation to the Palestinian struggle for freedom?
I wondered if Palestinians would want their story narrated toward the end of the museum’s Holocaust narrative. Israel is addressed there as part of the Jewish response to the Holocaust. Since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine occurred just three years after the liberation of the death camps, this is part of the aftermath of the Holocaust, too.
If a voice was offered Palestinians as part of the aftermath of the Holocaust, how would Palestinians address the issue? The Holocaust narrative has overwhelming power. In light of the Holocaust narrative, how would they narrate their story? We might assume what Palestinians would say. Nonetheless, one never knows. Especially in a heightened public spotlight when one’s history is up for grabs, unexpected things occur.
At the Holocaust museum I called for a Jewish confession to Palestinians and reparations for what Palestinians had lost. I also spoke about the difficulty of teaching the Holocaust without making it clear that the question of Palestine was there from the beginning. In teaching the Holocaust, I emphasized that Palestinians remain central to consideration of the aftermath of the Holocaust and that the lessons to be learned from suffering peoples are complex once they assume power.
In sum, the after of the Holocaust cannot simply assert Jewish innocence. As Jews, we come after the Holocaust and after Israel. What Jews have done to the Palestinian people has to be included in the broader Holocaust narrative.
My lecture was received politely. The staff asked for a copy of my lecture for the museum’s archives. This surprised me since my arrival at the museum wasn’t without controversy. Emil Fackenheim, the well-known Holocaust philosopher, demanded that the museum rescind my invitation. He faxed a virulent statement to more than twenty movers and shakers on the American opinion scene hoping the museum would cancel my invitation.
Because of the controversy, the Jewish Forward reported on my appearance at the museum. The article presented a variety of views on my appearance. For the most part, I was treated fairly.
After my lecture, my audience and I were invited to a reception held for another event at the museum. As I was led to the refreshment table, I stopped. It wasn’t a coffee and soda break-out you typically find at academic conferences. It was a sumptuous feast you find at a high-end hotel wedding reception. The disparity between the Holocaust and the sumptuous banquet startled me.
My host may have witnessed the difficulty I was having before and kindly helped me through the situation. Since we were surrounded by people from both events, he whispered in my ear that rather than thinking about the Holocaust, I should think of this as a public museum where, as in other museums, receptions were held.
At that moment, a woman who attended my lecture asked to speak to me. She was disturbed that I had ‘brought Palestinians into the Holocaust picture.’ My host offered to get me a drink and some food. I nodded my head. The woman proceeded to questioned me. Her voice became louder as I reiterated my understanding.
Years ago my older son, Aaron, attended a Hillel conference. Afterwards, Aaron reflected that he had never been surrounded by so much Jewishness and so little at the same time.
At the Holocaust museum, I felt the same. The Holocaust was all around us. We couldn’t have been more distant from the Holocaust. The situation was surreal.
I tried to move away from the woman as she became more and more insistent. I approached the table as a possible escape route. Then I turned away.