Review: The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust

Israel/Palestine
on 5 Comments

The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust is the widely awaited fourth volume in Stieg Larrson’s “Millennium” series, following The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Ok, that’s not true. But like those books Noam Chayut’s recently translated memoir is a rich, compelling read written by a left-wing activist. The book follows his trajectory from patriotic Israeli to activist in the anti-occupation group Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence).

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Chayut’s book, whose Hebrew title—“Thief Of My Holocaust”—is preferable especially with Chayut’s concerns about sexuality and gendered violence, is broken into three parts with a forward and thirty-six chapters of varying length ranging from brief anecdotes to stories several pages long. He introduces the book with a story typical of privileged Israeli youth, a gap year trip after army service. While recuperating in India after an injury incurred on his trip he had a double epiphany that is, he had an epiphany that he previously had an epiphany. He recalls a fleeting moment during an IDF attack on an unidentified Palestinian village where, in Chayut’s interpretation of the look in a young girl’s eye, he represented an absolute evil for her, an evil he’d previously thought applicable only to the perpetrators of the Nazi genocide. The book is the story of this epiphany, what lead to it and the author’s conclusions.

In telling the story of his youth Chayut brilliantly demonstrates the construction and internalization of the hegemonic Israeli narrative. He interweaves his personal story with nationalist narratives leading to the product of a youth aspiring to IDF combat service. Chayut looks at how the concept of ‘the Holocaust” was developed for him. Not the holocaust referring to the Nazi genocide against Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other Others, but “the Holocaust” as in the living construct in Israeli national mythology.

This Holocaust is what Chayut had stolen. It’s this Holocaust that buttressed his casual racism in justifying pulling a gun on some Naqab Bedouins, telling himself that it was “just for self-defense, for you know, Mr. Shepherd, what barbaric things your Arab brothers, who are not survivors nor sons of survivors, sometimes do,” (21). He threads this together with other nationalist narratives such as youthful games of pretending to be Haganah (the dominant pre-state Zionist militia). He writes how he and his playmates performed “how the Jewish underground fooled the Brits and smuggled in the illegal immigrants who went on to fight the Arabs and made room for us in this country, which was nearly empty to begin with,” (34). But that which is a heroic truth for a child becomes a loose ‘fact’ that still performs as true just a few years later. He writes, “that was only a childish game. By the time I was ten years old, Jews were allowed to come here and there was no more need to smuggle in illegal immigrants,” (34).

Chayut’s story of transformation is engaging itself but much value lies in his description of the hegemonic Israeli narrative. He notes, for example, the settler society’s fetishization of the indigenous populace writing, “’Yellow’ in army jargon meant wimp; it was no longer some ethnic invective referring to hair color, but rather a description of behavior. The opposite of ‘yellow in this slang was, surprisingly, ‘Arab’: strong, violent, tough. It was a real honor to be tagged a company of ‘Arabs.’ As a result, perversely, ‘Arab’ is a pejorative when meaning a ‘local,’ a Palestinian, but an honor when describing a soldier or Border Patrolman,” (172).

Chayut’s path to a break from the narrative he grew up in will not be compelling to all audiences. What is invisible inside Israeli normativity is often painfully obvious to outsiders. Some readers will surely find tedious and overwrought the story of coming to conclusions that were long obvious to them. But we should be careful not to undervalue the power of hegemonic narratives and should not hold it against the author, who is painfully honest about his racism and does not minimize or disassociate himself from his actions as an Israeli soldier. In organizing for justice, the primary concern is for Palestinian liberation as defined by Palestyinians, not soothing the consciences of conscious Israelis. But that does not make Chayut’s narrative unimportant.

Like any memoir, The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust represents a truth exclusive to the author so my comments about the politics of this truth are a secondary concern but a couple are in order. First, the book at times reads like a “shooting and crying” story (indeed, Shovrim Shtika can be seen in one light as a dissident variant of “shooting and crying” narratives, ‘shooting and crying for justice’ perhaps) though Chayut generally refrains from seeking absolution from his “thief,” from burdening Palestinians not only with settler colonialism but also with carrying the emotional burden of Israeli guilt. Second, Chayut writes that he “decided long ago not to violate any law. If the law becomes unbearable, then I will exchange my old dream of a little house in my home village [for] a little house abroad,” (210). Israeli law is already unbearable, just not for Israelis (something Chayut knows well). And those whose eyes become open to the injustice in which we participate have a duty to action. Otherwise we are more dedicated to our privileges than our consciences.

Third, Chayut in his final words to the “thief” notes, “I too, at your age,” referring here to his acquisition of his Holocaust, “experienced this kind of absolute evil, the way you did thanks to me. That said, I didn’t get to meet the embodiment of wickedness face to face as you did. I only inherited a memory of such a thing. That’s probably why you think that my horror is inferior to yours. But know that my idea of absolute evil stretches beyond anything your wildest imagination could conceive,” (246). I get what Chayut is doing, putting himself in the place of his own imagined horror, yet ferociously hate the latter part, this lecturing those we have wronged. It’s an appalling mis-step in an otherwise fine narrative. The condescension is so off-putting that I considered revisiting the entire text to see if it read different with that in mind. These misgivings notwithstanding, should Chayut pursue a chapter thirty-seven to his narrative I’d be eager to read it.

One last thing unrelated to the book itself, instead about the context of its publication. The European – including the Australasian and American settler colonies – left has a certain fascination with Israeli voices that allow them to criticize Israeli wrongdoings without engaging a Palestinian voice, a voice still deemed illegitimate (this is less, though still partially, true in the Global South). The critical Israeli voice is itself a validation of European voices, demonstrating that the entire spectrum of necessary speech can be found without including ‘Othered’ voices. To these voices, certainly against Chayut’s intent, we can add The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust. While critical Israeli narratives grow more acceptable, critical Palestinian voices remain marginalized. This should not be held against Chayut. The problem here lies with which voices get published and us, the readership.

5 Responses

  1. Woody Tanaka
    June 25, 2013, 10:35 am

    The fact that a book like this, with its blatant and obvious points about the absolute evil that the israelis do, is noteworthy is a pretty sad indictment of the generalized ignorance and casual racism in the israeli population.

  2. Kate
    June 25, 2013, 11:36 am

    I thought the book was well worth reading. It is always instructive (and saddening) to hear firsthand what early brainwashing can do to a person. He seems like a decent guy, too. Glad he overcame it.

  3. W.Jones
    June 25, 2013, 12:40 pm

    Dear Jimmy,

    I found your review above to be very helpful in understanding the book.

    You made an excellent point:

    I didn’t get to meet the embodiment of wickedness face to face as you did. I only inherited a memory of such a thing. That’s probably why you think that my horror is inferior to yours. But know that my idea of absolute evil stretches beyond anything your wildest imagination could conceive,” (246). I get what Chayut is doing, putting himself in the place of his own imagined horror, yet ferociously hate the latter part, this lecturing those we have wronged… The condescension is so off-putting that I considered revisiting the entire text to see if it read different with that in mind.

    Sure, you can revisit a relevant part. Earlier he wrote an imagined propaganda line running through his head: “Arab(s) are not survivors nor sons of survivors”.
    While he has been able to debunk alot of things, doesn’t it appear that this concept has remained in the passage in his book that you find “offputting” above.

    As a result, his Holocaust hasn’t really been completely stolen, has it, Jimmy?

    Secondly, how can one deal with the real problem he proposes where his ancestors underwent a genocide but the Palestinians haven’t? One way could be to assert that Palestinians really have in their past history, undergone largescale genocides. If you read through the history of Palestine, there really have been many largescale massacres throughout the centuries. One prominent example is the Mamilla massacre where several thousands were killed by the Zionists’ nationalist predecessors. Another is the massacres of the native population committed by the Crusaders and the Arab armies opposing them. And what about the ancient Biblical genocides of the Canaanites by Moses’ forces? The Romans massacred alot of native people in Palestine (particularly Jews), from whom the Palestinians are in fact descended. There was forced conversion to Islam and massacres of those who rejected Islam. One Egyptian caliph destroyed tons of churches along with massacring people. Even the British committed massacres. They loaded dozens of people onto a bus in a Christian village that was possibly resisting and ran the bus repeatedly over a landmine until it blew up. And of course you know of the massacres during the Nakba, and the hundreds of depopulated villages.

    You need only bring to mind the recent cartoon “This Land is Mine” to get a brief graphic portrayal of this history.

    After so many wars and massacres, the Palestinians were not nearly strong enough to resist the massive dispossessions of the 20th century, unlike the Saudis, Egyptians, and Turks would have been. Is it really correct then, that so many centuries of largescale genocide of Palestinians are not comparable to the historical memory of the author?

  4. DICKERSON3870
    June 25, 2013, 12:54 pm

    RE: “In telling the story of his youth Chayut brilliantly demonstrates the construction and internalization of the hegemonic Israeli narrative. He interweaves his personal story with nationalist narratives leading to the product of a youth aspiring to IDF combat service.” ~ Jimmy Johnson

    SEE: “Israel’s Defense Chief OK’s Hundreds of Israeli Deaths”, By Ira Chernus, CommonDreams.org, 11/11/11

    [EXCERPT] . . . An essential motive of Zionism from its beginning was a fierce desire to end the centuries of Jewish weakness, to show the world that Jews would no longer be pushed around, that they’d fight back and prove themselves tougher than their enemies. There was more to Zionism than that. But the “pride through strength” piece came to dominate the whole project. Hence the massive Israeli military machine with its nuclear arsenal.
    But you can’t prove that you’re stronger than your enemies unless you’ve also got enemies — or at least believe you’ve got enemies — to fight against. So there has to be a myth of Israel’s insecurity, fueled by an image of vicious anti-semites lurking somewhere out there, for Zionism to work. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran has gradually risen to the top of Israel oh-so-necessary enemies list. Iranophobia is rampant in Israel, as one Israeli scholar writes, because “Israel needs an existential threat.”
    Anyone who has grown up in Israel, or in the U.S. Jewish community (as I did), and paid attention knows all this. . .

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – link to commondreams.org

    P.S. ALSO SEE – “Iranophobia: The Panic of the Hegemons”, by Ira Chernus, Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010
    LINK – link to tikkun.org

  5. PilgrimSoul
    June 26, 2013, 1:23 pm

    I have just ordered this book, and will encourage friends and associates to do so as well. I hesitate to comment at all, because I don’t speak Hebrew and haven’t read it yet, but from Jimmy Johnson’s excellent review I would just like to say that this book may encompass a big part of the breakthrough vision we’ve been waiting for. Traumatic memory of the Holocaust–and the centuries of European antisemitism that preceded it–is the fuel that drives hatred of Palestinians, fear of the world as a giant anti-Jewish conspiracy, and much Jewish and Christian Islamophobia. It is interesting that apparently the author, as a soldier entering a Palestinian village, almost immediately made the connection between the fear in the Palestinians girl’s eyes and the Nazi Holocaust. I believe that this happened because a great deal of the aggression Israeli Jews feel toward Palestinians (and their covert admiration of ‘Arabs’) comes from internalized aggression of their European tormenters, carefully kept alive by the Likudniks. The rightwing Likudniks are careful to keep that traumatic memory alive–remember how Netanyahu always brings up the Holocaust when lecturing the UN?–because that is their main political capital.

    But you cannot keep using traumatic memory forever, because sooner or later individuals tend to wake up and see that they’re being used. As Brecht said (or something like this), you can call out a tank against the people, but you can’t control what the driver of that tank is thinking. Sooner or later one of those soldiers is going to write a book, and then the secret is out.

    For some thoughts on how traumatic memory of the Holocaust is used by the US Israel Lobby against both Christians and Jews, see:

    link to counterpunch.org

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