Review: The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust

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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.

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