This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
As International Holocaust Remembrance Day dawned, I was in the Philippines on a month-long teaching and speaking tour. In the Philippines, remembering the Holocaust feels different. The experience of devastation and suffering is ongoing here. When Filipinos look back to their history of suffering, they see their future.
For Filipinos, the future is different than the future Jews around the world experience. Rather than empowerment, with the unbridled and increasing aid Israel receives from the United States, the Philippines remains dependent and vulnerable to American imperial power. It’s unlikely that the current or any future president of the Philippines will be invited to address Congress as Prime Minister Netanyahu did some months ago. Prime Minister Netanyahu was critical of the proposed US deal with Iran. If a Filipino president addressed Congress, and was honest, what would he or she have to say?
So when President Obama declared at the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C, that “We are all Jews,” Filipinos might wonder how that applies to them. If it did apply, the Philippines would soon have a memorial museum in proximity to the Mall in Washington. Such a museum would commemorate their martyrs to the Spanish, the Japanese and, yes, to the Americans. What would that museum be named?
To internationalize Holocaust remembrance, it must cease being Jewish in time and place. Or become truly Jewish in light of Israel and the Palestinians. With the organized, systematic and permanent oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel, with the enablement of Jews in America and the United States government, the Holocaust has ceased to be a prophetic warning for the future. The Holocaust has become an imperial export that continues the cycle of violence and atrocity in different parts of the world, often in its name.
Later that day, I lectured on a Jewish theology of liberation and paid tribute to those Jews who mined the meaning of the Holocaust for Jews and others. Holocaust thinkers probed deeply the disconnection between God and the Jewish people and human endeavor and ethics, as a challenge to Jews and humanity. Yet the trajectory of Holocaust thought is Israel, unmindful of the horrific suffering Israel is causing the Palestinian people. Such thought then censors dissent on the consequences of the use of the Holocaust as a blunt instrument against the Palestinian people.
With the suffering of the Palestinians in mind, I moved quickly to the second “after” of Jewish life. After the Holocaust, yes, but also after what Jews in Israel and beyond have done and are doing to the Palestinian people. If indeed “We are all Jews,” then Jews, too, must contemplate how the memory of the Holocaust functions to the detriment of others. It must be a critical force against the misuse of Jewish power
My Filipino audience resonated with the Holocaust’s dual after’s precisely because the onslaught here continues. But it isn’t only the Philippines where both after’s apply. The truly international importance of Holocaust remembrance awaits a further exploration as the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s permanent occupation of Palestine looms. When that exploration is named internationally, the horror of Holocaust will remain. It may even be disentangled from those who trumpet the Holocaust as an imperial and colonial power over others.