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Exile and the Prophetic: Branding the Holocaust

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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.

‘What if Hitler had access to the internet?’  As reported in the New York Times, that’s one of the big questions the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum asks as it celebrates its 20th anniversary next year.

The national advertising campaign accompanying the museum’s anniversary is fascinating in and of itself.  The campaign focuses on the ‘extraordinary brand’ the museum – and the Holocaust – represents. 

That’s according to Lorna Miles, chief marketing officer for the museum.  In her words:  ‘I do feel that the museum has an extraordinary brand, and that its reputation is impeccable.  And my job as the chief marketing officer is not just to protect the brand, but also to promote it.’

When Miles promotes the museum she promotes the Holocaust, too.  The museum’s ‘extraordinary brand’ is the Holocaust.  Or is the Holocaust the museum’s product to sell?

If the Holocaust is a commodity, it must be marketed like any other commodity.  Like, for example, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or DisneyWorld.

It’s interesting to speculate what Miles thinks ‘protecting’ the museum/Holocaust brand entails.No doubt, this has to do with protecting the museum’s Holocaust narrative – making sure what’s allowed into that narrative and what must, at all costs, be kept out.

The most obvious narrative intruders are the Palestinians.  They’ve been symbolically knocking on the museum’s doors since its opening.  If Palestinians were let in, if only as the victims of the victims, what would that portend for the museum and the Holocaust brand?

Including the Palestinians would certainly sully the Holocaust brand – from a certain perspective.  From another point of view it might revive the Holocaust brand by investing it with honesty.  I doubt the museum will take that risk.

The Times article contains interesting nuggets about the future of Holocaust consciousness itself.  First off, the amazing attendance figures of the Holocaust museum.  As of last July, 34 million people have come to the museum – more than 1.5 million a year.  That’s a huge number to be sure. 

The breakdown along religious/ethnic lines: about 90% of the museum visitors were non-Jewish.  I assume that the great majority of them are Christian in background.  This raises the issue of what the museum’s primary function is. Is it to commemorate the Holocaust or inculcate the majority Christian population with Holocaust memory for political reasons?

The Times article doesn’t provide a breakdown of where the museum-goers come from.  The international component is important, though.  Exporting the Holocaust beyond Jewish and American shores is an important – and political – goal of Holocaust consciousness. 

34% of the museum visitors were school children. This means that a significant proportion of the children’s visits were organized through schools they attend. Thus the Holocaust museum, funded by the national government, is likewise recognized and officially sanctioned by the American education industry.

The Americanization of the Holocaust continues apace. The museum-goers are educated about the Holocaust in America’s capital.  The museum carries the implicit – and sometimes explicit – sense that America saved Jews from annihilation.  If it didn’t then, it should have and would today, another tip of the hat to Israel as a beacon of light besieged by those who would do it harm. 

The museum’s corollary message is important.The Holocaust could only have happened in Europe because, in America, our protected freedoms and history of tolerance, prohibits events such as these.  The museum doesn’t get into the messy historical details of the history of Native Americans and African slaves.  The story line of American innocence, now buoyed by the Holocaust, remains.

I doubt the disturbing questions that follow won’t be touched during the 20th anniversary of the museum.  Does the Holocaust narrative now function as a prime inoculator against trenchant criticism of American history and foreign policy? Does the Holocaust narrative, and thus the museum itself, bear some responsibility for American military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the sanctions against and preparations for the bombing of Iran?

These questions bear on the Holocaust brand, Miles promotes.  Is she promoting the historic suffering of European Jews and America’s global reach?   The same can be said about promoting Israeli power.  I assume that the great majority of visitors to the museum leave with a sense that the Jews of Israel, like the Jews of Europe, are besieged.

Strange that out of the Holocaust of unimaginable suffering we are left with a museum and a brand.  Like every other brand, the content of the Holocaust brand has to evolve to remain relevant.  Though the brand keeps the same name – the name ‘Holocaust’ is a huge part of the brand – every rebranding campaign emphasizes aspects of the brand that appeal to the next generation. 

Like Israel’s short and unsuccessful attempt to rebrand itself, however, sometimes historical reality gets in the way. From the beginning, rebranding Israel was mired in controversy.  Palestine intruded quite quickly.  Brand Israel hasn’t recovered.

The Holocaust – and its brand – is fading.  Time has taken its toll.  So have Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

As it turns out, it may be easier to build a real wall around real Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank than it is to build a virtual wall around a Holocaust narrative on the defensive.

Of course, both walls will fall eventually.

Increasingly the Apartheid Wall and the Holocaust Wall are one and the same.  No daylight between them.  When they fall, they’ll fall together.  Then what?

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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  1. seafoid
    seafoid on December 20, 2012, 1:05 pm

    Palestinians: last victims of the Holocaust
    by Lillian Rosengarten

    Where is the heart of the Jewish soul? Soul as ethical compassion, the Jewish spirit as it struggled to survive the darkest nightmare of Nazi racial laws. How do the first and second generation of victims of such heinous blood curdling racist crimes during the Nazi progrom of ethnic cleansing, live it’s present form of nationalism in Israel? By what demonic twist of fate can Jews, who merely two generations ago suffered the cruelest racial bestiality as victims of Nazi anti-Semitism and racial purity laws, justify destroying an entire Palestinian population by plowing through their land, driving out it’s inhabitants and by wielding power through military force to establish their ownership by “right.”
    How can one justify complicity of Israeli’s dehumanization of the Palestinian population by the American Jewish community including many scholars and camp survivors who have played a defining role in understanding the Holocaust experience. How can Jews, so collectively brutalized themselves, look the other way to justify another ghetto that is the largest prison camp in the world, Gaza? How do we still turn our faces away, swallow the lies, the myth of the Jewish state that must protect itself from destruction by the surrounding forces of evil. In the name of this fear, what insanity could possibly justify decades of brutalization, humiliation, the rape of land, the endless faces of the IDF with a mission to kill the other, to hate the other, to suppress ”the animals” who do not count as human beings. The young soldiers who have bought the racist lies follow orders and have lost their humanity. It is not beyond comprehension to understand aspects of the Israeli brutal and paranoid policies in light of the Jewish history perpetrated on them as victims of the Nazi progrom. Then, vitriolic anti Semitisms inflicted the most vile collective punishment and unspeakable brutality. Without question there had to be inflicted an extraordinary psychological impairment internalized in the surviving victims of such an irrational monstrous Nazi ideology. Left to fester from one generation to the next, the internalized hate is buried, yet ultimately the brutalized victims themselves find a target to project their hate so that the cycle of irrational paranoia and abuse continues on its destructive course.
    One cannot understand this cycle of madness simply in rational terms. Its life force is laced inside a growing cancer, an irrational fear of extermination, victimization and hatred now targeted on the last victims of the Holocaust nightmare, the Palestinians. The cycle repeats itself in the form of racism and collective punishment that give rise to excruciating suffering as the victimizers blinded in hate, cease to be human. How else can one explain the vitriol coming with such emotion from the CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld when he pronounced, “They are people(Palestinians/Arabs) who worship death for their children and they are not human.” Racism gives permission to dehumanize the other. The Nazis could justify their crimes by a process of dehumanization as well as reinforcing a nationalistic ideology of the most grandiose proportions. Within this cycle of horror, Jews and Palestinians are the last victims of the Holocaust.. The Israeli’s in their efforts to “survive” have been haunted by a deeply rooted fear of extinction played out in this last chapter as the victimizers who see their former Palestinian neighbors, (prior to 1948,) as evil destroyers who plot only to destroy everything that is Jewish in Israel.. Within this last chapter, Jews are transformed into victimizers who must wipe out the Palestinians.
    The NY Times reported on Nakba Day: “Israel’s borders erupted in deadly clashes on Sunday as thousands of Palestinians — marching from Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank — confronted Israeli troops to mark the anniversary of Israel’s creation, Nakba.
    At day’s end after violent clashes between the IDF and the Palestinian demonstrators, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the protests had been aimed at destroying Israel, not creating a Palestinian state alongside it. He continues, “The leaders of these violent demonstrations, their struggle is not over the 1967 borders but over the very existence of Israel, which they describe as a catastrophe that must be resolved,” he said. “It is important that we look with open eyes at the reality and be aware of whom we are dealing with and what swe are dealing with.” This is a sanguine message to the world and in particular to American Jews who still needs to see Israel as an idealized version of a democratic country in enormous danger of extinction.
    Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, saluted the protesters in a televised speech, referring to the dead as martyrs. “The blood of the Nakba fatalities was not spilled in vain,” he said. “They died for the Palestinian people’s rights and freedom.”
    Israel has become increasingly isolated and cannot survive if it continues on this path of paranoia and racism. Jews must open their eyes to recognize who are the true victims. This necessitates the ability of Israelis to bestow dignity and humanity on Palestinians as human beings with hearts and souls equal to their own. The alternative is too horrible to consider, a continuous cycle of hate , a festering gangrenous wound that knows no end in its nihilism and destruction.
    We have now an extraordinary opportunity to engage in an open discussion and dialogue about Jewish racism. In the past any idea of Jews as racist has been responded to as abhorrent and unspeakable. Dissent has been crushed and critics of Israeli policies have been labeled “self hating Jew, Jewish anti-semites and enemies of Israel.
    We, the defenders of freedom and dignity for all human beings must continue to speak out and support a free Israel and Palestine, one state, symbol of the right for all displaced victims of racism to live in harmony and with dignity.

  2. on December 22, 2012, 10:04 am

    A P.S. on my note:

    Jews being “different victims” is not my judgement but that of ADL’s Abraham Foxman and many of the Jewish establishment who for instance objected in Germany that there should be a memorial to all victims of Nazi racism.

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