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.
So what if for one day at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a Jew spoke about the aftermath of the Holocaust and how it has affected Palestinians?
Whether there have been similar discussions before or after my appearance I don’t know. Either way, little seems to have changed in the presentation of the Holocaust – at least with regard to Palestinians.
Even if the Holocaust discussion changed to include Palestinians, the real issue is the facts on the Israel/Palestine ground. Would a changed Holocaust narrative have political consequences for Israeli policies toward Palestinians and American foreign policy toward Israel?
We know that the changing understanding of Israel’s history, which emphasizes the ethnic cleansing accompanying its birth, hasn’t changed Israeli policies or American foreign policy. Why place our bets on a changed Holocaust narrative?
Interestingly, my experience of the staff at the Holocaust museum – at least in the 1990s – is that they knew the Palestinian score. Talking with the museum staff was like talking to American military personnel before the invasion of Iraq: most soldiers and officers were against the war. The military knows what war is like.
The staff at the Holocaust museum was quite aware of the Palestinian issue. Nonetheless they served in the Holocaust ranks. Though aware and sympathetic toward the plight of the Palestinians, it was difficult for the museum staff to recognize the link between the history of the Holocaust, the birth of Israel and the Palestinian struggle for freedom.
When I spoke to the museum staff about the use of the Holocaust narrative as a lever of power against the Palestinians, they showed some understanding of what I was talking about. However, they couldn’t see why the museum itself should address the issue.
Though shying away from any direct political conclusions, the staff wasn’t in favor of the Holocaust being used to justify injustice toward Palestinians. They also didn’t comprehend how doing their work at the museum was enabling that use. If the Holocaust museum was being used in such a way, it was above their pay grade. They couldn’t do anything about it.
On the staff level, their mission is simple: preserve, research and educate the nation and beyond about the Holocaust. They aren’t ideological warriors. They are against anyone using the Holocaust against another people. That includes Israel and its policies toward Palestinians.
Could the staff really be that naïve? Was their response a cop-out, a deflection of their responsibility to speak Holocaust memory to power? Certainly the staff has little understanding that the museum might be Israel’s and the Jewish establishment’s enablers. After all, they are paid by the government not Jewish groups. The museum has been mandated by the American government.
My point here is the Holocaust museum – the Holocaust narrative itself – not only excludes Palestinians. It also projects an American innocence – and a political innocence in general – which makes the inclusion of the Palestinians in the Holocaust narrative and in the American political discussion almost impossible.
In many ways, the Holocaust has become a guiding element in American foreign policy discussions. And if it’s not in the forefront, it lurks in the shadow. The Holocaust has become the hidden wild card when the discussion about America’s global reach gets tough.
So with Iraq and also Iran, but as well with Libya, wherever there are vital resources at risk, the memory of the Holocaust is regularly invoked. It so happens that much of the Holocaust talk is with reference to Israel, demonstrating once again the bonding of America and Israel. Yet the question of whether protecting Israel is foremost or America’s – and Europe and increasingly China’s – resource needs is worth thinking about.
Does instability in the Middle East threaten Israel or the supply of oil? It’s interesting why the genocide in Rwanda, the Sudan and the Congo doesn’t typically garner Holocaust images. After all, there are vital resources there, too. Perhaps the Holocaust can’t be invoked for the African continent because the people there are considered unworthy of Western concern. In Africa, it’s on a resources-only basis when even that much is admitted.
So it goes as the New Year approaches. No doubt the Israel election cycle will accelerate the verbal sparring with Palestinians, Hezbollah and Iran. The Holocaust will be invoked as a possible future for the Jewish people.
Thinking about the Holocaust museum these last days, I wonder what it would be like to have a Nakba museum in Washington, D. C. Let’s call it the United States Nakba Memorial Museum. Should it be located right next to the Holocaust museum?
The narrative of the Nakba museum is fascinating to think about. Narrating the Nakba has to include a Palestinian narration of the Holocaust and its aftermath, doesn’t it?
Perhaps as controversial, how would the Nakba museum narrate the history of Palestine and Palestinians regarding the Arab world? How would the British, Soviet, and American presence in Palestinian history be handled?
Would the President of the United States visit and speak at the United States Nakba Memorial Museum as all the Presidents have at the Holocaust museum over the past twenty years?
What would the Nakba museum staff be like? Would they recognize and speak about the direct relationship of Israeli and American power or would they be content to simply narrate the historical story of the Palestinian people in an apolitical way.
Of course, like the Holocaust museum the Nakba museum would have to market its story. It would be interesting to think what the Nakba brand might be like.
It seems every people needs to a museum today simply to validate their presence. But museums are tricky. Don’t think the United States Nakba Memorial Museum would be without its own – Palestinian – critics.
2013: Is this the year to begin the push for the establishment of the United States Nakba Memorial Museum?