This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
When is enough never enough? When you’re dealing with the Israeli and the American Jewish establishments and don’t bow down to Israel’s One State/Limited Palestinian Autonomy option you’re going to come up short.
Yesterday Iran’s President Rouhani continued to discuss history’s political topic of topics, the Holocaust. There isn’t another historical event in the world that engenders such political discussion.
Though Rouhani is careful to note that he isn’t a historian, for a politician his historical sense hits the mark. Despite the objections of the American Jewish establishment and the Israel government, Rouhani gets the Holocaust right.
In various forums over the last several days, Rouhani has spoken of the Holocaust as a crime against humanity and against Jews. He has called this crime reprehensible and as a crime to be condemned. Rouhani also points out that others suffered. Crimes against humanity were committed against non-Jews. These crimes should be condemned as well.
According to Rouhani, crimes against humanity – and against Jews – do not allow for other crimes to be committed in their name, in this case against the Palestinians. This isn’t as some report negatively a way of equating the Holocaust with Israel’s policies against Palestinians. But even if it is, the comparison is about suffering itself, about taking one crime and committing another crime against another innocent person or people.
Rouhani is making an important historical and political point. Crimes don’t have to be equal in numbers and severity to be reprehensible and worthy of condemnation. Individuals and peoples suffer in their own right.
Yet with American Jewish and Israeli officials, the New York Times doesn’t think Rouhani has it quite right. In his second day of interviews, the Times wonders if Rouhani is walking back his understanding of the Holocaust. Here’s how the Times starts out its sidebar article:
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran appeared to walk his condemnation of the Holocaust back a notch on Thursday, one day after he provoked a politically fraught uproar in the United States and at home with a qualified castigation of one of history’s best-documented genocides.
Mr. Rouhani, who has energetically sought to differentiate himself from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his predecessor known for bombastic anti-Semitism that included Holocaust denial, said in American television interviews this week that he considered the Nazi mass murder of Jews reprehensible. But he immediately added that the Nazis had killed many people, not just Jews, which was also reprehensible. He also said that the consequence of the Holocaust should not have been the displacement of Palestinians from their lands — a reference to Israel.
How this is walking the Holocaust back is beyond me. Jews who have a Jewish-only view of the Holocaust are welcome to it – as a way of remembering Jews who were victimized because they were Jewish. Others who suffered during World War II have a right to have their exclusive memories if they choose that route. However, Jews and others who have suffered do not have a right to cause suffering to others.
“Displacement” – a retrained term for Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the creation of Israel – cannot be accepted as a response to the Holocaust.
In the political realm memory cannot be exclusive. Otherwise memory becomes a servant of political power. This is what memory has becomes for Jews in relation to the Holocaust and Israel.
Rouhani properly separates memory and the use of power. Abusing others in the name of past suffering is a crime. Continuing that crime over a long period of time is reprehensible. It needs to be condemned.
The Times ends its article by inadvertently highlighting Rouhani’s level-headedness:
While Mr. Rouhani may have succeeded in at least acknowledging and condemning the Holocaust, a subject that resonates with Jews and others around the world, his words did little to advance his publicly stated message of friendship. If anything, the ambiguously translated language of his condemnation — which was challenged by some in Iran, including the Fars news agency, run by the Revolutionary Guards — only seemed to entangle him in a dispute he had hoped to avoid.
Presented with the opportunity clarify his position on Thursday, Mr. Rouhani seemed to soften his condemnation further, at a forum sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society in New York. Asked if he could clearly state his stand on the Holocaust, he said through an interpreter that he had responded to that question in earlier interviews. “We condemn the crimes by the Nazis during World War II,” he said, but added that many people had been killed, including “a group of Jewish people.” This did not mean, he said, “that the price paid for it should be done by other people elsewhere.”
Quibbling with translations isn’t the point. If the Times notices the awkward phrase – “a group of Jewish people” – they should also point out that the price paid by “other people elsewhere” is, for Palestinians, too general.
However awkwardly spoken or translated, Hourani’s statements represent a huge opportunity for Jews and the international community’s discussion on Israel. He does so at a tremendous political risk at home.
It is important to note that Rouhani has used “I” and “We” when making his statements on the Holocaust. Thus he is speaking personally and for Iran. What Jewish leader in America or Israel is willing to take up Rouhani’s offer, to take their own political risk and to meet him halfway?
Actually, Jewish leaders ought to meet Rouhani where he is. Rouhani is where Jews ought to be.