This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
What to do when your favorite movie star, a famous sport hero or a writer you’ve been reading all your life shows up in person standing right in front of you?
That’s what happened a few weeks ago when the most talked- and written-about event of modern history, the Holocaust, came to visit Yad Vashem, the memorial museum in Jerusalem that honors the Holocaust. So the Jerusalem Post reports when a video of that appearance was posted on YouTube a few days ago.
When the Holocaust shows up in person and starts speaking her story that you have been speaking for decades you have to be on edge. And that’s just the beginning of the story.
It was Natali Cohen Vaxberg, an Israeli actress, who personified the Holocaust in a performance that is daring, provocative and, depending on one’s interpretation, insulting.
Surprisingly, the Jerusalem Post report is quite matter-of-fact about the appearance of the Holocaust, as if nothing out of the ordinary has taken place. The report is short, to the point and carries a non-judgmental title: “Far-left Israeli actress stages provocative Holocaust monologue at Yad Vashem”:
A far-left Israeli actress known for staging politically provocative plays caused a stir yet again on Tuesday when she posted a controversial monologue on YouTube which she performed in front of the memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto fighters at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
A few weeks ago, the actress, Natali Cohen Vaxberg, arrived at Yad Vashem with camera crew in tow and two men appearing to be bodyguards. After security guards expelled her from the museum, Cohen Vaxberg, whose character in the monologue is known as “The Holocaust,” proceeded to launch into a profanity-laced diatribe that prompted passers-by to shout her down.
“I am the Holocaust, the best thing that ever happened to you!” she began her monologue. “After all of these years, I deserve a round of applause.”
Despite protestations by visitors to the museum, Cohen Vaxberg continued to make a number of statements that drew fire from right-wing critics.
“How could you justify 1948 and 1967 without me?” she said. “Who deserves credit for enabling you to place 3 million people in a ghetto without the superpowers bombing you? Do you think you could get on without me?
Has Frankenstein taken revenge on his creator? Where did you learn this from? The bigger you grew, the more your memory shrinks. Where did you learn to gather people into concentration camps on the basis of their ethnic background? I am your truth!”
In response to the video, Itamar Ben Gvir, an attorney known for his far-right activism, urged the attorney general to launch an investigation over “this cheapening of the Holocaust by left-wing activists.”
“Those on the left are not just sullying the six million who were murdered, but they are doing that to an entire country,” he wrote in a letter to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. “The time has come for the attorney general to wake up and indict [Cohen Vaxberg] for slander.”
Well, Cohen Vaxberg might indeed be sullying the memory of the Holocaust dead, but her personification of the Holocaust is aimed at Israel and what Israel has done with the Holocaust. She’s saying that Israel – in the oppression of the Palestinians – has already sullied the Holocaust. How could she sully it further?
Thus the title of the video – “The Holocaust Visits Yad Vashem.” Cohen Vaxberg’s appearance as the Holocaust is her attempt to reclaim the Holocaust from the museum that functions in her name – and the state of Israel who claims her as its own.
That’s why Yad Vashem was chosen for the performance. How dare Israel use the Holocaust as a sacred landmark when its actions create so much suffering in the name of the Holocaust?
The symbolism of the Holocaust appearing before the monument dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising isn’t addressed directly in performance. Is Cohen Vaxberg reclaiming the struggle of Jews before the Holocaust was used for oppressing others? Or is she using the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as a symbol for Jews to rise up against their own oppression by the state of Israel? Perhaps the Holocaust is a clarion call for a joint uprising of Jews and Palestinians against Israel’s oppressive policies.
It’s difficult to imagine such a performance outside Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. I doubt an appeal to the Attorney General would be necessary. In Washington, the Holocaust would be arrested for trespassing and for disturbing the peace.
Would the Holocaust then be placed on America’s No-Fly list?
“I am the Holocaust, the best thing that ever happened to you!” the Holocaust proclaims. “How could you justify 1948 and 1967 without me?”
“What are you without me?” the Holocaust asks Israelis. And American Jews?
Without the Holocaust, Israel would have no state, no army. Israel wouldn’t have even learned how to use collective punishment against Palestinians.
In another video, the Holocaust introduces herself to Palestinians: “Hello Palestinians. I am the Holocaust. Because of me you had the Nakba.”
Shockingly political, but then the Holocaust introduces a philosophical reflection on memory and power: “The bigger you grew, the more your memory shrinks.”
Or perhaps extended: “The bigger your memorialization of me grows, the more you abuse my memory.
The Holocaust demands a round of applause. Without her to rely on, Jews are accountable.
A security guard stands beside the Holocaust as she speaks. Irony of ironies, the Holocaust needs protection to speak her truth unmolested by those who memorialize her, arm themselves and ghettoize others in her name.
Cohen Vaxberg’s personification of the Holocaust can be understood in a variety of ways. The most obvious is as an insult to Israeli and American Jews who use Jewish suffering to justify the suffering of others. But the personification of the Holocaust can also be understood as the ancient prophetic come back to haunt the state of Israel and Jews.
Like the ancient prophets, the Holocaust cuts Jews no slack. When the Jewish prophets go internal, watch out. Nothing, especially Israel’s holy shrines, is off limits to prophetic condemnation.
In her appearance, the Holocaust is shouting.
How else will Jews hear her?
The Holocaust’s gestures are rude, her language coarse. She grabs her crotch and her breasts.
How else will Jews awaken?