This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Charlottesville and White nationalism have brought the issue of monuments commemorating the fallen to the forefront. The ongoing debate is about how history is interpreted and how it functions in the present. Much of how we remember is related to the way we want to feel about ourselves. It is also about the future we hope to bequeath to our children.
The White supremacists in Charlottesville are nostalgic for a world that may or may not have existed. Thinking of the past as better and to be revived in the present is dangerous on many levels. Those who want the past back are fooling themselves and others, too.
Commemoration is like that and more. Often remembrance is a form of denial.
Robert E. Lee, and his statue, is a case in point. Portrayed as a heroic General who reluctantly fought for a principled cause, history says something quite different. Lee was a slave-holder, and evidently a cruel one at that. After the end of the Civil War, Lee was largely unrepentant. His view of former slaves stayed much the same as it did during slavery.
There are other monuments to question than the those who celebrate the Confederacy in Charlottesville. A recent article in the New York Times draws attention to a small museum dedicated to Indonesia’s former dictator, Suharto. Located in a small town amid the palm trees and rice fields of central Java, the title of the article is telling: Suharto Museum Celebrates Dictator’s Life, Omitting Dark Chapters.
Jews are very present in the movement to oppose white supremacy. Along many others, Jews were involved in opposing white nationalism in Charlottesville. Yet, Jews have our own history to struggle with as well. Where and how the memory of our own suffering is portrayed is crucial to the Jewish future. It is hotly contested as well.
The issue here is not to create analogies but rather to see connections between historical commemorations and the present. On the Jewish side of things, it isn’t about Jewish suffering itself but how commemoration of that suffering functions in the present.
I think of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel as, among other things, a monument. At Yad Vashem, the dark chapter of Jewish life is highlighted, as it should be. Israel as the chapter after the Holocaust is assumed, as it should be. But part of that chapter of Jewish life after the Holocaust, the Nakba is omitted. More and more Jews and non-Jews are asking about this part of Jewish life after the Holocaust and after the creation of the state of Israel.
In its history, the Holocaust stands alone. But the Holocaust’s afterlife is something else. What does this monument to the Holocaust say to Palestinian refugees and Palestinians who continue to live under an ever tightening Israeli occupation? Some might think such a question blasphemous. Is it?
Israel’s Holocaust museum also devotes time and energy to injustice, atrocity and genocides in history and the present. Its laudable aim is to avoid such events in the future. Yet Yad Vashem is located right in the middle of ethnically cleansed Palestinian land. It thrives amid a permanent Israeli occupation. What does this say to Jews who rightfully want to commemorate the Holocaust? Is the occupation of Palestine the lesson Jews learn from the Holocaust?
The Western Wall in Jerusalem is another monument that needs questioning in light of Charlottesville. Ostensibly part of the ancient destroyed Temple, its present configuration is defined internationally as existing on occupied Palestinian land. Moreover, the plaza designated for Jewish prayer was cleared of Palestinian housing and residents right as Israel occupied East Jerusalem after the 1967 War.
The fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 war raised critical questions about Israel’s continuing occupation. Does our remembrance of the destroyed Temple, like the 1967 War, need to be reframed? After all, praying on occupied land with a history of being cleansed of its inhabitants presents a formidable challenge if one believes in a God of Justice.
In Jerusalem, as in Charlottesville, the struggle between opposing forces can sometimes hide what binds them together. History is like that sometimes. How we remember is telling. What we forget in that remembering is crucial. Can Israeli and Jewish life become whole again when its central historical monuments represent Jews as victims only, especially in a time of Jewish empowerment?
Charlottesville should we be a wakeup call for Jews. The White supremacist chants – “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” – could be heard in the city and beyond. But, then, Jews have replaced Palestinians in too many parts of Israel.