By +972 Magazine
|Published August 5, 2019
Distorting the definition of antisemitism to shield Israel from all criticism
The IHRA initially sought to combat racism against Jews and Holocaust denialism, but its definition of antisemitism serves as a tool to silence all criticism of Israel, making it harder to identify actual forms of anti-Jewish hatred.
By Amos Goldberg and Raz Segal
There is a growing tendency among both Jews and non-Jews to label those with whom they have profound political differences, especially on the subject of Israel-Palestine, as antisemitic. The accusation is a severe one: in most countries in the West, antisemitism is considered a taboo, and the identification of a person or organization with antisemitism often renders them illegitimate in the public arena.
Two major techniques facilitate such allegations. The first relates one’s claim very illusively to some antisemitic imagery. The fact that 2,000 years of hostility and hatred toward Jews have created a storehouse of anti-Jewish imagery so rich – and at times contradictory – means that nearly any claim can be linked to at least one of those images.
Through manipulation of these images, along with a little imagination, one could identify any form of criticism as antisemitic. This kind of logic is deployed by supporters of Israel’s occupation and nationalistic government in order to delegitimize anyone who dares criticize Israeli policies.
The second technique draws on the definition of antisemitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Founded in 1998 (under a different name), the IHRA is a political body with considerable political power, uniting government representatives and Holocaust scholars from 33 countries, nearly all of them in the West. The IHRA aims to spread and institutionalize teaching and research on the Holocaust, commemorate the Holocaust, and struggle against antisemitism.
The IHRA agreed on a definition of antisemitism in 2016, along with a list of examples, based on previous definitions. It has since become a kind of “soft law” that is binding in many institutions and even states across the world. The problem is that the IHRA definition deals obsessively — more than with any other topic — with the degree of antisemitism in criticism of Israel, making it far more difficult to identify real instances of antisemitism, while casting a cloud of suspicion over nearly all criticism of Israel. Meanwhile, the burden of proof lies with critics of Israel, who are constantly asked to prove that they are not anti-Semites.
These two dubious techniques were recently displayed in an article published in Haaretz by Yehuda Bauer, which helps to identify some of the grave and fundamental distortions of the current discourse on antisemitism. Bauer claims that the demand for the Palestinian right of return—which is a consensus among Palestinians—is not only antisemitic but even proto-genocidal, no less. This, even though Bauer himself characterized some of the events of the 1948 War as “ethnic cleansing” in his book, “The Jews: A Contrary People.” Can the very demand that justice be done after “ethnic cleansing” – even if the writer thinks that it should not be realized – be considered antisemitic? Is this not a reversal of roles: the (real) victims become (imaginary) mass murderers within this warped discourse on antisemitism?
Bauer, however, went even further, accusing Israeli historian Daniel Blatman of adopting an antisemitic stance for daring to criticize sharply the IHRA, which Bauer helped establish and where he serves as honorary chairperson to this day. Blatman argues that the definition is dedicated to protecting Israel from any significant criticism. Yet in Bauer’s eyes, the argument that the IHRA definition exerts powerful and harmful influence is based on the antisemitic image of Jews as possessing disproportionate power and ruling the world. Here, too, Bauer’s claim is weak. Instead of engaging in a meaningful way with the critique of the definition, the accompanying examples, and its terrible consequences on the struggle against the oppression of Palestinians, supporters of the definition, Bauer included, prefer to associate criticism of it with antisemitic imagery.
A similar accusation was also made recently against the German magazine Der Spiegel after it published an unflattering investigative article on the pro-Israel lobby in the country. The article sparked vehement backlash by Jews and non-Jews alike, including Felix Klein, Germany’s federal commissioner for the fight against antisemitism, who focuses mainly on defending the government of Israel. A clarification published by the editors of the magazine — which they did not publish following similar investigations — pointed out that in recent weeks they had carried out similar investigations into two non-Jewish lobby organizations in Germany with no links to Israel.
Defending the settlers, not the Jews
These two techniques are used very frequently and with dire consequences. Another example came in 2017, six years after a young scholar from England who had spent time at an academic institution in Israel published an article about her impressions from a tour of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank came to light. Among other things, she wrote that the memory of the Holocaust should not give Israel moral dispensation for the occupation. Six years later, Sir Eric Pickles, a Conservative member of British Parliament, found the article and called it “one of the worst cases of Holocaust denial” he has seen in recent years.
Pickles, along with the Campaign Against Antisemitism, demanded that the scholar be dismissed immediately, relying not solely on the IHRA definition. The British university where she was teaching at the time convened a panel of experts to look into the matter. Although it found no indication of antisemitism in the article, the discussion continued and the scholar’s good name was tarnished. She eventually left the university and move to another institution.
The message to the public — and to scholars — was clear: it is better to forget about free speech and not criticize Israel. After all, doing so means you could be subject to a grave accusation.
Today the attempt to suppress criticism of Israel based on the IHRA definition also extends to the campaign against the European Union’s position that products made in Israeli settlement must be labeled as such (which the Simon Wiesenthal Institute listed this as the third most serious anti-Semitic incident in 2015). It appears, then, that the IHRA definition defends Israeli settlers more than it worries about the safety of Jews around the world.
Accordingly, at the end of June, a bill that would ban expressions of antisemitism in public schools and public universities was introduced in the New Jersey State Senate. There is certainly a need to fight against antisemitism in the United States, particularly in New Jersey, the state with the third highest reported antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2018, with approximately 200 reported antisemitic incidents.
It is unlikely, however, that the bill, which includes sections modeled on the IHRA definition, would aid in the struggle against antisemitism in the Garden State, as its main purpose seems to be the silencing of criticism of Israel (it forbids, for example, peace or human rights investigations that focus solely on Israel). But the idea that only Israel is the target of this kind of criticism is not only divorced from reality, it aims at creating a chilling effect. It suffices, for example, to take one look at the list of people charged by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which includes not a single Israeli, to ask ourselves whether there is a need for such a provision in the bill, apart from the desire to suppress any criticism of Israel.
Yet the damage caused by the bill lies not only in the fact that it aims to defend a powerful state – Israel – more than it seeks to protect Jews in New Jersey. The more harmful damage is caused by the way in which the bill’s attempt to silence criticism of Israel’s 52-year-old military occupation (one of the longest running in the world), which includes dispossession, humiliation, expulsions, and daily violence against Palestinians, plays into the hands of avowed antisemites who hate Jews in the U.S. while admiring Israel.
Diverting attention from real antisemites
Richard Spencer, one of the prominent voices on the nationalist right in the United States, provided a prime example of this connection in July 2018 when he expressed fervent support for Israel’s Jewish Nation-State Law. This came a little over half a year after he called Israel an inspiration and a model of ethno-nationalism, while at the same time explaining that “Jews are vastly over-represented in what you would call ‘the establishment’ and white people are being dispossessed from this country.” The IHRA definition certainly aims to fight against such statements and people such as Spencer, but its obsession with silencing criticism of Israel diverts attention from real antisemites who may support Israel while simultaneously posing a serious threat to Jews in the United States.
Put differently, one does not need the IHRA definition to identify people like Spencer as antisemites, but once antisemitism becomes identical with criticism of Israel, people like Spencer are off the hook. After all, they are great supporters of Israel.
Indeed, the connection between Jews and the alleged dispossession of white people in the United States was the motivating factor for the white supremacist who carried out the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh mere months after Spencer’s remarks. In a statement published on social media a few minutes before he opened fire, the shooter wrote that Jews are helping refugees enter the U.S. and destroy it.
This fear of “white genocide” possesses the minds of white nationalists across the world. It is impossible to struggle against this grave danger to Jews, refugees, and others whom nationalists view as an existential danger to their ethno-nationalist vision by silencing criticism of Israel and its ethno-nationalist vision, which views Palestinians – residents of the occupied territories, refugees from the 1948 war, and citizens of Israel (as well as refugees from Africa) – as an existential danger. But the IHRA definition and its derivatives contribute precisely to that.
Right-wing politicians, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli right-wing media, have understood that the focus of the fight against antisemitism has shifted from racist nationalists to criticism of Israel, and they use the catastrophic IHRA definition for their purposes. In contrast to Bauer’s apparent naivety, the right understands very well the powerful potential of the IHRA definition, not only for the purpose of shielding Zionism from any criticism, but also for defending the occupation itself.
The government of Israel and its representatives, as well as many pro-Israeli organizations all over the world, are remarkably successful in silencing criticism of Israel’s policies by playing this card. Using the IHRA’s poor definition of antisemitism, they have succeeded in completely changing the discourse: rather than talk about the occupation, the Nakba, or its violation of national, human and civil rights, the dominant public discourse now revolves around what is or is not forbidden when it comes to criticism of Israel, and to what extent said criticism is antisemitic. In this reality, Israel no longer needs to defend itself against allegation — it has a free hand to throw around accusations.
Professor Amos Goldberg teaches at the Department of the Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research focuses on the Holocaust and its memory. Dr. Raz Segal is Assistant Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Stockton University, New Jersey. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.
Ein Appell aus Israel an meine deutschen Freunde
von Amos Goldberg
Und es gefährdet die Werte der Demokratie, sagt Amos Goldberg im Gastbeitrag.
Oft habe ich wohlmeinende deutsche Freunde sagen hören, dass sie meine Kritik an der Politik der israelischen Regierung gegenüber den Palästinensern verstehen. Manchmal gaben sie sogar zu, sie zu unterstützen. Laut sagen wollten sie das aber nicht. Ihr eigenes Zögern bei der Äußerung von Kritik ist mir verständlich. Die Last der Geschichte kann nicht abgewaschen werden.
Es gibt jedoch Zeiten, in denen der Preis für ein solches Verhalten zu hoch und seine Aufrechterhaltung gefährlich wird, in denen das Versagen, zwischen Antisemitismus und legitimer Kritik zu unterscheiden, zu moralischer und intellektueller Bequemlichkeit, ja Faulheit wird. Wir erleben jetzt solche Zeiten.
Benjamin Netanjahu kündigt Annexion großer Teile der Westbank an
Benjamin Netanjahu hat die völkerrechtswidrige Annexion großer Teile der Westbank angekündigt. Israels Verkehrsminister Bezalel Smotrich hat angedeutet, dass Apartheid die Lösung des Konflikts mit den Palästinensern sein sollte. Bildungsminister Rafi Perez äußerte sich ähnlich.
Es sind aber nicht nur Juden und Palästinenser im Nahen Osten, die den Preis für Passivität zahlen. Die Deutschen bezahlen auch selbst. Mit Hunderten von jüdischen und israelischen Gelehrten beobachte ich, wie das politische System in Deutschland rapide die freie Rede erodiert, wenn es um Israel und Palästina geht, und wie der öffentliche Diskurs in Diffamierung und Rufmord abgleitet.
Bundestag setzt BDS mit Antisemitismus gleich
Ein Katalysator dafür war der Bundestagsbeschluss, der die Bewegung für einen Boykott, Desinvestitionen und Sanktionen (BDS) gegen Israel mit Antisemitismus gleichsetzte und damit praktisch aus dem öffentlichen Raum verbannte, obwohl viele, wenn nicht die meisten Antisemitismusforscher, darunter die Professoren Wolfgang Benz und Moshe Zimmerman, geltend machen, dass BDS als solches nicht antisemitisch sei. Wie ich, unterstützen beide nicht BDS.
Die schwerwiegenden Folgen des Beschlusses treten bereits zutage. Die deutsche Bank für Sozialwirtschaft kündigte der Organisation „Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost“ das Konto, weil sie zu dem Schluss kam, dass diese Juden wegen ihrer Unterstützung von BDS eigentlich selbst Antisemiten seien.
240 jüdische und israelische Wissenschaftler wenden sich an den Bundestag
Der Leiter des Jüdischen Museums Berlin, Professor Peter Schäfer, einer der weltweit angesehensten Judaisten, musste zurücktreten, nachdem die israelische Botschaft und Vorsitzende jüdischer Organisationen, flankiert von israelischen Medien und deutschen Publizisten, ihm vorgeworfen hatten, „antijüdisch“ zu sein. Das Museum hatte gewagt, auf den Aufruf von 240 jüdischen und israelischen Wissenschaftlern an die Regierung hinzuweisen, dem Bundestagsbeschluss nicht zu folgen. Ich war einer der Initiatoren des Aufrufs und bin entsetzt darüber, wie mit Professor Schäfer verfahren worden ist.
Dies ist die Spitze des Eisbergs. Palästinensern ist es verboten zu protestieren, Wissenschaftler, die im Verdacht stehen, mit BDS zu sympathisieren, werden nicht zu Konferenzen eingeladen, und der renommierte Historiker David N. Myers, der sich öffentlich gegen BDS gestellt hat, wird nicht in den Beirat des Jüdischen Museums Berlin aufgenommen, weil er dem New Israel Fund vorsteht, der auch kritische israelische NGOs unterstützt und dabei keinerlei Verbindung zu BDS hat.
Deutschlands Politik sollte nicht der Ungarns, Polens und Israels ähneln
Ich warne meine Freunde in Deutschland wegen unserer Erfahrungen in Israel: Es steht noch mehr Ärger bevor, falls Sie die Grundsätze der Demokratie, die Meinungsfreiheit und eine prinzipientreue Außenpolitik nicht energisch verteidigen. Wenn Sie nicht für diese Werte kämpfen, gerade auch im Kontext sensibler Themen, könnte sich Deutschland in fünf oder zehn Jahren in ein weiteres illiberales Bollwerk verwandeln. Seine Politik könnte dann der Israels, Ungarns und Polens ähneln.
Es ist schwer vorstellbar, wie schnell solche Verschiebungen stattfinden. Wenn Sie es merken, werden Sie sie nicht mehr rückgängig machen können. Sie werden dann verstehen, dass einer der Meilensteine auf dem Weg zum Abgleiten darin bestand, dass Sie es in einem Klima des um sich greifenden Populismus politischen Akteuren erlaubten, „Antisemitismus“ zynisch oder arglos zu nutzen und Deutschland von seiner mühsam errungenen demokratischen und liberalen politischen Kultur wegzulenken.
Die Demokratie benötigt aktive Bürger
Die Geschichte lehrt uns, dass der Schutz einer Demokratie des Mutes aktiver Bürger bedarf, denn wenn zu viele anständige Menschen davon absehen, die ihr zugrundeliegenden Prinzipien und Regeln zu verteidigen, wankt oder fällt sie.
Deutsche, die diese Werte schätzen und sich um die Integrität Israels sorgen, müssen jetzt ihr ängstliches Zögern überwinden und sich dem israelischen und jüdischen demokratischen Lager anschließen. Sie müssen die Energie aufbringen, zwischen Antisemitismus und Manipulationen zu unterscheiden, die Israel vor der legitimen Kritik an seinen Rechtsbrüchen schützen sollen. Dazu gehört auch, die Verantwortung für jüdisches Leben in Deutschland von Versuchen zur Verzerrung des demokratischen Systems zu unterscheiden.
Amos Goldberg ist Professor an Hebräischen Universität Jerusalem und Spezialist für die Erforschung des Holocaust.
An appeal from Israel to my German friends
by Amos Goldberg
And it endangers the values of democracy, says Amos Goldberg in the guest article.
I have often heard well-meaning German friends say that they understand my criticism of the policy of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians. Sometimes they even admitted to supporting them. But they did not want to say that out loud. Your own hesitation in the expression of criticism is understandable to me. The burden of history can not be washed off.
However, there are times when the price of such behavior becomes too high and its maintenance dangerous, in which the failure to distinguish between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism becomes moral and intellectual convenience, even laziness. We are experiencing such times now.
Benjamin Netanyahu announces annexation of large parts of the West Bank
Benjamin Netanyahu has announced the illegal annexation of large parts of the West Bank. Israeli Transport Minister Bezalel Smotrich has suggested that apartheid should be the solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Education Minister Rafi Perez expressed similarly.
But it's not just Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East who pay the price for passivity. The Germans are also paying for themselves. With hundreds of Jewish and Israeli scholars, I observe how the political system in Germany is rapidly eroding free speech when it comes to Israel and Palestine, and how public discourse derives from defamation and character assassination.
Bundestag equates BDS with anti-Semitism
One catalyst for this was the Bundestag resolution, which equated the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement Against Israel with anti-Semitism, effectively banishing it from public space, although many, if not most, anti-Semitism researchers, including Professors Wolfgang Benz and Moshe Zimmerman, argue that BDS as such is not anti-Semitic. Like me, both do not support BDS.
The serious consequences of the decision are already apparent. The German Bank for Social Economy denied the organization "Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East" because it came to the conclusion that these Jews were actually anti-Semites themselves because of their support of BDS.
240 Jewish and Israeli scientists turn to the Bundestag
The head of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Professor Peter Schäfer, one of the world's most respected Judaizers, had to resign after the Israeli embassy and chairpersons of Jewish organizations, flanked by Israeli media and German journalists, accused him of being "anti-Jewish." The museum had dared to point out the call of 240 Jewish and Israeli scientists to the government not to follow the resolution of the Bundestag. I was one of the initiators of the appeal and am appalled at how Professor Schäfer has been dealt with.
This is the tip of the iceberg. Palestinians are forbidden to protest, scientists suspected of sympathizing with BDS are not invited to conferences, and renowned historian David N. Myers, who has publicly opposed BDS, is not on the advisory board of the Jewish Museum Berlin, because he heads the New Israel Fund, which also supports critical Israeli NGOs and has no connection to BDS.
Germany's policy should not be similar to that of Hungary, Poland and Israel
I warn my friends in Germany about our experiences in Israel: There is more trouble ahead if you vigorously defend the principles of democracy, freedom of expression and principled foreign policy. If you do not fight for these values, especially in the context of sensitive issues, Germany could turn into another illiberal bulwark in five or ten years' time. This policy could then be similar to that of Israel, Hungary and Poland.
It is difficult to imagine how quickly such shifts take place. If you notice it, you will not be able to undo it. You will then understand that one of the milestones on the road to slipping was that in a climate of rampant populism, you allowed political actors to cynically or innocently use "anti-Semitism" and Germany of its hard-won democratic and liberal political to divert culture.
Democracy needs active citizens
History teaches us that protecting a democracy requires the courage of active citizens, because if too many decent people refrain from defending their underlying principles and rules, they will stagger or fall.
Germans who appreciate these values and care about the integrity of Israel must now overcome their anxious hesitation and join the Israeli and Jewish democratic camps. They must muster the energy to distinguish between anti-Semitism and manipulation that should protect Israel from legitimate criticism of its violations. This includes distinguishing the responsibility for Jewish life in Germany from attempts to distort the democratic system.
Amos Goldberg is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a specialist in Holocaust research.
The ‘Jewish narrative’ in the Yad Vashem global Holocaust museum
Amos Goldberg Pages 187-213 | Published online: 10 May 2012
Download citation https://doi.org/10.1080/14623528.2012.677761
The 2005-inaugurated new historical museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is one of the most significant and influential global Holocaust memorial sites of the twenty-first century. At the same time, it is also a very local Israeli ‘lieu de mémoire’. This essay explores the interactions between these two levels of representation while suggesting a critical analysis of the museum's narrative. I contend that for various cultural and political reasons this museum encourages most of all identification with the Jewish victims. This morally necessary and very much justified empathy is achieved, however, in a way that blocks almost any nuanced historical understanding of the event. Thus by melancholic means the museum suppresses any ‘otherness’ that would make the story of the Shoah more complex, interrupt in the melodramatic processes of identification, and destabilize the identity of the Western (individual and collective) self.
“Museums convey a sense of permanence, the idea of ‘collection’, as opposed to separation and loss. In a museum I feel that I belong, though nothing belongs to me… art and literature can be a home for those without citizenship, because they remind us of our common race, and they sop you up, yet simultaneously feed you like a magic sponge. They make you part of what you see and what you hear and yet let you stand back and choose.
The various Shoah museums and reconstituted concentration camp sites do the exact opposite. That's why I find them so hard to take: they don't take you in, they spit you out. Moreover, they tell you what you ought to think, as no art or science museum ever does. They impede the critical faculty” (Ruth Kluger)1Ruth Kluger, Still alive: a Holocaust girlhood remembered (New York: The Feminist Press, 2003 ), p. 198.
The museum in context
As was suggested by Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, and from a different point of view, also by Jeffrey Alexander and many other scholars, Holocaust memory has become paradigmatic to a new form of collective memory, which they term ‘global memory’.2Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and memory in the global age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006); Jeffrey C. Alexander, ‘On the social construction of moral universalist: the “Holocaust” from mass murder to trauma drama’, European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2002, pp. 5–86. See also Tony Judt, Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945, (New York: Penguin Books 2005), and Jan Eckel and Claudia Moisel (eds.), Universalisierung des Holocaust? Erinnerungskultur und Gesschictspolitik in internationaler perspective. Beiträge zur Geschichte des Nationalsozialismus. Vol. 24 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2008).
This new form of collective memory is not connected, as traditionally was the case, to a coherent political or social group like the ‘nation’ or the ‘ethnos’, but first and foremost to a much broader though vague collective entity: the ‘West’ and to a certain extent even beyond the ‘Euro–Atlantic’ space.3For the Arab world, see Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab–Israeli war of narratives(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010).
This new global memory of the Shoah serves as a means to establish a very broad ‘imagined community’ and lays the foundation for what Levy and Sznaider call new cosmopolitan ethics. Although others are skeptical about this ‘cosmopolitan ethics’ and about the very concept of ‘global memory’,4See, for example, Ross Poole, ‘Misremembering the Holocaust: universal symbol, nationalist icon or moral kitsch?,’ in Yifat Gutman, Adam Brown and Amy Sodaro (eds.) Memory and the future: transnational politics, ethics and society (Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), pp. 31–49; Ilan Gur Zeev, ‘The globalist memory, the Holocaust and post-modern messianism’, in Yfaat Weiss and Gilad Margalit (eds.), Memory and amnesia (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2005), pp. 419–428 (in Hebrew).
it is nevertheless difficult to deny the extensive dissemination of the Holocaust memory and discourse across many parts of the globe as a significant historical and ethical symbolic event. Dan Diner summarized this process very accurately:
As the twentieth century has drawn to a close, the Holocaust appears to be assuming the character of an icon of a now-past saeculum—something like the ultimate core event of ‘our’ time… Although the conspicuous presence of the Holocaust in public discourse may be easily traced from the late 1970s onwards, and its impact became particularly manifest in the 1980s, its significance for universal historical consciousness and moral standards became irrevocable only after 1989.5Dan Diner, ‘The destruction of narrativity: the Holocaust in historical discourse’, in Moishe Postone and Eric Santner (eds.), Catastrophe and meaning: the Holocaust and the twentieth century(Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2003), p. 67.
This claim is supported by many. For example, John Torpey and Elazar Barkan have shown that legal and moral issues of compensation and restitution, which were established in regard to Holocaust victims, were quickly reproduced in other historical contexts.6John Torpey, Making whole what has been smashed: on reparation politics(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Elazar Barkan, The guilt of nations: restitution and negotiating historical injustices (New York: Norton, 2000).
Demands for apology,7See Roy Brooks (ed.), When sorry isn't enough: the controversy over apologies and reparations for human rights injustices (New York: New York University Press, 1999).
reparations and return of property were made by black people in the USA with reference to slavery; by African and other ‘third world’ nations for the years of colonial exploitation; and in Eastern Europe for the years of Communist oppression. It is noteworthy that the Holocaust served as a standard and as juridical basis for claims to justice, recognition and monetary compensation not only in the ‘Euro–Atlantic’ space, as Torpey defined it, but also far beyond it.8John Torpey, ‘“Making whole what has been smashed”: reflections on reparations’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 73, No. 2, 2001, p. 338.
For these reasons, Alon Confino even suggests that the Holocaust replaced the French Revolution as the current founding myth of the West—a myth that succeeds in giving a global ethical and political meaning to our epoch—’a foundational past’.9See Alon Confino, Foundational past: the Holocaust as historical understanding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). See also Lothar Probst, ‘Founding myths in Europe and the role of the Holocaust’, New German Critique, No. 90, 2003, pp. 45–48.
The globalization of Holocaust memory manifests itself also at the institutional level. Memory becomes increasingly fixed and established within international institutions and organizations or global cooperative networks. The two best-known examples are, first, UN resolution 60/7 of 1 November 2005 initiated by the Israeli delegation and adopted unanimously by the General Assembly to designate 27 January, the day on which the Auschwitz extermination camp was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The resolution specifically mentions the Jewish people, one third of whom perished during the Holocaust, as well as the Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide adopted in 1948 in the wake of the atrocities committed during World War II. A second body that symbolizes the institutional globalization of Holocaust memory is the Taskforce for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education Remembrance and Research (ITF) established in 1998 through the initiative of the Swedish Prime Minister at the time Göran Persson. Its current 28 member states are all European or North American, apart from Israel and Argentina.10http://www.holocausttaskforce.org/about-the-itf.html, accessed 26 November 2011.
Yad Vashem plays a major role in this institution.
Studies of global phenomena show that national institutions often interweave the global into local context and interests in various ways.11Roland Robertson, ‘Glocalization: time-space and homogeneity-heterogeneity’, in Mike Featherstone, Scott Lash, and Roland Robertson (eds.), Global modernities (London: Sage, 1995), pp. 25–44.
It is within this context that I will investigate the 2005 inaugurated Yad Vashem new historical museum, which I argue, is also ‘glocal’12The relationship between the global and the local is always very complex. Some sociologists have therefore introduced the term ‘glocalization’ as a more accurate term to describe these processes. See for example Robertson, ‘Glocalization’.
: the global change in memory of the Holocaust and the meaning of ‘collective memory’ is interwoven in a very special way into its very Israeli national local context. This is reflected and enacted in the changes that recently took place in Yad Vashem, which also has many links with state and voluntary institutions (educational, political, memorial) all over the globe.13This is evident in the newsletter that Yad Vashem publishes five to six times a year and in the Yad Vashem website. http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/about/events/index.asp, accessed 26 November 2011.
I begin with a short history of Yad Vashem growing from a very local institution to a very powerful global one. I then undertake a critical analysis of the new narrative presented in the museum's display that interweaves local and global processes and interests while transforming the Holocaust narrative, at least partially, to a locally and globally reassuring one.
Yad Vashem was established by Israeli state law in 1953, though its foundational history goes back to the early forties.14For the Yad Vashem early history, see Roni Stauber, The Holocaust in Israeli public debate in the 1950s: ideology and memory (London and Portland: Vallentine Mitchell, 2007); Tom Segev, The seventh million: the Israelis and the Holocaust (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997); Boaz Cohen, Israeli Holocaust research: birth and evolution (London: Routledge, 2011); James Young, The Texture of memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Dalia Ofer, ‘Victims, fighters, survivors: quietism and activism in Israeli historical consciousness’, Common Knowledge, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2010, pp. 500–508; Ayala Plezental, ‘Tzricha HaHanhala lehargish… ki yesh kan ma'avak’ (MA thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997 [Hebrew]); Yochai Cohen, ‘“Mot Giborim”: Chayav Umoto shel Mitos HaGvura BeYad VaShaem 1942–2005’ (MA thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2009 [Hebrew]).
That law authorized Yad Vashem to establish a memorial site, to collect, research and publish testimonies on the Holocaust, to teach the lessons of the Holocaust and to honour the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ who saved Jews during that time. At first, it was a minor institution that competed with other national memorial sites, like the Shoah Cellar in Mount Zion in Jerusalem15Doron Bar, ‘Holocaust commemoration in Israel during the 1950s: the Holocaust cellar in Mount Zion’, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2005, pp. 16–38.
and the Holocaust memorial sites at the kibbutzim of Yad Mordechai and Lohamei Hageta'ot (Ghetto Fighters). Gradually, it became the central Israeli national Holocaust memorial site and also one of Israel's most significant national symbolic sites. Its location is very meaningful in this regard. It is situated in west Jerusalem on Mount Herzl (named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism)—the Israeli national ‘Mount of Remembrance’. This site encompasses, alongside Yad Vashem, also the national military cemetery, Herzl's tomb and the official burial site for the nation's great leaders (‘Helkat Gedolei Ha'Uma’) among them Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, Ze'ev Jabotinsky and many others.
A first very basic historical exhibition was presented at Yad Vashem in the beginning of the 1960s. In 1973, a permanent comprehensive historical-chronological exhibition was established, which was subsequently updated and changed over the years. With the rise of the global interest in the Holocaust during the 1980s and 1990s, Yad Vashem also became a very popular visiting place for various sorts of tourism—local and external, educational and touristic alike. According to the Jerusalem municipality web site, by the 1990s it was second in popularity among tourists to Israel only to the Wailing Wall.16See http://www.jerusalem.muni.il/jer_sys/picture/atarim/site_form_atar.asp?site_id=65&pic_cat=1&icon_cat=5&york_cat=8(Hebrew), accessed 26 November 2011. By the end of the nineties, more than 2 million people visited Yad Vashem every year. In 2005, after the new museum was opened, Yad Vashem reported on an average of 5000 visitors a day. http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/he/education/newsletter/02/index.asp. I believe this figure has risen much higher in recent years.
It is noteworthy that all soldiers in the Israeli army are expected to visit Yad Vashem at least once within the framework of their military education programmes. Consequently, every Sunday Yad Vashem is coloured with khaki uniform to the sound of military roll-calls. Yad Vashem is also a site that many Israeli students visit during their high school education.
Figure 1. IDF Soldiers at the entrance of the Yad Vashem museum (© author)
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Over the last twenty years, Yad Vashem has become a substantial and influential institution that employs hundreds of workers, educators and scholars in its various departments, and that cooperates with many of the world's most powerful political and cultural institutions. Its annual budget, according to the New York Times, is 45 million dollars and it is active in 55 countries.17‘From overseas visitors, a growing demand to study the Holocaust’, New York Times, 14 February 2012.
Thus, without losing its local and national (sacred) significance, it has transformed itself into a global memorial site, hosting millions of visitors from all over the world. It has become—together with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC (USHMM), the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and Auschwitz itself—an international Holocaust ‘shrine’ of pilgrimage. These four ‘shrines’ serve as anchoring sites for the new Holocaust ethical memory that has become a fundamental component in the current identity of the West. In a way, they also mark the geo-cultural map of this ‘Holocaust consciousness’: Western and Eastern Europe, North America and Israel. Hence, from its beginnings as a very local Israeli ‘lieu de mémoire’ (site of memory), to use Pierre Nora's well-known term, Yad Vashem has become a very powerful and influential international and global cultural institution. In other words it is now a major agent in the global field of Holocaust memory.
As these changes took place, the historical museum obviously had to be replaced, especially after the impressive USHMM was opened in 1993. Accordingly, the modest, mostly pictorial, exhibition was completely replaced in 2005 by the extremely modern and sophisticated new museum, which was built within the framework of reshaping, enlarging and reconstructing the entire Yad Vashem campus.
Now, seven years after this development, it is time to critically reflect on this new museum, particularly within this new context of the ‘globalization of memory’.18For other reflections on the new Yad Vashem Museum see, for example, Eran Neuman, ‘Nofei Shoah Monumentalin be Yad Vashem’, Dapim, Vol. 21, 2007, pp 35–54 (in Hebrew). Neuman, ‘The plan as a text: masochistic architecture at Yad Vashem’, Theory and Criticism, Vol. 28, Spring 2006, pp. 249–158 (in Hebrew). For a broader critical meditation on the fun'ction of the museum in modern life, see Susan A. Crane (ed.), Museums and memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
Two most important disclaimers are in order. The first has to do with the nature of my analysis. What I will attempt in the following pages is to suggest a reading of the museum's display as a narrative. I will analyze what kind of historical story is told in this museum and identify its faults. Inevitably, this sort of analysis is partial. A museum is not an historical textbook and it is limited in its capacity to present historical complexities. Furthermore, it is more than a text; it is a performance,19See, for example, Tamar Katriel, Performing the past: the study of Israeli settlement museums (Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erblaum Associates Publishers, 1997).
and the experience of the visitor is consequently multifaceted. Thus, for example, the museum is mediated to many of the visitors by educational instructors or tour guides who ‘perform’ the museum for them, contextualize the various exhibits and, in their oral explanations, add a lot of information that is not presented in the exhibits.20For an illuminating discussion of the pedagogical dilemmas of educational guides in Holocaust memorial sites see Yariv Lapid et al. ‘“Was hat es mit mir zu tun?”: Das Vermittlungskonzept an der Gedenkstätte Mauthausen’, KZ-Gedenkstätte Mauthausen, 2010, pp. 15–20.
This dimension is not considered here.21The anthropologist Jackie Feldman of Ben Gurion University together with a team of the Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany, are currently conducting a fascinating comparative research on the multifaceted experiences of various visitors groups and individuals in the Yad Vashem Museum and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Unfortunately and contrary to the principles of academic freedom, Yad Vashem is making every effort to prevent them from conducting this important research.
Moreover, in many analyses of museums, the architecture, the space and the artifacts take major stage.22See, for example, Gaynor Bagnall and Antony Rowlands, ‘The Imperial War Museum North: a twenty first century museum?’, in Richard Crownshaw et al. (eds.), The future of memory (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), pp. 51–76. More generally, see Suzanne McLeod (ed.), Reshaping human space, architecture design, exhibition(London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
In other cases, the urban and political contexts in which the institutions are situated are the major contexts for the analysis.23See for example Saree Makdisi, ‘The architecture of erasure’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 36, No. 3, 2010, pp. 519–559 and the responses in the same issue.
These aspects, although not totally dismissed here, are nevertheless marginalized.
The second reservation concerns the scope of my critical analysis. It is aimed only at the museum and not at Yad Vashem as a memorial, educational and research institution with its various departments. These include among others: an excellent library; one of the largest modern digitized Holocaust archives; the International School for Holocaust Studies, where tens of thousands of educators and students from Israel and abroad come to study in long and short term seminars about the Holocaust; a very prestigious academic research centre that hosts in its various academic frameworks the most important Holocaust scholars from Israel and all over the world and initiates or supports some of the most groundbreaking research on the Holocaust; some of the leading historians of the field are based there (like Yehuda Bauer, Dan Michman, Yisrael Gutman and, until his untimely passing, David Bankier); and an important publishing house for Holocaust research and testimony literature that boasts among its many publications the excellent journal Yad Vashem Studies. All these aspects of the institution are beyond the scope of my analysis, which is focused on the ‘story’ that the museum presents. However, as modest and focused as such a study is, it can be illuminating and helpful. Hence, more than anything else, this essay is a call for discussion and debate, which is fundamental to academic culture and essential for the existence of a vital public sphere in which we can reflect on the nature of collective memory and identity.
The new Yad Vashem Holocaust historical museum was inaugurated in March 2005. The two days of inauguration ceremonies were among the biggest diplomatic and international events ever to take place in Israel, perhaps second only to Prime Minister Rabin's funeral. More than 35 delegations, mostly from Europe and North America, led by heads of state or distinguished political figures, attended the ceremonies.24An extended report on the ceremony along with pictures could be found in the official web site of the Israeli Monastery of Foreign Affairs: http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Anti-Semitism+and+the+Holocaust/Documents+and+communiques/Inauguration+of+new+Holocaust+History+Museum+at+Yad+Vashem+13-Mar-2005.htm?fd8433d0, accessed February 14 2012.
It seems that the whole world, or at least the ‘western world’, in a unique expression of consensus, agreed in Yad Vashem on a contemporary categorical imperative—’thou shalt remember the Holocaust’.
The museum itself is an impressive achievement. It is located within the new re-constructed huge Yad Vashem memorial complex and occupies over 4,200 square meters.25All the data is taken for the Yad Vashem website: www.yadvashem.org.il.
The building was designed (by the world-famous architect Moshe Safdie) and erected over a decade. The exhibitions are historical (its official name is ‘The Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum’) and they tell the story of the Holocaust in a more or less sequential narrative. Beginning with Nazi Germany in the 1930s, proceeding to the persecution of the Jews across Europe until the ‘final solution’ and ending with the liberation and the rehabilitation of Jewish life after the war. There are also some thematic halls on issues like the death camps and especially Auschwitz, or on rescue attempts, that break the linear progression of the linear narrative as they could not be easily integrated into it. But, all in all, a linear narrative provides the fundamental structure of the displays. The display deliberately and most self-consciously depicts a very concrete focal point. As stated on the Yad Vashem website and in other official publications, and as patently evident in the display itself, the museum presents the story of the Shoah from a uniquely Jewish perspective.
It is with this assertion that I wish to begin my critical reflection to which I will relate in this article. Bearing in mind that a ‘Jewish perspective’ is not something with one essence and meaning,26It is outside the scope of this essay but one can find very different ways to construct the ‘Jewish perspectives’ and its ways to interact with other perspectives, for example in the new display at the Ghetto Fighters House or at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
a set of questions must be presented here: what does it actually mean to present the ‘Jewish historical perspective’ of the Holocaust according to the Yad Vashem museum? How is it structured? What does it include and what does it exclude? And why are so many people from all over the world so interested in this form of Holocaust narrative? Or to put it a little bit differently: why does such a local and national Jewish Israeli narration become so interesting and attractive on a global scale?
As Louis Bickford and Amy Sodaro remind us, memorial projects since World War II tend to place ever more emphasis on the individual.27Louis Bickford and Amy Sodaro, ‘Remembering yesterday to protect tomorrow: the internationalization of a new commemorative paradigm’, in Gutman, Brown and Sodaro, Remembering and the Future, pp. 72–78.
The Yad Vashem museum has turned it into one of its major principles. The exhibition places great emphasis on the ‘individual voice’ of the victim, and it contains artifacts, works of art, original documents and many survivors’ videotaped testimonies that intend to individualize and re-humanize the victim. The museum's first two halls illustrate this very well.
The first one is dedicated to the Jewish world in Europe before the Shoah, which is portrayed by a very sophisticated and impressive video-art exhibition. This seems to express the idea that the visitor should not encounter the Jews only as victims of the Holocaust but as human beings who had lives and histories prior to the war. They are not merely objects of German genocidal history but rather a subject in their own right. Following this installation, visitors are introduced in a very moving and overwhelming exhibition to the individuation principle of the museum. A large photograph of the Kluga camp (in Estonia) taken immediately after its liberation by the Soviets (September 1944) hangs on the wall. The photo depicts corpses lying on top and in between wooden logs, ready to be burnt. Even though the camp was liberated before that event actually took place, nevertheless the human body is transformed here into a burning material ready for its use. It is a shocking picture. In the display cases, to which this photo serves as a background, letters and artifacts that the victims carried in their pockets to the camp are exhibited. Thus the victim is rehumanized. The display which completely breaks with the chronological order of the museum is a kind of ‘ars poetica’ statement of the museum's display—it is all about the victims. This exhibition is, to my mind, one of the most powerful and moving of the entire museum.
The next hall is the only short historical introductory hall before the Nazi era exhibition and it is here that things start to become dubious to my mind. This small hall provides the visitor with the essential data assumed to be needed to proceed into the Nazi era itself. This scant regard for context is noteworthy. It is obvious that the decision to skip almost all introductory explanations regarding the European and German context from which Nazism arose is deliberate. This decision introduces a very significant gap at the beginning of the narrative. As a consequence, the whole story begins in its very middle. To be sure, one hall is dedicated to providing the visitor with some preliminary data, but it is relatively small and almost totally dedicated to one theme—antisemitism. Modernity racism, former genocides, colonialism and imperialism, the development of discourses and practices of exclusions in the sciences, totalitarianism, fascism, the First World War, the Weimar Republic, mass society, modern nationalism the modern nation-state and so on are all omitted. However much significance one attributes to antisemitism in understanding the Holocaust, it is obvious that it alone cannot provide a sufficient historical background. After all, if hatred of Jews/Jew hatred is such an old phenomenon as it is presented in the exhibition, why did the Holocaust occur in the middle of the twentieth century? Consequently, an explanatory gap is introduced into the narrative from the outset.
By ‘explanatory gap’ I do not mean to say that the museum's narrative lacks an interpretation but that from its very outset its interpretation is very partial and therefore distortive. Undoubtedly, antisemitism is an essential context for understanding the Holocaust, but as all historians and other scholars, regardless of their historiographical orientation, agree antisemitism is not and cannot be the only explanatory context. While some historians (those who tend to ‘intentionalism’) think it is the most important explanatory context while others (those who tend to ‘func'tionalism’) tend to moderate its importance, all agree that it could not be isolated from other processes without which it has no historical meaning. Moreover, if historians never explain much simpler historical and even personal events in such a mono-casual way, how then can such a complex, extreme and long term event that encompasses all of Europe be explained in such a simplistic manner? It is thus reductive and even distorting to provide the visitor at the beginning of the twenty-first century with a single historical context that altogether disconnects the Holocaust from modern European history, especially in view of the vast effort of historical research providing very nuanced and complex historical understandings of these events.
It must be stressed here that this expectation to provide the viewer with more modern historical context does not mean that genocides did not happen before the modern era.28See, for example, Ben Kiernan, Blood and soil: a world history of genocide and extermination from Sparta to Darfur (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Genocide, like all other universal phenomena—e.g., feelings, wars, rituals, eating, religion, etc—could be found universally across cultures and historical eras. However, just as all these phenomena have their special historical features in their modern form, which historians, sociologists and other scholars endeavour to understand and analyze, so genocide contains special features in the modern era without which it could not be understood. Among these features one can list, for example, its overwhelming frequency in the modern era, its bureaucratic nature, its intimate connections to the formation of the modern nation and modern nation-state,29See, for example, Eric D. Weitz, A century of genocide: utopias of race and nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).
and many more. All this essential data is not even hinted at in the museum.
Henceforth, almost the entire museum is dedicated to the Nazi era, 1933–1945, following more or less a chronological sequence. It portrays the continual escalation and radicalization of Nazi anti-Jewish policies from the first anti-Jewish decree in Nazi Germany through the persecution of the Jews in occupied Europe, the establishment of the ghettos, the mass murder by the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union, the death camps and the death marches. To this unfolding narrative of death many manifestations of Jewish collective and individual life and various kinds of resistance are integrated, presenting the internal Jewish life in major sites such as Germany, the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos and Theresienstadt. Throughout the exhibition, many video or written testimonies are displayed and are an important element of the museum.
Here again, one can sense the aporia that pierces the narrative. Why does the persecution worsen? How were the decisions regarding the Jews made? How does one phase evolve into the next one? How were all obstacles overcome? None of these questions are addressed in the museum. This escalation is not explained and is presented as a natural continuum. The visitor gains the impression that this mass evil operates according to some internal logic shorn of an external context. The very minimal and elementary references to the war fun'ction here as mere general background and in no way provide even a partial historical context.
This lack of historical context is felt all the more strongly when one compares this narrative to another Yad Vashem narrative30This is to indicate that Yad Vashem as an institution is much more pluralistic then the narrative displayed in the museum.
: Christopher Browning's (who is far from being a radical ‘fun'ctionalist’-oriented historian) comprehensive research on the ‘final solution’ initiated and published by Yad Vashem as the most authoritative study on the issue (before Saul Friedländer's magnum opus).31Christopher Browning, The origins of the Final Solution: the evolution of Nazi Jewish policy (Lincoln and Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2004).
This volume, The origins of the Final Solution: the evolution of Nazi Jewish policy, shows how gradual and complex the road to Auschwitz was and how so many minor steps had to be taken and obstacles—technical and mental—had to be overcome, to reach the ‘final solution’ (a term that itself could be found in Nazi documentation already in 1940 relating to other ‘solutions’ rather than a total murder of the Jews32See for example Götz Aly ‘Final Solution’ (London: Arnold Press, 1999), p. 3; Philippe Burrin, Hitler and the Jews (London: Arnold Press, 1994), p. 88.
Obviously, I am aware that a museum exhibition is not a history book but here there is something very different at stake: what sort of story does the museum convey to the visitor? Does the exhibition, which pretends to be ‘historical’, portray a mono- and teleological narrative or does it address the challenge to gesture, even in a superficial or partial way, the multilayered and the non-teleological nature of history? The answer of the Yad Vashem display is categorical: none of the complexities were translated into the museum displays. On the contrary, the museum makes every effort to get the visitor to acknowledge that the road to the ‘final solution’ was anything but complex. It is portrayed as determined and as already decided upon at a very early stage, although it is never explicitly said.
Numerous examples could be given in support of this critique. For instance, at the end of the hall dedicated to the Jews in Nazi Germany 1933–1939, just before crossing over to the Poland display, a clip of Hitler's infamous speech of January 1939 is presented. The visitor cannot avoid this clip, which repeats over and over again Hitler's words that ‘if international finance-Jewry… should succeed in plunging the nations into a world war yet again, then the outcome will not be the victory of Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!’ A lay visitor must conclude, contrary to all historical evidence and to the consensus among all historians, that the road to Auschwitz was already in January 1939 completely paved.33See, for example, Ian Kershaw, ‘Hitler's prophecy and the “Final Solution”‘, in Moshe Zimmermann (eds.), On Germans and Jews under the Nazi regime (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2006), pp. 49–66. This essay, which views this speech as an important milestone on the road to the ‘Final Solution’, portrays all its complexities that avoid identifying it with a definite decision and plan as the impression the museum gives.
Another example is the display on the Lodz ghetto where Friedrich Übelhör's (the governor of the Kalisz-Lodz District) order from December 1939 on the closing of the ghetto is quoted in a very central place: ‘The creation of the ghetto is only interim measure… the final aim must in any case be to totally cauterize this plague spot’. Here again the average visitor who lacks historical knowledge is driven to conclude that the ‘final solution’ (‘the final aim’) is already planned but delayed while what Übelhör actually had in mind when saying this was the expulsion of the Jews from the Warthegau—the annexed Polish area to the Reich.
And, on the other hand, the absence, for example, of any reference to the plan to expel the Jews from Europe to the island of Madagascar (known as the ‘Madagascar plan’), which was considered very seriously by the Nazis in the spring and summer of 1940, supports the same determinist mono-layered narrative.34My claim is still relevant even if we accept Magnus Brechtken analysis that this policy was also already genocidal through and through. See Magnus Brechtken, Madagaskar für die Juden: anisemitsche Idee und politische Praxis (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1997).
It seems that the museum deliberately precludes any data that might confuse the visitor or hint that the issues at stake are a bit more complicated.
The same goes for the 1941 exhibition. It seems, according to Browning, who summarizes what had been established by the historians of the ‘final solution’, that the mass killings of Jews in summer 1941, certainly until mid-July (some say mid-August), in the Soviet Union, were not yet part of the ‘final solution’ (as is written on one of the museum's panels) but a Nazi terror policy of ‘pacifying the occupied territories’, waging a war against the partisans, and annihilating the Bolshevik elite. At this stage mostly Jewish men (not women and children) were murdered on mass scale. This was the last step in preparing the ground for the total and sweeping annihilation of all the Jews in the Soviet-occupied territories a few weeks later and before the decision to expand this policy to Europe as a whole was taken35See also Christopher Browning, Nazi policy Jewish workers, German killers (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), especially the two first chapters. See also Christian Gerlach, ‘The Wannsee Conference, the fate of German Jews, and Hitler's decision in principle to exterminate all European Jews’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 4, 1998, pp. 759–812. I am not going here into the argument on the time when the fate of European Jewry was completely sealed (October 1941 as Browning suggests, December 1941 as Friedländer and Gerlach suggest or spring 1942 as Longerich suggests). For the most updated summary of the most fundamental historiographical debates on the Holocaust including this one, see Dan Stone, Histories of the Holocaust(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
. Indeed, as Ian Kershaw (who in his recent books, on Hitler for example, came much closer to an ‘intentionalist’ oriented stance) has recently put it, ‘to speak of a “decision” may itself be misleading, in its implication of one finite moment when a precise pronouncement was delivered. A series of authorizations, each building cumulatively upon the last, is probably a more appropriate way of imagining what took place’.36I deliberately refer here to Kershaw who is presenting a very ‘intentionalist’-oriented view of the ‘final solution’ in Ian Kershaw, Fateful choices: ten decisions that changed the world, 1940–1941(London and New York: Penguin Books, 2007), pp. 437, and was therefore praised by the Israeli historian Israel Gutman. See his review in Ha'aretz Literary Supplement, 22 April 2009 (Hebrew).
He continues: ‘These [the stages leading to the final solution] did not follow explicit orders descending from the apex to the base of the pyramid. Rather, there was a complex interrelationship of “green lights” from action coming from above and initiatives taken from below, combining to produce a spiral of radicalization’.37Kershaw, Fateful choices, p. 454.
None of these or any of the many other historical complexities (e.g., Himmler's ethnic cleansing demographic policies in Poland in late 1939 and early 1940 that affected both Poles and Jews) are confronted in the museum.38Some of these questions are confronted in the ‘learning center’, which is separated from the historical museum and which only very few, mostly educational groups, visit.
Nor are the almost three million Soviet soldiers who were killed or starved to death in a time span of less than a year and at a rate of some 7,000 a day, mentioned, not to say displayed in the museum. Even if a museum ought not to resemble an academic or historiographical publication, nevertheless it should not and must not exempt itself from the task of coming to terms with some of the historical complexities of this extremely complex event. One might even say that it displays at the beginning of the third millennium a very narrow ‘intentionalist’ approach which already in the mid-eighties was pretty much outdated in historiography.
To my mind the museum exhibition should aspire to leave the visitor with the impression that the Holocaust is a very complex and multi-layered historical event (or multitude of events), even if not all the historical complexities could be represented in the museum. The curators of Yad Vashem's exhibition should have included what Jay Winter calls a ‘historial’ approach, ‘a midpoint between history and memorial, between academy and public commemoration or… between cold dispassionate precise history, to warm, evocative, messy memory’.39Jay Winter, Remembering war: the Great War and historical memory in the twentieth century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 224.
Within such a ‘historial’ approach, a totalizing and simplified narrative, which seems so distorting from the perspective of historical research, would have been avoided. In the case of the Holocaust, one could argue that it is not only a historical but also a very crucial ethical responsibility to avoid a narrow one dimensional historical narrative, one that is totalizing and too comprehensive in nature—an overreaching authoritative historical narrative that pretends to be the one and only approach to the event. ‘It is precisely the “Final Solution”‘, says Saul Friedländer, ‘which allows postmodernist thinking to question the validity of any totalizing view of history, of any reference to a definable meta-discourse, thus opening the way for a multiplicity of equally valid approaches’.40Saul Friedländer, ‘Introduction’, in Saul Friedlander (ed.), Probing the limits of representation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 5.
Further, the museum does not even deal seriously with the perpetrators or the bystanders.41There is a section in the museum dedicated to the righteous who saved Jews. But nothing is said about the complex situation of the occupied peoples during the war that would help make understandable the various decisions made by the bystanders—including the decision of those righteous who decided to save Jews.
To be sure, there are, scattered in the museum, some closed black boxes that contain inside or outside them a few dry and basic biographic details of some of the perpetrators. These texts are revealed once the boxes are opened by the visitor. This is to hint that the perpetrators were also human beings who had a biography. But this is really banal— and almost meaningless in terms of historical impression. It does not and could not spare the historical and ethical need at least to hint, if not to confront in one way or another, the burning historical, psychological, social, philosophical and ethical questions concerning the perpetrators42The scholarly literature on these issues is vast, so I just mention a few prominent titles: Claudia Koonz, The Nazi conscience(Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003); Thomas Kühne, Kameradschaft: die Soldaten des nationalsozialistischen Krieges und das 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006); Christopher Browning, Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).
. None of the questions concerning the processes that led to and /or enabled the ‘final solution’ and the Holocaust are confronted in the museum—neither on the level of policy nor of the individual. The story of the major protagonists of this historical event—the doers—is totally absent.43The amazing fact is that almost nothing of the vast historical monographic literature on the perpetrators was translated into Hebrew. Articles are published by various Hebrew periodicals, among them the Yad Vashem Studies and Dapim. Even Hilberg's 1961 The destruction of the European Jews was never translated to Hebrew. It was rejected for publication by Yad Vashem during the 1960s and is only now being translated into Hebrew by Yad Vashem though at the time of writing (January 2012) was yet to appear in print. One must also mention that among the very few books translated to Hebrew two very important volumes were published in the last few years by Yad Vashem: Christopher Browning, The originsand Ulrich Herbert (ed.), National Socialist extermination policies (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000), translated in 2001. For a broad overview of the Israeli Holocaust historiography, see Dan Michman, Holocaust historiography: a Jewish perspective: conceptualizations, terminology, approaches, and fundamental issues (London and Portland: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003).
This omission is not just a misrepresentation; it is an anti-representation. Because the museum represents the deeds without the doers, and thus, even if unintentionally, it elevates the event to the mythic sphere; it portrays the event divorced from its worldly ‘causes and effect’ dimensions and from the human sphere of reasoning and explanations. The events are a ‘given’, revealing some eternal truth about the world—that is what defines a myth. The Holocaust as presented in the museum lacks its earthly dimensions. A ‘historial’ approach is very much missing.
This omission of any serious reference to the perpetrators is a striking curatorial policy. Because the premise, seemingly shared by the museum's ‘implied narrator and imagined uninformed addressee, is that the Holocaust is an unprecedented if not a unique event, it is one that does not lend itself intuitively to reason. It is a huge and catastrophic historical question; and this is why we build, visit and honour such a museum to commemorate this event. Such a premise calls for an explanation, a desire to understand, to start filling the gap of ‘disbelief’44Saul Friedländer, The years of extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945 (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), p. xxvi.
; how did that happen? And precisely this question is avoided altogether in the museum. Hence, one can conclude that the museum not only fails to fill in these gaps, but that its dense, linear, perhaps even teleological, determinist and certainly very authoritative narrative actually discourages such gaps from erupting.
It must be added that this kind of critique could be directed to other Holocaust museums, as the Ruth Klüger (a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz) quotation in the epigraph to this article indicates: ‘they [Holocaust museums and sites] don't take you in, they spit you out. Moreover, they tell you what you ought to think… They impede the critical faculty’45See note 1.
; or as Ross Poole writes in regard to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC: ‘there are very few museums that so rigorously control the order and direction in which they are experienced’.46Poole, ‘Misremembering the Holocaust’, p. 43.
All this makes my critique even more pertinent and urgent especially when there are other museums (usually the smaller ones) that take a very different approach (for example the Ghetto Fighters’ House new exhibition or the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust). Moreover, the Yad Vashem museum is a very strong player in this field of Holocaust public representation, also having a key influential role at a global level. And it is here that such ‘authoritative’ and ‘reductionist’ tendencies are most severe because, while Pool writes in his critique of the USHMM that it fails in its ‘genuine effort to link the Holocaust to other global catastrophes’,47Poole, ‘Misremembering the Holocaust:’, p. 43.
the Yad Vashem museum does not seem to even make an effort.
Empathy and authority
The architecture of the museum certainly sustains such a non-explanatory and authoritative experience. The museum is situated within a huge memorial complex that seems to be dominated by one major architectural principal: greatness. Everything is imposing as in forms of very authoritative architecture, where one is expected to subordinate oneself to a higher authority. A monumental arch, (‘the wall of the survivors’) welcomes the visitor into a huge imperial piazza (Figure 2). The ‘visiting centre’—the entrance to the museum campus, is designed in a shape of a Greek temple made of massive bare concrete48It is worthwhile quoting here the narrator's comment in Sebald's Austerlitz: ‘Someone, he added, ought to draw up a catalogue of types of buildings, listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size—the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lock-keeper's lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children's bothy in the garden—are those that offer as at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the Old Gallows Hill in Brussels. At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins’. Winfried Georg Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Penguin Books, 2001), pp. 23–24.
Figure 2. The wall of the survivors (© author)
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Figure 3. The Yad Vashem ‘visiting centre' (© author)
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In this ‘authoritative’ vein, the museum contains only one very long visitors’ path that twists and turns along. The visitor can opt out at only one point at a midpoint in the display (which is actually an emergency exit) and, unless leaving the museum altogether, cannot skip virtually any of its exhibitions. The exhibitions themselves are overloaded with pictures, video clips, artifacts and explanatory panels exposing their ‘ambition to capture the Holocaust in its totality, to produce an ultimate summa interpretation of the Catastrophe’, to quote Ksenia Polouektova's relevant critique of the USHMM in Washington.49Ksenia Polouektova, ‘Holocaust, representation, memory: notes on the USHMM, Washington, DC’, Jewish Studies at the CEU 5 (2005–2007), p. 128.
The design of the museum itself ‘consists of a prism-like triangular structure that penetrates the mountain from one side to the other, with both ends dramatically cantilevering into the open air’.50http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/museum/architecture.asp?CSRT=1434878364311078672.
The visitor enters the museum via a bridge (Figure 4) and ends it on the verge of the abyss (Figure 4). When one enters the museum, one is literally disconnected from the earthly, everyday world. The logic that fu'nctions here is not the one that fun'ctions there. One has to cross a bridge and go underneath the ground to a place where the gaps in the narrative are taken for granted and lose their disturbing nature. Only there is the visitor invited to confront the Holocaust.
Figure 4. The museum and the bridge leading to its entrance (© author)
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It could be argued, then, that the pact between the narrator of the museum's narrative and its imagined addressee (the visitor) is based on an authoritative non-explanatory narrative—an assumed mutual desire not to understand. The imagined visitor should not expect and is not expected to receive information that confronts the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the events—to fill in as much as possible the historical gaps. This ‘pact’ would not even allow her to sense the uneasiness of any ambivalence. The horrifying events appear naturally, as if coming from nowhere. Or in other words, the visitor does not attend the museum to gain even partial historical understanding and meaning but in order to experience something else. This ‘something else’ is disconnected from earthly meaning and is elevated by the means I just mentioned to the sphere of a sacred and authoritative myth. But what is its nature?
As mentioned above, the museum, according to its website, ‘presents the story of the Shoah from a unique Jewish perspective, emphasizing the experiences of the individual victims through original artifacts, survivor testimonies and personal possessions’.51http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/museum/overview.asp?CSRT=1434878364311078672.
This means that the museum's major task is telling an historical story by bearing witness to the victim or, to be more precise, bearing witness to the Jewish victim who is the major and only protagonist of the catastrophic narrative. Bearing witness to the victim and being able to feel empathy towards his or her story is of course a major ethical imperative.52On this see for example Carolyn J. Dean, The fragility of empathy after the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).
The ‘individual voices’, however, almost never challenge in their individuality the authoritative historical narrative of Yad Vashem's public version as it is represented in the narrative and physical design of the museum. They were very well chosen and for the most part only in order to support, illustrate or elaborate on the totalizing narrative. Very rarely do they somehow challenge, undermine, subvert or even expose ambivalence, as is usually the case with ‘individual voices’. Those voices are almost totally subordinated to the overall very stiff historical narrative. They are not dialogical in the Bakhtinian sense of the term53Mikhail Bakhtin, The dialogical imagination: four essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).
and therefore lose their individual nature.
One can also wonder what groups and issues are included in this ‘Jewish perspective’ and in what ways? And which ones are left out? Initially, for example, the display lacked almost any reference to Jewish religious experiences, rabbis, institutions and activities although major sections of the Jews, mostly in Eastern Europe, were observant orthodox Jews. Only after a long struggle was this slightly changed.54On the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in Israeli Holocaust memory in general and in Yad Vashem in particular, see for example Sveta Roberman, ‘From exclusion to inclusion: Jewish WWII soldiers in the Israeli national narrative’, Israel Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2009, pp. 50–71.
One can also mention the fact that except for three, all video testimonies are in Hebrew.55I thank Dr. Jackie Feldman for drawing my attention to this.
Obviously, this is due to the fact that Yad Vashem made use of its own rich video testimony archival resources, which are mostly in Hebrew. But nonetheless this gives the impression that Hebrew is the only Jewish language of the victims and survivors whereas in fact only a tiny fraction of the Jews in Europe spoke Hebrew during the Holocaust. Many of them, particularly from Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish and other languages as well. The focus on Hebrew is therefore a Zionization of the ‘Jewish perspective’ that excludes other spoken languages and perspectives (except for Yiddish which appears here and there on the display but not in the videos).
One can also wonder what image of Jewish life is portrayed in the displays and to what extent the museum was courageous enough to even hint at less flattering aspects of Jewish reality during the Holocaust, such as corruption, lack of solidarity, Jewish collaborators, huge tensions within the Jewish society, radical internal critique of the Jewish leadership and Jewish police, moral breakdowns, the loss of shame, and so on, which so densely populate Jewish writings? The answer is that except for a very mild hint at the radical, problematic case of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Lodz ghetto Judenrat, nothing in the display gestures to these issues that so strongly emphasized and intensively discussed in writings from the time of the Holocaust. These aspects are excluded in order to construct a glorifying and heroic image of Jewish life in the Holocaust.56Lack of Jewish solidarity is a major theme in Friedländer, The years of extermination. More on this see my two articles: ‘The victim's voice in history and melodramatic aesthetics’, History and Theory, no. 48, 2009, pp. 220–237, and also ‘If this is the nature of human nature?—re-reading Holocaust diaries’, Yad Vashem Studies, no. 33, 2005, pp. 381–429.
To a certain extent, it is understandable in a national museum but it could hardly be considered ‘historical’. Nonetheless, such an image makes it much easier for the visitor to bear witness and to identify with the victim. But if to bear witness is in one way or another to identify with the victim while giving up confronting in any way the historicity of Jewish life in the Holocaust, especially as was described above, or the diverse logic or reasoning of the events as they were carried out by the Nazis (as if one cannot do both), then we can say that in psychoanalytic terms we are in the domain of melancholia and not the realm of mourning.
I use the term melancholic in a very specific sense as was articulated by Eric Santner,57Eric L. Santner, Stranded objects: mourning, memory, and film in postwar Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).
following Freud's famous 1919 essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’.58Sigmund Freud  (1984), ‘Mourning and melancholia’, in The Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 11 (London: Pelican Books, 1984), pp. 251–268.
This melancholic memory is based on narcissistic processes of identification—with the victim—which seeks to eliminate from the narrative any ‘otherness’59By ‘other’ I mean here whichever element that could not be easily integrated into a given conceptual or epistemological scheme or structure.
that interrupts this identification. In this sense, the Yad Vashem ‘Jewish narrative’ is self-contained and is closed to any ‘otherness’ of historicity that makes the story much more complex, and therefore becomes, as I claim, a mythic narrative. As demonstrated, it excludes very much of the Jewish experience and almost every non-Jewish otherness from itself: no non-Jewish background and context, no previous genocides and mass annihilation, no racism, no colonies, no perpetrators and almost no bystanders. Indeed, almost no non-Jewish victims during the Holocaust as well.60These victims are mentioned relatively extensively at the beginning of the museum in the hall dedicated to Nazi Germany. There are panels relating to the Sinti and Roma, to the Euthanasia victims and to the Nazis’ political opponents. The Sinti and Roma are mentioned once more in a hidden panel at the entrance to the camps section.
Presented is a very simple though extremely melodramatic story. There is only one reason for all this—antisemitism—and from here on the story rolls down automatically and teleologically to its catastrophic end, eliminating every element that might make it even a little more complex. In such a story, as is the case in every melodrama, one completely identifies with the victims but gains a very shallow understanding of the world.
Though very narcissistic and problematic, it is also understandable why the victim group of a massive historical trauma like the Holocaust tends to adopt such a melancholic narrative, relinquishing any attempt to integrate other perspectives, even in a very limited way. Moreover, this narrative also makes perfect sense in the Israeli context where remembering the Holocaust, as Idith Zertal so forcefully indicated,61Idith Zertal, Israel's Holocaust and the politics of nationhood(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
is perhaps the major pillar of current Israeli victimized identity,62Much has been said on Israeli victim identity but in the context of Yad Vashem see Jackie Feldman, ‘Between Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl: changing inscriptions of sacrifice on Jerusalem's “Mountain of Memory”‘, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 80, No. 4, 2007, pp. 1147–1174; Mooli Brog, ‘Victims and victors: Holocaust and military commemoration in Israel collective memory’, Israel Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, 2003, pp. 65–99. According to the most updated comprehensive survey of Israeli Jewish identity conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute together with The Guttman Center for Surveys, 98 per cent of the Jewish population believe that it is ‘fairly important’ or ‘very important’ to remember the Holocaust. This is the only identity component that reached such complete consensus, attributing to it even more weight than to living in Israel, the Sabbath, the Passover seder and the feeling of belonging to the Jewish people. See: http://www.idi.org.il/sites/english/events/Other_Events/Documents/GuttmanAviChaiReport2012_EngFinal.pdf, accessed 1 February 2012.
and where such identity has proven itself to be an extremely powerful and useful diplomatic tool in gaining international support in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict and in maintaining the occupation in Palestine. This way of reasoning fu'nctions inwards and outwards as very efficient regime of justification (This is of course not to say that Holocaust memory in Israel is just that. It should certainly not be reduced solely to the political dimension).
But it seems that this tendency to experience Holocaust memory by almost exclusively and entirely ‘identifying with the (Jewish) victim’ is a much broader cultural phenomenon that tends to dominate many of the major Holocaust representations—for example, the Berlin memorial exhibition, the recently inaugurated Bergen-Belsen site or even Saul Friedländer's two volume Holocaust history.63It was enthusiastically received precisely because it managed to integrate the victims’ voice into the comprehensive narrative. Friedländer, The years of persecution; Friedländer, The years of extermination. For a thorough theoretical, historiographic and critical discussion of the book, see Wulf Kansteiner, ‘Success, truth, and modernism in Holocaust historiography: reading Saul Friedländer thirty-five years after the publication of Metahistory’, History and Theory, Vol. 47, 2009, pp. 25–53, and the forum published in History and Theory, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2009, including responses from Alon Confino, ‘Narrative form and historical sensation: on Saul Friedländer's The years of extermination’, pp. 199–219; Christopher Browning, ‘Evocation, Analysis, and the “crisis of liberalism”‘, pp. 238–247. See also Dominick LaCapra, ‘Historical and literary approaches to the “Final Solution”: Saul Friedländer and Jonathan Littell’, History and Theory, Vol. 50, 2011, pp. 71–97; Dan Stone, Constructing the Holocaust: a study in historiography (London, 2003), pp. 161–164; Carolyn J. Dean, ‘Minimalism and victim testimony’, History and Theory, Vol. 49, 2010, pp. 85–99.
All examples draw heavily on the ‘victim's voice’ as a/the central epistemological perspective of Holocaust history and memory. They all somehow ‘manipulate’ their addressee first and foremost and at times even exclusively to experience intense identification with the victims.
So the question that arises is why? Why would non-Jews, as part of an ethical and cultural habitus, also tend to identify so extremely with a narrative that places such strong emphasis on the affect of empathy and identification with the Jewish victims? Or to put it differently: why does the Israeli national (perhaps even chauvinistic) version of the ‘Jewish narrative’ so closely correlate to the global allegedly cosmopolitan Holocaust narrative as they both take as their focal point the Jewish victims’ perspective? The answer is undoubtedly complex and multi-layered and it is connected to, at least partially, much broader global cultural trends. I will attempt very briefly to identify a few of these trends.
First, it is part of a much larger ethical trend of memorials worldwide, as Bickford and Sodaro have indicated, to (re)humanize the victim and to emphasize with him. Thus for example: ‘At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, the mug shots of the prisoners are displayed, at once making the victims individual human beings, and demonstrating the scale of the atrocities. By looking into each victim's frightened, defiant or resigned eyes, the visitor cannot help but empathize and identify with the victims’.64Bickford and Sodaro, ‘Remembering yesterday to protect tomorrow’, p. 81.
However, this trend itself is undoubtedly intimately connected, to the ‘era of the witness’, as the French historian Annette Wieviorka has so accurately named our times65Annette Wieviorka, The era of the witness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).
—an era in which every historical or newsworthy event is mediated to the public by the victims and the eyewitness. This ‘era’ should be understood within the cultural context of contemporary, strong processes of thoroughly melodramatizing the public sphere. As film scholar Thomas Elsaesser has claimed, the role of the victim became a desirable position of universal acceptance and recognition in contemporary societies. In a world devoid of legitimate heroic action and convincing emancipatory narratives, the victim seems to become the only viable moral social position—he has become the new hero of this era.66Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Melodrama: genre, gefühl oder weltanschauung?’, in Margrit Frolich, Klaus Gronenborn and Karsten Visarius (eds.), Das Gefühl der Gefühle: Zum Kinomelodram. (Marburg: Schuren, 2008), pp. 11–34.
It is an era that gave rise to what Eva Illouz calls the homo sentimentalis in a culture that has adopted a fundamentally therapeutic narrative of the self. She regards this as one of the most prevailing features of current Western culture.67Eva Illouz, Cold intimacies: the making of emotional capitalism(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).
We can sense these processes everywhere: as Illuz herself had shown—in the popularity of the Oprah Winfrey Show68Eva Illouz, Oprah Winfrey and the glamour of misery (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
but also in the ways which terror attacks are reported in the media, in documentaries, and in Holocaust museums all over the world. In other words, in a culture addicted to the ‘excessive’, the Holocaust witness and victim might be considered as emblematic or even paradigmatic of this newly born homo sentimentalis.
But there is of course more to it. I would like to suggest that the answer should be looked for, at least partially, on the political level, since Holocaust memory plays a very dominant political role as reflected so clearly in the above-mentioned fact that the Yad Vashem inauguration ceremony was actually a political and diplomatic event much more than a cultural or educational one. Consider one speaker's—the Turkish minister of justice—Cemil Cicek's speech (this speech was given before the current crisis between Israel and Turkey): it might be illuminating because one would not expect Turkey to feel bound to such Holocaust discourse and memory. The Holocaust has nothing to do with Turkey but nevertheless, as a country that had been knocking at that time on Europe's doors, it made every effort to adopt Europe's ethical political discourse. Here is what he said:
Yad Vashem is not a place serving only mourning. It is a place of humanity. Here, we must recall the lessons of history for a purpose. And the purpose is that the lessons learned must be passed on from one generation to the next, and we must understand, all of us, that we should never allow genocide in any form to happen again. We must learn our lesson from the Holocaust: Despising or dehumanizing any religion or people should not be permitted. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antismitism, Islamophobia, Christiana-phobia [sic], xenophobia are all historical yet contemporary evils that we all share a solemn responsibility to combat.69http://www1.yadvashem.org/yv/en/about/events/pdf/museum_opening/turkey.pdf
It is noteworthy here that just two months later Cicek, one of the most fervent Turkish nationalist deniers of the Armenian genocide, accused Bosphorus University as ‘stabbing the back of the Turkish people’ for holding a conference on ‘Ottoman Armenians’ while expressing regret that he had given up the rights to bring such cases to court.70He also said in this regard: ‘universities are independent, autonomous associations, but nowhere in the world does this mean that they are meant to be irresponsible’. See Hürriyet Daily News, 25 May 2005.
Hence, a question that might be posed is: why was Turkey, which itself (in its former political entity as the Ottoman Empire) committed a genocide that it still refuses to acknowledge, invited to the ceremonies while no Armenian, Rwandan, Roma or Sinti, Cambodian or other representative of genocide victim nations was invited to attend let alone speak in these ceremonies? This question could be broadened so as to ask: why is no other genocide commemorated or at least mentioned (without taking centre stage) in the museum itself as is done, for example, in the Kigali Genocide Center in Rwanda?71According to Michael Berenbaum, the USHMM very seriously considered relating the Holocaust to the Armenian genocide in its display but backed off under very heavy pressure of the Israeli Embassy and Foreign Ministry including of the foreign minister himself. Hence ‘the museum eliminated from the permanent exhibition's opening film any mention of previous cases of genocide, and limited mention of the Armenian case to Hitler's 1939 quote on the subject, as well as to a reference to Franz Werfel's novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. See Berenbaum, ‘When silence is wisdom’, Ha'aretz, 7 January 2012.
This centre naturally places special emphasis on the genocide that took place there in 1994. Without, however, undermining this local focus it dedicates, as an ethical gesture, a hall and a garden to commemorate other genocides, including the Shoah.72Sigall Horovitz, who runs a joint program of Israeli and Rwandan law students, tells the following story: After visiting together the genocide center in Kigali where the Holocaust is also commemorated, both groups visited the Yad Vashem museum in Israel. At the end of the tour, the Rwandan students reflected on the great impression the museum had made on them but then also astonished and disappointed asked their hosts—but where is our genocide commemorated? I thank Sigall Horovitz for sharing this information with me.
But this is not my main question. My question pertains to the structure and fu'nction of Yad Vashem's Holocaust discourse and narrative that enables, or even obliges Turkey to partake in it for it to be considered a member of the civilized world. One can clearly identify a double discourse here. For the Turks, acknowledging the Jewish genocide fun'ctions as a means of forgetting another genocide—the one in which they themselves were involved. Here they are, standing in Yad Vashem, condemning the Holocaust and all genocides, opposing all hatred and thereby proving that they belong to the civilized family of nations. In a sense, they are willing to mourn the Jewish victim, while avoiding—or, even better, to avoid—the mourning of the Armenian victims and taking any responsibility for their extermination. They prefer to identify with the ‘Jew’ who was for them at that time an imagined other and avoid confronting their real other—the Armenian. At Yad Vashem, the Turks could maintain a liberal humanistic discourse by bearing witness to the Jews while avoiding, almost cynically, their own real involvement in genocide that contradicts this very discourse. In this sense Cicek's speech bears the same logic as that of the psychoanalytical ‘screen memory’73Sigmund Freud, ‘Screen memories’. The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1953), Vol. III: pp. 299–322.
—the Turks remember something in order to forget something else. Or even more so it demonstrates the logic of melodrama we already mentioned.
When speaking about Anne Frank, the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno recalled a German woman who reacted by saying that at least this girl should have been saved, implying that the others could have perished. 74Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit’, in Eingriffe (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968), pp. 143–144.
This is the most dangerous outcome of melodrama. According to the Israeli literary critic Yitzhak Laor, who has produced a thorough study of English melodrama, this genre focuses on the misery of a single individual or family that, ‘more than it extracts tears, remains silent about a greater suffering that prevails all around. It is constituted from a kind of identification that does not demand any real moral action’.75Yitzhak Laor, ‘Description of the development of a genre for Mass Consumption: The English Melodrama during the Early 19th Century’ (MA thesis, Tel-Aviv University, 1983 [Hebrew]). See also his beautiful short essay ‘Rose's Silence’, Ha'aretz, 15 August 2008.
In a way, contemporary Holocaust memory lends itself to this kind of identification. It tends to oblige one to identify with the Jewish victim when Jews—collectively and many times individually—are no longer the victims of history but now rather legitimate historical agents, organized in strong prosperous and influential political frameworks (as the state of Israel and various Jewish organizations), and to often withhold empathy toward currently suffering victims; mostly those whose just case contradicts cynical political considerations and who are relatively powerless in the international arena (as the Jews were during the thirties and forties when they really needed this empathy).76In Jewish and Israeli political contexts one may even make the opposite case. See, for example, Zertal, Israel's Holocaust and the politics of nationhood. For a very problematic (to say the least) book that nevertheless contains more than a grain of truth, see Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust industry: reflection on the exploitation of Jewish suffering (London and New York: Verso, 2001).
This logic should undoubtedly be understood within the framework of ‘cynical reason’, which is very commonplace in contemporary politics of justification.77See Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
The state of Israel, as I already mentioned, has used the memory of the Holocaust for decades to refute any criticism of its 1948 Nakba or the severe deprivation and violation of fundamental collective and individual human and civil rights of the Palestinians.78See, most extensively, Zertal, Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood.
(I shall stress again: this is of course not to say that Holocaust memory in Israel lacks traumatic authenticity and can only be reduced to political manipulation.79See for example Dalia Ofer, ‘The past that does not pass: Israelis and Holocaust memory’, Israel Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2009, pp. 1–35; Ofer, ‘Israel’, in David Wyman (ed.), The world reacts to the Holocaust (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 839–923.
) Germany, Europe and the United States in their Middle East policy undoubtedly play out this logic along with Israel.80See also Moshe Zuckermann, Zweierlei Holocaust: der Holocaust in den politischen Kulturen Israels und Deutschlands (Göttingen: Wallstein, 1998); Frank Stern, Whitewashing of the yellow badge (Oxford: Pergamon, 1992). For a very interesting perspective on this, see Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab–Israeli war of narratives (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010).
But perhaps there is more to it. Perhaps this is emblematic of something more general and fundamental?
A reassuring narrative?
The historian Charles Maier argued that two great narratives dominate the imagination of the West in understanding modernity—both of them locate a catastrophe at their very core.81Charles S. Maier, ‘Consigning the twentieth century to history: alternative narratives for the modern era’, American Historical Review, Vol. 165, No. 3, 2000, pp. 807–831.
The first one is the ‘democratic narrative’ and it relates fundamentally to the Holocaust. Here the Shoah is perceived as an eruption of barbaric forces that tried to interdict the teleological course of the West towards modernity, which means towards a more liberal and democratic existence. It was the Nazis who committed these atrocities, and as long as we stick to our democratic values and strengthen our civil society while moderating radical ideological trends, we can protect ourselves from slipping into criminality, thereby reinforcing our identity as the ‘good guys’, the upholders of democracy and freedom. Paradoxically then, this is a reassuring narrative.
The second narrative relates to another catastrophe: the colonial and postcolonial experience of the West. Colonialism, according to this narrative, exemplifies the immanent ‘dark and murderous side’ of our modern Western civilization. The post-colonial narrative has sustained its criticism of Western societies and their liberal democracies for their ongoing actual and structural involvement in acts of domination, racism, extreme violence, and criminality.
Broadly speaking, one may say that during the 1950s and early 1960s these two narratives served, at least for some intellectuals, as political narratives and were closely bound up with each other. This is clearly apparent in the work of Frantz Fanon, Hannah Arendt, Alain Resnais, Jean-Paul Sartre, Charlotte Delbo and many others.82Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional memory: remembering the Holocaust in the age of de-colonization(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009). See also A. Dirk Moses (ed.), Empire, colony, genocide: conquest, occupation, and subaltern resistance in world history (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008).
But for the last few decades, the fact of the matter is that these two narratives—the postcolonial critical narrative and the post-Holocaust lamenting but in a way reassuring narrative—barely and very seldom coincide. It is true that in the last decade and a half these two narratives somehow intersect again but still only very partially and mostly in relatively narrow academic and civil circles that tend towards liberal or left politics.83See note 76. A scholars debate forum in the forthcoming 2012 issue of Dapim: Studies on the Shoah.
I wish to suggest that perhaps the imperative, so forcefully presented in Yad Vashem, to identify with the Jewish victims, plays a role in turning the Holocaust into a reassuring narrative that disguises modernity's and the West's dark side. Instead of historicizing and contextualizing the traumatic events and confronting those catastrophic elements in modern history and in modernity as such, which were the contexts within which the Holocaust occurred, this reassuring narrative reverts to the easy path of a melancholic, quasi-sublime catharsis, achieved by identifying with the horrible fate of the victims of the past.84See also Omer Bartov, Murder in our Midst (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Or as Ross Poole has bluntly put it: ‘Though we feel horror at the images, we can comfort ourselves with the secret satisfaction deriving from our own sense of moral goodness in recognizing that horror. The cultural circulation of Holocaust horrors can all too easily become moral kitsch’.85Poole, “Misremembering the Holocaust’, p. 38
I would even go so far as to suggest that it is easy to identify with the Jewish victim when there are so few Jews in Europe today compared to their presence in the nineteenth century and especially from 1919 to 1939 (when many of them in West European countries were refugees, escapees and unwanted poor immigrants from Eastern Europe), and when Jews, as I said before—collectively and many times individually—are no longer the victims of history but rather fully autonomous and sovereign historical and individual agents. One can also doubt whether the Jews could still be perceived as ‘others’ any more in regard to Europe, since they are more and more related to, at least in large parts of the mainstream elites’ discourse, as part of the ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’. As the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, representing the presidency of the EU declared in a press conference in March 2007 to mark the signature of the Declaration of Berlin, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Economic Community, ‘the Judeo-Christian values… sustain the EU… we are marked by this Judeo-Christian past’.86Quoted in Hakan Yilmaz, ‘Turkish identity on the road to the EU: basic elements of French and German oppositional discourses’, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2007, p. 296.
In this regard, one should also mention the great achievement of recent decades of antisemitism becoming completely banned as a taboo from political life and the formal and the perceived as ‘civilized’ public sphere—at least in the United States87For this process taking place during and after the war in the United States, see Alexander, ‘On the social construction of moral universals’.
and Western Europe but to a large extent also in places like Poland and the Czech Republic (but certainly not in places like Croatia and Ukraine, and in any case this of course does not mean that it is not liable to recur). Hence, Jews have become historical agents with whom it is relatively easy to identify. They are increasingly perceived as part of the West's collective ‘we’ and are no longer the ‘other’ with whom it is difficult to identify. Perhaps this ‘unearned identification’ with the Jewish victim, to borrow Dominick LaCapra's term,88LaCapra talks about ‘unearned spiritual uplifting’ and ‘unearned judiciousness’ in the representation of trauma: LaCapra, Writing history, writing trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), chapter 1.
serves to silence or minimize, as I just mentioned, empathy toward currently suffering victims—an empathy that demands moral and political strength and a far more courageous and complex worldly engagement.89I follow here Peter Novick and others who fail to find a true commitment to the values of human rights and freedom in Holocaust consciousness. See Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American life (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), pp. 239–262.
If my hypothesis is valid, then one can sense here a correspondence between the victims’ narrative and the Western narrative. For very different reasons, both narratives wish to frame the Holocaust within a Jewish discourse exclusively privileging the place of antisemitism over racism or any other historical context (as I mentioned above), and the Jewish victims over other groups of victims of Nazism or of other European political experiences. But one has to be very cautious about such identifications, because as LaCapra warns us: ‘It may remain within a quasi-sacrificial scapegoat mechanism whereby the victim of the past becomes the redeeming figure of the present with whom one identifies.’90LaCapra, Writing History, p. 123.
What is more, this ‘quasi-sacrificial scapegoat mechanism’ is already implicitly and on a structural level (though not in its content) at work in the museum itself through exclusionary relations to any ‘otherness’ of what the museum presumes as the ‘Jewish narrative’. By that, it unintentionally repeats within itself this sacrificial exclusionary logic. Every otherness of historicity that interferes with the closed and self-contained (one may even say narcissistic or even chauvinistic) narrative is radically reduced or removed altogether.91See also A. Dirk Moses, ‘Genocide and the terror of history’, Parallax, Vol. 17, No. 4, 2011, pp. 90–108.
The result is a mythic narrative of antisemitism and victimhood that cannot be penetrated by history but only invites or even demands identification. Its political lesson is displayed in the last hall of the exhibition dedicated to the aftermath of the Holocaust. Almost nothing is said about the survivors who emigrated to countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia or South America. Nothing is said about the majority of them, those who decided or were forced to stay in Europe in the first years after the war (except that they were still persecuted, as in the 1946 Kielce pogrom) but much is made of their emigration to Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel.
The museum exhibit's narrative conclusion brings this logic to its peak. The display ends with a beautiful viewers’ balcony, constructed as if floating in the air on the verge of the abyss and from which the beautiful scenery of the blooming Judaic hills and villages is seen (Figure 5).92It is very similar to how the Museum of Jewish Heritage at Battery Park, NY, ends—with a beautiful view, in this case of the Statue of Liberty.
The whole story is now redeemed with this uplifting, beautiful natural and Zionist view and the visitor, after reaching this cathartic point, can sigh with relief—thank goodness this metaphysical drama has a happy ending. The visitor is reassured again, in a way that is very similar to what Saul Friedländer called the elevating combination of kitsch and death—precisely kitsch and death that, as he defines it, is the striking combination of radical atrocities with pastoral pacifying images.93Saul Friedländer, Reflections of Nazism: an essay on kitsch and death(New York: Harper and Row, 1984).
The overwhelmingly shocking experience evoked by the fundamentally de-contextualized exhibitions turns into an elevating experience that lacks any real historically, politically or ethically disturbing notions relevant to real life.
Figure 5. The scene from the viewer's balcony at the end of the museum (© author)
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This is what some theoreticians have called a redemptive narrative: seeking to redeem the whole traumatic and catastrophic otherness of the story by suppressing it in its happy elevating ending. The political and ethical dangers of such redemptive narratives are discussed at length by these theoreticians.94See for example LaCapra, Writing history, writing trauma; David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (eds.), Loss: the politics of mourning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
I will not repeat this discussion here but will only say that such redemptive narratives are so uplifting (many times in a melancholic or even melodramatic way) and so emotionally charged for the groups that adopt them as their political narrative (precisely because they are redemptive) that they tend to be extremely authoritative and nonnegotiable. In times of political conflicts this might prove to be very dangerous.95It is worth mentioning in this regard that in 2009 an educational students guide, Itamar Shapira, who dared to mention the memory of the Palestinian Nakba in his talk to students was immediately fired by Yad Vashem. He said that the Palestinians had also experienced a trauma that formed their national identity. See http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/yad-vashem-fires-employee-who-compared-holocaust-to-nakba-1.274624
The display comes full circle in the elimination of every form of otherness from the ‘historical’ narrative of the museum—no context (only very little background of WWII), no historical roots (except for antisemitism), no real human perpetrators, no real human traumatized victims, almost no Diasporic life after the war, and almost no non-Jewish victims. What we get is a mythic drama that begins with antisemitism, followed by the huge catastrophe, and redeemed by the Zionist landscape that is stripped of its physicality and gains symbolic or perhaps even metaphysical meaning. The singing of Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, which is heard at the beginning of the display and at its end, emphasizes this closure even more forcefully.
This critique is not aimed at the Zionist ending of the museum. It is directed at the tight closure of the museum narrative and—as the Israeli philosopher Adi Ophir commented in a slightly different context—to the displaced sacredness of such an uplifting, perhaps sublime, experience in which the human, history and landscape unite, establishing an imagined stable identity while suppressing and excluding from it any otherness that might destabilize it —from within and from without.96Adi Ophir, Avodat HaHove (Tel-Aviv: HaKibutz HaMeuchad 2001 [Hebrew]).
If there is any ethical problem that became devastatingly urgent after the Holocaust, it is precisely the question of the ‘other’ and an awareness of our cultural political and psychological mechanisms by which we bypass, repress or avoid this problem and which eventually results in extreme violence. Or, in Friedländer's words paraphrasing Lyotard's ethics: ‘The striving for totality and consensus is, in Lyotard's view, the very basis of the fascist enterprise’.97Friedländer, ‘Introduction’, in Friedländer, Probing the Limits of Representation, p. 5.
It seems to me that the Yad Vashem museum's exhibition narrative and its aesthetic are insufficiently sensitive enough to this political warning principle, which is now more than ever relevant to the Israeli context.
Notes on contributor
Amos Goldberg is a senior lecturer of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-editor of the bilingual (English and Hebrew) journal, Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust. His book Trauma in first person: diary writing during the Holocaust will appear in Hebrew in 2012.
*See notes in the original article.
عاموس غولدبيرغ *
’الرواية اليهودية‘ في متحف
ياد فاشيم العالمي للمحرقة * *
علاقات إسرائيل - ألمانيا: تاريخ ذاكرة وسياسة
المتحف في السياق
باتت ذكرى المحرقة، حسبما طُرح مؤخرًا، تتبوأ مكانة
مفصلية في شكل جديد من أشكال الذاكرة الجمعية، التي جرى
الاصطلاح على تسميتها ب ’الذاكرة العالمية‘. 1 ولا يرتبط هذا
الشكل الجديد للذاكرة الجمعية، حسبما جرت عليه العادة،
بفئة اجتماعية أو سياسية متماسكة، مثل ’الأمة‘ أو ’المجموعة
العرقية‘، وإنما يرتبط في المقام الأول بكيان جمعي أوسع
بكثير، ويلفّه الغموض في الوقت نفسه: ’الغرب‘ وحتى ما
يتخطى الحيز ’الأوروبي-الأطلسي‘ إلى حد ما. كما تتجلى هذه
السيرورات وتكشف عن نفسها على المستوى المؤسسي. ومن
7( الذي صدر عن هيئة الأمم / الأمثلة على ذلك القرار ) 60
المتحدة في يوم 1 تشرين الثاني 2005 ، والذي ينص على إعلان
يوم 27 كانون الثاني يومًا دوليًا سنويًا لإحياء ذكرى ضحايا
محرقة اليهود. ومن الأمثلة الأخرى التي ترد في هذا المقام
التحالف الدولي لإحياء ذكرى محرقة اليهود - وهو كيان دولي
قوي أُسِّس )تحت اسم مختلف( في العام 1998 . وجميع الدول
الأعضاء في هذا التحالف، ويبلغ عددها 31 دولة، هي دول من
أوروبا أو أميركا الشمالية، إلى جانب إسرائيل والأرجنتين. 2
هذه السيرورة على وجه )Dan Diner( وقد أوجز دان دينر
كبير من الدقة بقوله:
مع اقتراب القرن العشرين من نهايته، يبدو أن المحرقة «
باتت تكتسب سمة أيقونة ماضٍ مرَّ عليه ردح طويل من
الزمن الآن - شيء ما يشبه الحدث الرئيسي والنهائي في
3»... الزمن ’الذي نحيا فيه
* محاضر في قسم تاريخ اليهود واليهودية المعاصرة في الجامعة العبريّة.
Journal of Genocide ** هذا المقال صيغة موسعة لمقال سابق للباحث نشر في
.Ucwaningo. 14,2 (June 2012) kk. 187-213