Jews and other humans
In January 2015, the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission delivered its report on Holocaust education and commemoration in Britain. ‘It is vital that people from all walks of life learn about and understand the Holocaust,’ it declared, ‘to learn the contemporary lessons from this, the darkest hour of human history. In educating young people about the Holocaust, Britain reaffirms its commitment to stand up against prejudice and hatred in all its forms. The prize is empathetic citizens with tolerance for the beliefs and cultures of others.’
In the West today, such sentiments are commonplace. The Holocaust is widely invoked as a benchmark for talking about human rights abuses from genocide to slavery, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing. Our politicians draw obvious lessons of tolerance and anti-racism from the Nazi past, and assume that Holocaust education and commemoration will expose the dangers of racial prejudice and promote peaceful coexistence. The Holocaust has important implications, in other words, not just for Jews but for humankind.
It wasn’t always this way. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Jews in the Diaspora were reluctant to draw attention to their victimhood, focused as they were on integration. For Western Bloc powers embroiled in the Cold War, dwelling on the erstwhile crimes of an important political ally was not a priority. With the Eichmann Trial and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Holocaust entered the public sphere in more conspicuous ways, but it was understood primarily as a Jewish event, revealing the consequences not of racism in general but of antisemitism in particular. There were, of course, those committed to the struggle against racism in the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere, who emphatically invoked the memory of the Holocaust in mobilizing support for their causes. For the most part, however, ‘Never Again’ was taken as a message with relevance primarily for Jews.
It was only in the 1990s that things began to shift. With the collapse of communism began the emergence of a new global order, and a nascent culture of human rights grounded in the memory of the Holocaust. Humanitarian military interventions, argue the scholars Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, are increasingly justified ‘as a way to prevent genocide and as a way of stopping people who are equated with Nazis. Nothing legitimizes human rights work more than the slogan “Never Again!”’
In our early 21st century world, more people than ever remember the genocide of the Jews, as well as other victim groups: Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many more. The United Nations has designated 27th January, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, as an international day of Holocaust commemoration. Each year, hundreds of new books are published, and dozens of new courses are offered. A recent count came up with more than 65 Holocaust museums and education centres around the world, from Washington D.C. and Sydney, to Johannesburg, Fukuyama, and Buenos Aires. In these contexts, the lessons that the Holocaust is seen to teach are decidedly universal: the destructive consequences of racism, the value of tolerance and mutual respect, and our obligation as individuals and as a society to protect democracy and human rights.
In tracing briefly the development of Holocaust memory across time, my point is to draw attention to the historical contingency of memory narratives. Although they are often presented as such, the ‘lessons’ of the Holocaust are not obvious or natural. They are also not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is perfectly possible, for example, to believe that the Holocaust demonstrates the need for a well-defended Jewish state, while also acknowledging the connections between racism and antisemitism, and the benefits of joining forces to combat them. Indeed, there have been moments in history when both narratives—the unique and the universal—coexisted without any sense of paradox or contradiction.
Today, however, those who defend the uniqueness of the Holocaust often position themselves against those who ‘de-Judaise’ the Holocaust. Focusing on the genocide’s universal lessons, they suggest, distracts from the very real threat of contemporary antisemitism. The late Robert Wistrich, a long-standing proponent of the Holocaust’s uniqueness, warned that Western leaders were still unable to grasp its lessons, and that ‘in their eagerness to accommodate a nuclear-threshold Iran [they] seem to be repeating every mistake made by the West in the 1930s’. Earlier this year, Geoffrey Alderman went so far as to claim that Holocaust Memorial Day has not only undermined the cause of Jewish remembrance, but that it has ‘been skilfully if spitefully manipulated by multifarious enemies of the Jewish people for their own anti-Jewish ends.’
Those who defend the universal narrative, particularly those on the intellectual left, dismiss warnings of another Holocaust as little more than scare-mongering, a politically expedient tool for justifying the convictions of the Israeli right. ‘Uniqueness is not a useful category for historical research,’ asserts the Australian historian Dirk Moses. ‘Where historians employ it, they stand in danger of relinquishing their critical role and assuming that of the prophet or sage who offers perspectives for group solidarity and self-assertion.’ Articulating the complex politics at stake in the debate, the preeminent scholar of genocide Mark Levene maintains that ‘because the Holocaust, largely retrospectively, has been deployed as a legitimation for the existence of the State of Israel, any attempt to challenge the former’s unique quality is also liable to be treated, by a broad Jewish constituency, as an attack upon the latter’s right to exist.’
As our narratives of Holocaust memory continue to develop and evolve, we are also quietly aware of the dwindling few who actually, directly remember. Only a small number of survivors remain among us, and they are gradually passing from our midst. For some survivors, even their own tireless efforts to recall and recount were never enough to convey what had happened to them, whether or not the world was listening. ‘The destruction was not told by anyone,’ wrote the Italian survivor Primo Levi. ‘We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. We are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it, or have returned mute, but they are the drowned, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance.’ Levi’s words were echoed by the survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel: ‘Those who have not lived through the experience,’ he wrote, ‘will never know. Those who have, will never tell; not really, not completely. The Past belongs to the dead.’
So what is the legacy with which we, Jews of the early 21st century, are left? Can we remember? And if so, how? Should we remember as Jews, ever alert to the threats directed against us by bigots of every national and religious stripe? Should we remember as Jews, wary of the blurry line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism? Should we remember as human beings, conscious of the dangers of racism whatever form it takes, and the need to teach our children the necessity of tolerance and open-mindedness, both towards the familiar and that which has been designated different to us? Where does our Jewishness end and our humanness begin? Are there boundaries between them?
These questions have no obvious answers. Each of us will decide for her- or himself what meaning to draw from the Shoah, so increasingly far from our present and yet still so fundamental to how we understand ourselves and our place in the world, as Jews and as human beings. The past belongs to the dead, but it also —inescapably, unavoidably, and necessarily — belongs to us, and it is our responsibility not just to remember it, but to choose how we remember it to our children, and to our children’s children after them.
Dr Shirli Gilbert is a lecturer in modern Jewish history at the University of Southampton, the author of Music in the Holocaust (2005), and a member of New North London Synagogue.