Thursday, May 03, 2007

Brest-Litovsk and all that

A nation has a right - even and obligation - to transmit particularistic values


If H.G. Wells was right that human history is a race between education and catastrophe, then I am prudently running with the pessimists. Consider the poor return on the investment we Jews have made in perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust - museums, memorials, anti-genocide curricula and entire libraries weighted down by personal testimonies - only to discover that the forces of ignorance, or evil, prevail after all.

Each Holocaust Remembrance Day brings fresh disappointments: This year, former Sephardi chief rabbi (no less) Mordechai Eliahu put the blame for the destruction of European Jewry on the Reform movement for making God angry. Previously, another former Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, explained that the murdered were "the reincarnation of earlier souls who sinned and caused others to sin and did all sorts of forbidden acts." They returned to be killed in atonement for their sins.

Such being the thinking of benighted "spiritual authorities," is it any wonder that a majority of Israeli youth (66 percent of high school students) prefer to focus on the universal rather than the "narrow Jewish" message of the Holocaust?

Should we be taken aback that one in four Israeli Arabs believes the Holocaust never happened? That a German bishop on a visit to Yad Vashem (of all places) could compare Ramallah 2007 to the Warsaw Ghetto? That more than a quarter of British young people "don't know" if the Holocaust is a myth; and that 31% of them would rename Holocaust Memorial Day the more generic "Genocide Day"?

Let them. Long ago, I came to the conclusion that Israelis should discontinue preaching "our" Holocaust to the outside world and stop schlepping every foreign dignitary who lands at Ben-Gurion Airport to Yad Vashem. That we should not much care how non-Zionist Jews, whether ultra-Orthodox or ultra-assimilated, spin their lessons of the Shoah.

SINCE 1945 the Jewish world has gone through a series of stages in grappling with memorializing the Holocaust. Historian Peter Novick, in The Holocaust and Collective Memory (a problematic book, yet well worth reading), examines how the Holocaust narrative became part of the collective Jewish consciousness.

In the wake of World War II, Holocaust memory was marginalized, compartmentalized; for Israelis there was a country to build; for US Jews there was a ladder of upward mobility to climb. Novick writes: "Between the end of the war and the 1960s, as anyone who has lived through those years can testify, the Holocaust made scarcely any appearance in American public discourse, and hardly more in Jewish public discourse - especially discourse directed to gentiles."

By the late 1960s and early 1970s (when violent Black and Puerto Rican anti-Semitism in the inner cities was at its peak), the memory of the Holocaust was redefined as a basis for a new Jewish identity: We had been victims once, but now "never again." This form of identity, I know from my own experience, evolved into ethnic pride, Jewish nationalism, pro-Israelism (in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War), and served as a catalyst for the Soviet Jewry movement.

Somehow by 1993, when Hollywood's Steven Spielberg came out with Schindler's List and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors (with the federal government covering most of the operating expenses), the Holocaust had been transformed from a unique collective Jewish memory into a shared phenomenon of pop culture.

Today we're at the point where popular culture remembers the Holocaust as a manifestation of "man's inhumanity to man," while reactionaries (and the badly informed) dispute whether it ever really happened.
Novick argues that Holocaust remembrance is too complex for a single "bumper sticker" message to emerge. He's basically right. He's also correct that no one can impose a single "lesson" to be derived from the Holocaust on all Jews, much less all humanity.

On the other hand, as a society, Zionist Israel (at least) needs to establish parameters for understanding and perpetuating Shoah remembrance.Specifically, we don't want to see a repeat of the way Holocaust imagery was exploited by ultra-right-wing opponents of the Gaza disengagement, any more than we want young Israelis to comprehend the Shoah through post-Zionist lenses.

EVERY POLITICAL culture has a right - indeed an obligation - to politically socialize its youth.Thus if education is to defeat catastrophe, the beleaguered Israeli educational system needs to find a way to make sacred again that which has been profaned. We must abandon teaching the universalistic message of the Shoah - not because it doesn't have one, but because non-Israelis can be counted upon to promulgate it. No one but we Zionist Israelis can be counted upon to remember the Shoah as a unique tragedy of Jewish statelessness.

In the face of medieval-thinking rabbis, Iranian Holocaust-deniers and an indifferent, relativist world, I wouldn't shy away from a sort of Shoah "catechism," so that, at a minimum, Zionist-educated youth (secular, religious, left- and right-wing) know how to understand, and how to remember, what happened to the Jewish people between 1933 and 1945.

For instance, had I the ear of Education Minister Yuli Tamir, I'd suggest she encourage Israeli teachers to instruct our youth about events in Poland this very month 70 years ago. And to remind our youth that May 1937 was two years and four months before the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Thus they'd learn that on May 9, the Polish Medical Association resolved that Jews would no longer be eligible for membership. The Polish Lawyers Association decided to create a quota limiting the number of Jewish attorneys to 10% of its membership. And Fascist parties were marching through Warsaw in support of an "Anti-Jewish Month."

I'd want our young people to know that on May 13 the worst pogrom experienced by Jews in years burst out in Brest-Litovsk (today in Belarus). Perhaps they would also be taught that, as a result of Holocaust desensitization, the very word "pogrom" has lost its meaning: "an organized, often officially encouraged massacre" against the Jews.

The police of Brest-Litovsk - whose population was more than 50% Jewish - provided back-up as peasants raped, robbed and looted. What set off the violence was a report that a Jewish butcher, discovered illegally slaughtering meat, had stabbed a Polish policeman.

I DON'T KNOW if there was a Reform temple in Brest-Litovsk, or if the pogrom's victims had been reincarnated, but this I do know: The events of May 1937 were part of a long series of anti-Semitic outbreaks ignited in the wake of Poland's emergence as an independent state after World War I.

The country had come into being in 1918, with 19 million ethnic Poles despising the fact that they had been saddled with three million Jews. And so it was that by 1920, the Polish Army under Jozef Pilsudski (who himself was said not to be an anti-Semite) stormed through the Jewish communities of the Ukraine, slaughtering 30,000 Jews.

How many Israeli students know that in 1922 Polish Jews had to stay off the streets during democratic elections so their mere existence didn't enrage their Polish neighbors? Or, getting back to 1937, that Jewish college students were obliged to sit on segregated classroom benches (many preferred to stand as a form of protest)?

And how many Israeli students know that by 1937 a "cold pogrom" had systematically eliminated Jews from Polish economic life? That during the period between the two world wars, Poles made Jewish life utterly miserable? That the Polish oligarchy, gentry, Church and politicians shared a mutual interest in blaming Poland's economic depression and political difficulties on the Jews?

Who today recalls that Polish industries in which Jews were prominent (tobacco, shoemaking, liquor, matches, salt) were nationalized and Jewish workers summarily dismissed? One example: Of 2,800 shoemaking establishments, 2,060 were closed.Thus, prior to the Shoah, there had been an almost complete collapse of Jewish economic life. Before a single Nazi boot set foot in Poland, 80% of Jewish children in Vilna already had TB or anemia.

A Zionist education also requires the following knowledge: Even as Poland officially implored Britain to open the gates of Palestine so it could be rid of its accursed Jews, the Catholic primate of Poland, August Cardinal Hlond, was instructing his flock to boycott Jewish businesses.
THIS, THEN, was Poland in the "good times" before the Nazis came. Similar narratives played out elsewhere in Eastern Europe. One calamity washes away the memory of another.

It's bad enough that so much of post-World War I European Jewish history - the pogroms, the starvation, the institutionalized racism - has been forgotten, overshadowed by Hitler's war of annihilation that came afterwards. But the ultimate obscenity is that we should live to see the memory of the Holocaust itself perverted, desensitized and robbed of its Jewish character and Zionist message.

In the race between Zionist education and the catastrophic loss of the Holocaust's message for Jews, it seems to me that Israel's educational establishment needs to develop a core curriculum, acceptable across the political spectrum, from Hashomer Hatza'ir to Bnei Akiva, from Meretz to the National Union. Let each Zionist worldview bring its own nuances, so long as this fundamental and, yes, particularistic message is transmitted: that our statelessness set the stage for the Shoah, and only a secure Israel can increase the prospect of Jewish continuity in history.

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