We must rethink how we approach Shoah memory

By Robert S. Wistrich, February 21, 2013
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The opening years of the 21st century have graphically illustrated a distressing paradox regarding the memory of the Shoah. Never has the memorialisation of the Holocaust been so omnipresent in Western culture, through countless commemorative events, university courses, literature, films, educational projects, official acknowledgements at a governmental level or inter-faith dialogue. Yet, never has it been more apparent that this activity has had little if any impact on a resurgent antisemitism in Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

This fact alone should prompt an urgent rethinking of one of the Western world's fondest illusions, shared by Diaspora Jewry - that Holocaust education can neutralize or even eliminate the sting of contemporary antisemitism.

Equally debatable is the notion that the UN's recognition eight years ago of 27th January as International Holocaust Day (on that date in 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp) or the recent decision to commemorate the Shoah by the European Parliament (as part of the official calendar of the EU), will in itself provide much protection either against Israel-bashing or crude antisemitism.

At best, such commemorations may lead to more forceful official condemnation of far-right and/or neo-Nazi manifestations of Jew-hatred, of the kind that have recently raised their heads in places like Greece, Hungary and the Ukraine. But there is little sign that Europeans are willing to examine their present-day contributions to stoking the fires of the "new" antisemitism, directed primarily at Israel itself.

No less troubling is the perverse way in which the Shoah has been manipulated and used as a boomerang with which to attack Israel's legitimacy. This is particularly glaring in Iran, where denial is state-sanctioned. It is palpable in most of the Arab world, widespread among advocates of the obscene Nazi-Zionist equation and increasingly popular in liberal pro-Palestinian opinion.

There are even Diaspora Jews and Israelis willing to indulge in the kind of Holocaust inversion which transforms the Israeli "occupation" into a contemporary form of Nazism, and the Palestinians into the new "Jews" of the Middle East. This politicized abuse of the Shoah has historical precedents (it was widely propagated by the Soviet Union after the Six Day War) but is now all too common, especially on the internet.

Both hard-core and "soft" deniers of the Holocaust engage in a particularly malevolent and obnoxious form of racist incitement, thinly disguised under the claim of "revising history." They are what the late French scholar Pierre Vidal-Naquet once called "assassins of memory," engaged in a new kind of symbolic genocide.

In the case of Iran and the radical Islamists, such denial is no longer theoretical but linked to the sinister threat of a "real" Holocaust against the Jewish state. Unfortunately, in the West there is great reluctance to face up to this annihilationist Arab-Muslim antisemitism. This official evasiveness casts a long shadow over commemorations of the Shoah in contemporary Europe. What is the use of Europeans recalling the martyrdom of the Jews whom they murdered during the Shoah, while branding present-day Zionist Jews in Israel as "racist occupiers"?

As the Shoah recedes in time (we are 80 years on from Hitler's seizure of power) and the last survivors pass away, we need to rethink our approach to Holocaust memory. We live in a time when Auschwitz is all-too-frequently compared to Gaza by prominent European writers and intellectuals, when Nobel Prize laureates like Günter Grass can accuse Israel of planning a nuclear Holocaust to "annihilate" the Iranian people, and when Holocaust commemoration events are consistently misappropriated for the Palestinian cause or to highlight Muslim grievances against the West. Much European reaction to such abuses has hitherto been tepid.

But those who defame the Jewish state by using Holocaustal terminology totally negate the memory of the Nazi mass murder, even when they parade their libels under the banner of human rights.

Professor Robert S. Wistrich holds the Neuberger Chair of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is the director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA). He will be speaking at Jewish Book Week on Sunday, February 24 and at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on Feb 26

Last updated: 4:45pm, February 21 2013