Several years ago, I received a disturbing telephone call concerning my 14 year-old step-daughter. At the time she was spending several months in a children’s village in northern Israel. The caller, who was Israeli-born, informed me that his son was a participant in the same scheme. Did I know, he asked, that a bus carrying some of the children had been stoned [sic] as it passed a neighbouring Arab village? Ishould be aware that there were Arabs working in the kitchens in our children’s village; that they had knives close to hand (hardly surprising, I thought, in a kitchen!); and that they came from the same village which had been responsible for the stone-throwing incident.
While expressing gratitude for this information about the bus, I felt somewhat contaminated by what I took to be his racist sentiments. Was he really suggesting that we should pressure the authorities to dismiss the Arabs from their posts?
Surely, I started to reason with him, the whole infrastructure of Israeli society, not to mention the battered peace process, could collapse if Arabs were continually stereotyped and shut out from the Israeli economy?
“You don’t know the Arab mentality”, he kept insisting. He then enumerated various random acts of violence by Israeli Arabs towards Israeli Jews they had lived peacefully beside for years.
His bigoted views were not new to me, the emotive parental context of our conversation was. And my heart sank. I explained that I was a Holocaust historian and that I was appalled by his deeply prejudiced views. His rejoinder was that as a writer on the Holocaust it was I who should be ashamed of my position, defending the “enemies of the Jews” in this fashion.
My second anecdote: in 1988, during Robert and Elizabeth Maxwell’s Remembering for the Future conference on the Holocaust at Oxford University, a Turkish “scholar” tried to inflict on the workshop I was attending an “academic” denial that genocide against the Armenian people had taken place some 73 years previously (conservative estimates range between 750,000 and 1,250,000 Armenians massacred by the Turks, against the camouflage of a world war —sounds familiar?). He was refused permission to speak which, ironically, outraged several of the liberally-minded academics present, myself included. It was, as we discovered later, only the bravery of the American scholar who chaired the seminar which had scuppered an unconscionable attempt by Robert Maxwell to foist this Turkish apologist for genocide onto his own conference.
Maxwell, the billionaire media entrepreneur, it was rumoured, had been engaged in high-level business deals with the Turkish government.
The Turkish government has elsewhere, of course, been much more successful, especially within the United States Congress, at sustaining this denial of the Armenian Holocaust. “Who remembers the Armenians?” Hitler had asked of his generals in August 1939, preparing them for, and seeking to exonerate them of, the “necessary” cruelty and barbarism that would follow Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. To judge from the relative neglect of other people’s experience of genocide by Holocaust museums, educational curricula and remembrance events, it would seem almost nobody does — except often as a token gesture.
I feel it is important to locate the Holocaust, for all its palpable uniqueness, within the larger picture of 20th-century genocide, of which the Armenian catastrophe was one of the deadliest and, like the Nazi Holocaust, “ideological”in nature — and, as the Hitler quote clearly shows, the world’s indifference to this terrible event provided an instructive precedent for the Nazi death machine.
In the 1970s the philosopher Emil Fackenheim coined his famous 614th Commandment: Jews in the postwar world must not hand Hitler a posthumous victory.
Whatever Fackenheim’s original intention may have been, I would interpret this “commandment” in two very different ways, which I feel sum up a central dilemma facing us all. On the one hand, Jews must do everything in their power to survive and not surrender, either to the forces of antisemitism, anti-Zionism or wholesale assimilation into their host societies; on the other hand, Jews must not themselves become brutalised and over-zealous in their own exercise of political and military power — or indifferent to the suffering of others.