We can't get past the past

November 24, 2016 23:22

The second Donald Trump opened his mouth, you knew what would happen. No sooner had the billionaire blowhard and Republican front-runner proposed his ban on Muslims entering the US, than headline writers and cartoonists were reaching for the obvious comparison.

"The New Furor" declared the New York Daily News, alongside a photograph of Donald appearing to make a Hitler salute. You can debate the accuracy of the analogy but it's a reminder Nazism and the Holocaust remains the yardstick by which moral issues are measured. Last week, the Nazi precedent was pressed into service as Britain debated air-strikes on Isis in Syria - with Hilary Benn powerfully invoking the historic obligation to defeat fascism. In the global conversation, Hitler and the Holocaust serve as a moral terminus, a destination whose evil cannot be exceeded and which serves as a constant warning of where things can lead. And yet, inevitably, Jews and especially Israelis have a different relationship with the Holocaust. It's one I've been wrestling with in recent days as I've worked on a radio programme telling the remarkable story of the day Claude Lanzmann's landmark documentary, Shoah, was first shown in Jerusalem nearly 30 years ago. It was an extraordinary event. The cinema was packed with dignitaries - Israel's prime minister, president, chief rabbi and chief of staff were all there - as well as Holocaust survivors and their children. For some, the intensity of seeing the nine-and-a-half hour film became overwhelming. During the screening, one survivor suffered a heart attack. Another fainted. One interviewee described Lanzmann himself as being so anxious before the première that he was "completely stressed out… popping pills to calm himself down."

Among the many powerful themes of Lanzmann's film was the notion that the Holocaust lived on in the present - its impact still reverberating through today's world. That was especially so, he showed, in Israel.

He interviewed Israeli survivors, including those who had apparently rebuilt their lives, eventually exposing the fractured, wounded people below the surface. He showed that the survivors' children, those who were never there, also lived with the Shoah, even into the present day. That remains as true of Israel now as when the film was released. Just look at the country's politics. Benjamin Netanyahu cannot speak of the Iranian nuclear threat without invoking the Holocaust. Recently, and to the derision of historians, he recast the Mufti of Jerusalem as the true inventor of the final solution - as if the Palestinians were merely, as Amos Oz once brilliantly put it, "Nazis in disguise."

But it goes deeper than that. The Holocaust continues to colour the Israeli mind-set. While the rest of the world looks at Israel and sees a military giant, many Israelis gaze in the mirror and still see an emaciated Jew, wearing the striped uniform of Auschwitz.

Most now view the Holocaust as a timeless moral parable

The Holocaust is still so present, that - for all Israel's might - they cannot help but view themselves as frail and vulnerable. This is yet another gap between Israel and the rest of the world. While Israelis draw a particular conclusion from the Holocaust - that Jews must never again be defenceless - most now see the Holocaust as a kind of timeless, universal moral parable. Neither view is wrong, but both are incomplete. There are particular and universal lessons to learn from the horrors of the Shoah -and we need both.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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