Monday, July 31, 2006

Undoing the Holocaust -- Part I

The figuration of the Holocaust is always close to the surface in Israel. One popular understanding, even there, is the creation of this state was more due to Western powers compensating survivors for the murder of six million Jews than it was the realization of a nationalist movement’s practical work. Another understanding is that others surrounding and inside Israel want to finish Hitler’s Final Solution by destroying Israel and its Jews. The idea generates warnings against any concession to the others. Since the Palestinians, other Arabs or fundamentalist Muslims have this transcendent goal, nothing short of its achievement will satisfy them. Any concession will incite the others to press harder on Israel and weaken Israel’s ability to resist them. These thoughts can and have been repressed, sometimes for long periods, like the years following the Six Day War, or the 1990s. However, they resurface when a security surprise occurs, some concession is contemplated or someone appears to have exploited a concession.

These anxieties have a substantial geneology: 2000 years of Diaspora, of defeat and displacement, commemorated and re-enacted, taught Jews to grieve, but gave them concepts, liturgies, metaphors, stories that were insufficient to measure the Final Solution. Of course, there are other genocides. One thinks immediately of the Hutu doing it to Tutsi, Indonesians to Timorese, Turks to Armenians, arguably the US government to Native Americans in the 19th century. But the Holocaust is unique in the devotion of so much wealth, organization and time to the methodical killing of a people. The mind boggles; in some sense, it feels demeaning to be a survivor or inheritor. This feeling or trace, known but unexpressed in the public imagination, gives birth again and again to a desire to undo the Holocaust.

Sometime during the Vietnam years, General Lewis Hershey, director of the US draft, said he a received a letter explaining the writer's resistance to the draft. The writer would gladly serve if the war were against Hitler, but Vietnam was a different matter. General Hershey wrote back, expressing his regrets that he could not supply a war against Hitler. The war in Vietnam was the only one he had available. Israel has dealt with a similar situation by imagining that every war it fights is against Hitler. This is not just for recruiting purposes or consolidation of popular support for the effort. It is trying to undo Israel's not being there, when Hitler was available.

Two vignettes, featuring Israeli leaders, can make the point clearer. About 1975, a radio interviewer asked Golda Meir to describe the feeling of Jews in World War II Palestine, once they were aware of the Final Solution. She answered: “Furious impotence.” In 1982, with IDF armor columns and jets attacking Beirut, PM Menahem Begin said he felt like a bomber pilot on his way to bomb Berlin.

The casting of the present enemy as Hitler and defeating him – the undoing of the Holocaust – has resonance on both the psychological and ideological levels. It erases the trace of impotence. It also resolves the paradox of Israel as the solution for the Jewish problem that came too late to save the bulk of Jews for whom it was intended.

The inclination to rerun the drama and produce a different outcome became irrepressible given Hizbullah's provocations. Israelis perceive Hizbullah as an understudy for the best suited to play Hitler -- Iran. Its president Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the Holocaust, while embracing the idea of Israel's annihilation.


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