Why was Palestinian suffering forgotten on Holocaust Remembrance Day?

An Israeli army delegation marches into Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in 2007. (“Israel Defense Forces”/Flickr)

What, exactly, was remembered during Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day this week?

Not the victims of Israel’s latest slaughter in Gaza, where more than 2,200 civilians were killed less than a year ago. In the propagandistic world of “Holocaust memory” only Jews can be victims, so mainstream media marginalize the hundreds of Jewish Holocaust survivors and their descendants who publicly condemned “the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza” (their words). Instead, a leading Israeli newspaper informed us this week that “adult children of Holocaust survivors in Israel tend to be more anxious than their peers … about the Iranian nuclear threat” — even though Iran has no nuclear weapons and has never attacked Israel.

The erasure of Palestinian suffering from public memory is a particularly ironic aspect of “Holocaust remembrance.” Amid pleas for the preservation of Holocaust history, mainstream media still avoid any reference to the public comments of a senior Israeli officer who, during the second intifada, urged the Israeli military to analyze and internalize the lessons of how the German army fought in the Warsaw Ghetto.

A similarly selective silence surrounds the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Several governments represented at an Auschwitz commemoration in January sent troops into that slaughter, so eerily reminiscent of Germany’s criminal invasion of Poland in 1939. “People forget what Auschwitz was,” said Halina Birenbaum, who was in the notorious death camp as a child, “and that terrifies me, because I know to what kind of hell it leads.”

We should be doubly terrified, it seems to me, when such an event is used to promote precisely that kind of forgetfulness, at least where Arab deaths are concerned.

The Israeli writer Boaz Evron warned years ago that “Holocaust awareness” is now “an official, propagandistic indoctrination … the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but a manipulation of the present.” Anyone doubting these words need only listen as world “leaders” emphasize the sort of wrongs whose memories they want to preserve — while noting the atrocities they ignore.

Resolve to fight prejudice?

The UK Prime Minister David Cameron, for instance, recently intoned that all of “us,” “whatever our faith, whatever our creed, whatever our politics … stand united in our resolve to fight prejudice and discrimination in all its forms.”

But Cameron hasn’t fought Israel’s apartheid regime in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip; in fact, he refused to halt Britain’s arms sales to Israel even as Israel used its arsenal in repeated attacks on Gaza’s hospitals (killing more than a dozen health care workers) and the bombardment of residential neighborhoods, where the death toll included more than 500 children, destroying 22 schools and leveling more than 10,000 homes.

Apart from dividing worthy victims from unworthy ones, Holocaust “memorials” adopt the priorities of Western power politics. That’s why the president of the country that bore the brunt of defeating Hitler, and actually liberated the Eastern European death camps, did not even attend the memorial for the seventieth anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. President Vladimir Putin was “absent,” as the Associated Press’ Vanessa Gera delicately put it, as a “result of the deep chill between the West and Russia over Ukraine.”

In plain English, Putin was in the doghouse for opposing the US-backed coup that put Nazi sympathizers into power in Kiev (where their predecessors assisted in the slaughter of some 30,000 Jews in 1941), so naturally he didn’t belong at a Holocaust commemoration. On the other hand, none of the event’s organizers seemed to object to the representation of countries that supported the empowerment of neo-Nazis in Ukraine, whose capital (as everyone present certainly knew) was less than 600 miles from the site of the ceremony.

Exploitation of history

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder used the ceremony to decry complaints about last summer’s massacre in Gaza as “vilification of Israel.” Hollywood’s Steven Spielberg echoed that message, blaming the “perennial demons of intolerance” on “anti-Semites, radical extremists, and religious fanatics” and warning of “a growing effort to banish Jews from Europe.” (He presented no evidence of this “growing effort”; as far as I know, the only prominent politician who has been calling for the removal of Jews from Europe is Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.)

Claims of rising European anti-Semitism represent yet another exploitation of Jewish history for the benefit of Israeli propaganda. “The question of whether Jews have a future in Europe is an, unfortunately, timely one,” Johns Hopkins University Professor Dorothea Wolfson wrote recently, following a conference at which Benjamin Ginsberg, another Johns Hopkins professor, ominously claimed that it is now “harder for Jews to be openly Jewish in Europe without being harassed.”

Apologists for Israel have an obvious motive for spreading such a message, but the facts tell a different tale. In France and Germany, the countries most often complained about in recent fearmongering, Jews received overwhelmingly favorable marks in a 2008 Pew Research Center poll on views of religious groups — and this despite growing public anger over Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian land and the ostentatious support of that occupation by most of the world’s Jewish leadership.

A recent survey taken by France’s National Human Rights Consultative Committee actually concludes that “Jews are by far the best accepted minority in France today” — much better accepted than Blacks and immigrants of North African origin, and far and away more accepted than Muslims. Yet the propaganda churned out by Jewish groups and their apologists would have us believe that Jews, and only Jews, are in Europe’s crosshairs.

Apart from being untrue, the hype about a “new anti-Semitism” is cynical. Deborah Lipstadt’s typical column in The New York Times last August — perfectly timed to deflect attention from the Israeli massacre in Gaza — contained predictable hand-wringing about the growing threat to Jews in Western Europe. “This is not another Holocaust,” she wrote, “but it’s bad enough.”

The better to serve the Israeli cause, Lipstadt also took a sideswipe at the Hamas charter as a fount of resurgent Jew-hatred. But nowhere in her column did Lipstadt even mention Ukraine, the one country in Europe — probably in the world — where a political movement linked to genocidal anti-Semitism really has made a comeback.

If anti-Semitism had been her real subject, Lipstadt could hardly have missed a target so obvious. But the neo-Nazis in Ukraine are supported by the United States and haven’t been condemned by Israel, so — well, enough said.

Moral imperative

All that is bad enough, but the worst thing about the propaganda, it seems to me, is that it manipulates Holocaust memory to obscure what should be its most important teachings. There is a dangerous wave of bigotry sweeping much of the world today, but it is aimed predominantly at Muslims, not Jews.

According to the Pew Research Center’s figures, unfavorable attitudes toward Muslims exceed favorable ones in an astonishing number of countries: the list includes France, Germany, Spain, Poland, India, South Korea, Japan, China, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa. This is particularly troubling when we remember that since 2001, attacks by Western forces have killed (at least) hundreds of thousands of people in predominantly Muslim countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Under these circumstances, the sensible thing for Jews to do is to make common cause with Muslims in opposition to religious intolerance, and to campaign against the imperialist wars that have devastated so much of the Muslim world — the all too obvious global consequences of which include anger, sometimes violent, over Israel’s role in many of those wars.

Writing as a Jew myself, and specifically in light of Holocaust history, I find such a response more than political common sense; for me, it is a moral imperative. And for the same reason I cannot remain silent while Jewish elites turn the lessons of the Nazi genocide upside down — incidentally using the very methods the Nazis used to convert Germany into a killing machine.

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders,” Hermann Goering, a leading Nazi, told an Allied-appointed psychologist while on trial at Nuremberg. “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.”

Even as the corpses piled up in the rubble of Gaza last summer, overloading some morgues so badly that the bodies of children had to be housed in ice cream freezers, many Jewish leaders were following Goering’s line, with one writer from my own Orthodox circles musing about “the courage, motivation and faith” of the Israeli killers, sneering at Jews who speak of “the evils of modern Israel” and condemning the defenders of Gaza, who allegedly “primed teenagers with suicide bomber belts.” No evidence, of course, was given for this claim.

The worship of power and military force, the usurpation of religion to cloak conquest in sanctimonious rhetoric, the demonization of those people unlucky enough to stand in the way of the dominant race’s appetites — all this, unfortunately, has clearly survived the fall of the Third Reich.

That it has infected so much contemporary Jewish discourse only proves that Israel’s memorials of the Nazi genocide serve no decent purpose. Until we are prepared to turn its lessons inward — where all moral lessons belong first and foremost — it would be far more respectful to the victims if we could simply resolve, in the words of Norman Finkelstein, “to preserve their memory, learn from their suffering and let them, finally, rest in peace.”

Michael Lesher, an author and lawyer, has published numerous articles dealing with child sexual abuse and other topics. He is the author of the recent book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co.), which focuses on cover-ups of abuse cases among Orthodox Jews. He lives in Passaic, New Jersey. More information about his work can be found on his website www.MichaelLesher.com.