I’m in the living room of a family friend. The subject changes from yoga to Israel-Palestine, and I tell her that I think Americans need to change their foreign policy towards Israel. She says, “in what way, so that the Arabs will throw the Jews into the sea?” It takes four minutes of back and forth for the conversation to degenerate. She finally says, “Look, what I have to say isn’t pretty, but I’m not afraid. I’m going to say it anyways. The Palestinians are nothing but vermin. They make trouble in every country they live in. Even the other Arab countries don’t want them.”
I take a deep breath. Then I realize, I’ve heard that sentence before, only with “Jews” instead of “Palestinians.” “Jews are vermin. They make trouble in every country they live in.” I’ve heard that before. And it’s breaking my heart that it’s coming out of her mouth.
Earlier in the evening, we were sitting at dinner, and I asked her about why she left Poland. She said that anti-Semitism in Poland was extremely severe when she was growing up. She says that there was an outburst of anti-Semitism in the mid-sixties, and especially after the June 1967 War. Her husband, also a Polish Jew, looks up from his food and says abruptly, “Hey, why are you talking about this? Please change the subject.”
At dinner, everyone is more than willing to oblige with their Israeli army stories, about how the Arabs want to throw the Jews in to the sea, but no one wants to go there when it comes to talking about how they were hurt by anti-Semitism. My mother has told me only a few stories of what it was like for her to grow up as a Jew in the Soviet Union. The most famous is how she took a broom to the head of a guy in school who persistently called her a “dirty Jew.” It’s the story with a happy ending. Justice was done. Less discussed is the story about how her father, a man who smuggled Jews out of the USSR and into Israel, was arrested by the KGB and sent to prison for eight years. Or how she was taken out of class every day for years and interrogated about her parents’ “political activity.”
There’s a lot of crying and screaming to do. And there ain’t a whole lot of room for it. Despite the enormity of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and various monuments to the Holocaust in the US, when you really get down to it, listening to Jews cry about how their families were annihilated, how they were beaten and targeted, is not a favorite American past-time. Neither, for that matter, is it terribly exciting for white folks to listen to Blacks cry about the legacy of slavery, economic exploitation, and racism. Or for straight people to listen to GLBTQT folks cry about what it feels like to have to lie about your identity to survive, to live in existential terror.
The Holocaust Museum in Washington is the largest in the world and in the center of Washington, DC. Many of us think that Americans have heard more than enough about Jewish suffering. But the truth is that the Holocaust Museum and other forms of official recognition of Jewish suffering haven’t addressed anti-Jewish oppression at all. It’s hardly accidental. After all, though the United States was created through the genocide of Native Americans, there is no museum to commemorate their genocide in the center of our nation’s capitol, built on a federal land grant. The reason is simple - justice for Native Americans runs counter to the interests of the American ruling elite, whose wealth and power is built upon the legacy of that genocide.
Before 1967, it didn’t fit into American strategic interests to talk about Jews or their history of oppression, particularly in the same sentence as the word “justice.” After 1967, when Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and conquered the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Sinai and the Golan Heights, the US government decided that Israel could serve as a surrogate for US interests in the Middle East. 1967 was the year when the US discovered Israel, and it was the year when the Holocaust was “remembered.” The discovery of Israel happened as selectively as the remembering of the Holocaust. The US discovered Israel as a military ally, not as a country with ordinary people, and so US aid to Israel reflected that. Most US aid to Israel, including economic aid, has been spent for expenses related to purchasing military equipment from the US. In order to justify that strategic relationship in moral terms, a new history of the Holocaust was “remembered.”
One dominant narrative of the Holocaust is that Jews were led like sheep to the slaughter to the gas chambers, that they alone were murdered, and that the event of their annihilation had no precedent in history and no event in the present can compare to the Holocaust. The logical moral to the story for Jews is that we are alone in the world — no one understands our suffering because no one has experienced anything similar; we can only rely on ourselves for self-defense; we will be ever-vigilant, for danger lurks around every corner. And the logical moral to the story for Americans is that Jews need a strong Israel, and because the Jews were victims of the unspeakable, it’s our duty to arm Israel to the teeth.
The dominant narrative of the Holocaust says very little about the hundreds of thousands of ordinary acts of resistance of those who perished, like the rabbi who, as he was shoved into the gas chamber, took the SS soldier by the lapel and said, “I will die today, but you will live alone with your guilt for a long time to come.” Or the fact that the Jew who was forced to weld the sign at the entranceway to Auschwitz reading Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Makes One Free”) welded the “B” upside down, as a sign of rebellion and a testament of resistance. The dominant narrative says very little about the people who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews and others who were targeted for deportation and annihilation. It says very little about the millions of Roma, Poles, homosexuals and disabled people who systematically murdered. And it says very little about genocides that preceded it, like that of the Native Americans, or that of the Armenians. It’s a cheap rendition of a much more complex story.
The result of the endless repetition of that dominant Holocaust narrative is that many Jews feel abandoned and isolated, and very, very angry. We walk into these monuments and museums, and we cry and scream. We walk out and feel empty. Somewhere inside of us, we get a creepy feeling that justice was never done. I think that we feel that way because no one is listening to what we went through. You ask, “How can you say that no one is listening when the US government has a special department specifically set up to memorialize the Holocaust? When the Holocaust Museum in Washington is the largest in the world? When documentaries about the Holocaust and films about the Holocaust receive public acclaim and Academy Awards?
Americans are listening to the story that they are being sold, one that serves the interests of a militant US foreign policy towards Israel. And that story isn’t my story, and it isn’t my family’s story, or my family’s friend’s story. In my story, there is no moral to the story of the annihilation of six million Jews and the millions of Roma, Poles, homosexuals, disabled, and others who perished. Our story isn’t one with the happy endings of Hollywood Holocaust blockbusters, where we all end up in Israel. The history of the Holocaust in my family isn’t over yet. As a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, I am still living that history. Even though the Holocaust or my family’s experience of anti-Semitism was hardly mentioned, I grew up in a house with the ghosts of my murdered family, with parents and grandparents who lived in absolute fear.
After my family’s friend told me that she thought that Palestinians are vermin and that she would poison their wells if she could, she did the exact opposite with me and showered me with affection (and food). She’s an incredibly loving person who I believe would never intentionally hurt a single person. But she’s very angry. And her wrath is misdirected at people who had nothing to do with her suffering. Her wrath could have a comfortable resting place here in the United States, where the legacy of anti-Semitism has never been addressed in any kind of meaningful framework that doesn’t end in “and then they all lived happily-ever-after in Israel.” To say that we will be safe when Israel is armed to the teeth is a sacrilege and a lie. I don’t have any easy answers to the Holocaust. And anyone who does is trying to sell you something, like military equipment.
Liat Weingart is Director of Campaigns and Programs for Jewish Voice for Peace.