A firestorm broke out unexpectedly on my Facebook feed yesterday morning.
I had awoken to an impassioned op-ed in Haaretz by a features writer and mother of two young Jewish children in Israel explaining why she had not stood for the annual siren that blares on every street in Israel on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which fell this year on April 28. Herself the daughter of a survivor, Naomi Darom decided to opt out of the (Jewish) national ritual this year. Though she was particularly disturbed by the Education Ministry’s recent decision to expand its mandatory Holocaust curriculum to include lessons beginning in kindergarten, a deeper concern had been gnawing at her for some time: the way that the public school system — and the political establishment more generally — has “for decades” cynically deployed the genocide of European Jews to nurture a chauvinist climate of “unbridled militarism” and to “justify denying rights to another people.”
Admittedly, I was somewhat dismayed that Darom arrived at this decision only now. After all, historians like Idith Zertal and Tom Segev have rigorously documented the refusal of pre-state Zionist leaders to allocate resources to save more Jews from the death camps; the state’s stigmatization of survivors who made it to the shores of Palestine/Israel after the war; and the crass manipulation of their suffering to excuse the brutal occupation of and use of indiscriminate violence against Palestinians and Arabs more generally. While the linkage between Jewish victimhood and Jewish domination predates the Holocaust in the annals of Zionist settlement in Palestine, the Nazi-engineered mass murder enjoyed pride of place in Israel’s political culture after the Likud Party came to power in 1977. Prime Minister Menachem Begin was fond of comparing Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler. He also self-righteously flouted international law and approbation (when Israel demolished Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981, for instance, or invaded Lebanon in 1982) on the grounds that, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the morality of the Jewish people was beyond reproach.
Darom’s belated outrage (or at least, her belated decision to act on that outrage) notwithstanding, I posted her article because it was powerfully written and seemed like the kind of thing my circle of friends and colleagues would appreciate. In the case of at least one family friend/Friend, I turned out to be wrong. “The writer is a bitter and emotionally sick woman who doesn’t deserve to be published,” opined said Friend. He proceeded to spar with other Friends, who bravely contested his assertion that Darom had “belittled all those who have chosen to honor their emotions and memories.” The debate got uglier and uncomfortably personal as it deepened, but the complainant seems to have tired of being the lone dissenter, for he gave up. He would have found safety in numbers had he posted his grievances under the original piece on the Haaretz Hebrew-language site, where many of the 568 commenters heaped similar scorn on Darom’s audacity in questioning and detaching herself from the nation’s sacred memorial ritual. For some critics, she revealed herself — “like all leftists in Israel” — to be nothing less than a traitor.
This Holocaust season has been marred with more consequential accusations. The genocide’s recent characterization by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” was rebuffed by the Israeli prime minister as doublespeak, in light of the agreement that the Fatah leader signed last week with Hamas to work toward Palestinian unity — an agreement that Netanyahu farcically used as a pretext to suspend negotiations. As The Nation’s Eli Clifton reminds us, Bibi also cynically refused to accept Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recognition of the Holocaust last year, citing Rouhani’s critique of the Israeli occupation in the same statement.
The recognition war has gone both ways. Most recently, in Palestinian East Jerusalem, al-Quds University professor Muhammad Dajani was publicly attacked for taking 27 students to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland while Palestinians were still under occupation. His critics were unimpressed by the fact that the trip was part of a broader project to teach empathy and tolerance, one complemented by a simultaneous visit of Jewish Israeli university students to the Dahaysha refugee camp, outside Bethlehem, to listen to residents tell their own stories.
The effort to foster empathy is, of course, noble and important. But the perpetuation of the conflict in Israel/Palestine stems from the stark inequality of power between the two sides, not the absence of mutual understanding. Indeed Israeli and Palestinian politicians have long understood each other’s concerns. It is, rather, the inequality between them that enables Israel to truculently dismiss the attempts of Abbas and Rouhani to acknowledge the history of Jewish suffering as a pretext to pursue its maximalist policies of territorial annexation in Palestine and its warmongering against Iran in the United States. Palestinians, for their part, are typically held to a different standard with regard to the recognition of their own narrative, including the history of their mass dispossession in 1948. Either they are expected not to expect recognition of that history, to the point that the Israeli government has penalized the commemoration of the nakba, or to accept that recognition, without accompanying action, as sufficient.
Power dynamics also run through Palestinian efforts to understand and sympathize with past Jewish suffering. One reason Dajani came under fire, for example, is because Palestinian university personnel are supposed to boycott joint educational ventures with Israeli institutions, in part on the grounds that such academic exchanges cannot be equitable when one set of students is occupied by another that has served or will serve in the occupying army.
In Israel-Palestine, as elsewhere, the past does indeed weigh on the present. But perhaps another lesson of the Darom and Dajani episodes is that past suffering is all too often a political weapon in the present — one that is likely to be wielded until present injustices are redressed.