Questions for Holocaust Memorial Day

Last year, I wrote a piece called “Detangling the Holocaust from Israeli-Palestinian Politics.” In it, I wrote about my initial reaction to the quick approaching Holocaust Memorial Day: a grim self-bracing for the deluge of badness that was sure to flow from the mouths of Israel’s political leaders as they wielded the memory of the Holocaust to justify horrible and oppressive policies. I wrote:

”I have become deeply frustrated by the political manipulation of the Holocaust to distract from Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. These crimes should not and need not be compared to Nazi crimes, but they are unjust and immoral in their own right.”

From there, though, I went out to challenge my initial reaction, accepting as accurate the analysis of Israel’s leaders’ exploitation, but questioning the fact that that was my first thought:

”…I, like many individuals on the Jewish left, have made a concerted effort to understand Palestinian suffering and to try to grasp how the suffering inflicted by the Occupation could lead a large portion of a people to embrace an ideology that supports using violence against innocent people through bombing cafes and buses. I am proud to say that after much searching and struggling, I am able to sincerely empathise with Palestinian suffering, even as I do not endorse methods of violence and collective punishment. The more I have understood the suffering caused by the Occupation, the more I am infuriated by statements that begin with “the Occupation is terrible, but…” Statements like “the Occupation is terrible, but Palestinians have supported gruesome methods of terrorism” are in some cases correct but they are also wrong, in my opinion, because they lack true empathy for human suffering. So the fact that my first thought [as Holocaust Memorial Day was mentioned] was something like “the Holocaust was horrific, but it is exploited for political purposes” is not acceptable at all. This kind of thinking has reduced my ability to empathise with the tragic suffering of my own people and my ability to understand why many of them may have embraced militaristic views. Israeli Jewish fear is real. It may be unwarranted in some cases, and exaggerated in others, but it is important to understand how an extended period in recent history in which one-third of the world’s Jews were systematically exterminated could lead people to be fearful…”

A year later, as I stood still for the siren on Holocaust Memorial Day this morning, I stood less sure. This afternoon, after reflecting and rereading my piece from last year, I stand with questions to which I do not have easy answers:

Does agreeing to commemorate the Holocaust on the day that the government designates inherently give legitimacy to the government’s narrative? Would refusing to commemorate the Holocaust on the day in which the most of Jewish collective commemorates Holocaust be an act of self-uprooting? What does commemorating mean? Is there a way to remember the Holocaust as a particular Jewish tragedy without either (a) losing sight of its crucial universality (Never Again must Humanity allow such slaughter to be done to any portion of Humanity) or (b) slipping into cheap and grossly inappropriate pseduo-comparisons between the Holocaust and Israel’s horrible treatment of Palestinians? Knowing that comparisons are grossly inappropriate, how should [or shouldn’t] Israel’s horrible treatment of the Palestinians factor into Holocaust Memorial Day? How can suffering be de-monopolized? Is there space in our collective and individual hearts to encompass all pain? Most pain? Do we have to choose which pain we allow in and which we ignore? Should the Left think about organizing Alternative Commemorations as we do for Remembrance Day (Yom HaZikaron) and Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut) (both next week)? Or is today a day in which we can be part of the consensus? What is the value of being part of the consensus? What is the value of challenging it? How can values of justice and love influence all of these questions?

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