High Stakes and Flat Debates

From the L.A. Times (thanks to Tom for the link):

The Shoah is woven, to varying degrees, into almost all of Israel’s political arguments; over time, we have taken the Shoah from its position of sanctity and turned it into an instrument of common and even trite politics. It represents a past that is present, maintained, monitored, heard and represented. Our dead do not rest in peace. They are busy, active, always a part of our sad lives.

Of course, memory is essential to any nation’s mental health. The Shoah must always have an important place in the nation’s memorial mosaic. But the way things are done today — the absolute monopoly and the dominance of the Shoah on every aspect of our lives — transforms this holy memory into a ridiculous sacrilege and converts piercing pain into hollowness and kitsch. As time passes, the deeper we are stuck in our Auschwitz past, the more difficult it becomes to be free of it.

What does the primacy of the Shoah mean in terms of our politics and policy? For one thing, it becomes virtually impossible to find a conversation carried out with reason, patience, self-control or restraint. Take Iran as an example. With regard to Iran, as with any other security matter that has potentially existential consequences, we have no thoughts at all — only instincts and trauma-driven impulses. Who has ever heard of alternative approaches to the Iranian issue, of strategic arguments underlying the passionate emotions, the old fears and violent rhetoric?

Few people in Israel are willing to try to perceive reality through a different set of conceptual lenses other than those of extermination and defensive isolation. Few are willing to try on the glasses of understanding and of hope for dialogue. Instead, the question is always: Is a second Shoah on the way?

I’m trying to get my hands on a copy of Avraham Burg’s The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes so that I can review it, but damn if the publisher and all the libraries aren’t making it difficult.

I wanted to write about this weeks ago: I was appalled, during the presidential and VP debates, at the number of times the candidates brought up the Holocaust – specifically in terms of not wanting a second one. What is a Jewish tragedy doing at the forefront of Gentile politics? It’s not out of a sincere concern for Jewish well-being, I can tell you that (although I’m sure the conspiracy theorists were jumping up and down at the unveiling of yet another Jewish World-Takeover). No, the Holocaust serves as a way to squelch debate and control people – Jews and non-Jews alike – through fear. If we don’t support Israel, there’ll be a second Holocaust. If we try diplomacy with Iran, there’ll be a second Holocaust. If we don’t give the American and Israeli governments free reign to do what they want in Palestine, Iraq, and… well, anywhere in the Middle East, then that second Holocaust is right around the corner! And as Burg says, the higher the stakes are, the flatter the debate becomes. It’s impossible to have a realistic discussion about foreign or domestic policy when the question is Holocaust or No Holocaust. (I’ll take the No Holocaust, please!)

And that kind of rhetoric, when repeated by American government officials for a mostly non-Jewish audience, has a nasty side effect. Let’s say the US and Israel both went to war with Iran for, supposedly, the express purpose of avoiding a second Holocaust. All we’re trying to do, each government insisted, is avoid a second Holocaust. Let’s say the war went badly. Which outcry do you think would be louder here in the US: “We’re losing a lot of troops, but at least we’re helping the Jews!” or “The Jews made us do it! Israel is controlling the world!” I don’t know if McCain and Palin were aware of this during the debates, but framing Iran as a Jewish problem only sets us up to take the blame if things go wrong.

(But Julie, what about AIPAC? Yes, AIPAC has a lot of influence, but this isn’t a matter of a cabal of Jews strongarming the most powerful nation on Earth into doing what they say. Rather, as with any other powerful lobbying group, AIPAC’s goals are in line with those of elected officials: in this case, the creation of Middle Eastern populations who are accommodating to Western interests.)

Consider this an addendum to my disturbing realization the other day.

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2 Responses

  1. This is a great post.

    I wrote a paper for class some years back arguing — and I hope this is not the case — that Israel will not have a sane foreign policy until all the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have died of old age. Of course, that assumes that the unwavering focus on “Will there be another Holocaust?” is mainly a product of trauma, as opposed to mainly a product of the cynical exploitation of that trauma by powerful people for their own purposes (i.e. “squelching debate and controlling people”).

    I’m going to order that book; it looks great.

  2. Thanks!

    I’d say both forces are at work – although the exploitation will lose its potency as fewer and fewer Jews have direct experiences with the Holocaust.

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