The symbolic linking of "Holocaust" and Israel has mobilized funds and support for good causes, but it has also created social, cultural and political problems

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 06/04/2009

As a Jewish American, I am not embarrassed to admit the part of President Obama's Cairo speech that jumped out at me was his strategic and symbolic reference to the "Holocaust."

OK, I am a little embarrassed.

The fact is, I find it strange to even admit that I listen for how well my President talks about the Holocaust in his speeches, but I do.  We live in contentious political times and the Holocaust as a symbol is smack dab in the middle of it.

My concern was not for myself but for those Jewish Americans who, over the course of the 2008 election, became convinced that Barack Obama as President would be "against" rather than "for" the Jews. 

I have 100% confidence in the new direction President Obama has promised since the election on Middle East policy, and feel positive that his approach will restart the Middle East peace process and set the U.S. on a better footing vis-a-vis Central Asian nations. My Jewishness has not been a factor in my attitude towards this President.  When I evaluate this President, I do so through my views on healthcare, the auto industry, education, and the environment.  

And yet, I still listen for the references to the Holocaust in speeches that talk of Israel and the Middle East.  'How will he do?'  I wonder.

Politically and intellectually, the President did a solid job in his Cairo speech with this statement:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed - more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction - or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews - is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

When I say 'solid job,' I mean the paragraph hit all the right symbolic notes.  Key constituencies in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East were listening for exactly this kind of statement, and the President articulated it with a voice of leadership and conviction.  It felt right.

And yet, I suspect the statement will be criticized by some Jewish pundits as not going far enough--for not stating emphatically and explicitly enough (is it ever enough?) that the purpose of U.S. support for Israel is to prevent another Holocaust against the Jews.

While I am frustrated with the pundits who whip up this fear, I am not angry with those who respond to it. 

The problem, it seems, is that the unfounded fear that America under Barack Obama has become less safe for Jews seems to resonate strongest amongst those Jewish people who have dedicated their lives to helping the State of Israel and to remembering the tragic genocide of European Jewry.  These are not slackers, but leaders in the world of philanthropy and charitable causes.  It is not, as many believe, an ideological position restricted to conservative Republican voters, but an outgrowth of the civic identities that many American Jews have created for themselves.

Those who raise money for Holocaust memorials and scholarship, as well as for Israeli charities, are Jewish people who believe very deeply that a moral and safe future depends on supporting individuals and causes in need as well as making sure that the State of Israel stands as the singular insurance policy against any potential threats to Jew existence.  Many of these people--good people--have been dedicated to this vision for their entire lives at staggering levels.  While I do not share their particular approach to thinking about America, Israel or the Holocaust, I also do not doubt their sincerity or the value of their work.

Unlike many of these people, however, I do not share their concern for Jewish safety in the United States. In my view, never before in American history have Jewish people been more safe and secure than they are in the United States, today.

I view this "concern" in the framework of politics.  

That many America Jews suddenly felt less safe after Barack Obama was elected President was not an accident, but was the disgusting byproduct of a relentless right-wing propaganda scheme focused on Jewish communities that began during the 2008 presidential primary season and has not subsided even to this day.   The campaign was not based on facts, but as always in politics, facts matter less than perception.  The fear campaign worked and it worked most effectively by exploiting the symbolic link that many Jews hold in their hearts between the "Holocaust," Israel and a vague sense of safety and security.

The symbolic linking of "Holocaust" and Israel, in other words, has mobilized funds and support for good causes, but it has also created social, cultural and political problems at home and abroad.   

In addition to the 2008 right-wing propaganda campaigns, the well-intentioned linking of "Holocaust" and Israel has been easily perverted to justify some of the most horrendous policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  Houses have been demolished, communities have been starved of income and resources, and military campaigns from the air against unarmed civilians have all been conducted in the name of preventing another Holocaust.  As a human being, let alone a Jewish person, I cringe when I hear these justifications from anyone. 

Another problem in this vein has been even more vexing, albeit far less visible:  the problem of the "settlers." 

At a level that most Americans never see, the symbolic linking of "Holocaust" and Israel has given rise to a kind of personality and political movement in Israel that runs counter to the humanistic values that Judaism represents.  Since the late 1970's, hundreds of thousands of Jewish "settlers" have built and lived in illegal villages, subdivisions and camps based on the notion that their occupation of the West Bank will prevent a future Holocaust.  The children born into this world are innocent, but the adults are not. 

In 1994, a settler named Baruch Goldstein walked into a holy shrine in the city of Hebron and killed 29 praying Muslims with an machine gun--all in the name of preventing another Holocaust.  In 1995, Yigal Amir, a supporter of the settler movement, assassinated then prime minister Yitzchak Rabin--in the name of blocking the Oslo accords, which this young man believed would lead to another Holocaust.  

Beyond violence on the ground, because the Holocaust has become so central to American and Israeli Jewish thinking, Middle Eastern politicians who want to be heard by Americans have resorted to invoking it as a form of shock politics.

When leadership in Hamas or in Iran give speeches denying that the Holocaust happened or belittling the memory of those who perished, for example, they have not done so out of some deep interest in correcting history, but only as a finger in the eye to those who see both of these issues as irrevocably linked.   Sadly, this tactic achieves the short term and cynical goal of landing the speech on the front pages of the global media.

This is not an excuse.  The disrespectful appropriation of Holocaust memory is, for my money, one of the most hurtful forms of political rhetoric.  Moreover, some of this rhetoric has incited militants to strap bombs to their chests, blow up buses and markets, and launch rockets at Israeli towns. 

And yet, as crass and self-serving as this abuse of the Holocaust has been, it leads me to ask a question that I know is hard for many American Jews to hear without feeling their hearts quicken: 

<em>Has the "Holocaust"--while essential to remember and to honor--become a hurdle on the road to peace rather than a signpost?</em>

I believe it just might be a hurdle and that the time has come for American Jews to see the Holocaust and Israel not as one commitment, but as dual commitments that we can maintain simultaneously without turning one into a symbolic lien against the other. 

How exactly will that happen?  I can only speak from my own experience.

As an American Jew, I was lucky enough in my 20s to spend years studying and working in Israel.  My time abroad afforded me the opportunity to see past Israel as a symbol and appreciate the staggering cultural difference between Americans and Israelis.   I know from experience that when American Jews take the difficult step of thinking critically about the symbolic link that binds the memory of the Holocaust to the State of Israel, the result is a deeper understanding of both aspects of American Jewish identity, not a more dangerous world. But to take these steps, we must be willing to ignore the agents of political fear that will continue to target Jewish communities in the elections of 2010 and beyond.  

Some American Jews have already walked down this path and are not susceptible to symbolic manipulation of the Holocaust for political gain.  Many other American Jews who listened to President Obama's Cairo speech, however,  now find themselves at the beginning a difficult intellectual and emotional road. 

For the first time in their lives, they must find new ways to honor the memory of those who suffered and perished in the Holocaust and new ways to support the State of Israel--new ways that do not leverage one as a symbolic roadblock in the peace process of the other.   Believing that peace is possible in the Middle East may well depend on how successful American Jews are at this task.

I may be a bright-eyed optimist, but I believe we can do it.  I believe that the greatest way to honor those who perished in the Holocaust is to let their memories step away respectfully from the peace process. And I believe that peace in the Middle East would give American Jews a chance to explore and learn from one of the most vibrant and diverse part of the world.

But when the speeches are over, the crowds have gone home, and the historic trips have come to an end, the first step we must take is in our own heads and hearts. 

© Jeffrey Feldman 2009, Frameshop

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