President Obama is to be commended for his eloquent repudiation of Holocaust denial, and his commemoration of its memory. However, Obama’s focus on the Holocaust carries more, and different, weight than we may realize. While it may sound like a nod in Israel’s favor to balance his other words, in truth it is both wider and narrower than that, and will largely fail to speak to the very Israelis he hopes to reach.
Wider: The Holocaust is not just a foundational memory for many Jews, but for Europeans as well. In the European context, it sits at the core of a narrative that goes like this: Half a century ago, Europeans got swept up in a fever of intolerant, racist nationalism, which resulted in the greatest catastrophe ever. Because of that, we are forever suspicious of particularist national ideologies, the abuse of power, and intolerance. In this narrative, the present-day villain is none other than Zionism, which is seen as precisely the ethnic-nationalist militarism that should have long been left behind. Letting the Jews have a state turned out to be a mistake, for it enabled them to switch from being the oppressed to the oppressor.
Narrower: For a great many American and Western Jews, the Holocaust is taught as a personal tragedy whose implications are universal: Not unlike the European reading, the Holocaust carries a message for all humanity, and that message is tolerance and peace. Small wonder that Holocaust Museums have morphed into Museums of Tolerance in the last generation.
Alongside this reading, however, most Israelis and Zionists abroad carry a second narrative with them: The Holocaust teaches us that centuries of collective powerlessness lead to collective catastrophe. That no matter how alien this may feel after so long an exile, Jews can and must defend themselves, through a state and an army, as a precondition for survival, and as the basis of a national renaissance. In Israel, a tour through the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum ends with a celebration of Israel.
This is the side of the Holocaust you will not hear about from Barack Obama. The closest he can come to it is to suggest that the Jews deserved a homeland after so many centuries of anti-Semitism. Sort of an international act of grace that the Arabs will just have to come to terms with. This is not how the Jews view their own tragedy, however, nor is it the aim of their state, the foundations of which were already in place before the Holocaust happened. A state, not for mercy and respite, but for revival, empowerment, and the tools needed to chart our own course. What’s that word again? Freedom?