Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yom HaShoah

Abbas and the Trouble with Holocaust Commemoration

Today Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas did as many peace process proponents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been imploring him to do. He condemned the Holocaust in terms that are entirely appropriate, saying the Shoah was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy for the victims. If, as we are informed by the New York Times, this statement is published in the Palestinian media in Arabic in the same phrasing as in the English version for Israelis and the international media, that is progress of a sort, especially coming as it does from the lips of a man who wrote a doctoral thesis centered on the theme that the Holocaust was a “Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.”

The timing of the statement was meant to coincide with the beginning tonight of Yom HaShoah—the day set by the State of Israel and the international Jewish community for Holocaust remembrance. Yet coming as it did only days after Abbas signed a unity agreement with the Hamas terrorist movement that is committed in its charter to not only the destruction of Israel but to the slaughter of its Jewish population, it is hard to view this statement as purely an expression of the evolution of Abbas’s views about the Holocaust. The man who only one day earlier restated his pledge to “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a pledge that would signal that the Palestinians were truly prepared to end their century long war on Zionism—it is easy to understand the less than enthusiastic reaction to Abbas’s words from Israel’s government. But far from being greeted with the cynicism that Abbas might have expected, it was instead Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who appears to have come out the loser in the exchange with pundits. Abbas’s apologists are lauding the Palestinian for his “outreach” campaign—the Holocaust statement was procured by celebrity interfaith proponent Rabbi Marc Schneir—and blasting Netanyahu for a petty rejection of the Palestinian gesture. Abbas’s words, welcome as they might be, were a clever tactical move and in the viewpoint of much of the international press seemed to outweigh any negative feedback about the Hamas deal.

But this contretemps illustrates something more significant than the success of the Palestinians in distracting the world from what was, in effect, their fourth rejection of an Israeli peace offer, including independence and statehood, in the last 15 years. If the world thinks Abbas’s nice words about the Holocaust are more important than his pact with Hamas or even his personal embrace of the terrorist murderers who shed Jewish blood, then perhaps it is time to start worrying about a trend that appears to elevate Holocaust commemoration over and above any concern for Jews currently alive.

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Today Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas did as many peace process proponents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been imploring him to do. He condemned the Holocaust in terms that are entirely appropriate, saying the Shoah was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy for the victims. If, as we are informed by the New York Times, this statement is published in the Palestinian media in Arabic in the same phrasing as in the English version for Israelis and the international media, that is progress of a sort, especially coming as it does from the lips of a man who wrote a doctoral thesis centered on the theme that the Holocaust was a “Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.”

The timing of the statement was meant to coincide with the beginning tonight of Yom HaShoah—the day set by the State of Israel and the international Jewish community for Holocaust remembrance. Yet coming as it did only days after Abbas signed a unity agreement with the Hamas terrorist movement that is committed in its charter to not only the destruction of Israel but to the slaughter of its Jewish population, it is hard to view this statement as purely an expression of the evolution of Abbas’s views about the Holocaust. The man who only one day earlier restated his pledge to “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a pledge that would signal that the Palestinians were truly prepared to end their century long war on Zionism—it is easy to understand the less than enthusiastic reaction to Abbas’s words from Israel’s government. But far from being greeted with the cynicism that Abbas might have expected, it was instead Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who appears to have come out the loser in the exchange with pundits. Abbas’s apologists are lauding the Palestinian for his “outreach” campaign—the Holocaust statement was procured by celebrity interfaith proponent Rabbi Marc Schneir—and blasting Netanyahu for a petty rejection of the Palestinian gesture. Abbas’s words, welcome as they might be, were a clever tactical move and in the viewpoint of much of the international press seemed to outweigh any negative feedback about the Hamas deal.

But this contretemps illustrates something more significant than the success of the Palestinians in distracting the world from what was, in effect, their fourth rejection of an Israeli peace offer, including independence and statehood, in the last 15 years. If the world thinks Abbas’s nice words about the Holocaust are more important than his pact with Hamas or even his personal embrace of the terrorist murderers who shed Jewish blood, then perhaps it is time to start worrying about a trend that appears to elevate Holocaust commemoration over and above any concern for Jews currently alive.

Remembering the Holocaust is a sacred obligation and it is especially important to keep alive the memory of the six million who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators at a time when the ranks of the survivors grow fewer with each passing year. But the point of these memorials is not merely to shed tears over the Jews who died seven decades ago. The Holocaust was the culmination of two millennia of anti-Semitism. The Nazi crime was unique in terms of its scale and the embrace by one of the world’s most civilized and powerful nations of a racist eliminationist creed. But it was neither the first nor the last attack on the existence of the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism has outlived the Nazis just as it did other host organisms to which this vile virus attached itself. Today, the major source of anti-Semitic invective and hate speech is the Arab and Muslim world. This contemporary incarnation uses resentment against the existence of one lone Jewish state on this planet to mobilize not only Arab anger against Israel but to reawaken traditional Jew-hatred in Europe.

The trend toward universalizing the Holocaust so as to have its commemoration become a surrogate for every expression of intolerance or ill-feeling on any subject has done nothing to wipe out hate while diluting the specific historic lesson of this event. Yet to also condemn that attack on Jewish existence and the silence and inaction of the rest of the world outside of the context of contemporary anti-Semitism is similarly unhelpful. At a time when there’s a vicious anti-Semitic regime in Iran whose leaders have promoted Holocaust denial while at the same time plotting to achieve the means to achieve a second such slaughter, the tears shed for the six million are meaningless if they are not also accompanied by a determination to thwart rather than to appease Tehran.

The sad truth is that the popularity of Holocaust commemoration—even on the part of many who are hostile to contemporary Jewish life—as well as the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials seems to reflect a preference for dead Jews over live ones. The irony is that the movement to promote Holocaust remembrance was largely born out of an effort to teach both Jews and non-Jews the perils of silence about anti-Semitism. The boom in Holocaust memorials started in the 1960s as the movements to promote freedom for Soviet Jewry and to protect the embattled State of Israel gained greater traction in the West. It was widely understood that the clichéd refrain of Holocaust memorial—“never again”—was not merely an expression of ex post facto outrage about the conduct of the Nazis but a pledge to fight for the freedom and the lives of the descendants of the survivors.

Yet as the dustup about Abbas’s words illustrates, Holocaust commemoration has now taken on a life of its own that is utterly disconnected from any actual concern about defending Jewish lives, let alone history. It is a good thing that Palestinian Arabs understand and respect Jewish history rather than deny it, as their media routinely does with respect to Jerusalem and other issues. A degree of honesty from Abbas about the way the Palestinian Arab leadership embraced Hitler might also be in order. But courtesies about the events of the 1940s do not outweigh efforts to deny legitimacy to Jewish rights let alone justify the embrace of those who shed Jewish blood in our own time. If Holocaust commemoration has evolved to a point where these factors are unimportant, then perhaps it is time for those of us who have worked so hard to make it part of the fabric of Western culture to rethink the impact of what we have accomplished. 

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Bergen-Belsen Survivors Sing Hatikvah

Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—began Sunday night and ends tonight. Tom Gross—whose Mideast Dispatch is one of the most valuable websites for those focusing on Middle East issues, Israel, anti-Semitism and security—includes today a link to a 1945 BBC report featuring Bergen-Belsen Survivors singing Hatikvah (“The Hope”)—the future national anthem of Israel—just days after liberation.

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Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—began Sunday night and ends tonight. Tom Gross—whose Mideast Dispatch is one of the most valuable websites for those focusing on Middle East issues, Israel, anti-Semitism and security—includes today a link to a 1945 BBC report featuring Bergen-Belsen Survivors singing Hatikvah (“The Hope”)—the future national anthem of Israel—just days after liberation.

Scroll down to click on the video. It is worth remembering not only the tragedy of the Holocaust, but also the spirit of those so lucky to survive.

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Don’t Strand the Holocaust in History

This evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. For most, it will be a moment of mourning as well as an occasion to ponder the lessons of history and to ask whether humanity has learned anything in the 67 years since the end of the Second World War. But for some on the left, the Holocaust has become a political liability that must be drained of all relevance to the contemporary world.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that demands that “Netanyahu stop hiding behind Holocaust warnings.” Haaretz, which articulates the opinion of the minority of Israelis who espouse the views of the hard left about the conflict with the Palestinians as well as the potential confrontation with Iran, has come to negatively view any attempt to ground the country’s security policies in the historical experience of the Jewish people. Thus, for them it’s not merely enough to chide the prime minister for what they wrongly believe is the promiscuous use of Holocaust analogies. Instead, their goal, as well as that of others who pay lip service to the idea of proper commemoration of the Six Million who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, is to strand the event in history.  Doing so serves their immediate political purpose but, in fact, confounds the entire concept of remembrance of the Holocaust.

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This evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. For most, it will be a moment of mourning as well as an occasion to ponder the lessons of history and to ask whether humanity has learned anything in the 67 years since the end of the Second World War. But for some on the left, the Holocaust has become a political liability that must be drained of all relevance to the contemporary world.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that demands that “Netanyahu stop hiding behind Holocaust warnings.” Haaretz, which articulates the opinion of the minority of Israelis who espouse the views of the hard left about the conflict with the Palestinians as well as the potential confrontation with Iran, has come to negatively view any attempt to ground the country’s security policies in the historical experience of the Jewish people. Thus, for them it’s not merely enough to chide the prime minister for what they wrongly believe is the promiscuous use of Holocaust analogies. Instead, their goal, as well as that of others who pay lip service to the idea of proper commemoration of the Six Million who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, is to strand the event in history.  Doing so serves their immediate political purpose but, in fact, confounds the entire concept of remembrance of the Holocaust.

This is a familiar theme from the left, which in recent years has come to view mentions of the Holocaust as a dodge that has allowed Israel to avoid coming to grips with the tough issues of war and peace as well as its social cohesion. But it’s not Netanyahu and others who are in the wrong; it is those who wish to isolate the destruction of European Jewry in history and to avoid drawing conclusions from it who are profoundly misguided.

Though the Holocaust has universal significance, its particular meaning relates to what happens when Jews are rendered powerless in the face of powerful foes bent on their destruction. While there are those who wish to discuss it only in the most general terms about bias, the Holocaust was a specific event that happened to a people who had been demonized for 2,000 years and lacked the ability to adequately defend themselves.

Netanyahu is not injecting a political agenda into commemoration of this tragedy. It is actually those who wish to ban mentions of Iran’s nuclear program, the genocidal intent of Hamas and other Islamist terrorists as well as the rising tide of European anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism from the discussion of the Shoah who are distorting the debate.

The notion that Israelis or American Jews are so distracted by fears rooted in the Holocaust that they have ignored other problems or exaggerated the present threats to Jewish existence is rooted in a foolish assumption that Islamist forces who speak of their desire to eradicate Israel don’t mean what they say. Netanyahu isn’t, as Haaretz charges, irresponsibly “feeding the fear” of a second Holocaust to the detriment of his country. He is merely acknowledging the reality that Jewish history has the ability to inform our understanding of today’s conflicts, and that we must act on the conclusions we must draw from the past.

Every slur or example of hate speech is not a potential Holocaust. But the efforts of a powerful Islamist state to obtain nuclear weapons that might be used to make good on its pledge to eradicate Israel is as much of an existential threat as that of the Nazis. That doesn’t mean that Iran is Germany or that Khamenei or Ahmadinejad is Hitler, but the analogy doesn’t have to be perfect to make sense. The same applies to those Islamist terrorists, often funded by Iran, who have similar hopes about cleansing the Middle East of the one Jewish state.

What we must understand is that any commemoration of the Holocaust that does not speak of the need to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons or of preserving Israel’s security against the threat of Palestinian terrorism is not worthy of the name. Far from there being too much talk about Iran when discussing the Holocaust, there is not enough. Though today’s situation is not akin to that of 1939 when there was no Jewish state ready to defend itself or an America that despite the ambivalence of its president is united in support of Israel, the peril is nonetheless real.

The mere recital of expressions of sorrow for the Six Million is not enough. Acts of remembrance that do not cause us to draw conclusions about the present are of little use. For all the effort and resources that have gone into the proliferation of Holocaust memorials around the United States, it must be understood that the best and only true memorial to the Shoah is to be found in the creation and the survival of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people itself. Those who weep today about the fate of the Six Million but say nothing about the possibility that the West will not act to stop Iran or seek to discourage Israel from defending its people have learned nothing.

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