moral inequivalence

Ampersand has a great excerpt from a lecture by Sarah Roy, entitled "Living with the Holocaust: The Journey of a Child of Holocaust Survivors". It's an acute observation of a moral principle that is simply bulldozed by most Israeli partisans. Repeated invocation of the Holocaust is not merely a dishonest debating tactic, but there is a significant dilution of the moral imperatives and lessons that the Holocaust teaches - to Jew and non-Jew alike. Lowering the bar on Holocaust analogies drawn by Jews has in a sense given rhetorical ammunition to anti-Semites, opening the door to making similar analogies against Jews. I myself find it almost impossible to rationally discuss Israel in public[1], because inevitably Hitler will emerge, and be thrust upon the discussion as the ultimate analogy, regardless of which side I'm arguing with.

I was especially intrigued by the following passages:

After the war ended, my aunt Frania desperately and understandably wanted to go to Palestine/Israel to join their sister who had been there for ten years. The creation of a Jewish state was imminent and Frania felt it was the only safe place for Jews after the Holocaust. My mother disagreed and adamantly refused to go. She told me so many times during my life that her decision not to live in Israel was based on a belief, learned and reinforced by her experiences during the war, that tolerance, compassion, and justice cannot be practiced nor extended when one lives only among ones own. "I could not live as a Jew among Jews alone, " she said. "For me, it wasn't possible and it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to live as a Jew in a pluralist society, where my group remained important to me but where others were important to me, too. "
I grew up in a home where Judaism was defined and practiced not as a religion but as a system of ethics and culture. God was present but not central. My first language was Yiddish, which I still speak with my family. My home was filled with joy and optimism although punctuated at times by grief and loss. Israel and the notion of a Jewish homeland were very important to my parents. After all the remnants of our family were there. But unlike many of their friends, my parents were not uncritical of Israel, insofar as they felt they could be. Obedience to a state was not an ultimate Jewish value, not for them, not after the Holocaust. Judaism provided the context for Jewish life, for values and beliefs that were not dependent upon national boundaries, but transcended them. For my mother and father Judaism meant bearing witness, raging against injustice, and foregoing silence. It meant compassion, tolerance, and rescue. It meant, as Ammiel Alcalay has written, ensuring to the extent possible that the memories of the past do not become the memories of the future. These were the ultimate Jewish values. My parents were not saints; they had their faults and they made mistakes. But they cared profoundly about issues of justice and fairness, and they cared profoundly about people--all people, not just their own.

The lessons of the Holocaust were always presented to me as both particular (i.e. Jewish) and universal. Perhaps most importantly, they were presented as indivisible. To divide them would diminish the meaning of both.

I love how simply and directly the desire for a Jewish homeland is expressed in the first paragraph. Is there anyone with even a shred of human emotion for whom the basic desire for a refuge can not resonate in their heart? But having established their homeland, the allegiance to it seems to have transcended the expression of the basic human values that led to its founding. There is a fundamental disconnect in the attitudes of Israeli partisans towards their desire for homeland and their attitude towards the desires of those whom they displaced to achieve it. Ampersand's excerpt speaks directly to that basic desire[2], emphasising its universality - and the last paragraph of the excerpt above strikes me the most deeply. I feel that I too have a claim on the Holocaust - after all, the victims were human, they share blood and bone with me.

But any claim I may make to being touched by the Holocaust, is denied by those who appropriate the moral imperatives for their sole use. These are universal lessons, these are universal values. They belong to mankind. They belong to me. And to you.

UPDATE: Dean Esmay has a stunning essay about the genocides of the 20th century. He mentions the disquieting fact that Mao killed 65 million people. I am able to comprehend, barely, the scale of the Holocaust thanks to the simple symbolism of the Boston Holocaust Memorial, which for teh first time put the number 6 million in concrete terms. My brain simply shuts down thinking about ten times larger. Interestingly, Dean unwittingly posted his essay on Holocaust Memorial Day - he asks in the comments ifthat was innapropriate, and a commentor reassures him that no, it isn't at all inappropriate, because Dean's essay is not about trying to deny or trivialize the Holocaust.

[1] One supreme advantage of blogging - I don't have to listen to anyone.
[2] I have often asserted that the hatred is only as deep as the occupation. This lecture gives powerful insights into the bedrock of that assertion. The vivid account of the author's observations of how Israeli soldiers dehumanized the Palestinian people - in 1985 - is the real key to understanding the appeal of Hamas. Israelis has a saying, "we will not be led like lambs to the slaughter again." The author notes with anger at how this catchphrase also dehumanizes the victims of the Holocaust itself. But it's also a good description of tha attitudes of the Palestinians, towards a power that is greater than they in all aspects save one - the determination to survive without surrender.

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