Robert A.H. Cohen
As I become older I realise that the Holocaust is not over. The gas chambers and incinerators are gone but the consequences of the horror will continue to play out in the decades and even centuries to come. Our understanding of who we are as Jews, our place in the world, our politics, how others view us, even our theology, continues to be shaped, indeed defined, by the Holocaust.
Why would it be otherwise?
Just as with earlier major turning points of Jewish history – the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 or the expulsion from Spain in 1492 – the Holocaust changed everything. A third of our people were destroyed along with their culture and heritage. But none of us were left untouched whether we were alive then or born since. Or are yet to be born.
As Jews we have every reason to be sensitive about how the Holocaust is spoken about. What happened should be remembered. It should be taught. Mourning is necessary and reverence is needed, if only to help us to heal.
In remembering the Holocaust, we understandably focus on the past. What happened. And why. We raise up the voices of the remaining survivors so they can give their personal testimony one more time before they become too frail. We ask the leaders of nations to recommit to fighting antisemitism. We engage with our neighbours at a community level and work to create a shared acceptance of the need to remember, and for some, atone.
But there are dangers in how we remember too.
Trauma and narrative
The greatest danger I see is the passing on of unprocessed trauma from one generation of Jews to the next. Living in constant fear of existential threats is not living, it is only surviving. No group of people can thrive if trapped in such a mental condition. We have become sophisticated at teaching the facts of the Holocaust. But poor at recognising the deep emotional impact such learning may cause us and our children.
The other danger is that we try to police the narrative of the Holocaust and set boundaries on its interpretation. There are many reasons why this happens. Some are about emotional and psychological needs linked to the passing on of trauma. But most of the time it’s mixed up with politics. Usually the politics of Israel. And all of this can take place in both conscious and unconscious ways. The results are the same though. We fail to see the full consequences of the tragedy as it continues to work its way through Jewish history and human history too.
All of which brings me to the BBC’s International Correspondent, Orla Guerin.
One short TV news report this week seems to illustrate what takes place when unprocessed collective trauma comes together with a desire to set boundaries on the narrative of the Holocaust.
Auschwitz and the Palestinians
The BBC had commissioned Orla Guerin’s report as part of its coverage of the 75thanniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
As I watched the report broadcast on the News at Ten on Wednesday evening I knew all hell was about to break out for Guerin and the BBC.
The following morning, Board of Deputies Vice President, Amanda Bowman, made a formal complaint to the BBC for allowing Guerin to make a link from the Holocaust to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“In an otherwise moving report on the experiences of a Holocaust survivor, Orla Guerin’s attempt to link the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the horrors of the Holocaust was crass and offensive. Her lack of impartiality on the Israel-Palestine conflict has long been a matter of concern and it is questionable why the BBC would even use her for this sensitive assignment. As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, the Jewish community is within its rights to expect an apology.”
Meanwhile, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, wrote an Op Ed in his paper that surpassed even his own impressive track record for hyperbolic prose:
“I cannot recall a more foul – sickening, indeed – report by any journalist, either in print or broadcast.”
Later, the former BBC chairman Michael Grade and Danny Cohen, its former director of television, added to the criticism. Cohen was quoted by the Guardian:
“The attempt to link the horrors of the Holocaust to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply offensive and upsetting. It was unnecessary, insensitive and particularly ugly in the days before Holocaust Memorial Day. Adding insult to injury, the report uses pictures of Holocaust victims in Yad Veshem during the sequence in which this link is made. This is inexplicably and unjustifiably offensive.”
The Campaign Against Antisemitism also submitted a formal complaint from its Chief Executive Gideon Falter:
“Few could imagine perverting what is supposed to be an educational piece about the Holocaust to instead fuel the very antisemitism that such education is supposed to prevent, but that is what the BBC has done. It was utterly appalling to watch Orla Guerin hijack a segment dedicated to remembering six million murdered Jews, and instead use it as a vehicle to desecrate the memory of the Holocaust with her hatred of the Jewish state.”
The criticism Orla Guerin has received has been truly ferocious. So what did she actually say that has caused such offence?
Most of Guerin’s the report was taken up with a sensitive and compassionate interview with a Holocaust survivor, Rena Quint, filmed in Jerusalem. It ended with Rena Quint at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial/museum with footage of her looking at the exhibits. The final seconds of the film showed Israeli soldiers visiting the museum. It was over these pictures that Guerin made her concluding commentary:
“In Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names – images of the dead. Young soldiers troop in to share the binding tragedy of the Jewish people. The State of Israel is now a regional power. For decades it has occupied Palestinian Territories. But some here will always see their nation through the prism of persecution and survival.”
For the Board, Pollard and the other objectors to this news report, mentioning the Palestinians in the same breath as the Holocaust is an outrage.
The objection is that it minimises Jewish suffering, or creates an equivalence with Palestinian suffering, or suggests that Israeli persecution of Palestinians is akin to the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Or it does all three.
I would agree that there needs to be a great deal of care and sensitivity in drawing any similarities between Israel and the Holocaust. More often than not, Holocaust comparisons to Israel are used as crude sloganising designed to be provocative and deliberately hurtful to Jews while shedding little light on Palestinian suffering.
However, Orla Guerin was doing none of this in way she ended her report.
You cannot understand the creation of the State of Israel (where half the world’s Jewish population now live) nor the attitudes and outlook of its political leaders or Jewish citizens without taking account of the Holocaust and the previous 2,000 years of European Jewish history.
The Holocaust and Israel are intimately connected – emotionally, politically, theologically. They cannot be separated in any kind of analysis of Jewish experience since 1945.
And if Israel chooses to make Jerusalem the focal point of the commemorations (when previously Auschwitz itself has been) then why is it so unreasonable to link them in a news report? After all, generations of Jewish and Israel leaders have presented the creation of the State of Israel as a form of redemption for the Jewish people following the Holocaust and an act of atonement on the part of the international community which did so little to protect Jews or give them a safe haven when they could have done.
But there’s much more to justify Guerin’s commentary. And this is where the dangers of unprocessed Jewish trauma and the desire to control the narrative comes into view.
The undeniable truth is that Palestinians are part of the post Holocaust story too. Their history and current situation cannot be separated from Auschwitz any more than the Jewish story can. In fact, they have become the same story because the Palestinians paid the price for Europe’s failures and the rest of the world’s indifference.
What’s really offensive is the attempt to disconnect the relationship between these two peoples. Whether we like it or not, we are now bound together in our post Holocaust experience.
Without wanting to draw any historical equivalence of suffering, one can legitimately argue that the Palestinian people are also Hitler’s posthumous victims. All that Guerin has done is point out this relevant information.
Of course, the project of Zionism, of a settler colonial ‘return’ to the Promised Land, began decades before the Holocaust. But I strongly doubt the creation of a Jewish State in 1948 would have happened in the way it did if the Holocaust had not taken place. The international community’s relationship to Israel over the decades would have been entirely different too.
It’s not hard to understand why all those who are protesting about Guerin are so vexed by the whole affair. If the Palestinians are allowed into the Holocaust narrative, then the Jewish presentation of the creation of the State of Israel as an entirely righteous and innocent endeavour starts to break down. We can’t afford to allow the Palestinians to be anything other than obstacles and irritants to our own project of post Holocaust salvation.
And underpinning this state of mind is that perpetuation of intergenerational trauma. Trauma generates fear and fear leads to suspicion. It certainly leaves no room for empathy when it comes to the Palestinians.
This is the unbalanced, asymmetric tragedy of Israel/Palestine. It is the Holocaust continuing to wash through history.
‘Deal of the century’
In the coming days we’re likely to see a further marginalisation of the Palestinian people as President Trump finally announces the details of his grossly misnamed “deal of the century”. Benjamin Netanyahu certainly hopes it will “make history”, by which he means it will soon facilitate the annexation of the main Settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley into sovereign Israeli territory.
So the Holocaust continues to play itself out creating new generations of victims. And it’s still too soon to understand what it all means or when it will truly end.