The Shoah after Gaza

Gaza Strip occupied and bombed by Israel/ Reproduction Telegram
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By PANKAJ MISHRA*

The liquidation of Gaza, although described and transmitted by its authors, is daily overshadowed, or even denied, by the instruments of Western military and cultural hegemony

1.

In 1977, a year before he committed suicide, Austrian writer Jean Améry came across press reports about the systematic torture of Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons. Arrested in Belgium in 1943, while distributing anti-Nazi leaflets, Jean Améry was brutally tortured by the Gestapo and then deported to Auschwitz. He managed to survive, but he could never look back on his torments as things of the past. He insisted that those who are tortured remain tortured and that their trauma is irrevocable.

Like many survivors of the Nazi death camps, Jean Améry came to feel an “existential connection” to Israel in the 1960s. He obsessively attacked left-wing critics of the Jewish state as “thoughtless and unscrupulous,” and may have been one of the first to assert, now routinely amplified by Israel's leaders and supporters, that virulent anti-Semites masquerade as virtuous anti-imperialists and anti-Zionists.

However, the “admittedly incomplete” reports of torture in Israeli prisons led Jean Améry to consider the limits of his solidarity with the Jewish state. In one of the last essays he published, he wrote: “I urgently appeal to all Jews who want to be human beings to join me in radically condemning systematic torture. Where barbarity begins, even existential commitments must end.”

Jean Améry was particularly disturbed by the apotheosis, in 1977, of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister of Israel. Menachem Begin, who organized the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in which 91 people died, was the first of the most outspoken exponents of Jewish supremacism who continue to govern Israel. He was also the first to routinely invoke Hitler, the Holocaust and Bible while attacking Arabs and building colonies in the occupied territories.

In its early years, the State of Israel had an ambivalent relationship with the Shoah and its victims. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, initially dismissed Shoah survivors as “human debris,” stating that they had survived only because they had been “bad, tough, selfish.” It was Ben-Gurion's rival, Menachem Begin, a demagogue from Poland, who turned the murder of six million Jews into an intense national concern and a new basis for Israel's identity. O establishment Israeli began to produce and disseminate a very particular version of the Shoah that could be used to legitimize a militant and expansionist Zionism.

Jean Améry noted the new rhetoric and was categorical about its destructive consequences for Jews living outside Israel. The fact that Menachem Begin, “with the Torah on the arm and resorting to biblical promises”, speaking openly about the theft of Palestinian lands “in itself would be reason enough”, he wrote, “for the Jews of the diaspora to review their relationship with Israel”. Jean Améry called on Israeli leaders to “recognize that your freedom can only be achieved with your Palestinian cousin and not against him.”

Five years later, insisting that the Arabs were the new Nazis and Yasser Arafat the new Hitler, Menachem Begin attacked Lebanon. By the time Ronald Reagan accused him of perpetrating a “holocaust” and ordered him to put an end to it, the Israel Defense Forces had killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese and destroyed much of Beirut. In your romance Kapo (1993), Jewish-Serbian writer Aleksandar Tišma captures the repulsion that many Shoah survivors felt at the images arriving from Lebanon: “Jews, their relatives, children and grandchildren of their contemporaries, former concentration camp prisoners, were standing on tank turrets and driving, with flags flying, through defenseless settlements, through human flesh, tearing it apart with machine gun bullets, herding the survivors into fields surrounded by barbed wire.”

Primo Levi, who had experienced the horrors of Auschwitz at the same time as Jean Améry and who also felt an emotional affinity with the new Jewish state, quickly organized an open letter of protest and gave an interview in which he stated that “Israel is rapidly falling into total isolation… We have to stifle the impulses of emotional solidarity with Israel to coldly reason about the errors of Israel's current ruling class. Let’s get rid of this ruling class.”

In several works of fiction and nonfiction, Primo Levi meditated not only on his time in the death camp and its harrowing and unresolvable legacy, but also on the ever-present threats to human decency and dignity. He was especially angered by Menachem Begin's exploitation of the Shoah. Two years later, he argued that “the center of gravity of the Jewish world must move back, must leave Israel and return to the diaspora.”

Doubts like those expressed by Jean Améry and Primo Levi are today condemned as grossly anti-Semitic. It is worth remembering that many of these reassessments of Zionism and anxieties about the perception of Jews in the world were incited among Shoah survivors and witnesses by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and its new manipulative mythology. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a theologian who received the Israel Prize in 1993, already warned in 1969 of the “Nazification” of Israel. In 1980, Israeli columnist Boaz Evron carefully described the phases of this moral erosion: the tactic of confusing Palestinians with Nazis and shouting that another Shoah was imminent, he feared, would free ordinary Israelis from “any moral constraints, since whoever is in danger of annihilation if he finds himself exempt from any moral considerations that might restrict his efforts to save himself.” Jews, wrote Boaz Evron, could end up treating “non-Jews as subhumans” and reproducing “Nazi racist attitudes.”

Boaz Evron also urged caution regarding the (then new and fervent) supporters of Israel in the American Jewish population. For them, he argued, the defense of Israel became “necessary due to the loss of every other focal point of their Jewish identity” – indeed, their existential emptiness was so great, according to Boaz Evron, that they did not wish Israel to free itself. of its growing dependence on Jewish-American support.

They need to feel needed. They also need the “Israeli hero” as social and emotional compensation in a society in which the Jew is not normally seen as embodying the characteristics of the virile and tough fighter. Thus, the Israeli provides the American Jew with a double and contradictory image – the virile superman and the potential victim of the Holocaust – both elements of which are far from reality.

Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish-born Jewish philosopher and Nazi refugee who spent three years in Israel in the 1970s before fleeing his state of mind of bellicose righteousness, despairing at what he considered to be Israel's “privatization” of the Shoah and their supporters. The Shoah came to be remembered, he wrote in 1988, “as a private experience of the Jews, as a matter between the Jews and those who hated them,” even as the conditions that made it possible were appearing again around the world.

The survivors of the Shoah, who had descended from a serene belief in secular humanism into collective insanity, sensed that the violence they had survived – unprecedented in its magnitude – was not an aberration in an essentially sane modern civilization. Nor could it be attributed entirely to an ancient prejudice against the Jews. Technology and the rational division of labor had allowed ordinary people to contribute to acts of mass extermination with a clear conscience, even with chills of virtue, and preventive efforts against these impersonal and accessible ways of killing required more than vigilance against anti-Semitism.

2.

When I recently went back to my books to prepare this article, I discovered that I had already highlighted many of the passages I quote here. In my diary there are lines copied from George Steiner (“the nation-state full of weapons is a bitter relic, an absurdity in the century of huddled men”) and Abba Eban (“It is time we stood on our own two feet and not about those of the six million dead”). Most of these notes date back to my first visit to Israel and its occupied territories, when I sought to answer, in my innocence, two perplexing questions: how did Israel come to exercise such terrible power of life and death over a population of refugees; and how could mainstream Western politics and journalism ignore, or even justify, its clearly systematic cruelties and injustices?

I had grown up absorbing something of the reverential Zionism of my upper-caste Hindu nationalist family in India. Both Zionism and Hindu nationalism emerged in the late 1970th century from an experience of humiliation; Many of its ideologues were eager to overcome what they considered to be a shameful lack of virility among Jews and Hindus. And to the Hindu nationalists of the XNUMXs, powerless detractors of the then-dominant pro-Palestinian Congress party, uncompromising Zionists like Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, and Yitzhak Shamir seemed to have won the race to muscular nationhood. (Envy is now out of the closet: the trolls Hindus constitute Benjamin Netanyahu's largest fan club in the world).

I remember having on my wall a photograph of Moshe Dayan, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and minister of defense during the Six-Day War; and even long after my childhood passion for brute force faded, I did not stop seeing Israel the way its leaders, starting in the 1960s, began to present the country, as the redemption of the victims of the Shoah and an unshakable guarantee against their resurgence.

I knew how little the plight of the Jews, scapegoated during Germany's social and economic collapse in the 1920s and 1930s, had registered in the consciousness of Western European and American leaders, that even survivors of the Shoah were received coldly and, in Eastern Europe, with new pogroms. Although convinced of the justice of the Palestinian cause, it was difficult for me to resist the Zionist logic: Jews cannot survive in non-Jewish lands and must have a state of their own. It even seemed unfair to me that only Israel, among all the countries in the world, had to justify its right to exist.

I was not so naive as to think that suffering ennobles or empowers the victims of a great atrocity to act in a morally superior way. The lesson of organized violence in the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and many other places is that yesterday's victims can become today's attackers. I was still shocked by the dark meaning that the Israeli state took from the Shoah and then institutionalized it in a machine of repression. Targeted killings of Palestinians, checkpoints, house demolitions, land thefts, arbitrary and indefinite detentions, and widespread torture in prisons seemed to proclaim a ethos merciless national: humanity is divided between the strong and the weak, and therefore those who have been or expect to be victims must preemptively crush their supposed enemies.

Despite having already read Edward Said, I was shocked to discover for myself the insidious way in which Israel's high-profile supporters in the West conceal the nihilistic survival-of-the-fittest ideology reproduced by every Israeli regime since Begin's. It is in their own interest to worry about the crimes of the occupiers, or even the suffering of the dispossessed and dehumanized; but both have passed without much scrutiny in the respectable press of the Western world. Anyone who draws attention to the spectacle of Washington's blind commitment to Israel is accused of anti-Semitism and ignoring the lessons of the Shoah. And a distorted consciousness of the Shoah ensures that every time Israel's victims, unable to bear their misery any longer, rise up against their oppressors with predictable ferocity, they are denounced as Nazis, determined to perpetrate another Shoah.

By reading and taking note of the writings of Jean Améry, Primo Levi, and others, I was trying, in some way, to assuage the oppressive sense of wrongness I felt after being exposed to Israel's dark interpretation of the Shoah and the certificates of high moral merit conferred upon it. to the country by its Western allies. He sought to be reassured by people who had known, in their own fragile bodies, the monstrous terror inflicted on millions of people by a supposedly civilized European nation-state, and who had resolved to be perpetually on guard against the distortion of the meaning of the Shoah and the abuse of your memory.

3.

Despite its growing reservations about Israel, a political and media class in the West has incessantly euphemized the glaring facts of military occupation and uncontrolled annexation by ethnonational demagogues: Israel, says the chorus, has the right, as the only democracy in the Middle East , to defend oneself, especially from genocidal brutes. As a result, the victims of Israeli barbarity in Gaza are today unable to obtain from Western elites even a simple acknowledgment of their ordeal, let alone help.

Over the past few months, billions of people around the world have watched an extraordinary attack, the victims of which, as Blinne Ní Ghrálaigh, an Irish lawyer and South African representative at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, said, “are broadcasting their own destruction in real time in the desperate, and so far vain, hope that the world can do something.”

But the world, or more specifically the West, does nothing. Worse still, the liquidation of Gaza, although described and transmitted by its authors, is daily overshadowed, or even denied, by the instruments of Western military and cultural hegemony: from the president of the United States claiming that the Palestinians are liars and the politicians Europeans chanting that Israel has the right to defend itself, even the prestigious news organizations that use the passive voice when reporting the massacres perpetrated in Gaza.

We find ourselves in an unprecedented situation. Never before have so many witnessed an industrial-scale massacre in real time. Yet the prevailing indifference, timidity, and censure disallow, or even ridicule, our shock and pain. Many of us who have seen some of the images and videos coming out of Gaza – those hellish visions of corpses twisted against each other and buried in mass graves, the smaller corpses held by grieving parents, or lying on the ground in orderly lines – have silently going crazy these past few months. Each day is poisoned by the knowledge that, as we live our lives, hundreds of ordinary people like us are being murdered or forced to witness the murder of their children.

Those who look to Joe Biden's face for some sign of mercy, some sign of an end to the bloodshed, find an eerily soft hardness, broken only by a nervous little smile as he tells Israeli lies about decapitated babies. Joe Biden's obstinate malice and cruelty toward the Palestinians is just one of the many macabre conundrums presented to us by Western politicians and journalists.

The Shoah traumatized at least two generations of Jews, and the massacres and hostage-taking in Israel on October 7 by Hamas and other Palestinian groups reignited fear of collective extermination among many Jews. But it was clear from the start that the most fanatical Israeli leadership in history would not hesitate to exploit a widespread sense of violation, grief and horror. It would have been easy for Western leaders to stifle their impulse for unconditional solidarity with an extremist regime, while simultaneously recognizing the need to pursue and bring to justice those guilty of the October 7 war crimes.

Why, then, did Keir Starmer, a former human rights lawyer, assert that Israel has the right to “withhold energy and water” from the Palestinians? Why did Germany feverishly begin to feverishly sell more weapons to Israel (and, with its dishonest media and its relentless official repression, especially against Jewish artists and thinkers, give a new lesson to the world about the rapid rise of murderous ethnonationalism in that country)? Which explains headlines in with the BBC and New York Times such as “Hind Rajab, aged six, found dead in Gaza days after calling for help”, “Tears of a father from Gaza who lost 103 family members” and “Man dies after setting himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, say the police”? Why do Western politicians and journalists continue to present tens of thousands of dead and mutilated Palestinians as collateral damage, in a war of self-defense imposed on the world's most moral army, as the Israel Defense Forces claim to be?

For many people around the world, the answers can only be tainted by long-simmering racial bitterness. Palestine, as George Orwell pointed out in 1945, is a “color question,” and this is how it was inevitably viewed by Gandhi, who implored Zionist leaders not to resort to terrorism against the Arabs using Western weapons, and by post-Arab nations. colonials, who, practically all, refused to recognize the State of Israel. What WEB Du Bois called the central problem of international politics – the “color line” – motivated Nelson Mandela when he asserted that the liberation of South Africa from apartheid it is “incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.

James Baldwin sought to profane what he called a “pious silence” surrounding Israel's behavior by asserting that the Jewish state, which sold weapons to the Israeli regime, apartheid in South Africa, it embodied white supremacy rather than democracy. Muhammad Ali saw Palestine as an example of great racial injustice. The same happens today with the leaders of the oldest and most prominent black Christian denominations in the United States, who accused Israel of genocide and called on Joe Biden to end all financial and military aid to the country.

In 1967, James Baldwin was impolite enough to say that the suffering of the Jewish people “is recognized as part of the moral history of the world” and “this is not true of black people.” In 2024, many more people may see that, compared to the Jewish victims of Nazism, the countless millions of people consumed by slavery, the numerous holocausts of late Victorian Asia and Africa, and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are little remembered.

In recent years, billions of non-Westerners have been furiously politicized by the West’s calamitous war on terror by “apartheid of vaccines” during the pandemic and the blatant hypocrisy regarding the suffering of Ukrainians and Palestinians; cannot help but notice a belligerent version of “Holocaust denial” among the elites of former imperialist countries, who refuse to address their countries’ past brutality and genocidal plunder and strive to delegitimize any discussion of the subject as “militancy.” ” wild. Popular “West is better” narratives of totalitarianism continue to ignore accurate descriptions of Nazism (made by Jawaharlal Nehru and Aimé Césaire, among other imperialist subjects) as the radical “twin” of Western imperialism; they avoid exploring the obvious link between the imperialist massacres of natives in the colonies and the genocidal terror perpetrated against Jews in Europe.

One of the great current dangers is the hardening of the color line as a new Maginot Line. For most people outside the West, whose primary experience of European civilization was that of being brutally colonized by its representatives, the Shoah did not appear as an unprecedented atrocity. Reeling from the devastation of imperialism in their own countries, most non-Western people were not in a position to appreciate the magnitude of the horror that this imperialism's radical twin inflicted on the Jews in Europe. So when Israeli leaders compare Hamas to the Nazis and Israeli diplomats wear yellow stars at the UN, their audience is almost exclusively Western.

Most of the world does not bear the burden of European Christian guilt over the Shoah and does not regard the creation of Israel as a moral necessity to absolve the sins of 13th century Europeans. For more than seven decades, the argument of “black people” has remained the same: why should Palestinians be dispossessed and punished for crimes in which only Europeans were complicit? And they can only recoil with disgust at the implicit assertion that Israel has the right to massacre XNUMX children, not just for the sake of self-defense, but because it is a state born of the Shoah.

In 2006, Tony Judt already warned that “the Holocaust can no longer be used to excuse Israel's behavior”, because a growing number of people “simply cannot understand how the horrors of the last European war can be invoked to authorize or tolerate a unacceptable behavior in another time and place.” The “mania of persecution long cultivated by Israel – 'everyone wants to capture us' – no longer arouses sympathy”, he warned, and the prophecies of universal anti-Semitism run the risk of “becoming a self-fulfilling statement”: “The behavior Israel's recklessness and insistent identification of all criticism with anti-Semitism are now the main source of anti-Jewish sentiments in Western Europe and much of Asia.”

Israel's most devout friends are inflaming this situation today. As Israeli journalist and documentary filmmaker Yuval Abraham said, the “terrible misuse” of the charge of anti-Semitism by the Germans empties it of meaning and “thus endangers Jews around the world.” Joe Biden continues to make the insidious argument that the security of the world's Jewish population depends on Israel. As the columnist for The New York Times, Ezra Klein, recently said, “I'm Jewish. Do I feel safer? Do I feel like there's less anti-Semitism in the world right now because of what's going on there, or does it seem to me that there's a huge rise in anti-Semitism, and that even Jews in places other than Israel are vulnerable to what happens in Israel?

This ruinous scenario was very clearly anticipated by the Shoah survivors I mentioned earlier, who warned of the damage inflicted on the memory of the Shoah by its instrumentalization. Zygmunt Bauman repeatedly warned after the 1980s that such tactics by unscrupulous politicians like Menachem Begin and Benjamin Netanyahu were ensuring “a triumph post-mortem to Hitler, who dreamed of creating a conflict between the Jews and the entire world” and “preventing Jews from having a peaceful coexistence with others one day.” Jean Améry, despairing in his final years over “growing anti-Semitism,” appealed to Israelis to treat even Palestinian terrorists humanely, so that solidarity between diaspora Zionists like himself and Israel would not “become the basis of a common of two parties condemned in the face of the catastrophe”.

In this regard, there is not much to expect from Israel's current leaders. The discovery of their extreme vulnerability vis-à-vis Hezbollah, as well as Hamas, should make them more willing to risk committing to a peace agreement. Yet with all the nearly one-ton bombs that Joe Biden has provided them, they madly seek to further militarize the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This self-flagellation is the long-term effect that Boaz Evron feared when he warned against “the continued mention of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews in all generations.” “A leadership cannot be separated from its own propaganda,” he wrote, and Israel’s ruling class acts like the heads of a “sect” that operates “in the world of myths and monsters created by its own hands,” “no longer being able to understand what is happening in the real world” or the “historical processes in which the State is involved”.

Forty-four years after Boaz Evron wrote this, it is clearer, too, that Israel's Western patrons have revealed themselves to be the country's worst enemies, driving their protégé further and further into hallucination. As Boaz Evron said, Western powers act against their “own interests and apply a special preferential relationship to Israel, without Israel being obliged to reciprocate”. Consequently, “the special treatment given to Israel, expressed in unconditional economic and political support”, “created an economic and political dome around Israel, isolating it from global economic and political realities”.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his followers threaten the basis of the global order that was rebuilt after the revelation of Nazi crimes. Even before Gaza, the Shoah was losing its central place in our imagination of the past and future. It is true that no historical atrocity has been commemorated so widely and comprehensively. But the culture of remembrance surrounding the Shoah has already accumulated its own long history. This story shows that the memory of the Shoah not only arose organically from what happened between 1939 and 1945; it was constructed, often very deliberately, and with specific political objectives. Indeed, a necessary consensus on the universal importance of the Shoah has been endangered by the increasingly visible ideological pressures exerted on its memory.

The fact that the German Nazi regime and its European collaborators murdered six million Jews was widely known after 1945. But for many years, this haunting fact had little political and intellectual resonance. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Shoah was not seen as an atrocity separate from the other atrocities of the war: the attempted extermination of Slavic, gypsy, disabled and homosexual populations. Of course, most European peoples had their own reasons for not dwelling on the slaughter of Jews. The Germans were obsessed with their own trauma of bombing and occupation by the Allied powers and their mass expulsion from Eastern Europe.

France, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands, who had collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazis, wanted to present themselves as part of a valiant “resistance” to Hitlerism. Too many indecent memories of complicity remained long after the war ended in 1945. Germany had a former Nazi as chancellor and president. French President François Mitterrand had been a apparatchik under the Vichy regime. In 1992, Kurt Waldheim was president of Austria, despite there being evidence of his involvement in the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Even in the United States, there was “public silence and a kind of state denial regarding the Holocaust”, as Idith Zertal writes in Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (2005). It was only long after 1945 that the Holocaust began to be remembered publicly. In Israel, awareness of the Shoah was for years limited to its survivors, who, as it is astonishing to remember now, were despised by the leaders of the Zionist movement.

Ben-Gurion had initially seen Hitler's rise to power as "an enormous political and economic boost for the Zionist enterprise", but did not consider the human detritus from Hitler's death camps to be suitable material for building a strong new state. Jewish. “All that they endured,” said Ben-Gurion, “purged their souls of all good.” Saul Friedlander, the foremost historian of the Shoah, who left Israel in part because he could not bear to see the Shoah being used “as a pretext for harsh anti-Palestinian measures,” recalls in his memoir, Where Memory Leads (2016), that scholars initially dismissed the matter, leaving it to the Yad Vashem documentation and memory center.

Attitudes only began to change with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. In The Seventh Million (1993), Israeli historian Tom Segev reports that Ben-Gurion, accused by Menachem Begin and other political rivals of insensitivity toward Shoah survivors, decided to stage a “national catharsis” through the trial of a Nazi war criminal. He hoped to educate Jews in Arab countries about the Shoah and European anti-Semitism (neither of which they were familiar with) and to begin to unite them with Jews of European descent in what seemed, very clearly, to be an imperfectly imagined community. Tom Segev goes on to describe how Menachem Begin advanced this process of forging an awareness of the Shoah among darker-skinned Jews who had long been targets of racist humiliation by the establishment white country. Menachem Begin healed their class and racial wounds by promising them stolen Palestinian land and a higher socioeconomic status than the dispossessed and destitute Arabs.

This distribution of Israeli wages coincided with the eruption of identity politics among an affluent minority in the US. As Peter Novick explains, in astonishing detail, in The Holocaust in American Life (1999), the Shoah “wasn’t that present” in the lives of American Jews until the end of the 1960s. Only a few books and films addressed the subject. The film Trial at Nuremberg (1961) included the mass murder of Jews in the broader category of Nazi crimes. In his essay “The Intellectual and Jewish Fate”, published in the Jewish magazine Commentary In 1957, Norman Podhoretz, the patron saint of neoconservative Zionists in the 1980s, said absolutely nothing about the Holocaust.

Jewish organizations, which became famous for policing opinion about Zionism, began by discouraging the remembering of Europe's Jewish victims. They struggled to learn the new rules of the geopolitical game. In the chameleon-like changes of the early Cold War, the Soviet Union went from being a stalwart ally against Nazi Germany to a totalitarian evil; Germany stopped being a totalitarian evil to become a robust and democratic ally against totalitarian evil. Therefore, the editor of Commentary it urged American Jews to maintain a “realistic rather than punitive and recriminatory attitude” toward Germany, which was now a pillar of “Western democratic civilization.”

This extensive psychological abuse by the political and intellectual leaders of the free world has shocked and embittered many Shoah survivors. However, at that time, they were not considered privileged witnesses of the modern world. Jean Améry, who detested the “improachful philosemitism” of postwar Germany, found himself reduced to amplifying his private “resentments” in essays designed to disturb the “wretched conscience” of German readers. In one of these essays, he describes a trip through Germany in the mid-1960s.

As he discussed Saul Bellow's latest novel with the country's new “refined” intellectuals, he could not forget the “stone faces” of ordinary Germans standing in front of a pile of corpses, discovering that he had a new “grudge” toward the Germans and their place. exalted in the “majestic halls of the West”. Jean Améry’s experience of “absolute loneliness” in the face of his Gestapo torturers had destroyed his “trust in the world.” It was only after his release that he regained “mutual understanding” with the rest of humanity, as “those who had tortured me and turned me into an insect” seemed to provoke “contempt”. But his healing faith in the “balance of world morality” was quickly destroyed by the subsequent Western embrace of Germany and by its eager recruitment of ex-Nazis across the free world into its new “power game.”

Jean Améry would have felt even more betrayed if he had seen the American Jewish Committee staff memo in 1951, which lamented the fact that, “for most Jews, reasoning about Germany and Germans is still wrapped in strong emotion.” . Novick explains that American Jews, like other ethnic groups, were eager to avoid the charge of dual loyalty and to take advantage of the dramatically expanding opportunities offered by postwar America. They became more attentive to Israel's presence during the widely publicized and controversial Eichmann trial, which made it inescapable that Jews were Hitler's main targets and victims.

But it was only after the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel seemed existentially threatened by its Arab enemies, that the Shoah came to be widely conceived, both in Israel and in the United States, as the emblem of Jewish vulnerability in an eternally hostile world. Jewish organizations began using the slogan “Never Again” to lobby for American policies favorable to Israel. The US, facing a humiliating defeat in East Asia, began to see a seemingly invincible Israel as a valuable proxy in the Middle East and began its generous subvention of the Jewish state. In turn, the narrative, promoted by Israeli leaders and American Zionist groups, that the Shoah was a present and imminent danger to Jews began to serve as the basis for the collective self-definition of many American Jews in the 1970s.

American Jews were, at this time, the most educated and prosperous minority group in America, and they were increasingly irreligious. However, in the rancorously polarized American society of the late 1960s and 1970s, when ethnic and racial hijacking became common amid a widespread sense of disorder and insecurity, and historical calamity became an emblem of identity and moral righteousness , more and more assimilated Jewish Americans joined the memory of the Shoah and forged a personal connection with an Israel they saw as threatened by genocidal anti-Semites.

A Jewish political tradition concerned with inequality, poverty, civil rights, environmentalism, nuclear disarmament and anti-imperialism has transformed into a tradition characterized by hyper-attention to the Middle East's only democracy. In records he kept from the 1960s, literary critic Alfred Kazin alternates between bewilderment and contempt as he traces the psychodramas of personal identity that helped create Israel's most loyal circle of supporters abroad:

The current period of Jewish “success” will one day be remembered as one of the greatest ironies… The Jews caught in a trap, the Jews murdered, but what is this! From the ashes, all this inevitable mourning and exploitation of the Holocaust… Israel as the “safeguard” of the Jews; the Holocaust as our new Bible, more than a Book of Lamentations.

Alfred Kazin was allergic to the American cult of Elie Wiesel, who went around claiming that the Shoah was incomprehensible, incomparable and unrepresentable, and that Palestinians had no right to Jerusalem. In Alfred Kazin's opinion, “the American Jewish middle class” had found in Elie Wiesel a “Jesus of the Holocaust,” “a substitute for its own religious vacancy.” The potent identity politics of an American minority did not go unnoticed by Primo Levi during his only visit to the country, in 1985, two years before he committed suicide. He had been deeply disturbed by the culture of conspicuous Holocaust consumption surrounding Elie Wiesel (who claimed to have been Primo Levi's great friend at Auschwitz; Primo Levi had no memory of ever meeting him) and was perplexed by the obsession voyeuristic of their American hosts for their Judaism.

Writing to friends in Turin, he complained that the Americans had “put a Star of David” on him. At a conference in Brooklyn, Primo Levi, when asked for his opinion on Middle East politics, began by saying that “Israel was a mistake in historical terms.” An uproar ensued and the moderator had to interrupt the meeting. Later that same year, the Commentary, who was already loudly pro-Israel, tasked a 24-year-old neoconservative wannabe with launching venomous attacks on Primo Levi. According to Primo Levi himself, this intellectual aggression (bitterly regretted by its author, now an anti-Zionist) helped to extinguish his “will to live”.

Recent American literature manifests more clearly the paradox that the more remote the Shoah became in time, the more fiercely its memory was possessed by later generations of American Jews. I was shocked by the irreverence with which Isaac Bashevis Singer, born in 1904 in Poland and in many ways the quintessential Jewish writer of the XNUMXth century, portrayed Shoah survivors in his fiction and ridiculed both the State of Israel and avid philosemitism. of American Gentiles.

A romance like Shadows on the Hudson it almost seems designed to prove that oppression does not improve moral character. But Jewish writers much younger and more secularized than Singer seemed too submerged in what Gillian Rose, in her scathing essay on Schindler's List, called “Holocaust pity.” In London Review of Books review of The history of love (2005), a novel by Nicole Krauss set in Israel, Europe and the United States, James Wood highlighted that the author, born in 1974, “proceeds as if the Holocaust had happened yesterday”. The Judaism of the novel was, wrote James Wood, “deformed into fraudulence and histriony by the force of Krauss’s identification with it.” This “Jewish fervor”, which bordered on “minstrelsy”, contrasted sharply with the work of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, who “had not shown much interest in the shadow of the Shoah”.

A stubborn affiliation with the Shoah has also marked and diminished much American journalism about Israel. More consequentially, the secular-political religion of the Shoah and excessive identification with Israel since the 1970s have fatally distorted the foreign policy of Israel's main sponsor, the US. In 1982, shortly before Reagan bluntly ordered Begin to end his “holocaust” in Lebanon, a young American senator who revered Elie Wiesel as his great teacher met with the Israeli prime minister. In Menachem Begin's own stunned account of the meeting, the senator praised the Israeli war effort and boasted that he would have gone further, even if it meant killing women and children. Menachem Begin himself was taken by surprise by the words of future US President Joe Biden. “No, sir,” he insisted. “According to our values, it is forbidden to harm women and children, even in war… This is a criterion of human civilization, not to harm civilians.”

A long period of relative peace has made most of us oblivious to the calamities that preceded it. Only a few people alive today can remember the experience of total war that defined the first half of the 20th century, the imperialist and national struggles within and outside Europe, the ideological mobilization of masses, the eruptions of fascism and militarism. Nearly half a century of the most brutal conflicts and greatest moral ruptures in history exposed the dangers of a world where there was no religious or ethical constraint on what human beings could do or dared to do. Secular reason and modern science, which have displaced and replaced traditional religion, have not only revealed their inability to legislate human conduct; they were implicated in the new and efficient modes of massacre demonstrated by Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

In the decades of reconstruction after 1945, it slowly became possible to return to belief in the concept of modern society, in its institutions as an unequivocally civilizing force, in its laws as a defense against vicious passions. This provisional belief was enshrined and affirmed by a negative secular theology derived from the exposure of Nazi crimes: Never Again. The post-war categorical imperative itself gradually acquired institutional form with the creation of organizations such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court and human rights watchdog groups such as Amnesty International or the Human Rights Watch.

One of the main documents of the post-war years, the preamble to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is permeated with the fear of repeating the past of Europe's racial apocalypse. In recent decades, as the utopian imagination of a better socioeconomic order faded, the ideal of human rights gained even more authority from memories of the great evil committed during the Shoah.

From the Spaniards who fight for restorative justice after long years of brutal dictatorships, through the Latin Americans who move in the name of their disappeared and the Bosnians who call for protection against the Serbs responsible for ethnic cleansing, to the Korean request for reparation for “comfort women” enslaved by the Japanese during World War II, memories of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis are the foundation upon which most descriptions of extreme ideology and atrocity and most calls for recognition have been built. and repair.

These memories helped define the notions of responsibility, collective guilt and crimes against humanity. It is true that they have suffered continuous abuse by exponents of military humanitarianism, who reduce human rights to the right not to be brutally murdered. And cynicism grows faster when the stereotypical ways of remembering the Shoah – solemn trips to Auschwitz, followed by effusive camaraderie with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem – become the cheap ticket price to respectability for anti-Semitic politicians, Islamophobic and Elon Musk agitators. Or when Benjamin Netanyahu grants moral absolution in exchange for support for openly anti-Semitic Eastern European politicians who continually seek to rehabilitate fervent local executioners of Jews during the Shoah.

However, in the absence of something more effective, the Shoah remains indispensable as a standard for evaluating the political and moral health of societies; his memory, although prone to abuse, can still be used to reveal more insidious iniquities. When I look at my own writings about Hitler's anti-Muslim admirers and their malign influence on India today, I am struck by how often I have cited the Jewish experience of prejudice to warn against the barbarity that becomes possible when certain taboos are broken.

All these universalist points of reference – the Shoah as the measure of all crimes, anti-Semitism as the most lethal form of intolerance – are in danger of disappearing as the Israeli army massacres and starves Palestinians, razes their homes, schools , hospitals, mosques, churches, bombs them in ever smaller camps, while at the same time denouncing as anti-Semites or defenders of Hamas all those who ask it to give up, from the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the Spanish, Irish, Brazilian and South African governments and the Vatican.

Israel is today dynamiting the edifice of global norms built after 1945, which has been tottering since the catastrophic and still unpunished war on terrorism and Vladimir Putin's revanchist war in Ukraine. The profound rupture we feel today between the past and the present is a rupture in the moral history of the world since ground zero in 1945 – the history in which the Shoah was for many years the central event and the universal reference.

There are more earthquakes ahead. Israeli politicians decided to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. According to a recent poll, the absolute majority (88%) of Israeli Jews consider the number of Palestinian victims to be justifiable. The Israeli government is blocking humanitarian aid to Gaza. Joe Biden now admits that his Israeli dependents are guilty of “indiscriminate bombings”, but compulsively distributes more and more military equipment to them. On February 20, the US disregarded for the third time at the UN the desperate desire of the majority of the world to put an end to the bloodshed in Gaza.

On February 26, while eating ice cream, Joe Biden floated his own fantasy, quickly shot down by both Israel and Hamas, of a temporary ceasefire. In the UK, both Labor and Conservative politicians are looking for verbal formulas that can appease public opinion and, at the same time, provide moral cover for the carnage in Gaza. It doesn't sound credible, but the evidence has become overwhelming: we are witnessing a kind of collapse of the free world.

At the same time, Gaza has become for countless powerless people the essential condition of political and ethical consciousness in the 21st century – just as the First World War was for a generation in the West. And, increasingly, it seems that only those who have been shaken by the consciousness of Gaza's calamity can rescue the Shoah of Netanyahu, Biden, Scholz and Sunak and reunite its moral significance; Only they can be considered capable of restoring what Jean Améry called the balance of world morality. Many of the protesters who fill the streets of their cities, week after week, have no immediate connection with the European past of the Shoah.

They judge Israel by its actions in Gaza and not by its demand for total and permanent security, sanctified by the Shoah. Whether they know the Shoah or not, they reject the crude social-Darwinist lesson that Israel draws from it – the survival of one group of people at the expense of another. They are motivated by the simple desire to defend the ideals that seemed so universally desirable after 1945: respect for freedom, tolerance towards differences in beliefs and ways of life; solidarity with human suffering; and a sense of moral responsibility towards the weak and persecuted. These men and women know that if there is any lesson to be learned from the Shoah, it is “Never again for anyone”: the slogan of the courageous young activists of the Jewish Voice for Peace.

It is possible that they will lose. Perhaps Israel, with its survivalist psychosis, is not the “bitter relic” that George Steiner called it – on the contrary, it is the omen of the future of a bankrupt and exhausted world. The outright support for Israel by far-right figures like Argentina's Javier Milei and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and its patronage by countries where white nationalists have infected political life – the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy – suggests that the world of individual rights, open borders and international law is going backwards. It is possible that Israel will be able to carry out ethnic cleansing in Gaza, and even in the West Bank. There is too much evidence that the arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice; powerful men can make their massacres seem necessary and right. It is not at all difficult to imagine a triumphant conclusion to the Israeli offensive.

The fear of a catastrophic defeat weighs on the minds of protesters who interrupt Joe Biden's campaign speeches and are expelled from his presence to the sound of a chorus of “four more years”. Disbelief at what they see every day in videos from Gaza and the fear of even more rampant brutality haunt online dissidents who daily scratch the pillars of the Western fourth power due to their intimacy with raw power. By accusing Israel of genocide, they seem to deliberately violate the “moderate” and “sensible” opinion that places the country, as well as the Shoah, outside the modern history of racist expansionism. And they probably won't persuade anyone of the prevailing hardened Western politics.

But Jean Améry himself, when he directed his resentments at the miserable conscience of his time, “did not speak in any way with the intention of convincing; I just blindly throw my word into the scales, whatever its weight.” Feeling betrayed and abandoned by the free world, he exposed his resentments “so that the crime becomes a moral reality for the criminal, so that he is drawn into the truth of his atrocity.” Israel's clamorous accusers today seem to aim for little more than that.

Against acts of savagery and propaganda by omission and obfuscation, several millions now proclaim, in public spaces and on digital media, their furious resentments. In this process, they risk permanently worsening their lives. But perhaps their indignation alone will alleviate, for now, the Palestinian feeling of absolute loneliness and contribute, in some way, to redeeming the memory of the Shoah.

*Pankaj Mishra He is an essayist and novelist. Author, among other books, of The Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published on the website of London Review of Books.


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