In university, I took a class called “Theatre of the Holocaust.” At the outset, I was shocked to learn of the wealth of comedic theatre that emerged during the trauma of the Holocaust. Here they were – millions of Jews being marched off to burn in the ovens – and yet there were those who had the time and gumption to sit down and pen jokes about Hitler and the genocidal destruction taking place around them.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn of this canon. Poking fun at the Jewish condition is, of course, the quintessential Jewish way. Using humor and theatre as a coping mechanism has produced some spectacularly deep, darkly biting commentary on what it meant to be Jewish in the midst of the Holocaust.
You can read recent research on this topic here: Laughing Together: Comedic Theatre as a Mechanism of Survival during the Holocaust.
There is a curious juxtaposition in how Jews of 1940s Europe were able to talk about the Holocaust (as it was happening, no less), and how Jews today speak of it. Earlier this week, I wrote about the bizarre and distasteful comparison that Richard Friedman – a Jewish Federation Director in Birmingham, Alabama – made between the Canadian Prime Minster, and the Holocaust-era King of Denmark. King Christian X had saved thousands of Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis, and apparently this merited a comparison to Stephen Harper Harper’s adamant pro-Israel attitude.
This naive, surface-level comparison completely missed the reality of Canada’s diminutive role in Middle East diplomacy. Moreover, it abused the memory of the Holocaust to advance a particular political goal, namely the quashing of those who speak critically of Israel. It also promulgated a view of what it means to be Jewish in 2014 that is starkly backwards-looking and thoroughly uninspiring.
Simultaneously, and serendipitously, Joseph Rosen has published an article in The Walrus on the nature of the discourse on Israel among Canadian Jews. In “The Israel Taboo,” he draws specific attention to the prominent role that the Holocaust still plays in influencing Canadian Jews’ opinions on Zionism and Israeli political policies.
Rosen observes how Canada received the third-largest group of survivors after the close of the Second World War, causing the Holocaust to remain a strong touchstone and cultural reference point to this day. Into this milieu is injected the discourse on Israel. Rosen labels it a “taboo,” precisely because many conversations about Israel among Canadian Jews hinge upon an assumption that there is still rampant antisemitism prevalent in the world, of which Israel is the prime target.
Jacqueline Celemencki of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre notes that “as in many victimized groups concerned with survival… unity and solidarity within the community are valued more than debate and dissent.” Because of this, Jews in Canada tend to be more conservative in their Zionism and shy away from public criticism of Israel. This is true not only in Canada, but elsewhere in the Jewish world, where the specter of the Holocaust still hangs over the heads of Jews.
Through this Holocaust-oriented schema, debates on and critique of Israel or her political and military policies – no matter how constructive or well-intentioned – are often viewed at best as detrimental to community cohesion, and at worst as suspect of antisemitic motives. With the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, it’s not a far leap to paint anyone who is remotely critical of Israel in the darkest way possible: as a Nazi, the most insidious character we have access to.
The implications of using the memory of the Holocaust as a tool in this way are considerable. Rosen argues that such invocations enter into the realm of “absurdity,” and as I noted earlier this week, doing so is a blatant abuse that dishonors the memory of the Holocaust as a singular, catastrophic event without compare.
Perhaps even more dangerously, errant accusations of antisemitism – especially vis a vis the discourse on Israel – detract from an appreciation of the true nature of antisemitism today. If you believe that the world is always teetering on the edge of a new Holocaust, that Nazis lurk around every corner, and that there are figures worthy of being compared to Hitler, this will have huge implications on how you relate to Judaism and Israel. Rosen argues that:
When you are raised to think your people always have been and always will be persecuted, it becomes hard to know if there is actual, immediate danger… historical violence haunts you so much that you can’t tell if a threat has actually reappeared or whether it is only an apparition.”
We need to look no further than the response to Rosen’s article by Honest Reporting, who in their supposed mission to promote fairness in the media, have the temerity to accuse Rosen himself of “bringing up anti-Semitic canards.” The ludicrous nature of this accusation merits little attention, other than to state the obvious: that it is proof positive of the lengths that some will go to in their mission to quell any critical thought when it comes to the way we speak about Israel, the Holocaust, and antisemitism.
Certainly, there is real antisemitism in the world, and it needs to be combatted forcefully. But when you advance a worldview such as Richard Friedman does in his Harper-King Christian paradigm, or Honest Reporting does in their response to Rosen’s article, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize real antisemitism and address it with the attention it deserves. In the view that says “everyone who speaks negatively about Israel is a Nazi,” the fear of antisemitism can never be overcome, and as Rosen concludes, any possibility for real dialogue on Israel is shut down.
In the good tradition of our dark humor that itself remained alive throughout Auschwitz, Rosen is quick to remind us of the following:
Today, almost twenty years after Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, comparisons with Nazi Germany have become cynical clichés… Given the number of so-called Nazis out there, you would think Germany had won the damn war.”
Germany did not win the war, and we should not delude ourselves to think otherwise. There exists a modern, vibrant, existentially safe State of Israel and thriving Diaspora communities around the globe. Israel – even with all of her complexities, challenges, struggles, and great room for growth – ultimately remains an exciting and positive example how Jewish life manifests itself in the 21st century. Any attempts to suggest otherwise – using allusions to Hitler and Nazis, or allegations of a future Holocaust – to silence those who wish to engage in nuanced discourse on said challenges is quite simply meshugah.