Alexandria Fanjoy Silver


“People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”

This is the first line from Chapter 1 of Dara Horn’s aptly named book, People Love Dead Jews, which traces stories of contemporary Jews, including one that prompted this title. In 2018, at the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, arguably the house of the most famous dead Jew in history, a Jewish staff member was asked to wear his kippah under a baseball cap, as the Museum felt it would interfere with its political neutrality. According to Horn, it took four months to decide whether or not the Jewish staff member should be forced to hide his Jewish identity. At the Anne Frank house. This inability to reconcile Jewish trauma of the past with lived trauma of the present continues today. This weekend, the team behind the Holocaust film Zone of Interest, upon their winning, said that they “stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which led to conflict for so many innocent people.” My jaw hit the floor as people clapped. Among many other issues, it’s problematic to accuse one country of weaponizing a history when you choose to weaponize it yourself. It is also problematic to entertain others with the stories of Jewish dead, and immerse yourself in the nuance and difficulty of the Nazi period, but to be unable to hold the even more complex needs of the Jewish living.

First of all, let’s parse his statement and the implications of it. I wasn’t aware that anyone in the government was specifically referring to the Holocaust when it legitimized Israel’s attack on Gaza — usually the validation of the war is the October 7th pogrom, the 134 hostages that remain in captivity, and the 17 years of attacks from Hamas. Is he referring to the occupation of Gaza? Which hasn’t been occupied by Israel in 17 years? Is he referring to the occupation of the West Bank, which while certainly damaging to Israel on the world stage, is not directly related to the actions of Hamas in Gaza? Or, perhaps most troublingly, is he referring to Israel as an occupying force in all of “Palestine”? That the Holocaust is used to justify the existence of the State of Israel? What occupation is it, exactly, that he is saying is the root cause of all violence in the region, including the violence against the Jews?

The great irony of this speech was twofold: one, that the concept of ‘refuting his Jewishness’ is problematic when discussing the Holocaust, because the Jews’ inability to do so was literally the whole point. Secondly is how little he seems to have learned from the Nazi rhetoric on the Jews, even continuing to infer one of the most common antisemitic tropes: that Jews themselves are the makers of their own misfortune. But it also demonstrates the way in which the Holocaust continues to be weaponized by people around the world to rip out the underpinning of the legitimacy of the State of Israel and its defensible actions.

A new form of antisemitism has sprung up around the world, rooted in the Holocaust itself — that Jews have a certain amount of perceived inviolability as a result of this past, and that past must therefore be delegitimized. Or even that Jews use the history of the Holocaust to justify suffering of others. This is something I have spilled a lot of ink and my own anxiety over. And while it is mostly non-Jews who hold this belief, what was perhaps most remarkable to many about last night is how it came from someone who is Jewish himself. When he speaks, he is speaking as a Jewish man who is saying that because one has been dehumanized in the past, you cannot perpetuate dehumanization in the present. That’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. But the manner in which he chose to make this statement made it very problematic. First of all, in phrasing his refuting of his “Jewishness” as part of his political take, he is tarnishing the memory of the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust entirely on the basis of their “Jewishness.” Further, he’s contributing to a fetishization in the media about promoting the stories of Jews who do not approve of the current war, which are small in number, but outsized in their representation in the news. Secondly, his speech underpins a belief that many have around the world, that Israel is the sole responsible party in the propagation of this conflict. And how interesting that even Jewish men who enriched themselves off the back of a story of the greatest antisemitic event in history can participate in a level of internalized antisemitism on the world stage. Perhaps, as a Jew, he only feels that he can speak for the Jewish community, but to criticize the nebulous and ill-defined “occupation” as the root cause of all of the violence, inclusive of October 7th, he seems to propagate the absurd notion that Israel alone is responsible for the Palestinian tragedy and the nationalistic conflict between the two today.

What a simple statement, with incredibly complex implications. Say nothing of the fact that the West Bank and Gaza were originally captured by Jordan and Egypt, and that it’s not actually the Israelis who chose to a) not declare an Arab state or b) summarily take it from them. That when Israel initially took these territories under threat of a renewed Holocaust by their Arab neighbors (literally, that’s what they were bragging about doing on the radio) in 1967, they initially tried to trade these lands for peace deals. That when peace happened, Egypt most determinedly did not want Gaza back. That Gaza hasn’t actually been occupied since 2005. That the blockade on Gaza has two partners: Egypt and Israel. That there have been a history of peace offers for the declaration of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza over the years, all of which were rejected by Palestinian leaders. That Hamas has rejected many temporary ceasefire offers during this war, including one that would have offered four full months of peace in exchange for every hostage. That any historical conflict takes two to tango, so to speak; but no, complexity and the many actions of a great many groups are too difficult to understand. Better to blame the State of Israel only, to understand the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict entirely through the lens of Israel manipulating the Holocaust to justify the actions (or is it existence?) of the state. Through this lens, the entirety of the modern Arab-Israeli conflict can be boiled down to Jewish presence in their historic homeland. That the Jews themselves have created a situation in which they were massacred. In other words, they had it coming. Or, in the words of Hitler in that same July speech, the world is “simply paying this people back what it deserves.”

What is of course, also interesting, is the way in which Israel is apparently not allowed to use the Holocaust to justify a political action or belief despite the fact that it is often used against them. In 1967, Egyptian and Jordanian radio stations rang with promises to “finish what Hitler had started.” In propaganda around the world that equates Jews with Nazis. In continued Holocaust denial, people who believe that the Jews have enriched or empowered themselves on the back of a fake or exaggerated history. In Hamas, a group who literally promises Jewish genocide in its founding documents, being accepted as legitimate actors in Palestinian “resistance.” In an ICJ case accusing Israel of genocide, when actual genocidal events are ignored. That Israel cannot point to 6 million being murdered in the gas chambers 80 years ago as a reason why they are unwilling to tolerate people decrying its very existence or inhibiting its right to defend itself without accusations of crocodile tears. 

In the months before the Oscars, Jewish artists spoke out against how Jews were left out of the event’s diversity and inclusion efforts. One of their concerns was that Jews in Hollywood are often only represented in Holocaust films. The reality of Jews living today, with antisemitism particularly running rampant, is often ignored or obfuscated. This year’s Oscars, from the red pins to the Glazer speech, made those points for them, although I doubt anyone in the Academy would take a lesson from it. It is easier, perhaps, to understand a Jew that doesn’t fight back. Or a Jew who “refutes his Jewishness” and frees others from understanding all of the complications of Jewish life under threat. It is much harder, apparently, to understand a people who stubbornly refuse to just die already. A Jew who is threatened with genocidal action should choose to accept the legitimacy of those genocidal actors. A Jew who is surrounded on all sides by those who would seek to kill him should accept that with serenity. And when the State of Israel refuses to do all of the above? It is presented by some, including Jonathan Glazer, the most famous “As a Jew” of the moment, as solely responsible for the actions of many actors during almost a century of conflict. A statement almost as ridiculous as holding the Jews responsible for the entirety of the German defeat of the First World War. I mean, honestly, aside from the fact that Jews are still alive today to tell stories of the Holocaust, Hitler would be proud.

About the Author
Dr. Alexandria Fanjoy Silver has a B.A. from Queen's University, an MA/ MA from Brandeis and a PhD from the University of Toronto (all in history and education). She lives in Toronto with her husband and three children, and works at TanenbaumCHAT as a Jewish history teacher.
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