The truth about genocide: must we tell it?

Israel recently agreed to back Rwanda in a UN Resolution that reframes the Rwandan genocide in a way that puts the blame exclusively on the Hutus, in exchange for Rwanda’s primarily-Tutsi government’s agreement to take in tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers deported by Israel.

This means that Israel is so desperate to get rid of this population group that it’s willing to play fast and loose with the facts surrounding a genocide in order to do so. This is extremely hypocritical for a country that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust -which is perhaps why so many Israeli Holocaust survivors have opposed Israel’s new asylum seeker policy. This policy is also of dubious legality under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Israel is a signatory.

Meanwhile, another country playing fast and loose with the facts of genocide is Poland, which recently proposed legislation making it illegal to mention any Polish role in the Holocaust, or even to use the term “Polish death camps”, with a potential sentence of up to three years in jail. The right-wing Israeli government was initially silent on the issue, since Poland is an ally and trading partner, as well as a popular destination for the Israeli highschool Holocaust history tours sometimes used by the right to imbue the next generation with the “correct” Jewish-Israeli values.* However, the government was shamed into speaking out by opposition MK Yair Lapid, who called Poland out for its attempt to cover up the truth. Still, there is no diplomatic crisis yet: Israel and Poland are setting up joint talks regarding its new law.** In the 1950s, left-wing David Ben Gurion came under intense opposition and anger -especially from the right- for agreeing to reparations from Germany -reparations which provided substantial aid to Israel and which benefited the Holocaust survivors living in Israel. The opponents of reparations claimed that it made it seem like Germany could pay away its guilt. In 2017 however, it’s possible for a Holocaust-complicit nation to simply talk away its guilt -no money is required.***

Is this new willingness to play with the facts of genocide merely part of the global trend of treating facts as subjective? In a post-modern world, we have progressed from a universe without true opinions and values, to a universe without truth, period. Overlapping, contradicting “facts” must learn to live in harmony with each other. Their value can be measured by who tells them, and is weighed against our personal truths -those meta-narratives and values that we bring to our subjective experience of existence.

Or is this willingness to play with the facts of genocide not as new as it needs? After all, for decades, many countries -including Israel and the US -have refused to properly recognize the Armenian Genocide, out of a fear of alienating Turkey – which has in the past used a law against publicly insulting Turkey to prosecute Turkish citizens who acknowledge the genocide. Most famously. Turkish author Orhan Pamouk was forced to flee the country to evade trial.

Kant is famous for deeming lying as immoral, under any circumstances. However, most of us accept that lying can be morally justified in certain situations. The question is, which values do we consider more important than the truth, and when?

Is the value of kicking out people who have come to our country seeking refuge worth lying about history? What about the value of friendly relations with an economic ally? Does the calculus change when the truth we’re lying about is our own? And, since we are a nation of Holocaust survivors, by lying about genocide, are we, in some way, not lying about our own truth as well? And if we are, then how will the decisions we make now affect the Jewish people’s struggle against Holocaust denial in the future, when there may be no eyewitnesses left to tell their tales?

*Of course, such trips might easily be illegal under the new law, since it’s very likely that the tour guides, if being truthful, will mention Polish involvement in the Holocaust.

**It looks like there’s a possibility the Polish law might be amended, but it’s unclear exactly what that means.

*** Of course, Poland’s new bill, which would limit freedom of speech, is merely one more anti-democratic measure, following a recent law which got rid of judicial independence, effectively allowing the governing right-wing party to control the judiciary. However, in today’s world, there’s nothing abnormal about democracies having extremely undemocratic countries as allies, including countries far less democratic than Poland.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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