On Holocaust Memorial Day, my wife and I watched ‘La Vita E Bella,’ the classic story of the Holocaust. It is told from the perspective of Guido, a happy-go-lucky Italian Jew who goes beyond himself to invent an alternative world for his young son as they suffer the trials of a NAZI concentration camp.
Though the story is light-hearted and funny it does not shy away from the horrors of mass-murder. In one scene Guido and his boy wander into the murky shadows of the camp. Guido is stunned to see stacks of bones from incinerated bodies.
It is a chilling moment. It brought me back to the first time I visited a camp, Dachau outside of Munich. The eerie silence still lives within me and the ghosts of the most emphatically indelicate period of human history were tangible in the air that summer’s day. I will, simply, never forget.
On the same day we watched the movie President Trump was busy engaging in the first, self-styled, “inclusive” act of his presidency: that is airbrushing the horrors inflicted on Jews from the White House statement on Holocaust Memorial Day.
If this administration wanted to acknowledge the suffering of groups targeted by the industrial killing machines of the NAZIs then they could have listed those groups: Jews, Roma, LGBTQ people, People of Colour and many others. Instead they chose to give succour to the far-right who gloated over the statement.
Trump fell-back on the argument of many a racist ‘some of my best friends are black, but…’ by having his spokespeople indicate that some of his family members are Jewish.
Statements by many Jewish organisations confronted Trump’s failure. This is to be welcomed. But where were the condemnations from the highest levels of government inside Israel? Rather the Prime Minister spoke out with a supportive message about the proposed wall on the US-Mexico border.
Israel’s leadership, who are so committed to protecting their Jewish citizens that they will kill hundreds of children in the Gaza strip, refused to confront this airbrushing of Jewish suffering from the White House statement. But, nothing new here. It does not take a historian to understand the intricacies of right-wing leaders in Israel coalescing with anti-Semites. One need only examine the close links to the fundamentalist Christian sects who believe that the Rapture will only take place when all Jews have returned to Israel (and, of course, are killed in the final days for their failure to convert to Christianity).
Trump’s administration represents a historic chance for activists to shift the ground and build new alliances. For anyone concerned with racism in all its forms, including against Jews, then it is no longer sufficient to ignore the anti-Semitism of the right-wing in US and European politics.
As Europe braces itself for the possibility of a right-wing takeover Israel must seriously re-consider political alliances. To defend Jews, promote universal values and rights, we must shun the politics of hate towards the politics of love and dignity.
Unfortunately that will come at a cost for some: a radical transformation in attitudes and policies directed at Palestinians.
International law is the child of the Holocaust and the Second World War. It is because Jews were forced into camps that the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the transfer of civilians from an occupied territory. It is because of German advances into the Sudetenland that occupying powers are prohibited from ‘changing the character’ of the occupied territory (i.e. settlements). And it is because NAZI leaders had to face their crimes in Nuremburg that we have the possibility of trying war criminals in the International Criminal Court.
The post-war laws aim to prevent a occurrence of the events of World War II on a small or large scale. Sadly Israel stands alongside many other States who continuously violate these principles with no accountability.
Donald Trump wants to undermine the UN and the international legal system it seeks to uphold. The system is by-no-means perfect. But the price of destroying it is incalculable. Perhaps not under his Administration, but in the hands of a different despot, the world will once again have to develop systems of accountability for war criminals and mass-violators of human rights. Sadly, the cause of this is unlikely to be a renewed spirit of civic engagement and global solidarity. Rather it will be a terrible and brutal act that leaves us hanging our head in collective shame. Perhaps next time we will put more meaning into the words ‘Never Again.’