There is a concept of a tourism industry, popular in places largely devoid of Jews, called ‘Jewish Heritage Sites’. The term is a really ingenious piece of marketing … It’s a much better name than ‘Property seized from dead or expelled Jews’.
In her new book Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Past, Dara Horn claims that both Jews and non-Jews spend an inordinate amount of time mistakenly adulating dead Jews like Anne Frank. Yet, the world spends very little energy trying to understand modern living Jews or how past Jews lived. This mistaken adulation of dead Jews has created an industry of Holocaust museums, Jewish heritage sites, and cemeteries attracting hundreds of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish tourists. In fact, the whole notion of Jewish heritage tourism is an “ingenious marketing gimmick” foisted on “gaslit” Jews and non-Jews. She claims that this failure is an “affront to human dignity.”
Dara Horn’s main thesis leaves a lot to be desired in regard to the ‘twisted’ adulation of dead jews. Even imaginary dead jews like Shylock the Merchant of Venice cannot escape her widely cast nets. I will leave it to professionals in the fields of comparative literature, Jewish heritage, museums and the Holocaust to deal with the validity of her respective assertions. What I would like to do here is just deal with her claims about Jewish heritage tourism, a field in which I have been working for the past several years. Her accusations and innuendos are not novel and only serve to perpetuate harmful myths surrounding this burgeoning field.
China’s extraordinary and, yes, flawed investment in Harbin
In 1984, The Chinese invested 30 million dollars towards a project seeking to memorialize the pioneering Jews of Harbin. In 1920 Jews established the city as a key transit point of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The memorialization involved restoring synagogues, creating exhibits, and recreating downtown Harbin as it existed in 1920. Horn’s main objection to this seemingly genuine endeavor is its true underlying “deception.” The Harbin narrative glosses over the fact that at a certain point Jews either left, got driven out, or were killed. In short, they killed us, robbed us and now want to profit from their misdeeds (using tourism). The biblical phrase “Not only did you murder but you inherited [profited] as well‘ resonates strongly here.” Case closed. Jewish heritage tourism is one big con game! Right? Wrong!
First, not all heritage sites in North America, Europe and China are a function of appropriation or expropriation. In America, the numerous Jewish heritage sites preserved in the National Historic Trust (like the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island) attract many tourists interested in the Sephardic and Ashkenazic roots of American history. So if it is not true about North America then surely there must be some truth to these assertions in Europe, home to two of the most cataclysmic events in the history of Judaism, the Inquisition and the Holocaust.
Here, the optics can be very fuzzy and deceiving. Cynical accusations impugning the motives of developers of Jewish Heritage sites in Europe are not new. If you invest in marketing these kinds of sites, you can be accused of overcompensating for past indiscretions, and if you don’t invest, you can still be charged with heritage neglect. Spain, for example, which was one the first countries to jump on the Jewish heritage tourism bandwagon has been accused of both – and at the same time!
Second, it is abundantly clear that the narrative in Harbin is incomplete, conveniently ignoring the precipitating factors for its demise. Incomplete storytelling in regard to Jewish Heritage sites is not unique and it occurs frequently. Sometimes such lacunae are a function of conscious neglect, other times it is totally unintentional. It is incumbent on knowledgeable guides to fill in the missing gaps. For this reason, my NGO World Jewish Heritage Fund is developing a ‘Jewish Trip advisor’ called World Jewish Travel to help find these guides and other knowledgeable professionals.
Objectively speaking, given the year (1984) and the place (China), a $30 million expenditure in Harbin was an extraordinary investment. In the history of Jewish heritage tourism, which is only now beginning to emerge as a field worthy of the hospitality industry, there are few investments of such magnitude.
Affront to human dignity?
Horn offers no viable alternatives to the memorialization of Jews, especially Jewish heritage sites. Hard-pressed to come up with a commendable example of a worthwhile museum, Horn, in a podcast, recommends the Polin Museum in Warsaw. This is based on its emphasis on the vitality of Polish Jews before the Holocaust. What she fails to mention is that any other narrative (inside and outside the Museum) is against the law in Poland. It is now illegal to speak of the culpability of the Poles (see under Jedwabe) in the Holocaust.
Indeed, the modern challenge in Europe, where most of the world’s Jewish cultural heritage assets can be found outside of Israel, is how to tell its Jewish story using its Jewish heritage sites. Funding now exists in Europe to promote synagogue restorations, Jewish trails and Jewish-themed cultural routes. Of course, relying on institutional investment means that the local Jewish narrative will sometimes be shaped by funding institutions to fit the national historical narrative. My organization is working with these cities, given the constraints, to sharpen and complete the local narrative using widely accepted standards of tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
If our interest is to preserve Jewish memory, one must keep a critical point in mind – if the tourism incentive disappears then so does the institutional funding. If the funding disappears, then so do the cultural memories. It is imperative that these stories and sites be preserved through tourism and shared with both the visitors and the local population. Jewish heritage tourism is a far cry from simply being “an ingenious marketing gimmick.”
It is easy to understand Horn’s frustration, cynicism, and rage regarding Jewish heritage tourism, especially ‘dark tourism’. The ‘dark’ aspects of our history can be psychologically challenging. It should be noted that this cognitive dissonance occurs equally in both directions. Jews, like Dara Horn, suspect the motives of non-Jews who engage in Jewish historical preservation; Local non-Jews, on the other hand, suspect the motivation of Jews who are interested in preserving these local sites.
The only ‘affront to human dignity’ is that the victims of these crimes now get to suffer twice, once from the crime itself and now from the attempt to suppress its memory. Attacking the memory of dead Jews is, unfortunately, a safe proposition. Dead Jews are voiceless. They cannot object to the way they are remembered or, in this case, dismembered (see Horn’s imaginary obituary of Anne Fran). It is especially appealing to those elements who are tired of hearing about pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts and the like; it is even more appealing to Holocaust deniers.
Efforts at reconciliation are by their very nature inherently difficult. It is natural that reconciling gestures by the aggrieving party will be met by cynicism and skepticism by the aggrieved. Holding today’s authorities responsible for the crimes of the past does not help resolve these grievances. Also, holding historical site development, like Harbin, to modern standards of morality ends up being its own kind of anti-historical revisionism.
In short, we should neither be blind to Harbin’s flaws nor should we be blind to its achievements. Wrenching one Jewish heritage site like Harbin from its historical context conveys erroneous impressions and conclusions about China’s intentions and accomplishments. It also does not do justice to China’s innovative – if flawed – approach and its extraordinary investment, long before Jewish heritage tourism became more mainstream and popular. Calling Jewish heritage tourism a fraud because of the faulty Harbin narrative is cancel-culture at best, bad history, at worst.