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​Inclusive and exclusive memory

by Stefano Levi Della Torre

Candles lit to remember Holocaust victims in Moscow

Candles lit to remember Holocaust victims in Moscow Reuters

“Is it possible to prevent mass atrocities [MAS]? Yes, but with great difficulty”, therefore we should focus on “avoiding or at least reducing MAS”. With this question and the relating answer Yehuda Bauer opened his remarks [at the Open University of Israel of Ra’anana, editor’s note], without cherishing fond hopes but also without resignation. The difficulty to do so is proven by the fact that mass atrocities have always occurred in history, are still happening and it can be nothing but an illusion to think they will not repeat; nonetheless something can and must be done, at least to reduce their breadth and consequences.

The remarks by Bauer, that is to say of an elder and influential supporter of the thesis of “uniqueness of the Holocaust”, represent an important turn in the description of the idea of “uniqueness”. The term “mass atrocities” already points to the aim of opening “uniquess” to a generalization.

The uniqueness and unprecedentedness of the Shoah is a fact: for its scale, intensity, continental logistics of deportations and internments, for the reduction into slavery and the use of humans doomed to extermination as guinea pigs, for the technological rationality and the bureaucratic organization aimed at mass murder, for the ideological zeal and the conformity that motivated the executioners, and the chorus of support, fear or indifference that made their actions easier. Many of these features are there in other mass atrocities, but the Shoah gathered them and made them more intense, up to creating the gas chambers, a unique system that sums them all up. A system that – as another key feature of uniqueness – wreaks havoc in the heart of darkness of an Europe at the height of its technical and cultural development, and devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalism.

Nonetheless, the definition of “uniqueness” can be interpreted in two ways: either in the sens of monumentalizing the Holocaust as an event that cannot be compared with any other extermination or genocide, which makes the memory thereof a jealous competitor with the memory of every other mass atrocity, diminishing its scale; or on the contrary in the sense that the memory of the Holocaust can work as a magnifying (as opposite to diminishing) glass over other atrocities, that are comparable with it even though they are not the same, but of which the Holocaust is the ultimate trend.

Both in its premises and in its outcome. Secular Zionism that laid the foundations of the State of Israel set itself as criticism and radical alternative to the thousand-year diasporic condition of Judaism, and used to blame it for exposing the European Jews to anti-Semitism and extermination. The foundation of the State of Israel was the restart from the Holocaust as catastrophe that represented diaspora at its height. In the view of secular Zionism, there was a historical responsibility of Jews for their fate; while, nearly symmetrically, according to religious Zionism, that was worried about justifying God and His silence face the genocide of His people, the people itself was responsible for the religious disobedience of Jews: this way, the one of describing the sins of the Jews as causes of the catastrophe, was followed scandalously by the great sefardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, leader of the Shas party.

Despite this way of blaming the Jews themselves for their destiny, expressed both by secularists and clergy, for the “guilt” of the diaspora and religious unfaithfulness – the Holocaust could not avoid placing itself at the core of the current identity of Israel and the Jews. Maybe not immediately after the tragedy; Yad Vashem, the memorial and archive of the Holocaust, was set up in 1953 and became a public place and symbol only in 1959, thanks to two consecutive statements of the Knesset, the Parliament of Israel.

Hence. the debate on the “uniqueness” has acquired since then a strong political trait.

The thesis of the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust as exclusive to the Shoah has become a prerogative of the nationalist rightwing in Israel and among Jews: in that it claims the exclusive uniquess of Jewish victims of the ultimate evil, it is prone to justify every action of Israel’s goverments as pre-emptive “legitimate defense”, like a right to trample on the rights of the Palestinian people and the international law in name of security, although the international law has increasingly drawn inspiration from principles taken by the experience of the Holocaust.

In the name of this exclusive interpretation of “uniqueness”, every kind of hostility of the Palestinians towards the Israeli occupation is equalled to the extreme Nazi threat. And by this they want to silence every political and moral criticism of the Israeli colonization of the occupied territory and to the systematic crushing of every occasion of negotiation and peace deal.

On the contrary, those who consider the memory of the Holocaust as a permanent warning about the mass atrocities against every human group regardless of those who carry it out refuse this instrumental offense to the exclusive memory of the Holocaust: this is a tension between inclusive memory and exclusive memory, universalism and human rights against the nationalist degeneration of memory. Yehuda Bauer’s speech is on this side.

“It is the first time in 70 years that in Israel we discuss the other genocide cases and we give the Holocaust a different look”, said Yair Auron, one of the organizers of the meeting of Ra’anana called for to commemorate the extermination that occurred in the Nineties in Rwanda. This is a statement that highlights a drift and the opening of a hitherto hidden conflict about the memory of the Holocaust.

All this involves the commemorations of Holocaust remembrance day that are recurs every 27 January. The Holocaust remains its core: what it has to teach is not only its outcome, but also the political, ideological psychological processes, the conformities and interests that produced the conditions of its realization; theresistance of opponents and life rescuers, to underline the fact that there is always a possibility to act. The scene of the executioners, that can all too easily spark our indignation bringing us relief, should not veil the backdrops of human conduct that have made the persecution and massacre possible and accompanied it. It is precisely these behaviors, in their banality, to reveal attitudes in which we can easily recognized something "normal" but nonetheless of shocking topicality alarming - something which dwells in ourselves, too, that creates the conditions of every mass atrocity. The memory of the Holocaust is not a monument to the past that has to hide in its dazzling extreme as well as exclusive uniqueness every other mass murder or genocide, but instead it is a permanent alarm on what has happened and therefore can happen again, to the analogies between the past and the ongoing events; something that does not hide but instead sheds light on the past and current mass atrocities, revealing altogether the lesser or greater chances to resist them.

Stefano Levi Della Torre, essayist

Analysis by Stefano Levi Della Torre, essayist

20 January 2015

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