An attack on Holocaust memory at the Guardian and BBC

As noted by Melanie Phillips, author David Rieff wrote the following in an op-ed for The Guardian, promoting his new book In Praise of Forgetting:

Israel offers a florid illustration of how disastrously collective memory can deform a society.”

Additionally, our colleague Hadar Sela noted today that Rieff expanded on this message during a broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ show.

Here’s the relevant exchange between BBC host Tom Sutcliffe and Rieff:

TS: “OK: what about the classic instance of the duty of remembering the Holocaust? Err…would it be better if we forgot that?”

DR: “Well first of all, with respect, eventually we’re going to do. And second – I’m sorry again to bring in geologic time but it is surely at least worth taking to some extent into account. And the second thing is it seems to me…ah…that memory is different as long as there are people alive, or at least people alive who knew people who were alive. So that yes; as long as there are survivors of the camps – of which there are a few – as long as there are the children of those people – of which there are many – and grandchildren, fine. But in a hundred years? In two hundred years? Yeah, I think it might be time to let it go. And, even in terms of the memory of the Holocaust, it seems to me the memory of the Holocaust as it is deployed in Israel has been nothing but negative.” [emphasis added]

(Here’s an audio of the entire exchange.  The specific question about the Holocaust can be heard at 33:50)

Rieff, the son of American writer Susan Sontag, not only views Israel as a deeply “deformed” society, but evidently sees Holocaust memory not as an instructive lens by which to understand continuing threats to the Jewish state and Jews worldwide, but as something which has been “deployed” by Israel for their own nefarious purposes.

Rieff’s tropes dovetail with those of anti-Israel and antisemitic campaigners who accuse Jews of ‘talking about the Holocaust too much’, or of exploiting Holocaust memory for either financial, political or moral gain.  Such commentators, for instance, sometimes complain that Israel uses the Nazis’ murder of one out of every three Jews on the planet to blackmail the West or to justify atrocities against the Palestinians. 

In fact, regarding this latter accusation, in an extract from his book published at Foreign Policy Magazine, Rieff – citing Tony Judt – clearly seems to concur with those who express concern over the ‘toll’ Holocaust memory exacts on Palestinians:

since 1945 the Shoah has regularly been employed to serve political agendas, the most obvious, as Judt emphasized, being to justify more or less any policy of the State of Israel with regard to its neighbors or to its Arab minority.

However, whilst Arab efforts to annihilate Israel at various times in the state’s history – the War of Independence and the Six Day War, for instance – certainly presented historical parallels with the Shoah, the suggestion that such analogies are “employed” “regularly” (and, of course, insincerely) by Israeli leaders “to justify any [Israeli] policy” is absurd.

Professor Manfred Gerstenfeld addresses those who “belittle the maintaining of collective Holocaust memory” in his book, Abuse of Holocaust Memory:

Another distortion mode that attempts to obliterate Holocaust memory is “Holocaust silencing.” This consists of stating that Jews talk about the Holocaust too often. One more form of trying to obliterate Holocaust memory is claiming that Jews abuse the Holocaust for various purposes…

However, an even more instructive way to frame Rieff’s attack on Israeli ‘use’ of the Holocaust is presented in the opening paragraph of an op-ed by Dave Rich of the CST concerning antisemitism in the Labour Party:

The basic idea behind most modern anti-Semitism is that Jews must be up to something. Whatever Jews say and do can’t be taken at face value: they must have some ulterior motive or hidden agenda that needs to be uncovered.  So when Jewish donors give money to political parties, it can’t simply mean that they support that party’s policies, as any non-Jewish donor would; they must be trying to buy support for Israel. Or when Israel sends rescue teams to countries that have suffered from natural disasters, it can’t simply be to offer humanitarian aid; it must be to steal human organs from the victims of those disasters.

Or, we would add, when Israeli Jews participate in Holocaust remembrance ceremonies or cite the Holocaust in the context of the malevolent designs of some its enemies, they are not merely – according to this view – sincerely honoring victims of the Nazi genocide or expressing a legitimate fear of antisemitic extremism in the region.  Rather, they are engaged in a cynical effort to support the Zionist project.

Jews, it seems, must be up to something.

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