Be­ware his­tor­i­cal dis­tor­tion, even our own

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Jonathan Boyd is is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Jewish Pol­icy Re­search ( JPR) By Johnathan Boyd

IN MANY re­spects, Kristall­nacht was the start of it all. Cer­tainly, it was a huge wakeup call for Ger­man Jews— mi­gra­tion lev­els over the fol­low­ing year were twice as high as they had been in any year pre­vi­ously. But more im­por­tantly, un­til then, Nazi pol­icy had largely in­volved the pass­ing of dis­pas­sion­ate an­tisemitic leg­is­la­tion. Kristall­nacht was when Nazism turned bru­tally and in­dis­crim­i­nately mur­der­ous to­wards Jews.

Yet crit­i­cally, Hitler ap­pears to have been less than im­pressed. He didn’t mind the un­der­ly­ing killing; he just pre­ferred his an­tisemitism cleaner, less emo­tional, more in­dus­trial. For him, Kristall­nacht rep­re­sented how it shouldn’t be done. The ques­tion for him af­ter­wards was all about how it should.

I still strug­gle to un­der­stand the con­clu­sions he reached. Af­ter my two univer­sity de­grees, study­ing un­der such ex­perts as Martin Gilbert and Robert Wistrich, af­ter vis­it­ing nu­mer­ous sites of de­struc­tion, por­ing over end­less his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, read­ing count­less aca­demic stud­ies and sur­vivor tes­ti­monies, there’s still some­thing about it I don’t get.

I un­der­stand the in­tel­lec­tual con­cepts that in­formed it; the eco­nomic fac­tors, po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics, so­cial forces and tech­no­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ments that sup­ported it. I’ve stud­ied and taught all of this. But, with all that, hu­man be­ings — and so of­ten just ‘Or­di­nary Men’ in Christo­pher Brown­ing’s mem­o­rable anal­y­sis — still had to stand in front of other or­di­nary peo­ple, in­clud­ing chil­dren, ba­bies even, and mur­der them in their mil­lions. How­ever much I’ve tried

Holo­caust de­nial is the least com­mon an­tisemitic idea in Bri­tain to­day

to make sense of it, that one fun­da­men­tal piece still eludes me. I hope it al­ways does.

Per­haps it’s the in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity of it that some­how aids the spread of Holo­caust de­nial; the no­tion that it’s so in­con­ceiv­able, some start to find the de­niers’ claims plau­si­ble. But sta­tis­ti­cally, de­nial is a fringe phe­nom­e­non — of all an­tisemitic ideas, it is the least com­mon and most ve­he­mently re­jected across British so­ci­ety.

How­ever, whilst Holo­caust de­nial is rare, Holo­caust dis­tor­tion is not. And much like the tac­tics of de­niers — namely to take one small half-truth and draw vast gen­er­al­i­sa­tions from it whilst ig­nor­ing mounds of ev­i­dence to the con­trary — dis­torters act sim­i­larly. So when Ken Liv­ing­stone used ide­o­log­i­cally-mo­ti­vated his­tor­i­cal anal­y­sis of the ha’avara agree­ment — a rather ob­scure episode in the con­text of the geno­cide of six mil­lion Jews— to claim that Hitler sup­ported Zion­ism, he was us­ing the de­nier’s method.

Yes, an agree­ment was es­tab­lished in the 1930s be­tween the Nazis and Ger­man Zion­ist lead­ers to en­able Ger­man Jews to mi­grate to Pales­tine. But no — Hitler never ‘sup­ported’ Zion­ism. Any sup­port he felt for the agree­ment was in­formed by his view that Jews were a de­gen­er­ate race and a can­cer in so­ci­ety that needed to be force­fully re­moved one way or an­other.

The Ger­man Jewish Zion­ist lead­ers were mo­ti­vated by com­pletely dif­fer­ent fac­tors: not least that they saw them­selves as a proud na­tion that could best achieve its col­lec­tive pur­pose and ful­fil­ment in its an­ces­tral home­land. Ig­nor­ing this dis­tinc­tion com­pletely dis­torts his­tory. It’s dog­whistling too — in­ti­mat­ing to those attuned to the mes­sage that Zion­ism and Nazism are bed­fel­lows.

But Liv­ing­stone is not the only dis­torter. On the con­trary, Holo­caust dis­tor­tion is rather com­mon. It is dis­torted when­ever any­one claims that Is­raelis be­have ‘like Nazis’ to­wards the Pales­tini­ans, or that Is­rael is com­mit­ting mass mur­der. And these types of ideas aren’t fringe; they are be­lieved, to some ex­tent at least, by 20-25% of the UK pop­u­la­tion. And to be clear (and it al­most de­fies be­lief this needs to be stated): what­ever one thinks of Ne­tanyahu and his govern­ment, there is no sim­ply no par­al­lel to be drawn be­tween con­tem­po­rary Is­rael and Nazi-oc­cu­pied Europe. There are no ghet­tos, con­cen­tra­tion or death camps; no poli­cies of forced labour, star­va­tion or mass racial pro­fil­ing; no med­i­cal ex­per­i­ments, mass shoot­ings or mass graves.

Yes, there is a bru­tal and bloody con­flict, and yes, there are iso­lated cases of in­di­vid­ual Is­raeli sol­diers act­ing il­le­gally and even oc­ca­sion­ally with a de­gree of im­punity, but draw­ing par­al­lels with Nazis and the Holo­caust is his­tor­i­cal dis­tor­tion, pro­found his­tor­i­cal dis­tor­tion, which comes only from ig­no­rance or ha­tred.

But we have to be care­ful not to dis­tort our his­tory too. Kristall­nacht — in­deed the Holo­caust as a whole — is just one chap­ter in Jewish his­tory. It should be stud­ied and com­mem­o­rated, of course. But how we have lived is so much more in­ter­est­ing, so much more ex­tra­or­di­nary, than how we have died.

That’s the greater story we need to learn and tell, and it’s in that story where the real jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Is­rael and Zion­ism can be found.

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