February 3, 2007

History Lesions

When there was no Israel, the Holocaust served political purposes for Zionists in Palestine. Since 1948 the Holocaust has continued to evolve beyond historical truth, a trope-set circulating through the collective. It can be continuing proof of the Diaspora's disastrous fate, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising's symbolic martyrdom, or the rhetorical punch for describing Israel's worldly relations. Almost always it is a compulsive combining of eternal victimization and the moral imperative of a secure future: "never again." That imperative suspends the ethical in the name of self-defense and as real threats grow, so too the metaphorics of that which happened.

For example, last month in the Jerusalem Post, Israeli historian Benny Morris turned the language of history into the spur of prophecy. In his promise of the nuclear annihilation planned by Iran, an end that will happen, Morris uses the Holocaust to forecast something far worse. He casts those old European atrocities as more intimate and "tactile," somehow humanly quaint compared to the "impersonal" disaster that will rain down from the morning blue skies above the desert. In other words, this time, the enemy's weapons cannot be seen, deciphered, or resisted. Disaster is everywhere, always, and perpetual.

The texture of his rant may borrow from familiar fears, but could not be further from sharing the critical spirit shown by Adorno's comment that "The horror of our day has arisen from intrinsic dynamics of our own history; it cannot be described as exceptional. And even if we do think of it as an exception and not the expression of a trend--although this latter is not implausible, given that the atom bomb and the gas chamber have certain catastrophic similarities--to do so is somehow absurd in the light of the scale of the disaster" (History and Freedom).

On the contrary, Morris's apocalyptic talk seems like a plea to escape from history by leaping into a new future. It is meant, if it can be said to have any meaning whatsoever, to shame Israeli leaders into the dream of a pre-emptive elimination of the Iranian threat (Iranian in name only since the flight of those coming missiles has been traced not by the politics of today but a veritable universe of antisemitism, including what he sees as the Western "demonization" of Israel). Given the nation's isolation and vulnerability, will its leaders protect its citizens through its own rightful use of a nuclear strike, or simply let the Jews of Israel be vaporized like lambs in the pasture? Morris pokes with another prediction: "Israel will prove unequal to the task, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an onrushing car. Last summer, led by a party hack of a prime minister and a small- time trade unionist as defense minister, and deploying an army trained for quelling incompetent and poorly armed Palestinian gangs in the occupied territories and overly concerned about both sustaining and inflicting casualties, Israel failed in a 34-day mini-war against a small Iran-backed guerrilla army of Lebanese fundamentalists (albeit highly motivated, well- trained and well- armed). That mini-war thoroughly demoralized the Israeli political and military leaderships."

Idith Zertal's works help one recognize the nature of such rhetoric and the dangerous compulsions it inspires, generation to generation. From Catastrophe to Power (California, 1998) and Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge, 2005) both show the intense and desperately uneven relationship between the destruction of European Jewry and Israel's emergence and continuing operation as a state. As Zertal demonstrates, an author like Morris may be shrill and quickly countered by some (as he was in subsequent editions of the Jerusalem Post), but the language spreads. Israel's Holocaust catalogs the sustaining rhetoric of "Auschwitz" with devastating clarity. It is agonizing to read, frightening to witness emerging in ever new contexts.

Reading her work helps approach the recent discourse of Israel, Iran, Holocaust denial, relentless Holocaust fears, and the mis-equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. One can approach without being able to calculate the spiralling effects, of course. And the closer one gets to tracing the threads of the web, the more likely one is to be ensnared in the demented and tormented conflations of past and present.