The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The “Problem of Evil” in Postwar Europe

Posted on: February 25, 2008

This is the first in a looooong time that a New York Review of Books article excited me, that directly addressed matters I thought about but aren’t pulled directly from some BBC headline. And I only bring it up for discussion among one or two friends because I’m concerned that I’ll be misinterpreted and perceived differently before the end of the first sentence.

In the latest TLS Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote a *gem of an article in which he pulled from various recently published books on Zionism to give an overview of its history and turn the spotlight on the movement’s influential figures who many may not know about. “Zionism” was a term I often saw used but never defined.

So when I saw the Tony Judt article one could say I was inclined to give it a chance when my typical reaction to anything that could even be theoretically linked to Jews and the Israeli-Palestine conflict is an eye glazed over in defensive inattention. (Also, I’m always good for an article that promises substantial engagement with any of Hannah Arendt’s writings…and I’ve read some of Judt’s stuff before and his name did not carry any negative connotations.)

For a second or two I rethought my decision when it seemed as if this was just going to be another rehash of the Holocaust…but was rewarded when Judt’s adapted essay addressed that very same reaction. Here’s an informed view that ought to get more play, especially the difference between Western and Eastern Europe’s attitude to WWII of which I had not been aware. (Or maybe everyone knew all ready and I’m the only dunce — it’s happened before.) It wasn’t as clear to me, either, that there was a period after WWII where everyone wasn’t undergoing painful introspection about the Holocaust — for as long as I can remember it was given due attention. I never covered WWII in my history classes but, somehow, I still managed to absorb basic information about what happened, with the Shoah at its centre.

…in recent years the relationship between Israel and the Holocaust has changed. Today, when Israel is exposed to international criticism for its mistreatment of Palestinians and its occupation of territory conquered in 1967, its defenders prefer to emphasize the memory of the Holocaust. If you criticize Israel too forcefully, they warn, you will awaken the demons of anti-Semitism; indeed, they suggest, robust criticism of Israel doesn’t just arouse anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism. And with anti-Semitism the route forward —or back—is open: to 1938, to Kristallnacht, and from there to Treblinka and Auschwitz. If you want to know where it leads, they say, you have only to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or any number of memorials and museums across Europe.

I understand the emotions behind such claims. But the claims themselves are extraordinarily dangerous. When people chide me and others for criticizing Israel too forcefully, lest we rouse the ghosts of prejudice, I tell them that they have the problem exactly the wrong way around. It is just such a taboo that may itself stimulate anti-Semitism. For some years now I have visited colleges and high schools in the US and elsewhere, lecturing on postwar European history and the memory of the Shoah. I also teach these topics in my university. And I can report on my findings.

Students today do not need to be reminded of the genocide of the Jews, the historical consequences of anti-Semitism, or the problem of evil. They know all about these—in ways their parents never did. And that is as it should be. But I have been struck lately by the frequency with which new questions are surfacing: “Why do we focus so on the Holocaust?” “Why is it illegal [in certain countries] to deny the Holocaust but not other genocides?” “Is the threat of anti-Semitism not exaggerated?” And, increasingly, “Doesn’t Israel use the Holocaust as an excuse?” I do not recall hearing those questions in the past.

My fear is that two things have happened. By emphasizing the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust while at the same time invoking it constantly with reference to contemporary affairs, we have confused young people. And by shouting “anti-Semitism” every time someone attacks Israel or defends the Palestinians, we are breeding cynics.

You’ve gotta read the adapted speech from start to finish.

*Thank you, TLS, for offering me another opportunity to tear my hair out again. Why make the width of the article so narrow that I have to click through so many pages? It’s an annoyance because it’s a bloody book review but I have to click click click click to reach the end before I can find…the reviewed book titles! Yes, that make sense. But comments from random dudes who manage to drop by? Right there, up front and centre! Who the ^&#$#% designed your website? I’d like to…buy him a beer.

1 Response to "The “Problem of Evil” in Postwar Europe"

Very thought provoking. I have to say, that I have to agree with the statement that if criticism “is just such a taboo that may itself stimulate anti-Semitism”. It is devastatingly hard to be objective about something as horrible as the Holocaust, and yet, there must be some objectivity, in terms of going forward. I just have a sense that mankind has not yet grappled fully (not even close) to the emotional and psychological ramifications of WW2, the Holocaust, and the Atom Bomb.

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