How Jews Regard History
Back in 2007 the notorious Jewish American right-wing organization, the ADL (The Jewish Anti-Defamation League) announced that it recognised the events in which an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were massacred as ‘genocide.’ The idea of a Zionist organization being genuinely concerned, or even slightly moved, by another people’s suffering could be a monumental transforming moment in modern Jewish political history. Early in 2010 the ADL once again engaged with the Armenian question. However, in 2010, it was no longer convinced that the Armenians had suffered that much. It ended up lobbying the American congress not to recognise the killings of Armenians as ‘genocide’.
Following the rapidly developing rift between Israel and Turkey over the Turkish commitment to the Palestinian cause the ADL will no doubt have to change its take again. And yet, one question must be raised here. How is it that an event that took place a century ago is causing such a furore? One day it is classified as ‘genocide’, the next, it is demoted to an ‘ordinary’ instance of one man killing another. Did an ‘historical document’ suddenly pop up on Abe Foxman’s desk? Are there new facts that led to such a dramatic revision?
The ADL’s behaviour is a fascinating glimpse into the notion of Jewish history and the Jewish understanding of the past. From a Jewish political perspective, history is foreign to any scientific or academic method. It transcends beyond method, factuality or truthfulness. It also repels integrity or ethics. Following Shlomo Sand, we can argue that Jewish history is a phantasmic yet pragmatic tale that is there to serve the interests of one people only. It engages with the basic question of whether a given account is ‘good for the Jews’ or not. In practice, the decision on whether there was an Armenian genocide or not is subject to Jewish interests: is it good for the Jews, is it good for Israel?
As Sand cleverly pointed out, history is not particularly a ‘Jewish thing’. As mentioned earlier, for almost two thousand years Jews were not interested in their own or anyone else’s past, at least not enough to chronicle it.
Shlomo Sand’s account of the ‘Jewish Nation’ as a fictional invention is yet to be challenged academically. The only opposition one can find is political. The dismissal of factuality or lack of commitment to truthfulness are actually symptomatic of contemporary Jewish collective ideology and identity politics. The ADL’s treatment of the Armenian topic is just one example. The Zionists’ dismissal of a Palestinian past and heritage is another example. Lenni Brenner’s categorical failure to interpret Rabbi Prinz’s inclination to collaborate with the Nazis is symptomatic. The Jewish collective and political vision of the past is inherently Judeo-centric and oblivious to any academic or scientific procedure.
When I was young and naive I regarded history as a serious, academic matter. As I understood it, history had something to do with truth-seeking, documents, chronology and facts. I was convinced that history aimed to convey a sensible account of the past based on methodical research. I also believed that an understanding of the past could throw some light over our present and even help us to shape a better future.
I grew up in the Jewish state and it took me a while to understand that the Jewish historical narrative is very different. In the Jewish intellectual insular world, one first decides what the historic moral is, then one invents ‘a past’ to fit.
When I was young, I didn’t think that history was a matter of political decisions or agreements between one Zionist lobby and another. I regarded historians as scholars who engaged in research following strict procedures. When I was young I even considered becoming an historian.
In my formative years I blindly accepted every thing they told us about our ‘collective’ Jewish past: the Kingdom of David, Massada, and then the Holocaust: the soap, the lampshade, the death march and the six million.
It took me many years to understand that the Holocaust, the core belief of the contemporary Jewish faith, was not at all an historical narrative, freely debated by historians, intellectuals and ordinary people. As I mentioned before, historical narratives do not need the protection of the law and political lobbies. It took me years to grasp that my great-grandmother wasn’t made into a ‘soap’ or a ‘lampshade’ as I was taught in Israel. She probably perished of exhaustion, typhus or maybe even by mass shooting. This was indeed bad and tragic, but not that different from the fate of many millions of Ukrainians, on learning the real meaning of communism.
The fate of my great-grandmother was not so different from hundreds of thousands of German civilians who died in deliberate, indiscriminate bombing, just because they were Germans. Similarly, the people in Hiroshima, who died just because they were Japanese. Three million Vietnamese died just because they were Vietnamese and 1.3 million Iraqis died because they were Iraqis.
I think that 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must be entitled to start asking questions. We should ask for historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative that is sustained by political pressure and laws. We should strip the Holocaust of its Judeo-centric exceptional status and treat it as an historical chapter that belongs to a certain time and place. The Holocaust, like every other historical narrative, must be analysed properly.
Gilad Atzmon, most of chapter 21 (pp. 173-176) of The Wandering Who?: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, Zero Books, Winchester, UK, 2011.