Among those who seek to trivialize the Holocaust today are neither professional Holocaust deniers nor professional anti-Semites. Nor are they racist skinheads.
Who are they, these new Holocaust-memory bashers? They are Americans from the working, middle and upper classes. Many are Jewish. They are also French, Italian, British and Israeli Jews. They include non-Jews too, especially Christian-Zionists.
They include Conservative denomination shul (synagogue) members and Orthodox American rabbis. Beauticians and taxi drivers, school teachers, hotel managers. Doctors, lawyers and civil servants.
To what do Holocaust survivors and those who keep its memory alive owe this revisionist way of remembering the Third Reich’s onslaught against civilization? It is born of Barack Obama’s pro-active commitment toward an end to the 62-years-long conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Those who seek to smear the president as a Nazi fear that Israel will be pressed to cede land which they believe is Israel’s to own forever.
In 1985 I visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camp and slave labor sites in southwest Poland near Krakow. It redefined what I wanted to do as an artist. The memory of walking around the grounds, where one can find pieces of human bone protruding from the earth, has been with me during more than two decades of teaching the lessons from what we call in Hebrew the Shoah.
My last overseas job teaching this spring was with 22 Art Therapy majors at Haifa University in Israel; all (or almost all) were Israeli Defense Forces veterans. If anyone would have objected to my remarks about the stupidity of seeking military solutions to political problems, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I expected it there. Instead there was silence. In this silence I heard an understanding that “the situation,” as Israelis describe the conflict (a counterpart to “The Troubles” of Ireland), was not doing anyone any good. I told these older post-military service Israeli students the same thing I had told 10-year-olds in Glasgow earlier this year: Kids don’t know hate. They learn it from older youth and adults.
In the sorrow and anger that envelops many of us when we read of civilians maimed or killed in “the situation,” we learn a remarkable thing or two about people. Kids from opposite sides of a conflict, when removed from the war zone, become “fast friends” (as a New York Times article described a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy, both 8, who met last year in a Jerusalem hospital). Negotiations should always precede and preclude violence. Those who seek military solutions (Hamas, Al-Aqsa, IDF) will never achieve anything but a lot of misery and grief. Instead, there’ll only be more funerals, and more 8-year-olds like the two described by the Times – one who can’t move her arms and legs and another who has to relearn how to walk and talk with only half his brain.
The other morning I came across a Facebook Group page called “As a pro-Israel Jew I will not and cannot vote for Barack Obama in 2012.” With over 4,500 people joined by name, I was stunned to see a photo montage of President Obama as a swastika-waving Brownshirt with thousands of Nazis behind him.
I expect professional Holocaust deniers and race-hatred extremists, or the misguided young men and women who campaign for Lyndon LaRouche, to graphically vilify an African American president as a Nazi. Not synagogue and evangelical churchgoing American Jews and Christians in Mercer Island, Topeka, Chicago, Dallas, New Jersey suburbs of New York and Miami. If this is the face of respectable discourse on how to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, then something is seriously wrong.
Portraying President Obama in this way is demeaning and condescending to the memories of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis and Fascists and their supporters in Europe during World War II. It demeans the memories of American GIs and other Allied soldiers.
What would I tell the students at Haifa University had I been asked why educated people are comparing the American president to a Nazi? It is as wrong as were the claims I heard during a trip to Israel during April 2002, at the height of the violence of the Second Intifada: Palestinians called Israelis Nazis. Israelis called Palestinians Nazis. Nonsense on both counts. There are two peoples on one land.
Portraying the first African-American president of the United States as a swastika-flag waving Brownshirt leading hundreds of Nazis at a 1930s Nuremberg style rally is not a Kosher pro-Israel image. And it never will be.
The Holocaust did not have to happen. Neither does this trivialization, nor the demeaning portrayal of the President and his brave leadership in seeking an end to a terrible conflict. And unless there is a peaceful solution, more kids will be killed and maimed on both sides.