Tony Judt: The Banalization of the Holocaust?

Historians in the News

Tony Judt is uneasy about our contemporary preoccupation with the Holocaust. Writing in The New York Review of Books, the New York University historian worries that the memory of the Holocaust has been "manipulated to local advantage" and become too closely attached to the cause of defending Israel and is therefore losing its universal moral significance.

"Yes, the problem of evil in the last century, to invoke Arendt once again, took the form of a German attempt to exterminate Jews," Judt writes. "But it is not just about Germans and it is not just about Jews. It is not even just about Europe, though it happened there. The problem of evil -- of totalitarian evil, or genocidal evil -- is a universal problem."

"My fear," Judt continues, "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. For the truth is that Israel today is not in existential danger. And Jews today here in the West face no threats or prejudices remotely comparable to those of the past -- or comparable to contemporary prejudices against other minorities."

Norman Geras, an emeritus professor of government at University of Manchester, has taken to his blog to write a very lengthy and very thoughtful response to Judt's essay. I can't do justice to the intricacy of both Judt's essay and Geras's response (you should really read both in their entirety), so I will just quote a passage from Geras's post to offer you a taste:

What is striking about these arguments of Judt's is their unqualified, their completely one-sided, character. It is true that the Jewish tragedy in Europe is sometimes misused to justify or excuse Israeli policies that should not be defended. But to say this without noting that there is also anti-Semitic hostility to Israel, in the Arab world and in the West, some of it perfectly overt and some of it more discreet, is to pretend that anti-Semitism is a smaller problem than it is. To lament such misuses of the Holocaust without mentioning the misuses in the opposite direction that equate Israel with the spirit and the methods of the Nazis is to see with only one eye. The same goes for writing as if the most serious sources of anti-Semitism might be arguments used by defenders of Israel or an over-emphasis on the Shoah. Really? This is a centuries-old hatred, and yet here we find ourselves in a situation where it is defense of the Jewish state and memory of the genocide against the Jews that are the stimulants of anti-Semitism; these, at any rate, are Tony Judt's sources of choice.

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