Sarah Hammerschlag: It's Time to Retire the Holocaust Trope

Roundup: Talking About History

Sarah Hammerschlag, in Sightings, the newsletter of the Msrtin Marty Center at the University of Chicago (Aug. 26, 2004)

[Sarah Hammerschlag was a 2003-2004 junior fellow at the Martin Marty Center and is currently a dissertation fellow at the Erasmus Institute at the University of Notre Dame. She is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School and is writing her dissertation on the reappearance of the trope of the Jew in twentieth-century French philosophy.]

Those Who Forget the Past, a recent collection of essays on the reappearance of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere after September 11, alludes in its title to the imperative phrase that has become a Holocaust memorial mantra: Never Forget! The conventional wisdom backing this sentiment is that by studying the past, we are able to avoid repeating its mistakes. Yet, given the reappearance of so many of the phrases and images of nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Semitism in the last few years, we might ask whether it is not our fixation on the Holocaust that fuels our convictions that the past is about to repeat itself. The increase in violent acts against Jews in France is real and frightening; the trading of ethnic slurs between Jews and Muslims in the streets and in the press is noxious. What makes these events and incidents potentially more explosive is the insistence on the part of some Jewish public figures, such as Ron Rosenbaum, editor of Those Who Forget the Past, that what we are witnessing is a reappearing historical pattern, one that Rosenbaum sees as leading toward a second Holocaust.

The assumption behind many of the essays in Rosenbaum's volume is that the tropes of anti-Semitism are reappearing because anti-Semitism has itself returned. With it come all the images, turns of phrase, and idea clusters which function as its symptoms. Anti-Semitism, according to this line of thinking, is a disease, it has a fundamentally inexplicable, irrational, and insidious essence; and while it may mutate given its environment, fundamentally, it stays the same. As Elie Wiesel said in a speech to the Anti-Defamation league in 2002, "The world has changed in the last 2,000 years and only anti-Semitism has remained ... the only disease that has not found its cure is anti-Semitism."

This way of thinking overlooks the particularity of our historical moment and potentially obscures the possible causes behind the resurgence of these incidents. What is misleading is the recurrence of so many of the images and ideas that accompanied both medieval and nineteenth century Jew-hatred, such as the blood-libel and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. What gets lost in the shock over the repetition is the fact that the rhetoric has returned not despite the fact that it had such ghastly consequences but because it had such ghastly consequences. Its very ghastliness possesses us. This means not only that the images and ideas will be redeployed, but also that they will be insistently identified, sometimes whether they are present or not.

So when Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss Moslem reformist and vocal objector to Arab anti-Semitism, objects to the communitarian interests of Jewish-French Intellectuals supporting the war in Iraq, perhaps it is over-sensitivity to the charge of "Jewish conspiracy" that has led some Jewish intellectuals to claim that he is an anti-Semite who has finally "lowered his mask." And when Ariel Sharon responds to the recent increase of anti-Jewish violence in France with the urgent call that French Jews should escape France as quickly as possible, perhaps it is the spectre of Krystalnacht that colors his perception of the incidents.

Ironically, it is not only anti-Zionists and anti-Semites who are tapping into history's great font of anti-Jewish images and ideas, but also the "watchdogs" of anti-Semitism. My fear is that these images are so powerful that they can distract us from the real issues at hand, making lucid discussions about the recent intensification of both Jewish and Moslem nationalisms often impossible. It is exactly because the danger of anti-Jewish violence in Europe is real that we must not allow our concern for the problem to be obscured by the ghost of days past.

The year is 2004 not 1938 and each era brings with it its own conflicts and prejudices. It may be that while the conflicts change, it is merely the tropes that remain the same.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Clare Lois Spark - 8/28/2004

I am not sure what this writer is getting at. Is she, from the rational vantage point of the higher moderation, applying an irrationalist analysis alleging that both Jews and Moslems are similarly nationalist (which is very bad, for excessive "nationalism" causes conflicts that cannot be moderated), and that the "watchdogs" worried about resurgent violent antisemitism are (irrationally) possessed by an obsolete "trope"? She's kidding, right?