Yad Vashem, Power, and the Politics of History

As my friend and I made our way to Yad Vashem, the world-renowned Holocaust memorial museum in West Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of trepidation. I was nearing the end of a two-month stint working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the West Bank, and the experience had left me understandably sensitive to the eminently political character of all history-making. After nearly two months of being exposed time and again to the ways in which Zionism wields a particular version of history like a bludgeon against Palestinians, the questions running through my mind were somewhat less than hopeful: What kind of politic should I expect to undergird this museum’s framing of one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies? Would this framing be a worthy tribute to those millions whose lives were extinguished, or would it disgrace their memory by cynically exploiting it for political ends? Would its representation of history help us to deepen our understanding of the forces which generated the Nazi genocide (forces which can hardly be regarded as safely relegated to some fossilized past, but rather which are alive and well in the relations which constitute our present world) or would it instead turn history against us, constructing a portrait of the past which blinds us to the cruelties and perils of the present?

The answers to these questions, as it turned out, were ambiguous, but perhaps not as ambiguous as I might have wished. In fairness, the museum certainly had redeeming qualities. Yad Vashem did manage to capture the humanity – by which I mean the sensuousness and affective texture of human experience which often reveals itself only in the most mundane and idiosyncratic of stories – of those millions of Jews who were slaughtered with the kind of dispassionate calculation that only modernity could have produced, (3)   while still giving one some sense of the larger historical forces that were at work. I will grant it that. But, sadly, in many other respects the museum lived up to my worst expectations.

First, while Yad Vashem’s exhibits were not entirely devoid of historicity, the museum largely conformed to an understanding of antisemitism and the Nazi genocide which sees them not merely as unique but as exceptional historical phenomena. From this perspective, antisemitism is regarded as a transhistorical and essentially inexplicable product of some inherent Gentile hatred; it may have had distinct iterations, but has always been and will remain the irrational axis upon which the relations between Jews and non-Jews turn. Similarly, the Nazi genocide is treated as the face of evil itself, an event so (quantitatively) colossal and so (qualitatively) monstrous that no other episode in history can reasonably be compared to it. Second, the museum gave one the impression that the victims of the Nazi genocide were almost exclusively Jewish, in spite of the fact that millions of others perished in the Nazi death machinery.

The third concern with Yad Vashem is, in some regards, the gravitational center around which the museum’s other problematic dimensions revolve: namely its teleological representation of the relationships between the long history of antisemitism, the Nazi genocide, and the formation of the Israeli nation-state, whereby the Nazi genocide appears the inevitable culmination of Gentile hatred towards an allegedly “stateless” Jewry, just as the creation of Israel appears the exclusive means of Jewish redemption. The museum goes so far as to literally walk visitors through this historical sequence step by step, each exhibition of a particular place and time winding in a snake-like movement towards the next, culminating in the creation of Israel and the putative restoration of Jewish dignity. The experience reaches its climax in an unquestionably powerful display: the photos of victims peer down from the center of a circular room, suspended above a dark conical abyss that feels like a pit of despair. Along the walls of the room one can see folder after folder full of the names of those who have been killed (names which are being collected still). Consolation is to be found only upon exiting the museum, when one steps outside to find a scenic viewpoint showcasing a picturesque Jerusalem in all its grandeur, a not-so-subtle symbol of Jewish salvation on Earth.

In these ways, Yad Vashem proved a quintessential example of what the Jewish social critic Norman Finkelstein has called “the Holocaust Industry,” a characterization of the agents and institutions which have produced a hegemonic ideological representation of the Nazi genocide in the service of their narrow interests. For Finkelstein, the development of this industry is essentially a post-1967 phenomenon, one that is closely tied to the US geopolitical alliance with Israel which developed in force after Israel quickly emerged victorious in the 1967 war (and in which Israel plays the role of a crucial, yet subordinate, US partner). The coincident interests were essentially three fold. First, US state and capitalist agencies recognized Israel as a vital outpost for the projection and reproduction of US political-economic power in Southwest Asia and North Africa (particularly as a bulwark against secular Arab nationalism), and came to rely upon the representation of the Nazi genocide as a symbol of the ever-present dangers of antisemitism in an effort to reduce virtually unwavering support for the Israeli state to some kind of absolute moral obligation. Second, in the US, Jewish elites (every ethnic group has its elites, and we Jews are no exception to the rule) saw an opportunity to advance their aspirations of assimilation and upward mobility by embracing Israel and Zionism with renewed vigor, now rationalized by depicting Israel as the only means of escaping an unparalleled and eternal victimhood (even if few had plans to actually emigrate). Finally, Israel was able to repeatedly invoke the Nazi genocide as the justification for the violent constitution of its settler-colonial state, for its original and ongoing ethnic cleansing and subordination of the Palestinian people. (4)

The Holocaust Industry has produced a seductive historical narrative, but it is one which, in my view, both degrades the memory of those who perished in the Nazi Genocide and leaves us incapable of drawing meaningful ethical, analytical, and political lessons from this momentous tragedy. Truly doing justice to all those who lost their lives in the Nazi genocide would mean remembering all of the victims (not only Jews) – and in a manner which does not cynically instrumentalize their suffering – as well as constructing a historical analysis which serves to illuminate the pitfalls and opportunities for advancing the struggle for collective liberation in the present. In order to be ethically viable, then, a Holocaust memorial museum would have to, at a minimum, differ from Yad Vashem in the following respects:

(1) Rather than representing the Nazi genocide as entirely exceptional, as an historical aberration which defies comparison, such a musuem would search out the Nazi holocaust’s commonalities with and differences from other historical events and processes. Incensed at just such exceptionalism in the wake of the Nazi holocaust, and especially the ways in which it ignored comparable European crimes in the colonial world, the Martiniquean poet and social critic Aimé Césaire exclaimed:

“People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: ‘How strange! But never mind-it’s Nazism, it will. pass!’ And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.”(5)

And, as Finkelstein points out, the US is hardly exempt from the kind of historical parallels upon which Césaire’s moral indictment of Europe is founded:

“In fact, Hitler modeled his conquest of the East on the American conquest of the West…During the first half of this century, a majority of American states enacted sterilization laws and tens of thousands of Americans were involuntarily sterilized. The Nazis explicitly invoked this US precedent when they enacted their own sterilization laws…The notorious 1935 Nuremburg Laws stripped Jews of the franchise and forbade miscegenation between Jews and non-Jews. Blacks in the American South suffered the same legal disabilities and were the object of much greater spontaneous and sanctioned popular violence than the Jews in prewar Germany.”(6)

Furthermore, the Nazi legacy of racially delineated forced labor and systematic elimination ought to immediately recall the US history of slavery and the genocide of the Native American population. And while Israel’s sympathizers are quick to dismiss any comparison of the Israeli state with Nazi Germany as antisemitic ranting, it takes considerable intellectual acrobatics to avoid drawing any parallels whatsoever: as Nazi Germany directly and indirectly forced Jews to emigrate from or flee their countries, so too has the Israeli state been founded on the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians from their homeland; as Nazi Germany herded Jews into ghettos, so too has the Israeli state constructed militarized spatial enclaves in which Palestinians are confined (relatively or absolutely), exploited, and controlled; and just as Nazi Germany constructed a racist state which formally subordinated Jews, so too has Israel relegated its Palestinian citizens to third-class status and deemed the indigenous population of Palestine a “demographic threat,” going so far as to pass legislation banning thousands of Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens from living in Israel proper, a political move which in some ways resembles the Nazi introduction of miscegenation laws.(7)   It is not by any means my intention to equate the Nazi and Israeli states, which would merely be an exercise in intellectual dishonesty, but rather to say that they have some disturbing resemblances – such as the militarized geographical segregation of populations, the massive dispossession of communities from their homes, and the racist subordination of certain groups not only by way of the military and police but through the politico-juridical apparatus – which are in turn specific outgrowths of processes inherent in the modern world. We ought to take stock of such comparisons and ensure that our indignation over the Nazi genocide does not pass over present-day crimes just as worthy of condemnation. Such a comparative approach would also work to de-exceptionalize the history of antisemitism, and thereby ground the particular struggle against anti-Jewish racism in the more general struggle against racism in all its forms.

(2) Rather than emphasizing the victimization of Jews during the Nazi holocaust to the exclusion of all other communities, such a museum would identify the Nazi violence towards myriad groups, and refrain from situating each group’s suffering in some arbitrary hierarchy of worthiness. There were countless non-Jewish victims of Nazism, from communists to queers. As Finkelstein notes, both Romanis (“Gypsies”) and those who were differently-abled were targeted for systematic elimination. Romani communities suffered causalities which were proportionately comparable to those suffered by European Jews, and there is evidence that the Nazi machinery of genocide was designed first with the differently-abled, rather than the Jews, in mind.(8)   In addition to honoring the memory of these communities which similarly suffered a  profound tragedy, this more holistic approach serves, like the de-exceptionalization of antisemitism, to open up greater possibilities for using the history of the Nazi holocaust to advance the cause of collective liberation.

(3) Finally, rather than situating the Nazi holocaust within a teleology which leads from the victimization of the European Jewish diaspora under antisemitism to national Jewish redemption within the Land of Israel, such a museum would be attuned to the role of historical contingency in both the development of Nazism and Israeli settler-colonialism. Such a museum would also recognize that Zionism was but one of many Jewish responses to antisemitism. The Nazi genocide was no more a historical inevitability than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and if we treat it as such, we are left unable to determine its actual roots and dynamics. Meanwhile, Zionism has by no means had the fealty of Jews since its inception. Zionism was and remains contested. In fact, when Zionism first emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century, few Jews identified with its obsession with national consciousness building and its aspirations for building a territorial nation-state as a “Jewish homeland.” Alternative Jewish responses to antisemitism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included that of the Bund, a Jewish socialist organization which recognized the particularity of the Jewish struggle against racism and the need for some degree of Jewish autonomy and self-determination, but which simultaneously grounded this struggle in more universal aspirations for collective liberation. Even today, though Zionism is admittedly hegemonic within most Jewish communities, there are also those, such as myself, who regard Zionism as a deplorable and irredeemable enterprise, which shares more in common with Nazism (from its antisemitic precepts to its wider embrace of racism, militarism, authoritarianism, and colonialist expansionism) than it does with any genuine liberation struggle. By bringing contingency and contestation back into the analysis of the relations between antisemitism, Nazism, and the founding of Israel, it becomes possible to fundamentally question the Israeli project of state-building – to ask whether Israel has in fact provided an ethically viable answer to the so-called “Jewish question,” or whether it has merely displaced this question, along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The moral weight of the Nazi genocide cannot be overstated, but let us work to ensure that our engagement with its memory advances the cause of collective liberation, rather than an illusory liberation for some gained only through the imposition of violence, indignities, and suffering upon others.

“The unspoken terror permeating our collective memory of the Holocaust (and more than contingently related to the overwhelming desire not to look the memory in its face) is the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration, more than a deviation from an otherwise straight path of progress, more than a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society; that, in short, the Holocaust was not an antithesis of modern civilization and everything (or so we like to think) it stands for. We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it); that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire. And that the two faces are perfectly comfortably attached to the same body. What we perhaps fear most, is that each of the two faces can no more exist without the other than can the two sides of a coin.” –  Zygmunt Bauman(9)

“Although it is so often taught that Israel became a historical and ethical necessity for the Jews during and after the Nazi genocide, [Hannah] Arendt and others thought that the lesson we must learn from that genocide is that nation-states should never be able to found themselves through the dispossession of whole populations who fail to fit the purified idea of the nation. And for refugees who never again wished to see the dispossession of populations in the name of national or religious purity, Zionism and its forms of state violence were not the legitimate answer to the pressing needs of Jewish refugees. For those who extrapolated principles of justice from the historical experience of internment and dispossession, the political aim is to extend equality regardless of cultural background or formation, across languages and religions, to those none of us ever chose (or did not recognize that we chose) and with whom we have an enduring obligation to find a way to live. For whoever “we” are, we are also those who were never chosen, who emerge on this earth without everyone’s consent, and who belong, from the start, to a wider population and a sustainable earth. And this condition, paradoxically, yields the radical potential for new modes of sociality and politics beyond the avid and wretched bonds of a pernicious colonialism that calls itself democracy. We are all, in this sense, the unchosen, but we are nevertheless unchosen together. On this basis one might begin to think the social bond anew.” –  Judith Butler (10)

David Langstaff is a Jewish-American radical organizer from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, where he studied political economy and global history. He is passionately committed to building a more just, equal, and democratic world, and has been a participant in movements for liberatory social transformation for a number of years, most recently in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and Occupy movements. In late 2012 he spent two months working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the West Bank. This article was contributed to the PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: http://memoryagainstforgetfulness.wordpress.com.


(1) Benjamin Fondane, “Preface in Prose,” Exodus [1942-43].
(2) Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
(3) On the relationship between modern beaucratic organization and the Nazi genocide, See Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
(4) Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London: Verso, 2003).
(5) Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1972), 3.
(6) Finkelstein (2003), 145.
(7) Israel has also recently admitted to injecting migrants of Ethiopian origin with long-acting birth control, according to many Ethiopian women who received this treatment, against their will. See, e.g., Talila Nesher, “Israel admits Ethiopian women were given birth control shots,” Haaretz (27 January 2013).
(8) Finkelstein (2003), 75, 76.
(9) Bauman (1991), 7.
(10) Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 24-25.

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David Langstaff is a writer, radical organizer, and restaurant worker who has been involved in movements for collective liberation for the past decade. He is a member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), and has also organized with Sins Invalid, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), Olympia BDS, the Block the Boat coalition, the Stop Urban Shield coalition, and the Third World Resistance Contingent for Black Power, among other formations. He currently lives in Ypsilanti, MI.

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