Never Again: Netanyahu’s Holocaust Cliché

Never Again: Netanyahu’s Holocaust Cliché April 1, 2015

16072485443_38e6ec0e06_oIn the air, on the air, tunneling through cables, conquering newsrooms, occupying the mouths of pundits, settling in the vacuous chambers of the minds of senators and congressmen, securing and challenging the border of church and state, opening the addled heart and vault of Las Vegas: Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

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I could tell you how uncomfortable—appalled, sickened—I was as I watched the short man enter the once hallowed halls of Congress and inch his way, from handshake to handshake, down the aisle to take his stand where democracy should stand, where truth should stand. But I won’t.

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As I write this, it’s been two weeks since the speech, which, in the temporal context of news, is an eternity. As I write this, it’s election day in Israel. You already know, if you follow Israeli politics, the outcome.

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His urgent message: No deal is better than the bad deal being negotiated with Iran. The same urgent message, Jon Stewart pointed out, he delivered in 1996. Or maybe his urgent message was this: my campaign is in trouble.

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That’s why he dragged the old man, trotting him out like a show dog, counting on his irrefutable moral authority to underscore the message: never again. Dutifully (reluctantly? painfully? humbly?), Elie Wiesel pushed himself up from his seat to be recognized, when his name was called, by the assembled members of Congress and guests. Their applause intended to tell voters, here and there, and donors that they stand against genocide. Never again. What courage it must have taken to stand and be counted among those who seventy-five years later are opposed to the Holocaust.

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When Moishe the Beadle, the jack-of-all-trades of the synagogue in Wiesel’s childhood synagogue in Sighet, escapes mass murder and returns to Sighet to warn its residents of what is in store for them, the townspeople, writes Wiesel in the first chapter of Night, “not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen.”

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“This is my sister here,” writes Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz, as he begins sharing with us one of his dreams while in the camp. She’s with “some unidentifiable friend and many other people. They are all listening to me and it is this very story I am telling: the whistle of three notes, the hard bed, my neighbor whom I would like to move, but whom I am afraid to wake as he is stronger than me.

I also speak diffusely of our hunger and of the lice-control, and of the Kapo who hit me on the nose and then sent me to wash myself as I was bleeding. It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there. My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word.”

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They knew even then, Levi and Wiesel, while the Holocaust-air over Europe hadn’t even been freshened yet, what they were up against.

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It’s an old story: hatred of the Jews. Wrap ‘em in Torah scrolls and set ‘em on fire! Hand them shovels and order them to dig a deep, wide hole, then line them up and fire away and watch, satisfied, as one after another tumbles anonymously into a mass grave. Make it new!

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Having been told so many times, over so many centuries, how can we tell it again so that it will be heard, heeded? When is it responsible to tell it? When is it reckless? When is it immoral?

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One night, decades after the war, while Ruth Kluger, author of Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, was visiting friends in Germany, the subject turned to claustrophobia. Her friends talked about the Chunnel, the rail connection between Britain and France, which hadn’t opened yet, wondering whether the average person “would be able to stand the confinement or freak out.” They shared stories of being stuck in an elevator, stories of hiding, during the war, in an air-raid shelter.

Kluger had a story, too: about the woman in the cattle car who, when Kluger’s mother tried to comfort her, urinated on her mother’s lap. But Ruth knew she couldn’t tell it. She knew it would be indecorous. It would bring the evening’s conversation to an abrupt, awkward end.

In Still Alive, Kluger says that she has grown weary of familiar Holocaust speeches “with the usual self-enclosed phrases that don’t engage anyone’s attention, let alone imagination.”

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What images, what details does every Holocaust story include? Fill in the blanks: ___________, _________, ___________, _________, ____________. You don’t need me to provide the answers.

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Imagination: That’s the only way to bring the Holocaust close enough for us to smell, to cause us to lose control of our bodily functions. It’s the only way to get us to consider our own complicity, even in matters of genuine self or national defense, in the misrepresentation and even the oppression of those who we believe are aiming their missiles at us, or threatening to steal our jobs, infect us, deny us our freedom, our lives.

That day in Congress, Netanyahu’s threat to the Jewish people came in the form of trivializing the Holocaust. Never again: it’s now a meaningless phrase. And those who rise and applaud in support of it: they’re conditioned to respond that way.

As a Jew, as an American, as a reader and writer, I was offended by Netanyahu’s pathetic performance.

Yet, remembering Moishe the Beadle and Levi’s nightmare, I wondered if I, too, would have been among those who refused to listen, wondered if even now I’m refusing to hear the warning of an imminent threat to my people.

 

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.


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