The Wrath Of The Jews

I'm in the living room of a family friend, a Jewish woman who emigrated from Poland. The subject changes from yoga to Israel-Palestine, and I tell her that I think America needs to change its foreign policy towards Israel. She says, "In what way, so that the Arabs will throw the Jews into the sea?" It takes four minutes of back and forth for the conversation to further degenerate. She finally says, "Look, what I have to say isn't pretty, but I'm not afraid. I'm going to say it anyways. The Palestinians are nothing but vermin. They make trouble in every country they live in. Even the other Arab countries don't want them."

I take a deep breath. I've heard this before, except with "Jews" instead of "Palestinians." Jews are vermin. They make trouble in every country they live in.

Earlier in the evening, while sitting at the dinner table, I had asked our friend why she left Poland. She said that anti-Semitism in Poland was extremely severe when she was growing up. She said that there was another outburst of anti-Semitism in the mid-60s, and especially after the June 1967 "Six Day" War. Her husband, also a Polish Jew, looks up from his food and says abruptly, "Hey, why are you talking about this? Please change the subject."

At dinner, everyone is more than willing to oblige with their Israeli army stories, about how the Arabs want to "throw the Jews in to the sea," but no one wants to talk about how they were hurt by anti-Semitism. My mother has told me only a few stories of what it was like for her to grow up as a Jew in the Soviet Union. The most famous is how she took a broom to the head of a guy in school who persistently called her a "dirty Jew." It's the story with a happy ending. Justice was done. Less discussed is the story about how her father, a man who smuggled Jews out of the USSR and into Israel, was arrested by the KGB and sent to prison for eight years. Or how she was taken out of class every day for years and interrogated about her parents' "political activity."

There's a lot of crying and screaming to do. And there ain't a whole lot of room for it. Despite the enormity of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and various monuments to the Holocaust in the U.S., when you really get down to it, listening to Jews cry about how their families were annihilated, how they were beaten and targeted, is not a favorite American past-time. Neither, for that matter, is it terribly exciting for white folks to listen to blacks cry about the legacy of slavery, economic exploitation and racism. Or for straight people to listen to GLBTQ folks cry about what it feels like to have to lie about your identity to survive, to live in existential terror.

The Holocaust Museum is the largest in the world and in the center of Washington, D.C. Many of us think that Americans have heard more than enough about Jewish suffering. But the truth is that the Holocaust Museum and other forms of official recognition of Jewish suffering haven't addressed anti-Jewish oppression at all. It's hardly accidental.

Before 1967, it didn't fit into American strategic interests to talk about Jews or their history of oppression, particularly in the same sentence as the word "justice." After 1967, when Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and conquered the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Sinai and the Golan Heights, the U.S. government decided that Israel could serve as a surrogate for U.S. interests in the Middle East. 1967 was the year when the U.S. discovered Israel, and it was the year when the Holocaust was "remembered."

The discovery of Israel happened as selectively as the remembering of the Holocaust. The U.S. discovered Israel as a military ally, not as a country with ordinary people, and so U.S. aid to Israel reflected that. Most U.S. aid to Israel, including economic aid, has been spent for expenses related to purchasing military equipment from the U.S. In order to justify that strategic relationship in moral terms, a new history of the Holocaust was "remembered."

The dominant narrative of the Holocaust is that Jews were led, like sheep to the slaughter, to the gas chambers, that they alone were murdered, and that the event of their annihilation had no precedent in history and therefore, no event in the present can compare to the Holocaust. The logical moral to the story for Jews is that we are alone in the world – no one understands our suffering because no one has experienced anything similar; we can only rely on ourselves for self-defense; we will be ever-vigilant, for danger lurks around every corner. And the logical moral to the story for Americans is that Jews need a strong Israel, and because the Jews were victims of the unspeakable, it's our duty to arm Israel to the teeth.

The dominant narrative of the Holocaust says very little about the hundreds of thousands of ordinary acts of resistance of those who perished, like the rabbi who, as he was shoved into the gas chamber, took the SS soldier by the lapel and said, "I will die today, but you will live alone with your guilt for a long time to come." Or the fact that the Jew who was forced to weld the sign at the entranceway to Auschwitz reading Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Makes One Free") welded the "b" upside down, as a sign of rebellion and a testament of resistance.

The dominant narrative says very little about the people who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews and others who were targeted for deportation and annihilation. It says very little about the millions of Roma, Poles, homosexuals and disabled people who were systematically murdered. And it says very little about genocides that preceded it, like that of the Native Americans, or that of the Armenians. It's a cheap rendition of a very complex story.

The result of the endless repetition of that dominant Holocaust narrative is that many Jews feel abandoned, isolated and very angry. We walk into these monuments and museums, and we cry and scream. We walk out and feel empty. Somewhere inside of us, we get a creepy feeling that justice was never done. I think that we feel that way because no one is listening to what we went through.

You might ask: "How can you say that no one is listening when the U.S. government has a special department specifically set up to memorialize the Holocaust? When the Holocaust Museum in Washington is the largest in the world? When documentaries about the Holocaust and films about the Holocaust receive public acclaim and Academy Awards?"

Those are all good questions. Americans are listening to the story that they are being sold, one that serves the interests of a militant U.S. foreign policy towards Israel. My family friend's comments are nearly the same as those made on MSNBC's talk radio show, "Imus in the Morning," after the death of Yasser Arafat. While Don Imus said that Palestinians are eating dirt, his guest, sports anchor Sid Rosenberg, followed up by saying that Palestinians should all be bombed. It's very likely that Imus, Rosenberg and our friend couldn't find Ramallah on a map if they were asked to.

The mainstream American media and other powerful policy-making institutions push a militaristic pro-Israel line while painting a simplistic picture of Palestinians as a people whose purpose in life is to kill Jews. Most Americans never get to see Palestinians as normal human beings who are struggling to breathe under the boot of a violent military occupation. In modern American life, Palestinians have been portrayed as the ultimate Jew-haters, serving to funnel Jewish anger away from those who have systematically oppressed us. A character called "the Palestinian" has been created to be the villain in a story whose logical ending requires the U.S. to provide Israel with obscene amounts of military equipment.

And that story isn't my story, and it isn't my family's story, or my family's friend's story. In my story, there is no moral to the story of the annihilation of six million Jews and the millions of Roma, Poles, homosexuals, disabled, and others who perished. Our story isn't one with the happy endings of Hollywood Holocaust blockbusters, where we all end up in Israel, protecting ourselves with our very own machine guns. The history of the Holocaust in my family isn't over yet. As a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, I am still living that history. Even though the Holocaust or my family's experience of anti-Semitism was hardly mentioned, I grew up in a house with the ghosts of my murdered family, with parents and grandparents who lived in absolute fear.

Before and after my family's friend told me that she thought that Palestinians are vermin and that she would poison their wells if she could, she showered me with affection (and food). She's an incredibly loving person who I believe would never intentionally hurt a single person. But she's very angry. And her wrath is misdirected at people who had nothing to do with her suffering, people whose history was stolen from them and re-written by the West.

Her wrath should have a comfortable resting place here in the United States, where the legacy of anti-Jewish oppression has never been addressed in any kind of meaningful framework that doesn't end in "and then they all lived happily-ever-after in Israel." To say that we will be safe when Israel is armed to the teeth is a sacrilege and a lie. I don't have any easy answers to the Holocaust. And anyone who does is trying to sell you something, like military equipment.

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