they drew the right lessons from Warsaw

A couple days ago, I posted the photo of Yonatan Shapira and Ewa Jasiewicz’s Hebrew-and-English graffiti [video here] on the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto enjoining the world to “Free All the Ghettos.” I didn’t comment. It seemed almost silently eloquent anyway. But elsewhere, the same photo elicited some criticism, saying it was in bad taste. Unmerited, I think. Here’s why–but first, a bit of ideological debris-clearing. The first reason usually given for discomfort with discussing the Holocaust or Warsaw in relation to Palestine is that it politicizes or instrumentalizes Jewish tragedy, the specific historical tragedy of a people practicing a religion, to support a partisan, parochial agenda. That accusation is difficult to make justly. Jewish tragedy has already been relentlessly both politicized and monetized to support parochial agendas. People make good money off of the Holocaust, both through cultural production and more directly.
 That’s blood money. Complaints about the misuse of the Holocaust are hypocritical while direct and glaring abuses go unconfronted. And those abuses are everywhere in American institutional Jewish culture, which rotates uneasily around the dual axes of Israel and the Holocaust.
Israel, too, has relentlessly politicized Jewish tragedy, constantly invoking the Holocaust whenever it contemplates the prospect of an embattled Hamas arming itself, or when dealing reasonably with Arabs in general, or even when some disgruntled liberal pipes up that it’s bad form to cluster-bomb Lebanese peasants. The American Zionist lobby and centrist-to-right intellectuals invoke the Shoah constantly to defend Israelis’ barbarity committed-in-the-name-of-security.
Israeli and American teenagers are paraded around Warsaw and Auschwitz–rarely the camps in Germany, though–to sacralize Jewish suffering. Such sacralization becomes politicization, and hardens into a nearly automatic support for the Israeli state, behind which world Jewry shelters. People who claim that it is bad taste to associate Warsaw with Gaza must attack those manifestations of politicization first. Few people pass these tests. But take what I think are their issues.
First, there are complaints about the accuracy of the historical analogy. Some chafe at the use of the phrase “concentration camp” to describe Gaza. I think it’s pretty precise. Maybe more precise yet would be “ghetto,” an institution that maximizes population on a minimized quantity of land, usually letting the imprisoned population govern itself, while the jailing power erects concrete and barbed-wire barriers around its victims.
 Second, if there is any “historical lesson” to be drawn from the experience of Warsaw, it’s the one Jewish communal institutions teach relentlessly (at least at the level of platitude): never again. If never again means something, it means what it says it means, never again, and it is precisely Israel that is “doing it again” in the Gaza Strip. Pace the already-touted “easing” of the siege, Gaza is a ghetto, and to say so is simply true. Third, the past, or history, is always an object of contention.
History is re-written by every generation’s mainstream historians in the most blasé and blithe manner imaginable, usually in the direct interest of justifying the latest horror carried out by the state, and most don’t worry about this. Anyway, fourth, no one is even talking about re-writing history, but rather taking it seriously. And so, fifth, the activists appropriated the past and judiciously brought its truth to the present in the most humane and compelling way possible.
Yonatan Shapira was raised as a Jewish Israeli and does not deny his origin or his language or the possibility of it becoming the language of a decent culture. So he drew his dissent in Hebrew. Nor do he and Jasiewicz deny Jewish suffering. Instead, they find its analogue in, they find it to be the precursor of, Palestinian suffering in Gaza. This scathing historical allusion doesn’t misuse the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising. It honors that memory and its martyrs, and it honors the community that suffered it by suggesting that the community can rise above the level of reflecting its collective trauma onto another people.
 In turn, urging the destruction of all ghettos on the site of the Jewish apotheosis-of-ghettos pays the ultimate homage to the memories of those who suffered, the memories of the victims, by turning their memory and the symbolic capital of their victimhood to the task of dispelling the structures and institutions that create victims.
Here is Yad Vashem’s response:

Yad Vashem is repulsed by Yonatan Shapira’s actions and statements…We see in his actions a provocation that perverts the history both of the Holocaust and of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These actions, tainted with anti-Semitism, point to a person who has lost all factual and moral judgment. The use of the Holocaust in the way that Shapira has chosen to do so is a crass manipulation that warps the historical truth.

Is it really Shapira and Jasiewicz who transgress truth and dishonor the Holocaust, an event used in Yad Vashem’s statement as a crude signifier that’s simply meant to obliterate thought by saturating those theoretically capable of it with a mindless sense of victimhood? What about the role of Yad Vashem that insists that it, as an Israeli pseudo-historical institution, has a monopoly on “historical truth” and its uses, while it invokes “anti-Semitism” in a way that does literally nothing except to cheapen it into a nothing word? (Yad Vashem, by the way, insists that it is “the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust,” disgustingly, probably a far truer statement than they understand). 
Why does Yad Vashem’s institutional “regard” for the historical truth of the Holocaust take precedence over Shapira’s regard, when it was Shapira’s family imprisoned behind the walls upon which he scrawled his message? Is it Shapira who has “lost all factual or moral judgment,” or the scribbler of Yad Vashem’s press release?
Was Jasiewicz’s and Shapira’s action a “provocation,” as Yad Vashem’s indictment reads? For sure. Is that a problem? Not at all. Amidst the hysteria of Israeli political culture, provocation is hardly a swear word when business-as-usual means the industrial indoctrination that lubricates politicide. Anyway, history doesn’t exist in some Platonic realm of transhistorical and virginal veracity, tainted if used for political purposes.
Did Shapira and Jasiewicz also politicize the past? Did they use the truth of the past to try to make a different future? Of course they did. As Shapira said, “The Holocaust cannot be appropriated only by Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu], [Avigdor] Lieberman or anyone else in the Israeli government.” No: it can be appropriated also by those who bother to take it seriously, by those horrified at seeing its horrors reprised.  Bravo.
 Technorati Tags: Ewa Jasiewicz, Gaza, Israel, Palestine, Warsaw Ghetto, Yonatan Shapira
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