السبت، 20 مارس 2010

Howard Zinn: A Larger Consciousness

Howard Zinn: A Larger Consciousness
October, 10 1999
Some years ago, when I was teaching at Boston University, I was asked by a Jewish
group to give a talk on the Holocaust. I spoke that evening, but not about the
Holocaust of World War II, not about the genocide of six million Jews. It was the
mid-Eighties, and the United States government was supporting death squad
governments in Central America, so I spoke of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of
peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, victims of American policy. My point was that
the memory of the Jewish Holocaust should not be encircled by barbed wire, morally
ghettoized, kept isolated from other genocides in history. It seemed to me that to
remember what happened to Jews served no important purpose unless it aroused
indignation, anger, action against all atrocities, anywhere in the world.

A few days later, in the campus newspaper, there was a letter from a faculty member
who had heard me speak - a Jewish refugee who had left Europe for Argentina, and
then the United States. He objected strenuously to my extending the moral issue from
Jews in Europe in the 1940s to people in other parts of the world, in our time. The
Holocaust was a sacred memory. It was a unique event, not to be compared to other
events. He was outraged that, invited to speak on the Jewish Holocaust, I had chosen
to speak about other matters.

I was reminded of this experience when I recently read a book by Peter Novick, THE
HOLOCAUST IN AMERICAN LIFE. Novick's starting point is the question: why, fifty
years after the event, does the Holocaust play a more prominent role in this country
-- the Holocaust Museum in Washington, hundreds of Holocaust programs in schools --
than it did in the first decades after the second World War? Surely at the core of
the memory is a horror that should not be forgotten. But around that core, whose
integrity needs no enhancement, there has grown up an industry of memorialists who
have labored to keep that memory alive for purposes of their own.

Some Jews have used the Holocaust as a way of preserving a unique identity, which
they see threatened by intermarriage and assimilation. Zionists have used the
Holocaust, since the 1967 war, to justify further Israeli expansion into
Palestianian land, and to build support for a beleaguered Israel (more beleaguered,
as David Ben-Gurion had predicted, once it occupied the West Bank and Gaza). And
non-Jewish politicians have used the Holocaust to build political support among the
numerically small but influential Jewish voters - note the solemn pronouncements of
Presidents wearing yarmulkas to underline their anguished sympathy.

I would never have become a historian if I thought that it would become my
professional duty to go into the past and never emerge, to study long-gone events
and remember them only for their uniqueness, not connecting them to events going on
in my time. If the Holocaust was to have any meaning, I thought, we must transfer
our anger to the brutalities of our time. We must atone for our allowing the Jewish
Holocaust to happen by refusing to allow similar atrocities to take place now - yes,
to use the Day of Atonement not to pray for the dead but to act for the living, to
rescue those about to die.

When Jews turn inward to concentrate on their own history, and look away from the
ordeal of others, they are, with terrible irony, doing exactly what the rest of the
world did in allowing the genocide to happen. There were shameful moments,
travesties of Jewish humanism, as when Jewish organizations lobbied against a
Congressional recognition of the Armenian Holocaust of 1915 on the ground that it
diluted the memory of the Jewish Holocaust. Or when the designers of the Holocaust
Museum dropped the idea of mentioning the Armenian genocide after lobbying by the
Israeli government. (Turkey was the only Moslem government with which Israel had
diplomatic relations.) Another such moment came when Elie Wiesel, chair of President
Carter's Commission on the Holocaust, refused to include in a description of the
Holocaust Hitler's killing of millions of non-Jews. That would be, he said, to
"falsify" the reality "in the name of misguided universalism." Novick quotes Wiesel
as saying "They are stealing the Holocaust from us." As a result the Holocaust Museum gave only passing attention to the five million or more non-Jews who died in the Nazi camps. To build a wall around the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust is to abandon the idea that humankind is all one, that we are all, of whatever color, nationality, religion, deserving of equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What happened to the Jews under Hitler is unique in its details but it shares universal characteristics with many other events in human history: the Atlantic slave trade, the genocide against native Americans, the injuries and deaths to millions of working people, victims of the capitalist ethos that put profit before human life.

In recent years, while paying more and more homage to the Holocaust as a central
symbol of man's cruelty to man, we have, by silence and inaction, collaborated in an
endless chain of cruelties. Hiroshima and My Lai are the most dramatic symbols - and
did we hear from Wiesel and other keepers of the Holocaust flame outrage against
those atrocities? Countee Cullen once wrote, in his poem "Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth
Its Song" (after the sentencing to death of the Scottsboro Boys): "Surely, I said/
Now will the poets sing/ But they have raised no cry/I wonder why."

There have been the massacres of Rwanda, and the starvation in Somalia, with our
government watching and doing nothing. There were the death squads in Latin America,
and the decimation of the population of East Timor, with our government actively
collaborating. Our church-going Christian presidents, so pious in their references
to the genocide against the Jews, kept supplying the instruments of death to the
perpetrators of other genocides.

True there are some horrors which seem beyond our powers. But there is an ongoing
atrocity which is within our power to bring to an end. Novick points to it, and
physician-anthropologist Paul Farmer describes it in detail in his remarkable new
book INFECTIONS AND INEQUALITIES. That is: the deaths of ten million children all
over the world who die every year of malnutrition and preventable diseases. The
World Health Organization estimates three million people died last year of
tuberculosis, which is preventable and curable, as Farmer has proved in his medical
work in Haiti. With a small portion of our military budget we could wipe out

The point of all this is not to diminish the experience of the Jewish Holocaust, but
to enlarge it. For Jews it means to reclaim the tradition of Jewish universal
humanism against an Israel-centered nationalism. Or, as Novick puts it, to go back
to "that larger social consciousness that was the hallmark of the American Jewry of
my youth". That larger consciousness was displayed in recent years by those Israelis
who protested the beating of Palestinians in the Intifada, who demonstrated against
the invasion of Lebanon.

For others -- whether Armenians or Native Americans or Africans or Bosnians or
whatever -- it means to use their own bloody histories, not to set themselves
against others, but to create a larger solidarity against the holders of wealth and
power, the perpetrators and collaborators of the ongoing horrors of our time.

The Holocaust might serve a powerful purpose if it led us to think of the world
today as wartime Germany - where millions die while the rest of the population
obediently goes about its business. It is a frightening thought that the Nazis, in
defeat, were victorious: today Germany, tomorrow the world. That is, until we
withdraw our obedience.