Orla Guerin’s report shows what’s wrong with Holocaust remembrance

Robert Cohen discusses the manufactured outrage over Orla Guerin’s brief reminder on BBC News that Jewish victimhood has translated into Israeli supremacism over the last 75 years. Such incessant patrolling of how the Holocaust is to be understood is an insult to all those whom were murdered. The fact of mass murder is not in question but how we are to interpret it and learn from it, like all significant historical events,  is and must be an area of controversy. To seek to preserve it in aspic, with only one script sanctioned, prevents the learning that the self-appointed arbiters claim they wish to promote. Thinking about the Holocaust is neither revisionism nor denial, it is a duty.

This article first appeared on Patheos.com and is reproduced by permission of the author

As I become older I realise that the Holocaust is not over. The gas chambers and incinerators are gone but the consequences of the horror will continue to play out in the decades and even centuries to come. Our understanding of who we are as Jews, our place in the world, our politics, how others view us, even our theology, continues to be shaped, indeed defined, by the Holocaust.

Why would it be otherwise?

Just as with earlier major turning points of Jewish history – the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70 or the expulsion from Spain in 1492 – the Holocaust changed everything. A third of our people were destroyed along with their culture and heritage. But none of us were left untouched whether we were alive then or born since. Or are yet to be born.

As Jews we have every reason to be sensitive about how the Holocaust is spoken about. What happened should be remembered. It should be taught. Mourning is necessary and reverence is needed, if only to help us to heal.

In remembering the Holocaust, we understandably focus on the past. What happened. And why. We raise up the voices of the remaining survivors so they can give their personal testimony one more time before they become too frail. We ask the leaders of nations to recommit to fighting antisemitism. We engage with our neighbours at a community level and work to create a shared acceptance of the need to remember, and for some, atone.

But there are dangers in how we remember too.

Trauma and narrative

The greatest danger I see is the passing on of unprocessed trauma from one generation of Jews to the next. Living in constant fear of existential threats is not living, it is only surviving. No group of people can thrive if trapped in such a mental condition. We have become sophisticated at teaching the facts of the Holocaust. But poor at recognising the deep emotional impact such learning may cause us and our children.

The other danger is that we try to police the narrative of the Holocaust and set boundaries on its interpretation. There are many reasons why this happens. Some are about emotional and psychological needs linked to the passing on of trauma. But most of the time it’s mixed up with politics. Usually the politics of Israel. And all of this can take place in both conscious and unconscious ways. The results are the same though. We fail to see the full consequences of the tragedy as it continues to work its way through Jewish history and human history too.

Orla Guerin

Orla Guerin
Orla Guerin

All of which brings me to the BBC’s International Correspondent, Orla Guerin.

One short TV news report this week seems to illustrate what takes place when unprocessed collective trauma comes together with a desire to set boundaries on the narrative of the Holocaust.


The BBC had commissioned Orla Guerin’s report as part of its coverage of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

As I watched the report broadcast on the News at Ten on Wednesday evening I knew all hell was about to break out for Guerin and the BBC.

The following morning, Board of Deputies Vice President, Amanda Bowman, made a formal complaint to the BBC for allowing Guerin to make a link from the Holocaust to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“In an otherwise moving report on the experiences of a Holocaust survivor, Orla Guerin’s attempt to link the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the horrors of the Holocaust was crass and offensive. Her lack of impartiality on the Israel-Palestine conflict has long been a matter of concern and it is questionable why the BBC would even use her for this sensitive assignment. As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day, the Jewish community is within its rights to expect an apology.”

Meanwhile, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, wrote an Op Ed in his paper that surpassed even his own impressive track record for hyperbolic prose:

“I cannot recall a more foul – sickening, indeed – report by any journalist, either in print or broadcast.”

Later, the former BBC chairman Michael Grade and Danny Cohen, its former director of television, added to the criticism. Cohen was quoted by the Guardian:

“The attempt to link the horrors of the Holocaust to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply offensive and upsetting. It was unnecessary, insensitive and particularly ugly in the days before Holocaust Memorial Day. Adding insult to injury, the report uses pictures of Holocaust victims in Yad Veshem during the sequence in which this link is made. This is inexplicably and unjustifiably offensive.”

The Campaign Against Antisemitism also submitted a formal complaint from its Chief Executive Gideon Falter:

“Few could imagine perverting what is supposed to be an educational piece about the Holocaust to instead fuel the very antisemitism that such education is supposed to prevent, but that is what the BBC has done. It was utterly appalling to watch Orla Guerin hijack a segment dedicated to remembering six million murdered Jews, and instead use it as a vehicle to desecrate the memory of the Holocaust with her hatred of the Jewish state.”

The criticism Orla Guerin has received has been truly ferocious. So what did she actually say that has caused such offence?

Auschwitz and the Palestinians

Most of Guerin’s the report was taken up with a sensitive and compassionate interview with a Holocaust survivor, Rena Quint, filmed in Jerusalem. It ended with Rena Quint at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial/museum with footage of her looking at the exhibits. The final seconds of the film showed Israeli soldiers visiting the museum. It was over these pictures that Guerin made her concluding commentary:

“In Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names – images of the dead. Young soldiers troop in to share the binding tragedy of the Jewish people. The State of Israel is now a regional power. For decades it has occupied Palestinian Territories. But some here will always see their nation through the prism of persecution and survival.”

Outrage

For the Board, Pollard and the other objectors to this news report, mentioning the Palestinians in the same breath as the Holocaust is an outrage.

The objection is that it minimises Jewish suffering, or creates an equivalence with Palestinian suffering, or suggests that Israeli persecution of Palestinians is akin to the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Or it does all three.

I would agree that there needs to be a great deal of care and sensitivity in drawing any similarities between Israel and the Holocaust. More often than not, Holocaust comparisons to Israel are used as crude sloganising designed to be provocative and deliberately hurtful to Jews while shedding little light on Palestinian suffering.

However, Orla Guerin was doing none of this in way she ended her report.

Intimately connected

You cannot understand the creation of the State of Israel (where half the world’s Jewish population now live) nor the attitudes and outlook of its political leaders or Jewish citizens without taking account of the Holocaust and the previous 2,000 years of European Jewish history.

The Holocaust and Israel are intimately connected – emotionally, politically, theologically. They cannot be separated in any kind of analysis of Jewish experience since 1945.

And if Israel chooses to make Jerusalem the focal point of the commemorations (when previously Auschwitz itself has been) then why is it so unreasonable to link them in a news report? After all, generations of Jewish and Israel leaders have presented the creation of the State of Israel as a form of redemption for the Jewish people following the Holocaust and an act of atonement on the part of the international community which did so little to protect Jews or give them a safe haven when they could have done.

But there’s much more to justify Guerin’s commentary. And this is where the dangers of unprocessed Jewish trauma and the desire to control the narrative comes into view.

The undeniable truth is that Palestinians are part of the post Holocaust story too. Their history and current situation cannot be separated from Auschwitz any more than the Jewish story can. In fact, they have become the same story because the Palestinians paid the price for Europe’s failures and the rest of the world’s indifference.

What’s really offensive is the attempt to disconnect the relationship between these two peoples. Whether we like it or not, we are now bound together in our post Holocaust experience.

Without wanting to draw any historical equivalence of suffering, one can legitimately argue that the Palestinian people are also Hitler’s posthumous victims. All that Guerin has done is point out this relevant information.

Of course, the project of Zionism, of a settler colonial ‘return’ to the Promised Land, began decades before the Holocaust. But I strongly doubt the creation of a Jewish State in 1948 would have happened in the way it did if the Holocaust had not taken place. The international community’s relationship to Israel over the decades would have been entirely different too.

It’s not hard to understand why all those who are protesting about Guerin are so vexed by the whole affair. If the Palestinians are allowed into the Holocaust narrative, then the Jewish presentation of the creation of the State of Israel as an entirely righteous and innocent endeavour starts to break down. We can’t afford to allow the Palestinians to be anything other than obstacles and irritants to our own project of post Holocaust salvation.

And underpinning this state of mind is that perpetuation of intergenerational trauma. Trauma generates fear and fear leads to suspicion. It certainly leaves no room for empathy when it comes to the Palestinians.

This is the unbalanced, asymmetric tragedy of Israel/Palestine. It is the Holocaust continuing to wash through history.

‘Deal of the century’

In the coming days we’re likely to see a further marginalisation of the Palestinian people as President Trump finally announces the details of his grossly misnamed “deal of the century”. Benjamin Netanyahu certainly hopes it will “make history”, by which he means it will soon facilitate the annexation of the main Settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley into sovereign Israeli territory.

So the Holocaust continues to play itself out creating new generations of victims. And it’s still too soon to understand what it all means or when it will truly end.

Distorting the definition of antisemitism: silencing criticism of Israel

Amos Goldberg and Raz Segal add to evidence that the IHRA (mis)definition of antisemitism fails to protect Jews and inhibits free speech as illustrated by the recent actions of Tower Hamlets Council

They describe how the IHRA initially sought to combat racism against Jews and Holocaust denialism, but its definition of antisemitism serves as a tool for silencing criticism of Israel, making it harder to identify actual forms of anti-Jewish hatred.

This article is republished from +972

There is a growing tendency among both Jews and non-Jews to label those with whom they have profound political differences, especially on the subject of Israel-Palestine, as antisemitic. The accusation is a severe one: in most countries in the West, antisemitism is considered a taboo, and the identification of a person or organization with antisemitism often renders them illegitimate in the public arena. Continue reading “Distorting the definition of antisemitism: silencing criticism of Israel”

Facebook allege calling Israeli settlers land stealers is ‘offensive’

Richard Silverstein, a well respected American Jewish blogger and columnist has been banned by Facebook for accusing Israeli settlers of stealing land (shock, horror) on the basis that it “disparage[s] ethnic or religious groups”.

I am a freelance journalist and political blogger with 5,000 Facebook followers on my personal account and 1,500 Followers of my blog page, Tikun Olam.  I publish articles about the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The message Silverstein received from Facebook telling him he was bannedOn June 7th, I posted to Facebook this article from the site, AI Monitor, which reported that Palestinian landowners who had lost their homes through fraudulent real estate transactions perpetrated by Israeli settlers had regained them.

I added to the article my own comment: “Israeli settlers steal land.” The screenshot of my post and comment is attached.

Continue reading “Facebook allege calling Israeli settlers land stealers is ‘offensive’”

Ronnie Barkan: I stand here today as the accuser, not the accused

Ronnie Barkan is  a long-time Israeli friend of FSOI. Alongside two other activists for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, he faced a first trial hearing in Berlin on 4 March for disrupting a talk by Israeli lawmaker Aliza Lavie at Humboldt Wniversity in Berlin (in 2017). The three were pointing out her complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The three are Ronnie Barkan, Stavit Sinai (both Jewish-Israeli) and Majed Abusalama (Palestinian), known as the “Humboldt 3”.

This is his powerful speech to the court.

I stand here today with a sense of pride.

Not the pride of vanity, but pride in knowing that what I did was fundamentally right and done for the greater good.

I also stand here today as the accuser, not the accused.

he Humboldt 3, Stavit Sinai, Ronnie Barkan, and Majed Abusalama, receive an award from Copenhagen’s Mayor for Technical and Environmental Affairs, Ninna Hedeager Olsen (far right) in February 2019.
The Humboldt 3, Stavit Sinai, Ronnie Barkan, and Majed Abusalama, receive an award for their courage from Copenhagen’s Mayor for Technical and Environmental Affairs, Ninna Hedeager Olsen (far right) in February 2019.

Continue reading “Ronnie Barkan: I stand here today as the accuser, not the accused”

How to turn Breaking the Silence rights activists into ‘traitors’

Orly Noy explores how malicious allegations calling Breaking the Silence activists traitors, spies, and enemies of the state were used to attempt to destroy their reputation as principled defenders of human rights. While criminal charges have not been pressed, the reputational damage persists and no one has apologised.

This article was first published in +972 Magazine and is reprinted by permission

One day in the future, when high school students learn about the transformation of Israel from a nationalistic fortress state into a fascistic one, an entire chapter will be dedicated to the persecution of left-wing activists and human rights groups. The chapter will describe at length the role of three central bodies in this destructive process: extreme-right organizations, the media, and politicians from across the political spectrum. Continue reading “How to turn Breaking the Silence rights activists into ‘traitors’”

Is antisemitism different from other forms of racism?

Mike Cushman asks, wherefore is this racism different from all other racisms?

Advocates of the IHRA document on antisemitism often claim that antisemitism is different from all other forms of racism because it attacks a privileged group rather than a disadvantaged group – are they right? Both Jewish and non-Jewish members of the antisemite hunting pack are fond of this claim.

The answer is, of course, no and yes.

Is antisemitism different?
Jews arriving in the East End at the start of the 20th century
Jews arriving in the East End at the start of the 20th century

Historically, at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century Britain’s Jews were largely a poor immigrant community, sweated labour in the garment factories and living in overcrowded slums. Antisemitism then was no different to the racism suffered now by Bengalis in the East End who have inherited their workplaces and location. Balfour’s 1905 Aliens act was driven by the same visceral racism that characterises all the subsequent migration legislation from the 1962 Commonwealth

East End Bengalis protesting against the racist murder of Altab Ali (source Swadhinata Trust)

Immigrants Act onwards. Jews then faced the same problems in accessing housing, jobs and fair treatment from public agencies that people of colour face now. So, in this respect – no, not different.

Continue reading “Is antisemitism different from other forms of racism?”

Im Tirtzu claims New Israel Fund supports ‘foreign agents’ who persecute Israeli soldiers

Jonathan Ofir describes how a  fascist group, Im Tirtzu, defames and attempts to intimidate and silence critical voices in “the only democracy in the Middle East”

This article first appeared in Mondoweiss reprinted by permission of the author

The right wing Israeli Jewish group “Im Tirtzu” has published an incitement video, featuring Adi Shosberger, who has recently called soldiers near the Gaza fence ‘terrrorists,’; and an activist from ‘Machsom Watch’ (‘Checkpoint watch’) who tells an Israeli soldier “you are a disgrace”.

Im Tirtzu video targeting New Israel Fund for allegedly persecuting Israeli soldier
Im Tirtzu video targeting New Israel Fund for allegedly persecuting Israeli soldier

The video frames these actions as a conspiracy of the progressive New Israel Fund. New Israel Fund, a global organization based in the U.S., has supported Machsom Watch, but it has no connection to Shosberger. “I have no connection to the New Israel Fund,” Shosberger writes, in Hebrew.  Continue reading “Im Tirtzu claims New Israel Fund supports ‘foreign agents’ who persecute Israeli soldiers”

Israel and the Labour Party: a love story

Leon Rosselson shows how the Labour Party is in a state of denial about an Israel committed to a fantasy of a two state solution to be achieved through non-existent peace talks

This article is reprinted by permission from Medium

In my last blog  I suggested that Israel’s staunch supporters are infected with a brain disease called Zionusitis. It was, of course, a joke. Or maybe it wasn’t. Since then, there has been another enactment of the absurdist farce called Antisemitism in the Labour Party. A demonstration in Parliament Square organised by the (self-selected) British Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council demanded an end to the antisemitism which, so they claim, is now rife in Corbyn’s Labour Party. It was attended by a number of Labour MPs plus various riff-raff from other parties and the usual suspects from the Jewish Labour Movement. Following that, Jeremy Corbyn attended a seder organised by a group of young Jews called Jewdas and was pilloried for consorting with the wrong sort of Jews.

Of course, this has nothing to do with real antisemitism. The Board of Deputies has no problem with the antisemitism of Trump and the American white supremacists or the antisemites in Hungary and Poland, like Viktor Orban, since they are also firm supporters of Israel. Jewdas is attacked as unrepresentative because it is a non-Zionist group. Since Israel claims to represent all the Jews in the world and since Netanyahu claims to speak for ‘the Jewish people’, it would not be surprising if those who are angered by Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians tweet or write criticism of Israel that sometimes topple over into antisemitism. But a report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that the level of antisemitism in the country and across the political parties , including the Labour Party, is low; the level of anti-Israelism, on the other hand, is significantly higher. And this is what the Zionist lobby, the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the Labour Friends of Israel, are concerned about. Continue reading “Israel and the Labour Party: a love story”

This Is not about Natalie Portman

Michael Lesher argues that talking about Portman’s refusal to visit Israel to receive a prize provides a useful distraction from thinking about Israel’s murders of Gazans

This article first appeared in The Forward and is reprinted by permission

Come on, folks. Since when is one actress’s discomfort about sharing a stage with Israel’s blood-stained prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, more newsworthy than the Israeli atrocities against Gaza that presumably spurred it? (And let’s face it, these are just the most recent horrors in Israel’s war on the 2 million inmates of the world’s largest concentration camp.)

Since when does a cancelled award ceremony take precedence over murdered children and defenceless demonstrators getting their legs blown off?

And what sort of Jewish media, or public intellectuals, would have more to say about one performer’s refusal to be window dressing for Israel’s latest crimes than about the crimes themselves?

But — oh, if only these were rhetorical questions! Continue reading “This Is not about Natalie Portman”

Dear Natalie Portman, your liberal Zionism won’t save your Jewish values

An open letter to Natalie Portman  from Robert Cohen telling her that her stance is brave and welcome but will fail unless she deepens her understanding of the limitations of even liberal Zionism

Reprinted by permission from Writing From The Edge

“Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.”

Natalie Portman, Friday 20 April 2018

Dear Natalie

I too was a liberal Zionist.

I too thought the problem was the leaders of Israel and their policies.

I too thought a change of leadership and a change of policies could fix things.

I don’t think that anymore.

Like you, I care about “Jewish values” but I long ago gave up on the idea that Israel, and the Zionism that created and sustains the Jewish State, would protect those values. Continue reading “Dear Natalie Portman, your liberal Zionism won’t save your Jewish values”