Israel losing its memory in pursuit of security


Post-Holocaust taboos of humiliation and collective punishment have now withered to nothing, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

PERHAPS THE most haunting opening sequence in cinematic history is that of Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary, Shoah, released in 1985. We see a moment of verdant serenity. A flat-bottomed boat is being punted down a slow, tree-lined river. A handsome, middle-aged man with curly grey hair is standing in the prow, singing, in a lithely melodic tenor voice, a plaintively nostalgic Polish folk song about a lovely white house.

But we know, because we can read it in the captions, that the river is the Narew, 50 miles northwest of Lodz, where the Nazis herded Jews into one of the most notorious ghettoes. And we know that it flows near Chelmno, the camp where the Germans first used gas for the systematic extermination of Jews. And we know that the singer is Simon Srebnik, who is one of the two Jews, from the 400,000 at Chelmno, who came out alive.

Srebnik is, at the time of the filming, 47. He is re-enacting a weekly routine that began when he was 13 and was taken to Chelmno from the Lodz ghetto.

The SS guards kept him alive because he won a contest staged for their amusement to see how far inmates could leap with their legs in chains. And they liked his sweet, lyrical voice. They taught him Prussian military songs. Each week, as they punted up the river to collect alfalfa grass to feed the rabbits they kept at the camp, they would bring him to entertain them on the trip.

There was a limit to such mercy. When the Red Army was approaching Chelmno, the guards took Srebnik, along with all the other surviving Jews, and shot him in the back of the head. By some fluke, the bullet missed the important parts of his brain and a Russian doctor was able to fix him up. Two months later, he was on a boat for Tel Aviv.

If you watch all nine hours of Shoah – and it is pretty much a human duty to do so – two thoughts become imperative. The first is a complete understanding of why so many Jews felt the need for a homeland of their own. In the simplest sense, people like Simon Srebnik needed a place where they could feel safe. You understand the existential force of that need. You grasp the raw power of the determination never again to be dependent for survival on the decency of European societies or on the liberal pieties that had proved to be so useless against barbarism. You know exactly why Jews would want to be able to wield violence rather than be subjected to it.

Watching Shoah, though, you also understand something else, something that is in tension with this first realisation. You understand the ways in which systems of violence, if they are unchecked, escalate towards a rationalisation of the unspeakable.

Once you decide that your group is especially exempt from the demands of common humanity, there is virtually no limit to what you will do to others. Lanzmann shows, through a slow accumulation of banal detail, the ways in which the attempted extermination of an entire people became normal. Shoah is, more than anything else, a description of the consequences of any group with power over others deciding that it is above the demands of humanity, and the others are below them.

Not only has the tension between these two imperatives never been resolved, but it is greater and more destructive than ever. Europe, as a whole, decided to assuage its guilt in the cheapest possible way – by meeting the Jewish need for a sanctuary at someone else’s expense.

It piously hoped that Israel would be nice to those whose land it had been granted, but it was tacitly grateful that the historic consequences of the Shoah would essentially be played out elsewhere.

In Israel itself, the tension between the two imperatives (safety and common humanity) has gradually weakened. The restraining influence of the memory of what it means to be treated as sub-human, to be written out of history, to be subject to arbitrary and lawless power, has slackened over time. Ghettoes, collective punishment, systematic humiliation, the fetishisation of military force, cynical propaganda machines, lebensraum – the post-Holocaust taboos against such things have withered to nothing. Without such restraint, the need for sanctuary has become monstrous and obsessive. It has consumed Israel’s own safety, which can ultimately be achieved only by making peace with its neighbours.

Which leaves Europe with a historic choice to make. It can continue to assuage its own guilt and meet the need of Jewish people for a sense of security in the way it has always done – at the expense of the Palestinians. Or it can face up to the second imperative of the Holocaust – the one that says “never again”. But it can no longer do both.

Europe needs to be the kind of friend to Israel that takes away your car keys when you’re drunk rather than the one that mutters a few words of disapproval and lets you drive on.