Of Genocide and Morality

Published August 29, 2007, issue of August 31, 2007.
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History usually passes from one era to another in a slow, glacial process, too gradual to be discernible until the change is complete. There are times, though, when the change happens in an instant, like a flash of lightning splitting a summer night. Such was the birth of the atomic age at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 62 years ago this month. Such was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism, when Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank in Moscow and defied the tyrants, 16 years ago last week. And such, we may learn to our sorrow, is the end of the post-Holocaust era in Jewish history. That age may have evaporated last week in a haze of wrenching moral contradictions, as the imperatives of remembering and resisting genocide collided with the needs of Israeli security.

If the collision had happened once, it would be merely a crisis. But it happened twice in one week, in two dramatic and unrelated crises. One was a confrontation between Israel and American Jews over recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Turks, which Israel fears would alienate an essential Muslim ally. The other was the agonizing sight of Israeli troops expelling a group of Darfuri refugees who had crossed vast deserts, fleeing the genocide in their homeland, to seek refuge in the Jewish state. Two crises, unrelated yet reflecting the same moral dilemma, suggest that something larger is under way — perhaps something as large as a tectonic shift in the ground under our feet.

Since the end of World War II, the accepted narrative of Jewish history has been a simple, linear one: from Holocaust to redemption; Israel as the retort to Auschwitz. In a deeper sense, the post-Holocaust era brought with it a new mission for the chosen people — to bear witness to the horrors of genocide, to see to it that memory would be preserved and that never again would such horrors be permitted. For the past 60 years, Jews everywhere have seen the rise from the ashes of a reborn Jewish state as the symbolic and physical embodiment of that mission. For most of us, remembering the Holocaust and cherishing Israel have been the two interlocking pillars of modern Jewish identity.

Last week those two pillars collided, in the most literal and dramatic way possible, shaken loose from their moorings by the shockwaves of genocide in two of the world’s hot spots. Israel found itself — or placed itself — on the side of the deniers, and Jews around the world were left standing in numb disbelief.

One incident began in Watertown, Mass., a small town with a large population of Armenian Americans. The good people of Watertown know, as many Jewish activists know, that the murder of Armenians by Turkey on the eve of World War I was one of the first mass atrocities of the 20th century and helped inspire Hitler. Yet Armenians have struggled for almost a century to wrest even the barest acknowledgement from Turkey of their tragedy. Turkey denies it, and much of the world stays silent, fearing Turkish wrath.

Earlier this month, Watertown decided to drop its participation in an anti-prejudice program of the Anti-Defamation League, because the league has refused to acknowledge the Armenian genocide or to endorse an upcoming congressional resolution on the subject. The ADL, like most Jewish organizations, fears — correctly — that speaking on Armenia’s tragedy will create tension between Israel and Turkey. However, after an ugly confrontation between the ADL’s national office and its Boston chapter, the league finally issued a statement acknowledging that the Armenian massacres were “tantamount to genocide.” The statement promptly touched off the feared diplomatic crisis between Turkey and Israel. The crisis has yet to be resolved.

The other crisis, involving Darfur, erupted just days after the first one. On August 17, Israeli police arrested a group of 50 Africans, most of them from Darfur, who were trying to enter Israel from Egypt. They had fled their homeland and trekked across the Sinai Desert, hoping to find refuge in the Jewish state as some 1,500 other Africans have done in recent months. Two days later, Israel announced that it would no longer grant refuge to African refugees — including those from Darfur — and would henceforth return all future migrants to Egypt, starting with the 50 arrested on the 17th. The expulsions raised a chorus of protests from a broad cross-section of Israelis, spanning the political spectrum. It drew criticism, too, from human rights groups around the world. Ironically, some of the American Jews who had led the Save Darfur campaign from the outset were quick to spring to Israel’s defense, citing its unique security concerns.

There’s no doubt that collisions between fighting genocide and defending Israel cut the heart of Jewish identity in the post-Holocaust era. What, we may ask, is the point of fighting for a Jewish state if it will not act in a Jewish manner — that is, serve as a beacon to us and the world? Wasn’t that supposed to be the promise of Israel?

Well, no, it wasn’t. The promise of Zionism, from Herzl to Ben-Gurion to today’s Israel, was to normalize the Jewish condition — to remove the Jewish people from its rootless, luftmentsh status as a scattered nation with no ground to stand on and no responsibility for the implications of its beliefs. It was to bring the Jews back into the rough-and-tumble of history, of real-life struggles as lived by sovereign nations. The idea of Israel as somehow exempt from the rules of realpolitik, from the tough moral choices faced by other nations, was an invention to make the Zionist revolution comprehensible to those of us who did not undergo the revolution. It was an Israel we invented for ourselves.

Still, while it’s tempting to portray these crises as reflecting the differences between Israel and the Diaspora — or between ordinary American Jews and the organizations that have become slaves to Israeli policy — that conclusion is unfair to Israelis, to the organizations and to ourselves. For all the demands of realpolitik, many Israelis — including 63 members of Knesset, a majority — demanded in vain that their government not expel the Darfuris. As for the Armenian tragedy, as real as we know it to be, the fact is that Israel desperately needs the friendship of Turkey, its most important ally, and that friendship comes with a painful price tag. Remembering genocide is important, but not as important as saving lives today.

If anything, the genocide collisions of August should make us re-examine the moral principles we have created for ourselves in the wake of the Holocaust, and consider whether they reflect the realities of today’s cold, hard world. In the end, political ethics based on slogans and theories, with no recognition of the ugly choices required in navigating this hard world, are no ethics at all. The task of the post-post-Holocaust era is to forge a new ethic for our new world.

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