Will We Ever Be Forgiven for the Holocaust?

Why Jews Continue To Be Blamed for What Happened to Them

Preaching to the Unforgiven: Man Booker Prize-winning author Howard Jacobson recently delivered this speech at the B’Nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem.
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Preaching to the Unforgiven: Man Booker Prize-winning author Howard Jacobson recently delivered this speech at the B’Nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem.

By Howard Jacobson

Published October 20, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
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The question is rhetorical. When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust? Never.

The shocking psychological truth is that man rejects the burden of guilt by turning the tables on those we have wronged and portraying ourselves as the victims of their suffering. The Roman historian Tacitus spells it out. “It is part of human life,” he wrote, “to hate the man you have hurt.” Those we harm, we blame — mobilizing dislike and even hatred in order to justify, after the event, the harm we did. From which it must follow that those who are harmed the most, as in the case of the Shoah — are blamed the most.

Holocaust denial, in any of its forms, obeys this pattern. For foisting the lie of the 6 million upon the world, Jews are accused of compounding the wickedness that was the just cause of the Holocaust — had it only happened — in the first place. By virtue of the way Jews cynically exploit the Holocaust to serve their political and financial purposes today, are they shown to be deserving of what they suffered yesterday or, rather, since there was no Holocaust, what they ought to have suffered yesterday.

Must the terrible logic that ensures — that an irreparable wrong will never be forgiven — induce in us an equally terrible vigilance: Instead of Never Forget, must our motto be Never Mention? Is silence the only precaution we can take against its happening again?

The creation of the State of Israel was meant to settle that question for us. In many ways it does, and in many ways it still doesn’t. For some Jews, it is precisely Israel we need to stay shtum about. Such a refusal of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, grounded in this modern rehashing of the libel of the grasping, heartless Jew, is retrospective blame in action.

The question “When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust,” and its implied answer, “never,” have political implications right enough, but there’s an important nonpolitical lesson to be drawn from them. If it’s not for anything they have done, but for what’s been done to them, that Jews cannot be forgiven, then it’s in vain for Jews to strive to alter the way the world sees them. In vain that they try to improve their public relations image, adopt a sweeter demeanor, or hang their heads in embarrassment.

It is vain to suppose we can thereby undo the twisted logic of being unforgiven for the Holocaust, unforgiven for who we are perceived to be, unforgiven for what has been visited on us — a perpetuity of being unforgiven, which, whatever its political effect, has a psychological cause, and so would not vanish tomorrow if Israel gave to its neighbors every blade of contested grass, and every wealthy Jew turned himself overnight into a pauper. For don’t forget that being a light unto nations itself incurs the charge of spiritual arrogance.

In a sophistical twist, akin to that of holding Jews responsible for what’s been done to them, the anti-Zionist refutes Jewish sensitivity to insult, even in the absence of its expression, and in the process paints himself the victim of a crime that has not been committed. Not wanting to be thought or to feel anti-Semitic, he becomes anti-Semitic to the degree that he cannot forgive Jews for troubling his conscience and making him wonder if anti-Semitic is what he is.

If we are to talk of tactics, then routinely accusing your critics of employing illegitimate tactics is a common, illegitimate tactic in itself. This particular one — that, as every criticism of anti-Zionism is motivated by bad faith, there can be no fair criticism of anti-Zionism — is widespread. The syllogism goes like this:

Not all critics of Israel are anti-Semites.

I am a critic of Israel.

Therefore I am not an anti-Semite.

In this way has anti-Zionism become an inviolable space. Question it and you are deemed to have cried anti-Semitism (this, whether you have or you haven’t), and since to cry anti-Semitism is a foul, no position from which it is rational to question anti-Zionism remains allowable. By the infernal logic of this magic circle, the anti-Zionist is doubly indemnified, firstly against any criticism of his position whatsoever, since the status of such criticism has been reduced to that of “tactic,” and secondly against the original accusation of anti-Semitism, which anti-Zionism cancels out.

I don’t myself argue that anti-Zionism is a method for circumventing Jew-hating while indulging it, but were that to have been the intention, it could not have been better planned.

Criticism of Israel functions as a sort of antiseptic bath, or mikveh — no matter how mired in the impurities of anti-Semitism you might be when you go in, you come out as fragrant as a bride awaiting her groom.

Holocaust denial was a prototype exercise in this. Once the Holocaust could be shown not to have happened — a crime that never was — then no one could be accused of not forgiving Jews for it. At a stroke, the victim became the perpetrator, and Jews could go on being accused, as before, of the added crime of fabrication.

And to see the Jews as prime initiators of both Christianity and Socialism — those explosions in human thought, call them unparalleled liberations or unparalleled catastrophes — is to accept how much, in the way of causing mankind to lose sleep, we are responsible for. Not being forgiven goes back a long way. So could we say it begins — not with our killing Christ, that’s altogether too straightforward — but with our conceiving him? Freud speculated that it was those countries in Europe which were the last to forgo what he called “barbarous polytheism” — the tree-worshippers of Lithuania, for example — that most eagerly embraced the Jew-hating of the 1930s and ’40s. They were, Freud suggests, nostalgic for their paganism. “Their hatred of Jews,” he wrote, “was at bottom a hatred of Christians.”

The consequence of this for Jews is that we end up being the meat in the sandwich, responsible for the paganism and responsible for the Christianity, depending which way the wind is blowing, forcing us to ask: Are not some instances of Christian anti-Semitism simply expressions of Christian dissatisfaction with Christianity itself?

Once upon a time such hostility could be expressed openly. Let’s see the Jews in all their misery, Augustine said, so we can rejoice in what’s become of them. More liberal times evolved more devious strategies of calumny. Few western intellectuals or churchmen today can afford to trumpet their anti-Semitism, or even admit to themselves that their consciences harbor such emotions. But the logical necessity for the alibi remains. So now, the Jew is mistrusted, not for what he is, but for the anti-Semitism of which he is the cause. And no Jew is more the cause of anti-Semitism than the Jew who speaks of anti-Semitism.

Jews are considered to have forgone their right to own even a part-share in defining anti-Semitism, or to judge the extent to which they are, or indeed ever were, its victims. By virtue of their failure to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and implement them in Israel — or indeed in any other parts of the world they continue to scheme, lobby and exploit — they have cancelled out all entitlement to the usual decencies, let alone the usual legalities, in matters of racial discrimination and incitement.

Thus has the shame of thinking anti-Semitic thoughts been lifted from the shoulders of liberals. Since there can be no such thing as anti-Semitism — Jews having stepped outside the circle of offense in which minorities can be considered to have been offended against — there is no charge of anti-Semitism to answer. The door is now wide open for those who truly believe they have nothing in their hearts but love to stroll guilelessly through to hate.

Howard Jacobson, Man Booker Prize winner and author of such novels as “Kalooki Nights” and “The Finkler Question,” delivered this year’s Jerusalem Address at the B’Nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem, from which this essay has been adapted.


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