Milan — Today, many European countries — including Germany, Italy and the UK — are observing the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day. What makes this particular Holocaust Remembrance Day peculiar in Italy is the fact that quite a few public intellectuals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have called for its abolition. Well, that and the fact that three pig heads have just been sent to three major Jewish sites in Rome, in an apparent mafia-style attempt at intimidation.
Among the public figures explicitly calling for the abolition of Holocaust Remembrance Day are Elena Loewenthal, a renowned Jewish writer who just published the pamphlet Contro il Giorno Della Memoria (Against the Day of Memory), and Giuliano Ferrara, a devoutly Catholic conservative pundit who wrote a much discussed editorial on the topic last month.
The utility and raison d’être of Holocaust Remembrance Day have often been questioned since it was established in the early 2000s. Allow me to sum up the main arguments most commonly presented against this day, in an effort to better explain why, no matter how flawed it may be, I’m still convinced that Europe needs Holocaust Remembrance Day.
1. The institutionalization of remembrance is a bad thing. It implies that there is a correct way to remember the Holocaust, and that collective memory is more important than individual memories.
I like to call this the “Etgar Keret argument,” after one of my favorite Israeli authors. To my knowledge, Keret, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, never called for the abolition of Yom HaShoah. But in an interview with The Believer, he made quite a compelling case against the institutionalization of remembrance in Israel, whether we’re dealing with the Holocaust or Arab-Israeli wars: “Those (…) things are kind of nationalized. But (…) they are also mine, so to try to make these things your own is something that eventually gets people pissed.”
It makes perfect sense that an official memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust may hurt the personal feelings of those who have lost families and friends at the hands of the Nazis. They may feel that their own very personal grief is somehow “stolen” by the “nationalization” of the Holocaust, and they should not be blamed for this. But the hard truth is that Remembrance Day is not about the victims and their families: It’s about everyone else. Victims, of course, don’t need to be reminded of the Holocaust. But, unfortunately, most Europeans do.
2. Holocaust Remembrance Day trivializes the Holocaust.
If you talk too much about the Holocaust, you may end up desensitizing people, just like what happens with war on TV news. So goes the second argument.
But while routine often implies a risk of trivialization, it doesn’t always have to be this way. Jews have been “routinely” commemorating the Exodus for more than 3,000 years and Passover is still quite a heartfelt event.
Besides, what’s the alternative? I hardly think placing a “gag order” on the Holocaust would prevent it being trivialized.
3. Holocaust Remembrance Day fuels anti-Semitism.
Some people believe that, by holding official commemorations for those killed in the Holocaust, we end up reinforcing the stereotype that Jews “like to play the victim.” This is one of the arguments favored by writer Elena Loewenthal, but I’ve also heard this one a lot in unofficial settings.
Taken literally, this makes no sense: It’s more or less equivalent to saying Jewish kids should avoid business school because it might reinforce the stereotype that Jews “are good with money.” But the subtext here is far more complex and may bear some truth: Reminding non-Jews that their grandfathers slaughtered millions of Jews might make some of them uncomfortable. Discomfort at times breads anger, or even hatred; hence the correlation between remembrance and anti-Semitism.
True, the Holocaust is a very uncomfortable memory, both for Jews and non-Jews, although in different ways. But that’s not a good reason to erase it from our brains. Also, last time I checked, anti-Semitism was doing pretty well in Europe, even before the advent of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
4. Forget about the Holocaust; let’s focus on Israel!
This is the argument offered by Giuliano Ferrara, the conservative Catholic pundit, and embraced by some Jews with an “Israel first” approach.
“While all our moral vigilance watches over six million dead Jews, we expose six million living Jews to a genocidal violence,” wrote Ferrara, referring to Iran’s nuclear program.
First, I find the Iran-Nazi analogy disturbing. Second, even if we accept putting the Holocaust on a par with Tehran’s nuclear program, this argument still contains a major fallacy: It presents the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust and pro-Israel activism as if they were mutually exclusive. Third, for Jews to say that the Israel issue is more important than the Diaspora anti-Semitism issue may allow European right-wing extremists to get away with condoning anti-Semitism, so long as it comes from pro-Israel sources.
None of the European arguments against Holocaust Remembrance Day hold up to scrutiny. After all these years, we still need an official way to memorialize this tragedy.