By Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Forward, August 28, 2014
The status of Holocaust survivor, let alone the status of the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other assorted relatives and friends of survivors, carries no special entitlement to superior ethical insight or elevated political awareness.
Given Hitler’s voluminous rants about Jews, it is not surprising that one aspect of his obsession is less known: the pleasure he took in the spectacle of Jews deriding and defaming other Jews. Hans Frank, one of Hitler’s top aides, quotes him as saying:
“I am an innocent lamb compared to revelations by Jews about Jews. But they are important, these disclosures of the Jew’s most secret, always totally hidden qualities, instincts, and character traits. It isn’t I who say this, it is the Jews themselves who say it about themselves, about their greed for money, their fraudulent ways, their immorality, and their sexual perversions.”
Hitler’s words about the denigrating things Jews say about themselves came to mind as I perused an ad published in the New York Times on August 23 by IJSN or International Jewish Solidarity Network. Tellingly, the very same ad appeared in the British Guardian on August 15, under the imprint of IJAN, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. For an American, and especially the New York readership, the crafters of this hostile statement must have figured it best not to make explicit their true credentials as anti-Zionists. Its signers display no interest in the misdeeds that Hitler ascribes to the Jews but focus their anger on today’s target-of-choice for Jew-haters everywhere: Israel.
Most Holocaust survivors, like most Jews, are Zionists and are strongly devoted to the welfare of the State of Israel. The IJSN/IJAN group is exceptional in its fierce opposition to Israel and is hardly representative. That fact, however, did not keep the BBC from quickly publishing a story with the title “Holocaust survivors condemn Israel.” The impression conveyed is seriously misleading.
Headlined “Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors and victims of Nazi genocide unequivocally condemn the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza,” the Times ad lashes out at Israel from the first sentence to the last, repeatedly condemning the country for acts of colonialism, racism, and genocide; it associates unnamed “right-wing Israelis” with Nazis; and, in a full-throated voice of protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza, it angrily calls for a “full economic, cultural, and academic boycott of Israel.”
It aims, therefore, not just to censure but to punish. And as a special touch, it attacks a fellow survivor, the most famous one of all: Elie Wiesel. Why? Because Wiesel recently published an ad of his own in American newspapers, including the New York Times, criticizing Hamas for some of its brutal ways. IJSN pulled out all the stops in going after Wiesel, expressing “disgust” and “outrage” over Wiesel’s “abuse of our history” and “manipulation [of] the legacy of the Nazi genocide” to justify the unjustifiable: “the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people.”
Israel’s war with Hamas has exacted many casualties, but nothing remotely like “genocide” is taking place in Gaza. Why, then, charge Israel with a crime of this kind and magnitude? Those who are on to the rhetoric of “anti-Zionism” will instantly recognize this language for what it is: a collection of familiar political clichés employed time and again by the purveyors of anti-Israel vilification.
What makes the IJSN statement noteworthy, therefore, is not the litany of emotionally-charged accusations against Israel but the identities of those making these accusations. They present themselves as “Survivors,” “Children of survivors,” “Grandchildren of survivors,” “Great-grandchildren of survivors,” and “Other relatives of survivors.”
They total 327 people. Who are they, and what importance, if any, should attach to their proudly proclaimed pedigrees?
If we take their self-descriptions at face value, some (a small number) had been in the Nazi ghettos and camps or claim to have been resistance fighters. Others had been children spirited out of Europe on the Kindertransports or were hidden by Christians during the war. Some say they are “cousins of survivors,” or “friends of survivors,” or “relatives of victims,” or “relatives of many victims,” or the “spouse of a hidden child,” or grandchildren and great-grandchildren of “refugees.” One identifies herself as “the great niece of an uncle who shot himself”; another as a “3rd cousin of Ann [sic] Frank and grand-daughter of NON-survivors.”
The distance from Auschwitz and Treblinka grows as the list grows and, with it, the credibility of those on the list plunges. Nevertheless, all claim some special connection, however remote, to Jewish suffering during the Hitler era, and they expect others to recognize their anti-Israel diatribe as the product of unique insights they now possess by right of such suffering. Invoking the historical and moral weight of the Holocaust by speaking “as Jewish survivors and descendants of survivors,” they apply their presumed authority to the present war between Israel and Hamas and “unequivocally condemn” Israel.
Two thoughts come immediately to mind: Whenever someone begins a sentence with the words “as a Jew…,” what follows is likely to be full of political posturing and should be met with skepticism. The same often holds true when someone opens a sentence with the kindred formula, “as a Holocaust survivor….” On hearing those words, one no doubt is inclined to pay attention to what follows; but as IJSN’s ad demonstrates, the status of Holocaust survivor, let alone the status of the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other assorted relatives and friends of survivors, carries no special entitlement to superior ethical insight or elevated political awareness.
The signatories to IJSN’s ad, however, invoke just such an entitlement as they ostentatiously pull rank as Holocaust survivors in condemning Israel. In inflating and exploiting a status they regard as privileged, they are guilty of doing precisely what they falsely accuse Elie Wiesel of doing: “manipulating the legacy of the Nazi genocide to justify the unjustifiable.” Their abuse of Jewish suffering for contemporary political ends comes especially to the fore whenever they proudly parade forth their pedigrees as survivors to defame Israel. Some have been doing so for years — way before Gaza. To reflect briefly on just two of them:
Hajo Meyer, whose signature is the very first on the list, is the author of a book entitled “The End of Judaism: An Ethical Tradition Betrayed,” which argues that Zionism and Judaism are radical opposites and incompatible with one another. Meyer equates Zionism with “fascism” and “criminality” and believes that Zionists “have given up everything that has to do with humanity.” “As a confirmed atheist,” he boasts that he “has never been a Zionist.” And as a Holocaust survivor — he was in Auschwitz for 10 months as a young teenager — he is certain that Israelis “have no idea about the Holocaust. They use the Holocaust to implant paranoia in their children.”
In innumerable speeches and interviews (the words quoted here are from interviews on the websites “Intifada: The Voice of Palestine” and the “Electronic Intifada”), he charges Israel with all of the sins that are now part of the standard package of anti-Zionist accusations: the carrying out of willful massacres, ethnic cleansing, racist and apartheid policies, and other “blood and soil” nationalistic actions (“just like the Nazis”). He is so convinced of Israeli wickedness that he can “write up an endless list of similarities between Nazi Germany and Israel.” And what if other Jews object to his smearing the Jewish state with the Nazi brush? Meyer considers it a “high honor” to be put in the company of Jimmy Carter, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and other prominent opponents of Israel and even jokingly says that he is “very proud” to be called an anti-Semite.
Hedy Epstein, who has also signed on to the Guardian statement, likes garnering public attention as a “survivor,” although whether she is one is debatable. Like Meyer, she was born in Germany in 1924, but she left the country in 1939 on a Kindertransport and spent the war years in Great Britain. Since coming to America in 1948, she has thrown herself into political activism, often on behalf of such celebrated Palestinian causes as the 2008 “freedom flotillas” that were meant to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the “Gaza Freedom March” in Cairo in 2009, and various anti-Israel activities on the West Bank and elsewhere sponsored by the radical International Solidarity Movement.
Like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who inevitably show up at high-profile rallies organized by others, Hedy Epstein “marched” in St. Louis in mid-August, 2014 to demonstrate her solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. When stories broke headlining “Holocaust Survivor Arrested in Ferguson Protests,” it was a foregone conclusion that it was Hedy Epstein. She seems to thrive on flashing her dubious credentials as a “survivor” and, even at age 90, will step forward to join protests, especially if they are against Israel.
It’s hardly new that there are Jews who lend their endorsement to causes that prove harmful for most other Jews. There is a long history of such betrayal and the damage it has caused within Jewish communities, so what we are seeing today has an unhappy lineage that dates back over many centuries. One thing, however, is new:
The endorsement of the most reckless charges against Israel — e.g., Israelis are like Nazis and are carrying out a genocide against Palestinians — by members of a people who themselves were victims of the twentieth century’s most determined attempt at genocide is unprecedented and can be hugely harmful unless it is seen for what it is: an unseemly exercise in the spread of propagandistic lies.
Sanctioning such propaganda by stamping it with the moral authority that supposedly belongs to Holocaust survivors does not turn these lies into truth. What it does instead is expose as fraudulent the claims of certain Holocaust survivors and their kin to possessing an enlarged moral and political consciousness. In fact, it is unlikely that many people emerged from Hitler’s camps ennobled or enlightened. To believe otherwise and to arrogate to oneself as a “survivor” or a relative of a “survivor” some special access to wisdom and virtue is, as IJSN’s ad shows, little more than moral pretense.
Alvin H. Rosenfeld is a professor of English and Jewish Studies and director of Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.