Friday, 27 January 2012

Holocaust Memorial Day 2012

It's too late now
you're not there
paying attention

It should be hopefully increasingly clear that the way in which anti-prejudice work can, to put it mildly, be lacking of a certain commitment to, err, anti-prejudice work.  As I pointed out here, some people, in their desire to combat prejudice may say and do prejudicial things of their own, either wittingly or, by some well-meaning but misguided people, unwittingly; a planned anti-homophobia action last year which had Islamophobic roots being one example.  Anti-prejudice work can sometimes involve the maintaining, spreading and strengthening of prejudice.

Why I am telling you this?  Well, in my time in online social networks (which is a posh way for saying "dossing around on Facebook") I have come across people using this Holocaust Memorial Day in order to go on about, well, Jews this, doing a Holocaust that, acting like Nazis the other.  My objection that it is possible to criticise behaviour without resort to anti-semitism (for indeed, for these are slurs in Jewish people) were met with "Palestinians are human beings too"!

There is a widespread misconception that anti-semitism hasn't changed since 1945, that's it's all about racism.  No, anti-semitism is much more than racism, and there's a whole load of anti-semitism that has developed because, yes, because of Auschwitz (I shall come back to this theme later this year).  At a training I once attended, we were told that the point of anti-semitism is not that it says anything true about Jewish people, rather, it says something of the self-picture of those saying anti-semitic views (often, that they feel themselves to be "victims" and therefore with a perceived "victim-group" and challenging their anti-semitism is seen as an attack on their self-image).  Certainly, I have heard people being against the "Jewish monopoly on 1933-45" while seeking to "talk (only) about other Nazi victim groups".  The irony here is surely clear to the reader.

 From an arson attack on a synagogue in Corfu by two British people

What bugs me though is the way that the narrative changes, whereby we move in one breath from discussing Jewish people as victims from 1933 till 1945 to then talking about them as aggressors and perpetrators of evil (and being the key bad people) afterwards.  All within the scope of discussing Holocaust Memorial Day.

It is right to consider what has happened since 1945.  Some are critical of Holocaust Memorial Day, as it puts a focus on the past and "hasn't stopped genocide since 1945".  Well, the day is actually six years old.  But anyway, as if one day has the power to stop genocide.  (Incidentally, I often believe that most people don't actually know what the standard definition of genocide is, and how the term tends to be decided upon with regard to cases.)  In any case, one tension which arises around the time of Holocaust Memorial Day is that between remembrance and action.  Some critics think it's all about the past and nothing about the future.

Others may complain about the attention not given to other victim groups.  Within this is sometimes the vague enemy figure of "*** ****" who "get all the attention" and "don't want us to focus on other groups".  People who say this may belong to, but not necessarily the other victim groups: Romany, the disabled, gays, non-Jewish Poles and members of the Soviet Union, political opponents, Priests and Pastors, anarchists, Jehovah's Witnesses; the homeless, unemployed, alcoholics, prosititutes and other people labelled as "asocial", among others. 

Others may wish us all to shut up about modern things and just show respect to those who died in the past.  Those who cannot speak for themselves should not be used in order to make emotive points, they may say.

A look at the Holocaust Memorial Day trust (UK) gives us the meaning for the day:
"Holocaust Memorial Day provides an opportunity for everyone to learn lessons from the Holocaust, Nazi persecution and subsequent genocides and apply them to the present day to create a safer, better future. On HMD we share the memory of the millions who have been murdered in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur in order to challenge hatred and persecution in the UK today"  
From here

Those who wish to place a focus on modern prejudices and post-1945 genocides are right.  That Holocaust Memorial Day should have a focus upon hindering the possibility of genocide is also right.  Those who wish us to focus upon showing respect to those who died are also right.  We can be too close to modern-day events to be able to understand them properly.  Those who wish that non-Jewish victims receive attention are also right, as are those who wish to give attention to Jewish victims.  These wishes may seem to go against each other.

How, then, to achieve a proper way of commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day?

First: Shut up.  There are people who have suffered.  There are people who died.  There are people who survived and are plagued by memories, or by the suffering and/or death of their friends and family.  Additionally, Europe now faces "the presence of absence".  Here in Poland, for example, are houses where Jewish people used to live.  Synagogues where they used to pray.  Some of these former synagogues are now used for other purposes.  Sometimes they are now museums, museums to a past.  A key part of European history was Jewish, and only occasionally is work done to remember that.

There is also the silence of the areas of the countless places where people were killed, such as in Khatyn in Belarus (not Katyń!).

That is just one of many examples I could give.

Secondly: Surely working against prejudice means just that.  We need to be self-critical, being aware of our own prejudices.  Not scapegoating others.  Not projecting all of the evil of the world onto one particular group.  Some project all evil onto Nazis, or Germans.  No, I believe that we are all capable of good and evil.  That doesn't mean that we should stop talking of modern human rights abuses, but it does mean that we don't focus on one particular group all the time.

Thirdly: There is the (for some, radical) stance that we can remember Jewish victims and non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, as well as subsequent genocides and human rights abuses.  One can do that not by taking away attention from Jewish victims, but doing it alongside.  While a focus on anti-semitism after 1945 is needed, so is on prejudice against other groups, such as Romany (a pogrom happened within the UK recently, and the Hitler-supporting newspaper has also come out pretty strongly against them).

May I add the caveat here, that this means the giving of attention not just towards the group that one belongs to.  I was once at a Roman Catholic event about Judaism here in Wrocław, whereby we heard a lot of Jewish music.  A RC Priest later said that "we must not forget that Poles were also victims".  Let us not engage in a "competition of memory".  It's both/and, not either/or.

Oh, and this means not saying that the victims of Nazi are like those who are victims of Communist terror, despite what some people think.  (Here in English) 

As someone who likes to think of themself as being anti-prejudice, I have high expectations of those who purport to be likewise.  Being anti-prejudice means, to quote Radiohead, "paying attention" to ourselves, i.e. being self-critical.


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