Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Missing the Point

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in the news again. This time for denying that the Holocaust occured. Why it is news to anyone that he thinks this is beyond me. And given that a few months ago he suggested that he wanted Israel to be wiped off the map, I'm not sure how this is 'escalating the anti-Israeli rhetoric'.

Let me preface what I am going to say next by pointing out that I basically have an undergraduate degree in the Holocaust. Reading Elie Wiesel's Night at 13-years of age was such a transformative experience for me that for a decade I planned to convert to Judaism. It is fair to say that my knowledge and understanding of this particular genocide has shaped my entire world view. Having said that, people overreact when it comes to the Holocaust.

Please do not misunderstand me here. I am not in any way suggesting that there is any reasonable argument to be made that it didn't occur or that somehow less people died than is claimed or anything of the sort. But for civilized educated people in the West, the Holocaust has become the last sacred thing. People with practically no knowledge of modern European history can tell you that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. We treat the Diary of Anne Frank as a great work of literature. Everyone knows about the gas chambers and the yellow stars. If you make a movie about the Holocaust (even an excrable piece of filth like Life is Beautiful), you're winning an Oscar. But by treating this one part of history with such reverence, we seem to have become completely unable to incorporate it into our understanding of anything else. We should remember the Holocaust. Every school child should be taught what regular human beings are really capable of (which means remembering Adolf Eichmann not Oskar Schindler). But the memory alone doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere. It is worth noting that in March 1994 as Schindler's List was sweeping the Oscars, extremists in Rwanda were preparing for the extermination of their nation's Tutsis. Right at this moment there are women in Darfur being raped by Janjaweed militias. But that doesn't make the headlines because somebody somewhere is denying an event that happened 60 years ago.

Don't get me wrong. I get it. We're not just talking about history, we're talking about how Israel's neighbours perceive the Jewish state today and the threat that they pose. This is evidence of how ignorance of history can be used as such a powerful tool by political leaders (one suspects that -- setting aside anti-semitism for the moment -- the average Iranian isn't as informed about the history of Europe during World War II as the average North American). But in recognizing that, it is still not worse that Ahmadinejad denies a particular historical event than that the Iranian regime denies basic human rights to its own citizens. Anti-semites have been denying abuses against Jews for time immemorial, and nobody does antisemitism like modern Middle Eastern leaders. So this is perhaps just not front page news. Come on people, Mahmoud Abbas' doctoral thesis was on the links between Nazism and Zionism!

I could accept the rage being directed toward Ahmadinejad if we didn't tolerate denials or doubts about other genocides. Turkey gets to go on pretending that what it did to the Armenians doesn't constitute genocide. When Europeans have tried to use the denial as a reason to exclude Turkey from the European Union, it is usually only opportunistic use of the historical event by people who don't want Turkey joining for other, unrelated, reasons. Whenever the Armenian genocide is mentioned in the media, it is completely acceptable to use terms like "Historians say" or "Armenians claim".

Noam Chomsky gets to go around talking about how the Srebrenica massacres were exagerated and dance around the issue of the Cambodian genocide and he's held up as a great public intellectual (while he has certainly been over the top in his defense of the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers -- perhaps the source of greatest controversy in his career, I don't think that it can be reasonably claimed that he himself denies the Holocaust). There were certainly a good many claims of doubt amongst a segment of the anti-war crowd about Saddam's genocide of the Kurds and that didn't make any headlines in the New York Times. Obviously Noam and the assorted anti-war nuts aren't leaders of countries working to obtain nuclear weapons. But the fact remains that people well regarded in intellectual circles are permitted to openly doubt documented historical facts about genocide when they don't fit in with their particular agenda. This is true of pretty much every genocide except the Holocaust.

All I am asking is that the victims of other attrocities be granted the same respect as those murdered by the Nazis. Perhaps we could even find a little bit of time to worry about people being victimized by their state right now. Maybe we could even do something about it?

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Genet said...
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