In the never-ending quest amongst Middle East studies academics to demonize Israel, a trendy new approach has appeared: employing the Holocaust.
A recent lecture co-sponsored by UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies, “Traumatic Memory Discourses in Israel: Holocaust History, Territory and Self-Critique,” fit the pattern. It was delivered by Joseph Rosen, a postdoctoral fellow in Montreal at Concordia University’s department of history & the Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence.
Rosen’s emphasis on the “cultural production of the memories of violence in relation to contemporary sites of suffering and oppression” was intended to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict from a psychological standpoint. Stated briefly, it holds that Israelis are so paranoid about a second Holocaust that they exaggerate the nature of threats and, in response, overreact. As a result, Israeli self-defense is conditioned not by facts on the ground, such as terrorism or openly genocidal enemies, but by irrational fear.
His audience consisted of 15 people, of whom only three appeared to be students. Rosen came across as a sincere, likable individual, which made his presentation all the more threatening. He spoke in a friendly manner and clearly believed what he said. But being well-intentioned did not make him any less wrong.
Rosen began by stating unambiguously that, “Israelis construct memories of violence for political purposes” and by providing examples from two groups: the “settlers” and the “refuseniks.”
As to what he described as the “territorialization of Holocaust memory,” Rosen claimed that at some point, “the memories become complicit.” As he put it, “fear of a second Holocaust leads to continued occupation.”
He bolstered his case with several examples of Israelis using inflammatory language against each. Citing the disengagement from Gaza under then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Rosen stated that:
The settlers were wearing armbands. They compared the Holocaust to the Gaza withdrawal. There were graffiti attacks on Sharon. He was called the [sic] Jewish word for ‘collaborator’ [kapo].
Apparently, it was lost on Rosen that the Gaza pullout was relatively peaceful; even the most ardent settlers ended up hugging the soldiers who were removing them. Collaborators in Palestinian Gaza fare much worse: summary execution.
Rosen quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—incorrectly it turns out—as saying that “Withdrawing from the settlements was the equivalent of making Europe Jew-free.” He went on:
In 1952, Israel refused to negotiate with Germany over reparations. Menachem Begin compared reparations to another Holocaust. Jews accusing each other of being Nazis goes way back.
Rosen then contrasted the different time periods:
In 1952 the armbands [yellow armbands worn by those protesting against reparations from Germany] were for a non-economical end. In 2005 they served a material end, that being territory.
He claimed that, “During the 1967 War, fear of annihilation was disclosed as a second Holocaust. This is a result of the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial.” Because of the horrible visuals of the Eichmann trial, “Holocaust ‘remembrance’ was repressed. . . . [This] then gave Israel a connection and they were able to identify with the survivors.”
Rosen’s theory fails the test of logic. The fear of annihilation in 1967 was based on not only the Holocaust two decades earlier, but on the creation of Israel in 1948, which was met with a very real attempt at annihilation on the part of the Arabs.
Continuing the unsubstantiated, academic jargon, Rosen noted that, “territorialization” was the result of newfound “Holocaust memory.” Israeli concerns are irrational, he alleged, due to “hyper-defensive subjectivity in inverse proportion to territorial position. . . . The post-traumatic becomes ideological . . . [it’s] a refuge from persecution and annihilation.”
The only thing newly created was Rosen’s theories. He explained that his views stemmed from his upbringing, during which his parents instilled so much fear in him that he became emotionally paralyzed:
When I was eight years old, I had a fear of a candy store owner wearing a turban. Was he going to try to kill me? I was ready to move to Israel.
He transplanted these childhood fears onto millions of people, as if his experience defined all of Israeli society, and then attributed allegedly sinister results:
The hysteria of the settler discourse naturally turns expansionist. They need a second defensive buffer zone, which is necessarily expansionist.
Rosen refused to offer any analysis of the factual sources of the conflict; psychobabble trumped truth. As he put it:
We have to think beyond concepts of intentionality and morality. We need to get beyond saying these guys are the good guys and those guys are the bad guys. Assigning blame and five dollars gets you a latte. It is not an interesting critique.
He continued, “We need a new mode of thinking. We have to get beyond “territorialization” and get past the “oppositional logic that this is a zero sum game.”
Rosen next turned his attention to the small number of “refusenik” Israeli soldiers whom he misrepresented as representing a considerable slice of Israeli or IDF attitudes. In the same vein, he referenced fringe, leftist groups such as “Women in Black” and “Checkpoint Watch” in passing.
According to Rosen, the “refusenik” soldiers were “different” from other Jews because at least they engaged in, “self-critique, not identity politics. They were white Ashkenazi.”
The soldiers had three principles. The occupation is a threat. It destroys the moral character of Israel. It is an infringement of Palestinian human rights. The soldiers are not acting out of ideology, but out of experience.
He then claimed that such soldiers had spoken of Israelis “indiscriminately shooting, using Palestinians as shields, deliberately shooting an unarmed man, and Jews destroying Arab stores.”
He provided no evidence for these outlandish assertions and followed with the warning, “Don’t minimize Palestinian suffering by humanizing the soldiers.”
When he said, “historical memory is not really history,” members of the audience nodded their heads in agreement.
One questioner wanted to know what political solutions Rosen was advocating. He refused to explain his observations more fully and insisted that his passion was psychology and not politics. Rosen was not interested, he said, in “taking something meaningful like the Holocaust and breaking it down into the simplistic. We’ve all heard the political arguments.”
Rosen avoided overt politics because that’s where the facts lie. Instead, he offered up psychological theories, which routinely get discredited when new theories come along.
In fact, it’s not about inaccurate repressed memories, irrational motives, or so-called “territorialization.” The real reason Israelis fear another Holocaust is because those fears are completely reasonable. Enemies of Israel really are out to eliminate the Jewish state. Every day these enemies talk about wiping Israel off the map. From Ahmadinejad in Iran, to Saudi Arabia exporting Wahhabism, to the genocidal Hamas charter, to Hamas and Hezbollah launching rockets at Israel—Israel and Jews are under a global assault from radical Islamists trying to finish what Hitler started.
Israeli fears are not hysterical; they are historical.
Eric Golub is the publisher of the Tygrrrr Express blog. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.