Monday, April 24, 2006
Tonight and tomorrow are Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. I've never much liked this particular "holiday" - if "liked" is even the word I am looking for. Jewish tradition has ascribed all the terrible things that happened to our people - the destruction of the First and Second Temple in Jerusalem, the massacre of the Jews of Mainz during the Crusades, the Expulsions from Spain, etc. - to one day of the year: Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av. There are other fast days to commemorate tragedies that befell Israel, but I believe they are all related to Tisha B'Av in that they are all part of a cycle of fasts commemorating the sequence of events that led to the destruction of the First Temple. Yom HaShoah, unlike these other tragedies, gets its own day. Now, admittedly, the Holocaust was just about the worst thing ever to happen to the Jewish people, and among the greatest crimes of history. But was it worse than the destruction of the First or Second Temple? No, it wasn't. (And by this I don't mean that the destruction of the Temple was worse than the murder of millions; mass-murder on a proportionally comparable scale accompanied both destructions.) By refusing to integrate Yom HaShoah into the preexisting Jewish calendar, the innovators of this memorial day did some violence to that calendar. Worse, by suggesting that the Holocaust was importantly different in kind from prior catastrophes, they built into the Jewish calendar a kind of skepticism about the utility of prior Jewish history. In that way they have contributed to the Holocaust cult, a false god that I steadfastly refuse to worship.
(I'm not against innovation as such, mind you. I don't think Yom HaAtzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day, is any more of a violation of the preexisting order of the Jewish calendar than is LaG Ba'Omer, which also falls between Pesach and Shavuot.)
Nonetheless, since it's on the calendar, I've been thinking about the Holocaust, and its only partly acknowledged impact on Jewish thinking about the world. So let me take a look at three current policy debates and how they are subtly impacted by our memory of the Holocaust, and whether that memory has made us more or less sensible and moral in thinking about them.
Darfur. There's a big protest against the ongoing genocide in Darfur scheduled for this coming Sunday. The ongoing, brutal ethnic cleansing of this region of Sudan is appalling, and calling it "genocide" doesn't seem wrong to me. I am puzzled only by two things: how did Darfur specifically become the cause celebre of the moment, and what are we supposed to do about it?
Darfur, after all, is not the only place on earth where inconvenient people are being attacked by militias with government approval. It's not the only place in Africa. Heck, it's not the only place in the Sudan! The Sudanese government has waged a 20-year civil war against the predominantly Christian and animist population of the south of the country. Something like 2 million people died in that war. Why Darfur?
The best answer is, "why not" - that is to say: good for the protesters that they are appalled by the appalling; consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. But I still think it's an interesting question. I suspect the answer is that Darfur is a genocide that pits an odious Islamist regime against poorer, blacker Muslims, and so opposing the genocide in Darfur means taking the side of good Muslims against bad Muslims.
In any event, the tougher question is: what are we supposed to do about it? I am very skeptical that international pressure will be brought to bear or that, if it is, anything will come of it. Sudan depends principally on oil exports to survive, but I somehow can't see China signing up for a boycott in order to punish a regime for oppressing a domestic minority. Just can't see it. And if they can sell oil, the regime will survive. America is not going to intervene militarily; we wouldn't even if we had the troops to spare, and we don't. I would be thrilled to hand this one over to the French, but Sudan is a former British colony, so that won't happen.
The motivation for the support for "action" (unspecified) in Darfur is the mantra: "never again." But if "never again" means "never again will a state set out to destroy a people" then, I hate to say it, "never" has happened again and again, and will continue to happen until all the world has civilized government. Genocide is the problem from hell, but it is not as unique as Elie Wiesel seems to think it is. That's part of why it's a problem from hell; if it almost never happened, it would be easier to stop.
But "never again" can be parsed in other ways.
Iran. "Never again" might mean "never again will we (Jews) let ourselves be slaughtered without a fight." Or, more subtly, it might mean "never again will we (Jews) hope for the best when someone promises to deliver the worst." Both of these senses are relevant to the current debate about Iran, another problem from hell.
Iran is, in part, a problem from hell because Iranian-American enmity - and, for that matter, Iranian-Israeli enmity - is so patently unnecessary. American and Iran have no interests in conflict, and neither do Israel and Iran. In both cases, in fact, we have common enemies; you might have noticed that America just in the last few years eliminated two regimes that border Iran and that have historically threatened that country (well, Afghanistan wasn't much of a threat, but the Taliban certainly hated Shiites). Before that, America was Iran's main guarantee of independence from Soviet encroachment or outright invasion. Edward Luttwak's persuasive argument against taking military action against Iran returns over and over to the argument that of course we shouldn't be fighting Iran because, well, in a rational world we'd be allies with Iran.
Of course, in a rational world we wouldn't have fought Germany in World War II either. Soviet Communism was a much greater ideological threat than Nazism, and America didn't have much of a dog in the fight to preserve the British Empire. The only problem is that Germany wasn't ruled by a rational leader with limited war aims. Germany was run by a madman bent on world conquest. No one could quite believe that this was true, except for Churchill, the stopped clock who was right this one time, but boy that one time was a doozy.
So: is this man the new Hitler?
That's what the debate about Iran is all about. The notion that a rational Iran would hand nuclear weapons to terrorists is ridiculous. So is the notional that a rational Iran would simply launch a nuclear strike against Israel. If Iran plans to use nuclear weapons as a shield behind which to dominate the region, I have news for it: just as an Iranian bomb would push Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to consider nuclearization, so it would also push them to consider a closer relationship with America for their defense. A nuclear Iran could be contained very effectively, if that were our objective.
The big nuclear terrorism risk was always that a terrorist group would either be able to purchase nuclear weapons (the North Korean scenario) or that they would "capture" a nuclear state (the Pakistani scenario). We worry about these scenarios because a terrorist group might genuinely not care about retaliation against the territory they had temporarily captured. We've scene that kind of behavior time and again from terrorists. Al Qaeda didn't seem fased by the American attack on Afghanistan; they expected that kind of retaliation, and expected it to earn them dividends (which never came) when the Muslim street would rise up and overthrow other regimes (Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) that had been friendly to America. If Ahmadinejad and the mullahs behind him genuinely don't care about the fate of Iran, if they welcome the apocalypse, then an Iranian bomb is not merely another factor in the balance of power; it is a world-historical catastrophe.
It is not true that all regimes behave rationally given their understanding of the situation. Imperial Japan's military leaders were fully prepared to sacrifice the entire Japanese nation rather than surrender. Hitler diverted vital men and supplies away from the front in order to pursue his aim of murdering the Jews of Europe (which, I suppose, was the only war aim he could "rationally" still expect to achieve). Fidel Castro encouraged Krushchev to wage nuclear war over the missiles in Cuba rather than back down. Would the Iranian regime behave similarly? Or would it behave more like a rational madman, like Stalin or Mao?
That's the question. "Never again" plays in by avoiding the need to answer it. Because if our mantra is "never again" then under no circumstances can we risk finding out the answer. We have to assume the worst.
That, it seems to me, is not a viable way to approach the world. But that's what lurks in the background in all the discussion about the possible need for war with Iran.
Immigration. I wrote a long post below about Steve Sailer's question: why are Jews so supportive of immigration? I don't think it's such a puzzle, and I gave my reasons. But in my answer, I neglected to say that I think Sailer, and Matt Yglesias, whom he was agreeing with, are right that Jewish memories of the Holocaust, and America's indifference thereto, are relevant to Jewish attitudes towards immigration. I don't think this is a matter of fighting the last war nor of trying to make sure that America always keeps the door open for Jews should a terrible catastrophe happen in Israel. Rather, I think it's a matter of emotional identification - we know what it was like to have the door slammed in our face, we think, and we wouldn't do that to anyone else.
Except that this is not a rational response to the real world. The people coming to the United States from Mexico, China, El Salvador, the Philippines and points further afield are overwhelmingly *not* fleeing oppression, and certainly not genocidal enemies. One can, in good standing, favor a generous asylum policy and still want that policy to be limited to those fleeing particularly awful political regimes.
Because even the most generous asylum policy can't make room for everyone with a good reason to want to leave, say, Somalia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, or (to return to our first topic) Sudan. The International Rescue Committee, an organization devoted to helping refugees of war, oppression and natural disaster - founded, incidentally, by Albert Einstein to save Jews in Europe in the 1930s - makes a point of trying to resettle as large a percentage of refugees as possible in or near their home countries. Only a very small percentage are sent to Europe or America for resettlement. That is as it should be. How much more so for economic migrants.
There are many ways to be generous if one is feeling liberal. One way is to give to the IRC, which I do, annually. But there is a difference between liberality and irrationalism. And it is very difficult to have a rational conversation about this topic with someone for whom any discussion of ending illegal immigration conjures up the ghost of the SS St. Louis.
So: why is the Holocaust always with us?
I think there are a few reasons, some well-known, but others less discussed.
Some of the well-known reasons: because it was a *really bad thing* and, moreover, a really bad thing perpetrated by one of the most civilized countries in the world, and therefore made any rational person doubt the strength of the bonds of civilization. Because modern war is, to a horrifying extent, war against civilians (in World War I, 90% of casualties were military; in the wars since World War II, including civil wars, some have estimated that as many as 90% of casualties have been civilian) and, therefore, the Holocaust properly remains a kind of template for our understanding of man-made suffering. Because the Holocaust is still a relatively recent memory for Jews, and, while everyone thinks mostly about themselves, Jews think about themselves more loudly than other people. Because the Holocaust is not unique in Jewish history; as it says in the Passover haggadah, "not only one rose against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us."
Here's one of my favorite reasons: because the Holocaust left the Jewish people in America orphaned. Europe was the center of Jewish civilization, the place where both tradition and the rebellions against tradition were alive. America was the "treifa medina" - the unkosher realm, the place where Torah was forgotten and Yiddish was vulgarized. America was, to many immigrants from Eastern Europe, the antithesis of the old country, a place where, Gatzby-like, one could remake oneself as something other than a Jew.
And then it was all gone. In a few short years, Hitler destroyed Jewish civilization. The rebellious children in America were orphaned, never having had a chance to reconcile with their fathers and mothers in the Old Country.
Quite apart from any rational paranoia on the part of Jews conversant with Jewish history, this orphaning was bound to engender a certain measure of hysteria in the next generation. A certain fierceness of determination to do right by the memory of those lost who, honestly, you never really knew; who, honestly, you never even liked, were thrilled to have gotten away from, when you didn't know what their fate was to be.
I know this is arm-chair psychologizing, but I don't think I'm off-base. And I don't think it's a waste of time. It's a good thing, generally, for people to understand each other's thinking. If nothing else, it might dispel the more lurid fantasies that germinate when frustration meets incomprehension.