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Yad Vashem and the Pope

Today I just want to put a question. 

Pope Benedict is in Israel.  When a visiting VIP is in Israel – and they don’t get more VI than the Pope – he or she is invariably taken to the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.  Walking around Yad Vashem is an overwhelming experience.  As a museum it’s more raw, less professional, more gut-wrenching, than the vast and stunning Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Such visits raise many thorny issues.  There’s the politics of museology; for example, in Washington the museum ends with the foundation of the State of Israel.  There’s the ritual of remembrance, apology and on occasion the request for forgiveness.  As Derrida pointed out, if something can be forgiven, then it must be forgivable.

There’s also the question of identity.  I blanched, a couple of weeks back, when I overheard a colleague say ‘it was time Israel moved on’.  That exhibited, it seemed to me, an egregious insensitivity; an appalling failure of empathy and imagination. 

And yet, is there not something troubling in a nation’s sense of itself being so inextricably wrapped up with the most terrible episode in its past?  Israel is by no means unique in this.  Bigwigs visiting Rwanda for the first time are shown the genocide Memorial Centre.  In Cambodia there is Tuol Sleng, a site of incomprehensible barbarity.  

As a tourist, it would be regarded as, well, a little eccentric, if you travelled to Cairo and couldn’t be bothered to see the pyramids.   The pyramids are a wonder to behold and Egyptians, of course, take justifiable pride in them.  They are constructions of beauty, and they evoke a sense of awe.  Looking at such beautiful objects is enjoyable.  Genocide museums/memorials are not supposed to be like the pyramids – they don’t offer an uplifting experience.  Their function is, among many other things, to pay homage to the dead, to document history, to learn lessons for the future.  These are all worthy objectives.     

But my question is this: will it be a positive development when a famous dignitary – visiting Israel for the first time – does not, automatically have placed on his/her agenda a couple of harrowing hours at Yad Vashem?  Would this represent progress?

Post by: David Edmonds

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1 Comment on this post

  1. The great mistake about the Holocaust is this: It’s about the attempt to exterminate the Jews. If the Holocaust is worth remembering, it has nothing to do with the supplanting by Jews of Palestinians living in (Palestine)(Israel). Rather, the Holocaust is about what humans are capable of when they are enraged by nationalitst/racist fantasies as were the Germans. The fact that Jews were victims (not martyrs) to the German bloodlust, or that that bloodlust finds its roots in mediaeval Christian culture and 18th and 19th century nationalism, is less important than this: As in Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, and other countries, we are all subject to the temptation to destroy whole peoples because they, somehow, threaten our own …. something.

    Part of the problem, of course, is the use of the definite article, “The”. “The” Jews killed Christ, not Some Jews who happened bo be in the courtyard of Pontius Pilate’s palace when he put the question, who should be crucified? “The” negroes are … “The” arabs are …, “The” Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Kosovars, Albanians, Native Americans … etc. We think in blobs and we do horrible things to blobs, ignoring the individuals whom we kill in fact.

    The Holocaust should not be the basis for Israel. If Jews are in danger of persecution (and there is and will be anti-semitism simply because Judaism is an irritant to Christianity and, now, Islam) that does not justify Israel. But the Holocaust is too important in History to simply be limited to a particular set of victims; it is important because it shows what civilized people are capable of doing.

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