Fifteen years ago, I delivered before the Regents’ Society at UCLA a lecture entitled, “Violence in the 21st Century: The Terrorism of Categories and Invisible Holocausts.” Mike Davis had published in late 2000 his magisterial book, Late Victorian Holocausts, but I do not recall that it was his work that had inspired the title of my talk; rather, it was the critical literature on the largely unrecognized genocidal aspects of “development” that had led me to my title. A colleague who was present at my talk later told me that in Israel, where he had spent a good part of his life before moving to the US, such a lecture would be inconceivable. He pointed, rather surprisingly, to my use of the word “holocausts” in the plural: in Israel, only one holocaust is recognized as such. It is “The Holocaust”, and to suggest that there may be other holocausts apparently diminishes the enormity of the Shoah, the only and only Holocaust which took the lives of six million Jews—and, though this is not always mentioned, a sizable number of homosexuals, the Roma, and those earmarked by the Nazi state as ‘unfit to live’ on account of mental or other disabilities. In Berlin, at least, there now exists a memorial to the others who were felled by the Nazi state’s murderous policies.
Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, in Hebrew, Yom HaShoah, marking the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A full page announcement, or “Open Letter”, published in the New York Times (24 April 2017) and authored by Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Congress, commences with an observation by the British philosopher John Gray, who adverts to the fact that while “intellectual and scientific values accumulate in the world”, and are transmitted from generation to another, “unfortunately ethical values” are not transmitted in this fashion and must be learnt anew by each generation. This point has been argued by many others who have similarly pointed to the fact that technological changes have taken place at lightning speed over the last few decades but that the capacity of human beings for moral thinking has not changed very much. To Dr. Kantor and Professor John Gray alike, the inescapable truth is that though everyone is aware of the Shoah, the new generation is “ethically uneducated” about its meaning and implications. As Dr. Kantor points out, the numbers of Holocaust survivors are “dwindling”, but this is of course unavoidable; however, much more alarmingly, anti-Semitic incidents in English-speaking countries, which have been more hospitable to Jews than other European countries, have been rising sharply.
That there should be a “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is one of those truths that dare not be contested, except at the peril, as Dr. Kantor’s “Open Letter” unfortunately suggests, of being labeled anti-Semitic. Not just on this day, but nearly every day, there is always the occasion to remind the world that it “should never forget” the unspeakable atrocities of the German killing machine. The dozens if not hundreds of Holocaust Museums around the world stand forth as vivid reminders of the fact that one community at least has the power to invoke its past and shame everyone else into remembering. Who, however, remembers the perhaps half a million Bengalis who were killed in the genocide in what was then East Pakistan as it made its bid for independence in 1971? Hardly anyone—indeed, I should say no one, barring the people of Bangladesh themselves. Some people, but not very many, remember the 800,000 Tutsis butchered in the Rwandan genocide from a little more than two decades ago, but those numbers have already been dwarfed by those who have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda will soon go the way of Bangladesh; it is doubtful that even the Congo will stay very much in the collective memory of the West or indeed the rest of the world.
Africa interests the West very little, except as a place for “investments”. Let us, therefore, take a more complicated example. 56,000 American soldiers, or something in that vicinity, were killed during the Vietnam War, and the United States is littered with memorials to them. To the best of my knowledge, not a single memorial mentions the three million Vietnamese who were killed in this war. It is not their names that I am suggesting should be recounted: the very fact that 3,000,000 Vietnamese were killed is not recorded at any war memorial site. It isn’t even certain how many Vietnamese were killed; in all such instances in Asia or Africa, some nice round figure seems to suffice. Every single American life, on the other hand, must be etched in memory forever, doubtless because God has an especially soft spot for Americans, dead ones as much as those who are living—thus the familiar and noxious incantation of American political speeches, ‘God Bless America’. The search for American soldiers “Missing in Action” in Vietnam is still on going; the budget for that mission runs into millions of dollars. Every American life counts, as indeed it should. Why American lives alone should count is a question that few are prepared to ask, though, paradoxically, many are prepared to answer.
Some Americans might well ask why the Vietnamese should be remembered in American memorials, since such memorials very much do the work of the nation-state and are intended to commemorate the lives of the Americans who laid down their lives. Presumably, they will add, the memorials to the Vietnam War in Vietnam honor their own dead. But one would think that in a Christian nation, which is what the United States has called itself, it should be as least just as important to remember those we hate, and those in whose killing one has been complicit. What did Christ say on the Sermon on the Mount? “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:46-47) There is nothing whatsoever that is exceptional in remembering the American dead: if at all forgiveness was sought, it is the Vietnamese dead who ought to be remembered? Or perhaps it is only given to America to forgive, not to beg forgiveness?
The ethics of forgetting is not any less important than the ethics of remembering. But of this I shall speak some other time. For now, it suffices to stay with the idea that the call to remember cannot be dismissed. But what exactly is to be remembered? Only that six million Jews were killed and that the Nazis were engaged in annihilationist terror? Does this entail submission, howsoever tacit, to the view that the suffering of Jews takes precedence over the suffering of others? If it is “Holocaust Remembrance Day” that we are called upon to observe, does this confer recognition upon the Holocaust as the paradigmatic instantiation of genocide in modern times? Does Holocaust Remembrance Day give rise to the supposition that there is a hierarchy of suffering? Does the suffering of some people count more than the suffering of others and, if so, on what theological and ethical view? Unless “Holocaust Remembrance Day” is decisively disassociated from an insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust, it is very likely going to breed resentment rather than understanding and compassion.