When I first saw Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, I left the theater with a powerful feeling. When my companion, Shelly, asked how I liked the film, I told her I enjoyed it a great deal, but that I wished it had never been made.
The film portrays a Jewish fantasy of revenge against the Nazis, including a successful plot to kill Hitler. I tried to explain to Shelly how it felt to watch it, growing up among Holocaust survivors and, like most Jews of my generation, having been inundated with Holocaust material that stood in stark contrast to the relatively easy life of a Jew growing up in New York during the 1970s.
For me, as one of the few American Jews of my generation or younger that I have ever met who has actually endured anti-Semitic physical assaults, the resonance was powerful, but also distressing.
When, I asked Shelly, can we Jews expect to define ourselves in other ways than through the prism of anti-Semitism and the violence committed against us in the past? Maybe we’re moving toward it, but the fantasy of revenge against the Nazis helps put us back into it, I told her.
She seemed to understand what I was getting at. However, she is not Jewish. I don’t know if any non-Jew can fully grasp the need for us to find an identity that transcends the Holocaust.
That hope is further set back by the current round of “Holocaust terror” being perpetrated in the tension between Israel and Iran. Given the hostile rhetoric and Holocaust denial engaged in by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and the enmity between Israel and Iran, it isn’t surprising that there is fear, and less surprising that pro-war demagogues would employ Holocaust rhetoric.
But when Ha’aretz’s Chemi Shalev argues that it is only natural that Jews would support an attack on Iran because of our experience with the Holocaust, no matter the consequences, despite solid analyses which show it will do more harm than good, it is more than simply the collective memory of suffering he is invoking. Shalev is actually perpetuating anti-Semitism.
One might think he speaks for a minority when he writes: “…when push comes to shove, when all the other options have been exhausted, when there is no other avenue left, when it’s yes or no, do or die, kill or be killed – then I think that most Israelis and Jews, including myself, will support a military attack.”
Maybe he’s right, but at this point, it’s not the case. A recent poll showed that only 43% of Israeli Jews support an attack on Iran, and 63% would support Israel giving up its own nuclear weapons if Iran would thereby not get such weapons of its own.
But Shalev contends that “… it is the expectation that when they come to make a decision about Iran, Israelis should ignore their experience (of the Holocaust), disregard their memories and forget the lessons that they learned from the destruction of European Jewry that is itself irrational.”
Shalev does not advocate for an attack on Iran on strategic grounds. Indeed, he grants the rationality of the argument against bombing. He simply contends that the Jewish experience should make us more aggressive when confronted with an enemy who could potentially kill a very large number of Jews and freely admits it is an emotional argument.
Is this really what the Holocaust taught us? That we must be blindly aggressive in our own defense, even when strategic analyses suggest that war is an even more terrible option than it usually is?
Israel certainly has enemies. Iran is the chief power broker among them. I do not minimize Israel’s need to defend itself. But no country can simply be allowed to act out of fear in ways that could plunge an entire region, even the world, into conflict.
Shalev’s argument speaks more powerfully than any Israel-hater ever could as to why Israel should not be allowed to have a nuclear arsenal itself, and to why its own view of “self-defense” cannot be trusted. The journalist characterizes the entire Jewish people as a group suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, despite the fact that, now 67 years since the end of World War II, only a small percentage of us were even alive when the Nazis committed their atrocities.
And this particular PTSD survivor has a nuclear arsenal and one of the world’s strongest militaries, but can only fantasize, as Tarantino did, about exacting revenge on his Nazi tormentors who have been buried in history’s coffins. Thus, we have a new image of Jews as hopelessly scarred emotionally, but armed to the teeth.
That image is the real “new anti-Semitism.” It represents not just a traumatized and out of control Jewish people, it also, if we accepted it, would mean the ultimate failure of Zionism. That ideology sought to create a strong and independent Jewish people—not one that acts out of fear of the past, but which transcends that past, puts it behind them and builds a new future.
But the old anti-Semitism may also have some life left in it.
Eric Alterman celebrates the death of US anti-Semitism. He holds up none other than Sheldon Adelson, the ultra-rich hood who unabashedly spends millions of dollars to promote the interests of the Israeli far-right and to influence the US government to support their policies. Yet, Alterman points out, this behavior, which could be ripped straight from the pages of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has not spurred any sort of anti-Semitic backlash.
Alterman decries the continued narrative of anti-Semitism among US Jews: “…given the near-complete disappearance of this once wholly respectable American prejudice, one must ask why so many organizations in the American Jewish community—along with their neoconservative allies in the media and policy world—remain so intently focused on this problem. Is it that the past has left them so psychologically invested in a now-discredited discourse that they lack the ability to see reality for what it is and devote themselves to more worthy causes? Or do at least some of them, as I implied in my last column, find the accusation so politically useful against Israel’s critics that they prefer to level this nefarious accusation rather than argue the merits of their position?”
Adelson’s behavior, and that of the organized Jewish community, may yet provoke the anti-Semitic backlash that Alterman thinks is no longer in the cards.
But even if it doesn’t, the behavior of Adelson, and the only slightly more subtle political brinksmanship practiced by AIPAC, major Jewish organizations and PACs and their hateful cohorts among the Orwellian-named “Christian Zionists” serves to reinforce the new anti-Semitism that Shalev unwittingly perpetuates: the Jew as eternal victim, but who is now armed and able to lash out at its enemies as if another Holocaust is right around the corner.
The inability that Shalev ascribes to Jews to look past Holocaust rhetoric and recognize the Iranian threat for the real, is not the problem the journalist says it is. Israelis, and most Jews around the world have more sense than that. Israel’s patrons in Washington and Europe are not prepared to let a conflict with Iran happen, in any case, despite neo-conservative pressures.
And for myself as a Jew, I think we’ve come farther than Shalev thinks in getting past the Holocaust, even if our leadership hasn’t. I think the day is not that far off that we can share in the pure escapism that Tarantino produced, with a stronger identification with the heroes, yes, but without letting that trauma define us.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit