Franklin H. Littell: after forty years in the wilderness, the unfinished agenda.
When Franklin Littell left us, the field became orphaned of one of its real giants, and the question becomes what happens next and where we go with the transition. We are in a paradoxical situation: We have had extraordinary achievements over this past forty years, but we also face extraordinary problems. In my work, I have indicated that one of the important measures of our success is that we have taken the Holocaust out of the ghetto of being the sole concern of a bereaved community and their allies into the center of national life in the United States and, I would daresay, in the public life of the world. We have positioned the Holocaust as the negative absolute.
Over the past decades the Holocaust has taken its place as the "negative absolute" of the Western world. In a world of relativism, when we do not know what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, we have near universal agreement--except for the lunatic fringe--that Nazism was the embodiment of evil. It was bad--absolutely and indisputably bad. We witness this in ways that make us smile but also in ways that must make us cringe.
For example, as criticism of President Barack Obama mounted, his enemies--not his opponents--went on the attack: They called the President a socialist and a Marxist. But, in the post-Cold War world, such terms no longer sting the way they once did. Out of frustration, out of sheer pique, Obama's critics resorted to the nuclear bombs of moral epithets: Nazis, Hitler, the Holocaust. Those terms seem to be understood. "Nazi" still carries moral weight in contemporary culture, and it is reinforced by the many films that have brought the story of the Holocaust to the foreground or used it as a back story, which seem to dominate cinema and television. The Holocaust occupies center stage in museums and memorials, in conferences and in scholarship, and also in the public sphere.
Another example: When criticism of the proposed health care law got heated, it was compared to Nazi medicine, invoking "death panels," even though in reality what was being proposed was just the opposite. At the Nuremberg doctors' trial of medical personnel, the judges realized the need to enunciate ethical principles for physicians that would prevent them from ever engaging in such practices. The first principle articulated the universal right of individuals to make their own medical decisions, free from coercion. "The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential," it reads.
The health plan that was proposed honored that very principle by entitling the patients to be reimbursed for consultations with their physicians to discuss end-of-life issues. That measure is the essence of humane and moral medical policy, the very antithesis of Nazi medicine and Nazi practice. That is not to say there is no place for a Nazi analogy in this debate. The Nazis rose to power by mastering the art of propaganda, repeating lies so frequently and so widely that eventually people took them as truth--hence, the importance of seeking out the truth and exposing those who would engage in such deceit.
Only twenty-five years after then-President Ronald Reagan visited the graves of SS officers at Bitburg, the Chancellor of Germany, the President of Germany, and the President of the U.S. make a pilgrimage to Buchenwald guided by Elie Wiesel, the iconic survivor who spoke "truth to power" and pleaded the President Reagan not to go to Bitburg.
Even the deniers testify to its power. The President of Iran, in whose country not a Jew was injured during the long years of the Nazi onslaught, seems to want to wish it away. His reasoning is a manifestation of wish-fulfillment: If not for the Holocaust, there would be no Israel; therefore, assert that there was no Holocaust, and it follows that Israel will cease to exist. While we cannot fault him for not knowing European history, we may wonder why he does not know his own nation's history, the tolerance and decency of his own people. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied not only the Holocaust but the humanity of his own people. No Jew was injured in Iran during the Holocaust. Iranians were deeply involved in rescue efforts. He should be proud of the Iranians.
Having said that, one has to ask what is at stake in Holocaust denial. The stake in Holocaust denial is envy of the moral weight of this event. Having put the Holocaust at the forefront of moral concerns and moral language, what we see going in every direction is an attempt to cheapen the discourse and to lessen the moral import of that language.
The Holocaust is so profoundly and deeply linked to Israel for better and for worse. Israel wants it linked only for the better, yet it cannot have it both ways in that it cannot emblematically see itself as the heir of the victims and also say that you can cast it off in terms of what it wants to do--one of the things is that you have the left and the extreme right and joining elements within Europe as well, in the attempt to cheapen the sting of it by odious comparisons. For example, just after the war in Gaza, Israel was accused of committing genocide. Let us examine the charge: Israel has the capacity to commit genocide in Gaza. There is a significant imbalance in power. Israel, if it wanted to, has the provocation to commit genocide. Its cities were bombed; rockets have been sent. Whatever you want to say of Israel, the use of the term "genocide" is an odious act meant to sting and having no historical accuracy; it diminishes the meaning of the word.
I was in a controversy in the early 2000's, there was a cartoon in Le Monde showing a picture of Gaza and one of the Warsaw Ghetto and saying "History repeats itself." Cartoons are very important because you have to grasp the visual image equivalent of sixty miles per hour. If you do not get it the first time, then you do not get it at all. If the images are not familiar, then you just do not understand what the artist is getting at. Cartoons are not for contemplation; to use Franklin's words, you either get it or you do not. I wrote a very simple letter to Le Monde, saying that between July 23 and September 21, some 265,000 Jews were shipped by train from Warsaw to Treblinka, where they were killed, and I wondered how one could say that history was repeating itself without violating that history in a very deep and profound way.
The question for us, the successor generation, is: What happens now? Who replaces the John Roths? Who replaces the John Pawlikowskis? Where is that next generation? Is that next generation not going to transition into something that is less problematic, socially easier, and one that does not get mixed up in the suddenly unfashionable views of Israel? I have seen the transition in certain institutions that were born out of the Holocaust. One institution now describes its activities as Genocide 24-7, little concern with the Holocaust; another switched its name upon the retirement of a senior professor from Holocaust Studies to Human Rights Studies. Part of what we owe to Franklin Littell--and to Emil Fakenheim and Raul Hilberg, who are no longer with us, and to Richard Rubenstein and Elie Wiesel, who, though in their eighties, are still productive--is to understand that the Holocaust was and remains an epic-making event of enormous importance that cannot be ignored or cast aside. It is an event with which we must grapple, because in grappling with it we have to deal with all the issues that have been raised by the Holocaust, including its ethical implications for all of the professions (medical, legal, academic, and religious) and all of the elements involved with that. There is no other event that raises those issues in precisely the same way.
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|Publication:||Journal of Ecumenical Studies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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