Friday, January 02, 2009

Jews, Non-Jews, and Holocaust Memory

I have three days to organize the class I'm teaching this winter--"The Limits of Representation: Ethics and the Holocaust." I'm going to be teaching things like Giorgio Agamben (Remnants of Auschwitz), Primo Levi (The Drowned and the Saved), and Emmanuel Levinas ("Useless Suffering"); as well as fiction like David Grossman's See Under: Love, Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates, Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces, and Michael Chabon's Final Solution. I'll also look at some poetry by Paul Celan and a couple of films including Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. The texts are all there--I just need to decide how to arrange them.

I was discussing the course with someone, and after listing the texts I planned to include, I heard him ask, "And what non-Jewish writers are you using?" I had to think about it for a second, and I realized that other than Agamben and an essay by Dominick LaCapra, all of the texts are by Jewish writers. But is this really a problem?

Typically when I plan a literature course, I try to include works by writers from different backgrounds. In a contemporary American literature course, for example, I make sure to include works by women and people of different ethnicities. But it didn't occur to me in this context--I simply thought about the works I considered to be the best when it comes to approaching the topic of Ethics and the Holocaust.

So I'm teaching a bunch of Jewish men. And I'm not really that concerned about diversity this time around. But maybe this is wrong.

The question is whether or not I have an obligation to seek out books and essays about the Holocaust that are written by non-Jews. And, the second question is whether or not Jews, the primary group targeted by Hitler's genocidal impulses, have some kind of monopoly on the theoretization of Holocaust representation. Does being Jewish give someone a more authentic perspective of the Holocaust, or does it imply some kind of blindspot?


Kelly said...

A few years ago, I inherited a course on the Holocaust -- the professor went on leave mid-term, so I had to teach someone else's class. There were many awkwardnesses, but one of them was my effort to introduce non-Jewish material into the course. I started with a poem by Sherman Alexie, and used a few little bits by Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll, and also added in a piece by a gay man who had been in the camps. These texts made the students nervous because they liked thinking about the Holocaust as something done by people completely unlike themselves to people they thought of as very nice and virtuous (and thus like themselves). Many of them thought that, well, if being gay was against the law, these people shouldn't have been gay, and so they deserved whatever they got. They didn't like Alexie, because he suggested that Americans have engaged in genocide too, and that isn't a happy story for them. (When I was in Germany, one colleague chalked up German interest in Native Americans to the desire to point to someone else's genocide, and I couldn't help but wonder if a bit of the reverse was going on). One student even complained that Grass was "trying to humanize the Germans." I had a problem with that -- if we come out of a study on the Holocaust dehumanizing Germans because they dehumanized other folks, I'm not sure we've learned anything much.
I should add that my approach is shaped by my background as a Germanist-- I see the Holocaust as an aspect of Nazism, and tend to approach the whole thing from that framework (which was really difficult because that class was set up around a sentimental victim-identification mode that reassured rather than challenged students. If they had lived then and there, these students wuld have been the Germans, not the Jews, and this class did nothing to encourage them to confront their inner Nazi).
But different classes start in different places and aim at different things and get there by different routes.

Anonymous said...

Great challenge!

The value of various perspectives for this course seems to pivot on whether representation (especially of tragedy) should primarily paricularize the universal or universalize the particular (which Kelly describes above). Do the original course selections accomplish both tasks, or primarily one?

Perhaps your question is appropriate for students at various times through the course.

myshkin2 said...

How about some non-Jewish Polish writers? This Way to the Gas, Ladies & Gents by Tadeusz Borowski or Jerzy Andrzejewski's Holy Week?

Monica said...

Kelly--I like the Sherman Alexie idea, particularly because I've been thinking (for another project) about the ways in which Jewish and Native American dialogues about tragedy intersect stylistically (I'm using Alexie and Linda Hogan). My only problem with it is the idea of comparing one genocide/tragedy to another; I think we need to think of each one on its own because comparing one person's suffering to another is dangerous. It ends up minimizing one or the other.

My initial reaction to the idea of using Gunter Grass was that it might be inappropriate, given all of the later controversy over the way he set himself up as a moral authority and never divulged his own involvement with the Waffen-SS. But I wonder if that might actually be a good thing, especially in the context of my class, which deals with the ethics of representing the Holocaust (i.e. how to do it, who should do it, etc). What better way to spark a conversation about ethics than Grass...

I agree with you that there is a problem with dehumanizing the Germans just because they dehumanized others. But I still haven't figured out where the balance is between "The Nazis were monsters and we could never do anything they did" and the old "banality of evil" argument. I tend to agree with Hannah Arendt here, but at the same time, if any one of us could have done what the Nazis did, doesn't that lessen the extent to which perpetrators must be held accountable/responsible? Or, if it doesn't, doesn't at least threaten to? I don't know what to do here, because I fear the line of thinking that leads to the idea that we would've done the same thing had we been in the shoes of the Nazis. It's tough...

Monica said...


I guess the question I'm focusing the class on has to do with how to escape the limits of representation, which always claims to know what can't be known. So I'm trying to look at texts that don't just dive right into the camps and try to recreate what they really have no right to imagine. I suppose it will be a class that raises more questions than anything, though, because there really is no final answer (and perhaps there shouldn't be) on how best to respond to collective tragedies...

Myshkin2--I had forgotten about Borowski. Thanks! I don't know Jerzy Andrzejewski, but I will definitely look it up--thanks.

Kelly said...

Monica -- I agree that "comparative genocide" is, at the very least, a tricky business. But I am wary about presenting something as so particular and special and isolated that it can be excused by saying that "nobody can really understand it" (which I heard a lot from those students). If we can't understand, why are we reading this? There has to be something inbetween "So unique that it can't be comprehended" and "so ordinary that it isn't worth noticing." (And, actually, the Alexie poem is exactly about this).
BTW, I taught this back before Grass' full history was revealed. But you are right, it is interestingly compicated -- I did just one entry from "My Century," which was about students studying the Holocaust in school and learning to doubt their elders, which is more interesting given his more complete biography.

Anonymous said...

Say something about the photo above. Metal smiley faces? From a shoah musuem? No judgment yet,just noticed.

I saw an exhibit at Jewish Museum in NYC w/ legos, barbed wire, and photocopied concentration camp "starvation body" photos. The contrast of childhood toy plastic and traumatic historical imagery evoked surprisingly authentic emotion... disgust is what i recall.

Monica said...

The picture is from the Holocaust Museum in Berlin. I like it because it connotes a sense of absence, rather than trying to fill a void with shocking or gruesome images. You can read more on it here:

Casey said...

Monica, when you get a minute, you should do a little post on the current Gaza conflict... I'm feeling grumpy about it, but I don't want to have the first (or last) word on the topic. I'll give you a preview of my guiding questions, though: Can we separate Jewishness from Israeli-ness? Are G-d's people still G-d's people if they've got all the weapons? Is "Israeli exceptionalism" as bad, better, or worse than American exceptionalism? Is it possible to be anti-Israel without being anti-semitic? Etc.

Monica said...

Casey--sorry I'm so late in responding to this. I always feel ill-equipped to address the conflict in Israel, but I will respond briefly to your questions. First, yes, we can separate Jewishness from Israeli-ness. It always feels a bit anti-Semitic to me when people characterize the conflict as being one between Jews and Palestinians. We wouldn't, for example, say that it's a conflict between Israelis and Muslims, so why is the former appropriate? But I guess the confusion is understandable, given that Jewishness itself seems to elude any one meaning. My students in the past have been confused when i have said that there are many secular Jews, and that there are other Jews who practice Judaism. I don't know if this fully answers your question, but it's a start.

Okay, the question about whether "G-d's people are still G-d's people" if they have all the weapons is somewhat problematic for me because it is conflating the religious/mystical/spiritual and the political/national, right? If we want to think only in biblical terms, well, frankly G-d's "chosen" often did have all the weapons; and, alternatively, they often acted completely and utterly OUT of G-d's will (think of King David and all his unethical behavior, sending Uriah to be killed, sleeping with his wife, etc). I don't think "chosen-ness" implies a free pass when it comes to acting ethically or hurting other people. That said, if we are going to buy into the idea of the Jews as G-d's chosen, even the sometimes unethical behavior need not mean that they are not "chosen" anymore.

I think anyone who is "anti-Israel" has a problem, and frankly I don't care how that sounds. The situation is way too complicated to draw such polarized, either-or kinds of conclusion. In my opinion, Israel has a right to exist; in my opinion, the Palestinian people also have a right to exist in that region. So I guess I don't know exactly what you mean by "anti-Israel." I do think, though, that the newest form of anti-Semitism comes in the shape of anti-Zionism or anti-Israel rhetoric. Not always, but often this kind of talk is just a new, cool, hip way to express anti-Semitism in a way that is fashionable.

Casey said...

Thanks for the response, Monica -- I'm trying to think of a careful way to reply... something having to do with your point about "conflating the religious/mystical/spiritual and the political/national." I want to ask very seriously the question of whether those things could ever be "un-conflated." As if declaring oneself and one's peers "G-d's people" could ever not be a political act.

I feel confident that my questions are not anti-semitic because I know that they are derived from my thoughts about Puritans, Native Americans, and the proto-American exceptionalism (for example, Winthrop's "City on a Hill" sermon) that seemed to justify, in the Puritans' eyes, the very-political violence against Native Americans.

Of course, the parallels are wildly imperfect -- that's why I'm phrasing all of this as an earnest question. But the self-identification as a "chosen" people seems to come with a certain inevitably problematic politics.

If you do think that the newest form of anti-semitism is anti-Israelism (or anti-Zionism), that is a deeply, deeply important intellectual position, for all of the obvious reasons and for the somewhat less obvious reason that it precludes the possibility of a certain political argument (I'm reminded of the argument that failing to support affirmative action laws is evidence of racism). I know blogs may not be the place for it, but I would be seriously in favor of hearing more on the topic...

Ultimately, in academic political-philosophy, saying "the Palestinian people also have a right to exist in that region" is not enough, because everyone knows that, unless "in that region" means "Jerusalem itself," it is a meaningless statement: how silly would it sound if I said, "I'm not anti-Israel; I think Israel has every right to remain a nation in that region -- but the Palestinians get Jerusalem."

The two rights you propose (Israel's and Palestine's) are mutually exclusive because the important/"holy" land is singular... what I want to suggest is that both Israel's and Palestine's claim to the turf is fundamentally irrational -- and as such, ought to be treated (by America) through a strictly neutral process.

In any case, thanks (again!) for letting me sound off.

Drc said...

Casey - good points. I would never deny anybody the right to indentify themselves as God's people, but there have to be political repercussions in that identification because it essentially denies others the possibility of being the chosen ones. Also, to say there is a biblical right to the land by one people or another works in a similar way. It precludes discussion of the complex political dynamic of the region that has been determined through war and political manuevering for years.

Addressing Monica's point - "that the newest form of anti-Semitism comes in the shape of anti-Zionism or anti-Israel rhetoric" - you may be right in some cases, but you have to look at the merits of the argument. There is much to be criticised in Israeli politics (Palestinian/Arab as well). To call somebody anti-Semitic, when and if they have valid political concerns, seems like race baiting. We need to be careful when we deploy those terms.

Monica said...

Casey--No, I don't think your questions are anti-Semitic at all! I think that questions are good, but when someone says they are anti anything, doesn't that mean they are shutting down the questions? I guess I just don't know what "anti-Israel" means. Perhaps it would be better to say that one is critical of Israel's politics and other decisions--I know that I am.

You talk about the "self identification of a people as G-d's chosen." Who, exactly, are you referring to? I mean, I understand that in religious contexts Jews have understood themselves to be, according to their sacred texts, the chosen people. But, is that really something that is talked about on the political and national level? I don't know that I've heard that used as justification for anything, and it has been, well then that's just plain stupid and wrong. Levinas has this great thing about how chosen-ness actually implies a greater responsibility--that they are not ever to use that chosen-ness as some kind of entitlement, but rather as a platform from which to enable ethical encounters. Clearly this is not always the case with Israel.

About rights to the land--I agree with most of what you say. Both parties claim that Jerusalem is theirs, and both cite biblical and historical evidence for their claim. I think it should be shared, but it's not going to happen. But if we, as Americans, say that both sides' claims to the land are "fundamentally irrational," aren't we just imposing our own views on two other cultures that we can't really understand? I mean, it sounds silly to us, but it seems to mean everything to them. That said, because the situation has become more of a global issue in a contemporary era, it does make sense that it be dealt with as you say, through a strictly neutral process.

Oh, yes, and I don't think that any critique of Israel is anti-Semitism. I certainly have many of my own critiques. Maybe it's like the whole Obama thing--I think some people used anti-Obama rhetoric as just one more way to express their already existing racism. Not totally the same, but you get my point, maybe.

I'm just a bit thrown by this term, anti-Israel. I think the situation is a bit more fraught than an either-or/for-against perspective can account for.

Monica said...

Drc--Again, is the claim that Jews are G-d's chosen people really being used by Israel as a basis for why they should keep the land? I don't think it is. Perhaps a few ultra religious people have said that, but I don't think this is one of the big claims of Israel as a nation. Am I wrong? Am I missing something? And, don't both sides think that G-d gave them the land? My understanding is that it's not just Jews who think the land is G-d-given.

Moreoever, i wonder if the idea of the Jews as G-d's chosen in conjunction with debates about Israel is stemming more from the comments of Evangelical Christians in America than it is from the mouths of Israeli Jews. For the Evangelicals, the idea of Israel and the Jews as G-d's chosen is extremely important for ushering in the end of times and all that.