The great Jewish novelist Aharon Appelfeld died in Tel Aviv on 4 January. He was 85. Not a bad age, given his childhood tribulations in the Europe of the Holocaust. But a loss is a loss whenever it comes. He described the Holocaust as belonging “to the type of enormous experience which reduces one to silence. Any utterance, any statement, any ‘answer’ is tiny, meaningless and occasionally ridiculous. Even the greatest of answers seems petty.” I cannot argue with that: I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure I even have the question.
Of the questions Appelfeld himself went on asking in his beautiful, strangely silent novels, one of the most pressing was what does one do with a life that has been saved. Not “do” in the sense of work; but do in the sense of make good, justify, realise – who knows what the word is when one doesn’t know the task?
“Survivors,” he said in an interview with Philip Roth, “have undergone experiences that no one else has undergone, and others expect some message from them, some key to understanding the human world – a human example. But they, of course, cannot begin to fulfil the great tasks imposed upon them… One has a feeling of guilt that grows from year to year and becomes, as in Kafka, an accusation.”
Those of us who aren’t survivors can’t know the guilt Appelfeld describes, and mustn’t pretend to. But we can understand it and are, to some degree – as fellow Jews old in the memory of countless afflictions – inheritors of its atmosphere. We feel the sadness of it all round us. So, however, do others who seek to make capital out of it, preying on our conviction that we owe it to the world to be a human example, and our fear that we too often fail.
The modern anti-Semite is more subtle than his great-grandparents. He doesn’t smash our windows or our bones. He insinuates himself into consciences that are already troubled and works on spirits that are already half-broken. And we are too responsive to his serpent insinuations. When the history of Jew-hating in our time comes to be written, Jewish collusion in it will feature heavily.
To the question I don’t have – but is something like, “How do any of us, as Jews, fulfil the great task imposed on us?” – here is my part-answer: stop apologising and resist the sirens who would lure you on to the rocks of guilt and self-dislike, singing of Jewish materialism, Jewish legalism, Jewish exclusivism, Jewish supremacism, Jewish imperialism, Zionism…
Holocaust Memorial Day is a solemn commemoration of the fact of survival. Solemn for several reasons. Solemn because while Jewishness as a faith and a cultural continuity remains, millions of actual Jews didn’t. Solemn because at no other time in our history was the attempt to remove all trace and memory of us prosecuted with such ruthless determination. Solemn, because although we intone the words “never again” – now as a prayer, now as a supplication, now as a commitment – we cannot rid ourselves of the fear that it, or something like it, might indeed happen again. Solemn because it could just be that we are bound – not only as a duty of memory, but as an existential consequence of who we are – to go on reliving the experience. They are not done with us yet – that’s a solemn fact.
In my first novel I joked about a Jewish mother living in leafy Prestwich in the 1950s leaping out of her chair in terror and getting the family to hide under the table every time the bell rang, in case the Nazis were at the door. I’m not sure I’d make the same joke today. Not because Nazis stalk the streets of Prestwich, but because we now accept that it was wild fantasy to hope that after the Holocaust we’d be left alone.
It isn’t that we expected the world suddenly to love us after the camps were liberated. We are wise in the ways of human psychology. We know that people turn against those to whom they feel obliged. It is hard to forgive those you have wronged, and we knew we would not be forgiven the Holocaust. But we thought anti-Semitism itself might take a short break – admit its errors, lick its wounds and go into hiding for a while. Embarrassment, if nothing else, would surely deter most anti-Semites from showing their faces. “Not yet,” we thought they’d say. “Not a good idea after what’s just happened.” What no one could have expected was the speed with which they found a way round any such compunctions, not least by denying that anything had happened at all. Holocaust – what Holocaust?
We needn’t rehearse the history of Holocaust denial. There is satisfaction in imagining deniers crawling over sheds and ovens with their rulers and their set-squares, trying to prove by geometry that Auschwitz was really a holiday camp complete with concert hall and swimming pool.
I like to think of people who hate Jews beyond endurance unable ever to get away from us, obsessed with who we are and our chicaneries; studying ancient Hebrew, pouring over our sacred texts to find the words with which they can finally refute us. They are down there now, in that circle of hell reserved for deniers, chained in some infernal Yeshiva of their imaginations, their noses pressed into a fiery Talmud, the word “Jew” dinning for all eternity in their burning ears. But denial has grown more sophisticated. Moral sophistry is now the enemy to remembering, bringing accusations that Jews exploit their sufferings and fail to learn from them, that whatever they were owed in the way of pity they have since forfeited. And after denial the thing Primo Levi dreaded: forgetting and indifference.
Decisive in Corbyn’s emergence as a folk hero is the triumphant amnesia of the young. Of the history of socialism in the 20th century, of the dogmas that still exert a hold on ideologues such as Corbyn, causing him to turn his face away whenever words such as Jew, Israel or anti-Semitism are spoken – some boast of knowing nothing. What does it matter? We weren’t there. “What you don’t understand about my generation,” one young journalist wrote after last year’s election, “is that we don’t know or remember who Gerry Adams or Hezbollah were – so when you tell us that Jeremy Corbyn was their friend, we don’t care.”
Considering how easy the Internet has made it to find out about the past, such ignorance is surprising. But every promise of enlightenment the Internet has made, social media has broken. It revels in the selfish minutiae of the now; having neither eyes nor ears, its stock in trade is malicious rumour. People retweet what they will not take the time to confirm – a slander; a conspiracy theory, of which the Holohoax is just one; or a malevolent meme such as that posted by a Labour politician three years ago – “I have often said the Holocaust victims who died with dignity must be turning in their graves at the horrors done in the name of Judaism.”
How are we to describe the obscenity of that? Can the tweeter truly be so ignorant of what went on in the camps that she can speak, nostalgically, of Jews dying in them with dignity? Or is there method in the ignorance, truth playing second fiddle to propaganda – Jews dying with dignity in the horrorless Holocaust only to show up how little dignity Jews of our age grant those they kill in horror-filled Israel?
Thus the moral seesaw on which Holocaust relativists love to frolic – the contestable atrocity that was the Holocaust now rising, now falling, but always ultimately outweighed by the incontestable outrage that is Zionism. It was played upon again in a fringe meeting at last year’s Labour Party Conference where that prize catch, an Israeli anti-Zionist, argued for the necessity for the party to discuss everything openly, including the Holocaust. “Holocaust yes or no?” he posited, as though the truth of Auschwitz waited on a thumbs up/thumbs down decision. Holocaust: like or dislike? It was a line of enquiry that was given a definitive thumbs up later in the day when a distinguished British film director and member of the Labour Party appeared on the BBC to defend it.
I will not attach particular names to general villainies. Perhaps, respecting Appelfeld’s grave silence, I should not even allude to such a person. But if “never again” is to be more than the exchange of pious velleities, it has to encounter the brute realities of today. The reality, then, was this: after some preliminary bare-faced lying – insisting that charges of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party had “no validity whatsoever” but were made only to discredit the party leader – Citizen Z, as I will call him, spoke the following, now infamous words: “I think history is for us all to discuss, wouldn’t you?… The founding of the state of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing, is there for us all to discuss… So don’t try to subvert that by false stories of anti-Semitism.”
There you have it in one easy lesson: how to toy with denial while not denying; how to associate the Holocaust with Israel for no apparent reason (though the emotional logic is clear enough: the one retrospectively drives out any sympathy for the other); how to affect an open mind even in the act of closing it; how to shut out all discussion of Israel’s founding while pretending a willingness to discuss it; how to scatter libels like confetti while protesting your innocence of all malign intent; how to refute the charge of anti-Semitism even as you’re accusing Jews of lying.
Later, Citizen Z wrote to the New York Times to deny he’d said what he’d said. Of course he would never question the historical fact of the Holocaust. I can believe that in the cold light of day his own words shamed him. But in the heat of battle, in defence of party, entramelled in that ideology, which demonises as imperialism even the first steps towards a Jewish Homeland, there was no calumny he wasn’t willing to support. Jews subvert the truth, falsely charge the Left with anti-Semitism, falsely steal another people’s land, so why shouldn’t they – just for the music of the argument –falsify history. This is how the poisons agglomerate and spread.
Historians ask what it took to make a civilised people consent to the slaughter of millions. Here is what it took: it took the language of exclusion. Jews threatened the healthy functioning of the national project. To even the most educated they could be represented as alien, inimical, inhumane and dangerous. Society is never more murderous than when it has an idea of itself to protect, an ideology of commonality, a rigid structure of shared belief, no matter whether its source is the extreme right or the extreme left, secular or religious.
“Never again” is the sacred promise we gather annually to reaffirm. It must be more than a mere wish. It binds us in the necessity to be strong minded and alert. And that means alert, above all, to the words those with hatred in their hearts employ to exploit the guilt in ours.
This is an edited version of a Holocaust Memorial Day lecture delivered by Howard Jacobson at JW3 Jewish Community Centre London, on 26 January
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration