For many years now 9 November, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, has been marked in Germany by public assemblies that have served not only to affirm historical condemnation of the Nazis’ murderous policies, but also as an implacable rejection of contemporary forms of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. The targets of racist violence today are most likely to be Muslims or asylum seekers; and—though the structuring social determinants are entirely different from those of the 1930s—the assaults are not negligible. The arson attacks on immigrant hostels in Hoyerswerda and Rostock in the early 90s were cheered on by chanting crowds. Nor are these restricted to the eastern Länder: mosques in the Rhineland were targeted last summer as the trial began of a far-right cell member implicated in the serial killing of Turkish workers. Altogether there were thirty attacks on mosques in Germany last year, nine of them involving arson. The Kristallnacht anniversary marches have served both to commemorate those targeted by the Nazis and to demonstrate solidarity with those exposed to racist aggression today.
Over the past few years, however, the character of the 9 November gathering in Berlin has undergone a change. Blue and white Israeli flags, hoisted by a small but determined layer, have increasingly come to dominate the proceedings. Many of those involved in the commemorations—students, activists, community and anti-racist groups—have been uneasy at the thought that a gathering which was, in good part, a protest against recent attacks on Muslims should march behind the banner of a state whose air force had been raining white phosphorus down on Gaza. But naturally no one wanted things to come to blows, and the Zionization of the commemoration went unchallenged.
In a thought-provoking set of essays, the Hebrew poet and critic Yitzhak Laor sets out to explore what he calls this ‘strident new pro-Israel tendency’ in Western Europe.footnote1 Trumpeted complaints in the liberal media of a ‘new anti-Semitism’ are themselves aspects of a ‘new philosemitism’, Laor argues, which mobilizes a highly selective form of Holocaust remembrance, together with the noxious residues of European colonialism, in order to negate the reality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Laor himself commands a position of signal importance in Israeli cultural life. He was born—like the state itself—in 1948, in Pardes Hannah, halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv. His father, he writes in the Introduction to this collection, was a Jewish German factory worker and spd militant, until he was asked in 1933 not to come to cell meetings any more because it was ‘inconvenient’; his mother was from Riga, a member of Betar. Both got out of Europe ‘in time’. Their son studied literature at Tel Aviv University and, in 1972, was sentenced to prison for refusing to render military service in the Occupied Territories. He went on to develop a powerful voice as a poet—his 1992 collection, A Night in a Foreign Hotel, is arguably one of the peaks of modern Hebrew literature.
The gamut of his activity has been equally impressive: novelist, playwright, translator, activist, editor and literary critic. His 1987 play, Ephraim Goes Back to the Army—the title is a reference to S. Yizhar’s 1938 novella, Ephraim Goes Back to the Alfalfa—was initially banned by the state censors, who objected to the depiction of Israeli soldiers’ brutality. Narratives with No Natives (1995), a collection of essays on Hebrew literature, remains a foundational critical text. In 2005 Laor launched the journal Mitaam, a ‘review of literature and radical thought’ that became a beacon of high culture in Israel. Mitaam allowed Laor to combine his gifts as editor, critic and outstanding translator into Hebrew, producing two potent special numbers on Pasolini and on Brecht. Not since the tragic suicide of Baruch Kurzweil in 1972 has there been such an incisive and iconoclastic voice in Israeli culture. There are obvious differences between them, yet the similarities are telling: both share a contempt for the purveyors of the ruling ideology and, above all, a sensitivity to the danger Judaism has faced from attempts to Zionize it. Unlike Kurzweil, Laor is not religious, but neither is he a secular Zionist; he is intimately familiar with Jewish liturgy, theology and history. Cast in a different register, exemplified by the ire with which he reviewed Shlomo Sand’s Invention of the Jewish People in Haaretz, his view on this issue is not unlike Kurzweil’s.
Laor’s non-fiction prose does not lend itself to succinct summary. Its forte is the juxtaposition of self-contained insights on a text—a film, a novel—or a fragment—a headline, a paragraph—which nevertheless cohere into a striking and original cultural critique. This is as true of Myths of Liberal Zionism as it was of Narratives with No Natives. Thus the lead essay in the latest collection, ‘The Shoah Belongs to Us (Us, the Non-Muslims)’, begins with the ‘unprecedented spectacle’ of the entire French political spectrum, including the racist extreme right, uniting in 2006 in a joint protest over the death of Ilan Halimi. This was unanimously described by the media as an anti-Semitic crime, even though the gang that abducted him may not have known at the time the young man was Jewish. Laor analyses the ideological uses to which the event was put: the ‘new anti-Semitism’ defined not by reference to the objective situation, but to an alleged perception (‘many Jews see it as . . .’); the shadow of the Nazi past insistently presented as the immediate context—‘Memories of the 1940s, when France collaborated with the Nazis and sent tens of thousands of French Jews to death camps, have come flooding back’, wrote the Haaretz correspondent—even when the supposed new anti-Semites had nothing to do with Europe’s fascist past, and when such memories were the preserve of the over-60s.
‘Why now?’ is the question Laor asks. ‘Why the contemporary concern with the Jewish genocide, half a century after it took place?’ During the War it had been ‘at best a secondary preoccupation’ for the Allies, and for decades afterwards the Shoah was ‘kept out of sight or on the margins’, its memory ‘the prerogative of escaped Jews, anti-Nazis and other victims’.footnote2 But today, ‘Auschwitz is everywhere’—on the upmarket French and German tv channels, in the big co-productions for European cinema, ‘in political clichés, school syllabuses and state celebrations’—‘it has become the symbol of the Second World War in its entirety’. Confessing that this ‘new vocation of European Shoah culture provokes a certain unease in me, as in other Israelis’, Laor goes on to argue:
It would be facile to see this memorializing culture as a belated crisis of international conscience, or a sense of historical justice that took time to materialize . . . The majority of United Nations General Assembly members have emerged from a colonial past: they are the descendants of those who suffered genocides in Africa, Asia or Latin America. There should be no reason for the commemoration of the genocide of the Jews to block out the memory of these millions of Africans or Native Americans killed by the civilized Western invaders of their continents.footnote3