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by Prof. Bernard Harrison, posted April 20, 201


[Editor's note: Bernard Harrison is the E.E. Ericksen Professor of Philosophy, University of Utah and
Emeritus Professor in the School of Humanities, University of Sussex, UK. He is a member of the Academic Council of  the Canadian Institute for The Study of Anti-Semitism.] 

I have recently been made aware of the campaign currently being waged by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Union and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress against the plans of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg to set up a permanent Holocaust gallery. In particular I have taken note of the mailing across Canada by the UCCLA of a postcard based on the cover of an edition of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, with one pig whispering to another, “All galleries are equal, but some galleries are more equal than others”; the clear implication being that the proposal for a Holocaust gallery represents an attempt to devalue the sufferings of non-Jewish groups, in particular those suffered by Ukrainians in the Holodomor: the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33.

Such campaigns are peculiar neither to Canada nor to the Ukrainian diaspora. On the contrary, they occur whenever there is a proposal for any kind of commemoration of the Holocaust, whether by a museum, a monument or a day of commemoration. In Britain, for instance, when the Labour Government of Tony Blair instituted a Holocaust Day in 2001, it did so to the accompaniment of exactly the kind of controversy now raging in Canada, coming in this case mainly from Muslim immigrant groups, especially the Muslim Council of Great Britain, with some additional support from some West Indian public figures, such as the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. The latter, while neither a Holocaust denier nor someone lacking in sympathy for the sufferings of European Jews, still made clear his feeling that all Holocaust commemoration allows Jewish suffering to take an unjust precedence over the sufferings inflicted by slavery on black people, with the implication that the lives and sufferings of black people are held to be somehow less valuable, less deserving of sympathy, than the lives and sufferings of Jews.

The answer to such arguments, it seems to me, is that Holocaust Days, museum exhibits or monuments, instituted by non-Jewish governments, cannot in the nature of things be, and are not, monuments to Jewish suffering. To suppose such a thing possible would be to suppose it possible, without impertinence, for one nation to put up a memorial to another nation’s war dead. We are entitled, as their descendants, to mourn and remember our own dead, not other people’s.  Jewish suffering in the Shoah, and the dead of murdered European Jewry, are, rightly and properly, commemorated by a Jewish festival, Yom Hashoah, which this year falls on May 1. If non-Jewish commemorations of the Holocaust, however, cannot, and do not, commemorate Jewish suffering, it follows that they cannot exalt, or privilege, Jewish suffering over the sufferings of other peoples.

But if Holocaust monuments, including museum exhibits, do not commemorate Jewish suffering, what on earth do they commemorate? To answer that question, it is only necessary to see that the Holocaust has two quite different aspects, or faces, which concern --“belong to”, if you like -- two quite different human groups, the persecuted and the persecutors. The first aspect is that of suffering and death. That, and that alone, “belongs to” the Jews. And, evidently, Jewish suffering is no different from anybody else’s suffering. It makes no difference whether one’s children are gassed in Auschwitz, or starved to death as a consequence Stalin’s policies in the Ukraine: in either case, they are dead. The atrocities suffered by Jews in the Shoah cannot, in a world like ours, that is to say, function as a badge of distinction. On the contrary, they form part of the human inheritance which unites Jews with every other suffering human group, including starving Ukrainians and West African slaves in the Caribbean.

The second aspect of the Holocaust, the second face it presents to us, is that of motive and technique: the reasons for which it was carried out, and the means by which it was put into effect. To the first belong the delusions of antisemitism; for instance, the fantasy that a tiny nation of under twenty million people, dispersed across continents, and living, for the most part, in conditions ranging from modest comfort to acute poverty, could be the secret rulers of the world. To the second belong the bureaucratic and technological apparatus of selection, arrest and arbitrary mass murder which the National Socialist government of Germany developed and put into practice during the twelve years of its power, 1933-1945, and with whose operations, as scholars have now demonstrated beyond dispute, many citizens of many other nations, both inside and outside occupied Europe, were extremely happy to co-operate.

That second aspect of the Holocaust does not belong to the Jews. It has nothing to do with them. It is the unenviable property of you and me: of all of us, in fact, who happen to be non-Jews. It is the bloody albatross that the Nazis succeeded in hanging around the neck of the non-Jewish part of the human race.

It is this second, non-Jewish, aspect of the Holocaust that non-Jewish Holocaust memorials, such as the proposed gallery at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, exist to commemorate. The point of thus commemorating it is not to say, “Look how greatly, how exceptionally, these people suffered”, but rather to say, “Look how brutally, with what technically ingenious inhumanity, and in the service of what childishly grotesque delusions, these sufferings were inflicted, against its own citizens among others, by the government of a great and supposedly civilised Western nation.” We need to be reminded of that, not because that brutality, that ingenious inhumanity, those shamingly fatuous delusions, that diversion of the power of the state to satanic ends, are part of Jewish history, but, on the contrary, because they are a part of our, non-Jewish, history: a part of which we would do well to remain aware, lest we repeat it, either against Jews again, or against some other group.

For that reason I wish the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg well. Certainly it should commemorate the Holocaust. For that matter there seems no good reason why it should not also commemorate the Holodomor, and certainly no reason why one should see either project as “privileging” the suffering of those involved in either disaster. As for the UCCLA and the UCC, I suggest they reflect on their own history, perhaps reread Animal Farm, and think again.

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