One of the most problematic aspects of Holocaust commemoration in Israel is the state’s insistence to make it an exclusivist event – a cirme against the Jewish people first, against humanity second (if at all). This is manifest in many ways – the most odious, perhaps, is scornful rejection of using the word “Shoah” to describe the Armenian Holocaust, but there are many more. Here’s an anecdote from a fellow Russian-Israeli journalist to illustrate the point. Author anonymity preserved by request:
How I was made into a Holocaust denier
It’s summer 2004, boiling hot, I’m just back from a working trip and going on another one in two days. The phone rings. A girl’s voice:”Hello! I’m calling from paper So-and-so (a Leading Israeli Paper – henceforth, LIP). We want to commission you a feature about Russians! Could you come by tomorrow and meet the editor (a Famous Israeli Liberal Journalist – henceforth, FIL-J).”
I’m thinking to myself, damnit. I’m so not in the mode, and haven’t got the time, and I’m about to go abroad – but on the other hand, LIP. Not to mention, FIL J. It’s flattering and could come in useful. “Okay,” I say, “I’ll be there.”
I get to the place. Looking for a parking spot, heat, looking for the bloody entrance, HEAT, looking for Fil’s desk – and then I see him, daintily waving at me from the end of the corridor. I run over, come in, sit down, hello-hello. We’re accompanied by his assistant, the young girl from the phone, who now stares admiringly into her boss’s mouth.
Fil says: “You see, we’re running a special supplement on Russians. About their culture, you know. We have many ‘Russians’ in Israel and it’s interesting for our readers. So it’d be great if you could write us something.”
“Great,” says I, “I’d love to! I could write, for instance, about the political culture of the Israeli ‘Russians.”
Fil literally jumps out of his seat.
“NO!” he says, “No politics. We don’t need that. We need, you know, in general, how shall I say… well, you know, this guy is writing about Russian cuisine, about alcohol… that’s very interesting. And this other woman is writing about how Russians are into esoteric stuff. And this other-other woman is writing about Russian toys – matryoshkas and the like…”
“So your supplement will be purely ethnographic, then?”
For some reason, Fil takes it personally. “No! No ethnography. We’re about culture here.”
“Where do you know me from?” I ask. “From X,” he replies. “But X knows me as a political activist! I’m afraid matryoshkas are not my specialty.”
Just then, the coffee finally arrives, and leaving becomes somewhat uncomfortable. Time is pressing and I’m itching to go, because nothing of value is obviously going to come out of it. We drink coffee and chat about Russia – small talk.
And then Fil goes: “Eureka! I’ve got it. You’ll like it. Why don’t you write about how Russians feel about World War II. Because I hear they’re still very emotional about it… can you imagine? [to his assistant:] It’s been nearly 60 years now and they’re still remembering the war. I mean, why?”
The inverted commas around the world “Russians” slip my attention, perhaps because we spent the last few minutes talking about Russia. So I automatically reply: “Well of course they do. 20 million people died, after all.”
He goes: “I wasn’t actually talking about victims of Stalinism.”
I go: “Me neither. 20 million Soviet citizens perished in the war! Stalin is a whole other matter, that’s more millions…”
And then I see the blood draining from Fil’s face. The assistant takes the cue and goes paler still. He says, hoarsely: “What… you’re… you’re engaging in Holocaust denial in my office?? I protest!”
I’m stunned. “What’s wrong with you,” I say. “What Holocaust denial?”
He says: “Well, how many Jews died, do you think?”
I say: “Well, 6 million!”
He says, “You see. And you’re claiming MORE of other people died!”
I say: “But that’s a historical fact! And how does it even contradict the Holocaust? There was a genocide of the Jewish people. I’m not arguing with that by any means. But other people had died too!”
He stares at me. I stare at him, every bit as shocked. And make my excuses to leave.
“Ok,” he says. “Go. I’ll look into it… we’ll get in touch when you’re back.”
They never called. And I never called them, either. They could use the time to learn some history.
This conversation remains etched in my memory as one of the worst disappointments I experienced in Israel. That was our intelligentsia… our liberals… our Left, so to speak. Opinion-makers. And he wasn’t even one of the worst. Alas.