Dehumanizing the Holocaust
Bauckham attempts to set the Holocaust in an historical niche designed to make it appear as some sort of historical syzygy of New Testament miracle stories. The conclusion readers are meant to draw is that to believe in the testimony of one leaves no excuse for disbelieving in “the testimony” of the other. This is buttressed by the claim that the uniqueness of the holocaust makes it incomprehensible — just as the miracles are incomprehensible.
Before continuing with my chapter by chapter comments of his book (how many books I have read since B’s!), I thought it worthwhile to ply a bit of historical perspective and rationality to B’s premise (which is really a wholesale deployment of Elie Wiesel‘s propaganda) by outlining some points as discussed by Norman G. Finkelstein in The Holocaust Industry. The whole notion of the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust has broader ramifications than B’s argument.
First, the contention that the Holocaust was a categorically unique historical event
This notion only entered the public discourse after the June 1967 war.
‘In the aftermath of World War II, the Nazi holocaust was not cast as a uniquely Jewish — let alone a historically unique — event. Organized American Jewry in particular was at pains to place it in a universalist context. After the June war, however, the Nazi Final Solution was radically reframed. “The first and most important claim that emerged from the 1967 war and became emblematic of American Judaism,” Jacob Neusner recalls, was that “the Holocaust . . . was unique, without parallel in human history.”‘ (p.42 of The Holocaust Industry)
Finkelstein does not elaborate on the link with the June 1967 war in The Holocaust Industry, but it is not hard to understand why this Holocaust dogma, even “Holocaust hagiography” in the view of commentators such as professor of American studies, David Stannard, can be related to this event. Israel has defied world opinion by violating UN resolutions and international law, with the sole support of the U.S., ever since that war by continuing to expand and entrench its occupation of the conquered territories (i.e. lebensraum). Israel’s constant rationale has been to plead her vulnerable David status in a world of giants (this notwithstanding the fact that Israel has been ranked the world’s 4th strongest military power), and possessing a history that uniquely entitles it to defy international norms and opinion by virtue of the uniqueness of their Holocaust experience.
Back to David Stannard (Uniqueness as Denial: The Politics of Genocide Scholarship in Is the Holocaust Unique (2nd ed):
- Is the holocaust unique in total numbers exterminated? No, the extermination of the American Indians surpassed the gross figures wiped out in the holocaust. From the early 1980’s when the figures of the American genocide became known the quantitative argument began to disappear from the proponents of the argument of Jewish holocaust uniqueness.
- Is the holocaust unique in the proportion of the population that was exterminated? No, the Romanis and Armenians probably lost at least or even more of a proportion of their own peoples.
- Is the holocaust unique in the speed with which so many were killed at once? No, the massacres under Stalin, and those in Bangladesh and Cambodia, easily match the Nazi program. In Rwanda the rate of killing was at 10,000 per day, a figure equal to the maximum ever achieved in a day at Auschwitz. (Nearly a million Tutsis were slaughtered in Rwanda within a mere 90 days.) 300,000 were snuffed out in a very few hours and minutes with the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of two other Japanese cities.
- Far fewer numbers have survived the prolonged genocides (e.g. Americas, Australia) than who survived the attempts to rid the world of a population in a speedier manner — so is “speed” really a rational criteria for “greater uniqueness” of a holocaust?
- Is the holocaust unique in being the only attempt by a state to exterminate an entire race of people? No, and only partly because the actual evidence denies that the Nazis envisaged the entire elimination of the Jewish peoples. Firstly, the Gypsies were treated no differently by the Nazis. Secondly, there are numerous case histories of American “local” governments planning and ordering the exterminations of native peoples. Thirdly, while the Nazis failed to exterminate all Jews and Gypsies from the planet, other races have been more successfully and completely exterminated as intended and planned by the “Nordic” powers: the Australia’s Tasmanian aboriginals and Newfoundland’s Beothuk.)
So much for the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust.
But one more note with contemporary relevance from Ken Livingstone:
“Every year the international financial system kills more people than World War II, but at least Hitler was mad, you know”
But Finkelstein knows this is not enough to persuade many:
“The anomaly of The Holocaust is that its uniqueness is held to be absolutely decisive. What other historical event, one might ask, is framed largely for its categorical uniqueness? Typically, distinctive features of The Holocaust are isolated in order to place the event in a category altogether apart. It is never clear, however, why so many common features should be reckoned trivial by comparison. . . . Each time an argument for Holocaust uniqueness is empirically refuted, a new argument is adduced in its stead. . . . The results . . . are multiple, conflicting arguments that annul each other. . . .” (pp. 42-43 of The Holocaust Industry)
Secondly, that the Holocaust cannot be rationally apprehended
‘Only a flea’s hop separates the claim of Holocaust uniqueness from the claim that The Holocaust cannot be rationally apprehended. If The Holocaust is unprecedented in history, it must stand above and hence cannot be grasped by history. Indeed, The Holocaust is unique because it is inexplicable, and it is inexplicable because it is unique.
‘Dubbed by Novick the “sacralization of the Holocaust,” this mystifications’ s most practiced purveyor is Elie Wiesel. For Wiesel, Novick rightly observes, The Holocaust is effectively a “mystery” religion. Thus Wiesel intones that the Holocaust “leads into darkness,”negates all answers,” “lies outside, if not beyond, history,” “defies both knowledge and description,” “cannot be explained nor visualized,” is “never to be comprehended or transmitted,” marks a “destruction of history” and a “mutation on a cosmic scale.” Only the survivor-priest (read: only Wiesel) is qualified to divine its mystery. And yet, The Holocaust’s mystery, Wiesel avows, is “noncommunicable”; “we cannot even talk about it.” Thus, for his standard fee of S25,000 (plus chauffeured limousine), Wiesel lectures that the “secret” of Auschwitz’s “truth lies in silence.”
‘Rationally comprehending The Holocaust amounts, in this view, to denying it. For rationality denies The Holocaust’s uniqueness and mystery. And to compare The Holocaust with the sufferings of others constitutes, for Wiesel, a “total betrayal of Jewish history.’ (pp. 44-45 of The Holocaust Industry)
Part of the significance of the Holocaust is that it was perpetrated by perfectly normal people, so to declare it incomprehensible is for this reason alone simply nonsense (Chaumont).
Wiesel was offended by Shimon Peres‘ reference to two twentieth century holocausts — Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
In Wiesel’s and Bauckham’s “sacralization of the Holocaust” no-one else’s suffering is allowed to compare with the suffering of the Jews. This “uniquely unique” status has the benefit of conferring “uniquely unique” entitlements on the Jews and the State of Israel — and in Bauckham’s case it serves to rationalize the equally sacred and incomprehensible New Testament stories.
This notion of uniqueness and incomprehensibility of the suffering of the Jews, the dogma that refuses to acknowledge any comparison with the suffering of any other peoples, does the Jews and the state of Israel an enormous disservice — as many Jews recognize and argue, and as the ongoing pain of Israel, Palestine, and their nearest neighbours amply testifies.
Edward Said in his classic work, Orientalism, made the interesting observation that anti-semitism has in many Western quarters bifurcated since the later 20th century into sanctifying the Jews and demonizing their semitic cousins, the Arabs. To set any race as more or less equal than the rest does no service to anyone.
It is by comprehending and acknowledging the common humanity of the Jews and the universal application of their experiences that best serves both Jews and the rest of humanity. How can “never again” mean anything if the event is deemed categorically unique and by definition unrepeatable? By singling one race out as having endured suffering that is incomprehensible are we enabled to feel a little less pricked in our consciences when we fail to pressure our leaders to act to prevent other “comprehensible” genocides (upon non-whites) since?
By removing the Holocaust from the realm of comprehensible human experience Bauckham is doing a terrible injustice to both the Jews and non-Jews who suffered along with them in war-time Europe and too many times and places since. If his motive is to strengthen his case for tales of the miraculous, this can only go down as one more of too many cases where Bibliolatry has been a curse to humanity.
Indeed, by setting the holocaust in a categorically unique category beyond human comprehension and comparability with any other human suffering, he is in fact (unwittingly) dehumanizing it.