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Obama, America, and Yad Vashem

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In 1994, I worked for one year as an intern at Yad Vashem, the campus of Holocaust museums, memorials, and research facilities in Jerusalem.  At Yad Vashem I was trained as a museum guide, worked with a team of Holocaust survivors to accession relics from towns destroyed by the Nazis, and assisted the curators on several exhibitions.  "You get to Israel by plane," the locals used to say to me. "But you enter through Yad Vashem."  Even today, tourists who visit Israel typically go to Yad Vashem their first day.  I went there for a year.

Seeing photos of Barack Obama at Yad Vashem come over the news wires, today, I felt for the first time in a long, long while that combination of pathos and longing welling up in my throat that I felt every day during my year as an intern -- that wave of sadness so great that all I could do was clench my teeth for fear that it will spill out and overwhelm me.  My time at Yad Vashem was so emotional that for a full decade afterward I simply could not talk about it.    

It is difficult to overestimate the depth of feeling that flows from being at Yad Vashem.  Despite all the legitimate critiques Yad Vashem has elicited over the past ten years--critiques that it promotes a view of Jews as victims, that it provides cover for bad Israeli policies, that it fails to teach tolerance for cultural difference despite commemorating ethnic genocide--it is still one of the most profound places I have ever and will ever visit.  Every Holocaust memorial in the world has flaws, and Yad Vashem has its share. But to spend time there is to know that all the flaws combined are dwarfed by the feelings it evokes.   

The centrality of Holocaust memory in Israeli life -- and by extension in American Jewish life -- carries with it some deep and problematic political problems, many of which have been cynically exploited by the Republican Party in the 2008 Presidential election.   I do not dispute the idea that Holocaust memory has, perhaps, become too central in American Jewish life.  As a American Jewish intellectual, I  have even argued that building a progressive future will demand a two step process of (1) deepening our respect for the Holocaust while at the same time (2) loosening the often paralyzing grip Holocaust memory can hold on our national policies.  That is a very difficult path to walk down, but we are a country capable and willing to take on great challenges.

Perhaps more than any other election in history, the 2008 Presidential race has emerged as an emotional challenge for American Jews as a result of places like Yad Vashem.  In 2008,  Americans it is fair to say that Americans in general view remembering the Holocaust as a core national value.  "Never again," is not just a Jewish refrain, but an American principle.  But when I was at Yad Vashem fifteen years ago, Holocaust memory was a far more parochial affair.  In those days, the choice to dedicate oneself to learning more about Holocaust history led one down a lonely path. Delving deeper into the pain of Europe's destroyed Jewish communities brought with it feelings of isolation, spiritual crisis, and pessimism.   

I remember one point, about midway through my year, when I suddenly realized that I was no longer comfortable with people who did lacked a basic understanding of Holocaust memory.  By the end of my experience at Yad Vashem, all my friends and colleagues were somehow connected to the broader project of remembering the Holocaust -- all people who had dedicated their lives to making sure that the world would never forget what happened, and that it would never happen again.

Remember, But Do Not Live In Fear

One day, while I was working in the museum storage room with my 'team' of survivors from Eastern Europe, each of them three times my age, I expressed my frustration with others my age who did not take Holocaust memory seriously.  'The question is not whether there will be another Holocaust,' the oldest of the three survivors said to me calmly. 'Sadly, it is likely that there will be another, albeit not likely suffered by the Jews."  He then continued with a point that I had not really thought about up that point in my life, but which I find myself thinking about more and more each day:

"The bigger question is not just about remembering the Holocaust, but whether each of us will be able tell the difference between those who truly respect the memory and those who just want to use it for their own purposes to exploit us."

The lesson I took away from my time at Yad Vashem and from the advice I received in that museum storage room went far beyond the refrain "Never Again."  The lesson was that respecting the memory Holocaust requires two commitments from each and every one of us, whether we are young or old, Jewish or gentile, American, Israeli, European or otherwise.  On the one hand, we must find a time at least once in our lives to stop and think -- to truly reflect -- on the profound sadness of millions and millions of people put to death by a brutal, nationalist, industrialized genocide.  On the other hand, we must find a way to respect that memory without allowing ourselves to be taken over by fear.  Honor the memory of the Holocaust, but do not let your life become consumed by fear. 

Indeed, 'remember, but do not live in fear' is not just a moral lesson from Yad Vashem. In the past 15 years, it has become a core American value.  We remember the Holocaust, but we do not let fear of antisemitism rule our lives.  We remember the civil rights movement, but we do not let fear of racism rule our lives.   We must remember 9/11, but not let fear of terrorism rule our lives. Memory without fear. 

For the past 8 years, however, George W. Bush and the media-driven Republican Party machine that kept him in power have advanced a brand of sordid politics in direct conflict with that moral lessons I learned at Yad Vashem and which millions of Americans have subsequently learned by visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, by watching films like Schindler's List and The Piano Player, and by studying Holocaust history in school.  At every turn President Bush has sought to infect American civic life with a debilitating strain of fear and whenever possible he has exploited the memory of the Holocaust to hold that fear in place.

The political program of George W. Bush since September 11 could be summed up, quite simply, as 'Remember--in order to stay afraid.'   When historians write the chapter on George W. Bush, they will tell of a President who coined more phrases, gave more speeches, and launched more policies to make Americans afraid than any other president.  Period. 

And yet, despite how much George W. Bush has used fear,  and despite his willingness to exploit the memory of the Holocaust to spread that fear, there has been no national conversation to date as to how much damage this president and his cronies have visited on America's commitment to the remembering the Holocaust.  Instead, we find ourselves mired in a cheap and cynical ploy by the Republican Party to exploit the memory of the Holocaust to spread fear about their Democratic candidate for President. 

Make no mistake, America.  In the 2008 Presidential campaign the Republican Party has put forward the deeply offensive claim that electing the Democratic candidate to the White House may just well lead to another Holocaust.  That claim is disgusting. That claim is immoral.  That claim violates the core American principle of 'remember, but do not live in fear.' But each of us -- every single one of us -- will be called upon to reject it.

At the end of this election, there will be two kinds of Americans:  those who accept the claim that Barack Obama as President will lead to another Holocaust, and those who stand up without fear and reject that claim as scurrilous. 

In the past week, John McCain has begun to carry on the tradition of using the Holocaust to promote fear that George W. Bush exploited with aplomb.  In so doing, John McCain has signaled what kind of American he is.

McCain, by embracing the smear campaign against Obama and attempting to undercut Obama's visit to Israel with talk of preventing another Holocaust has demonstrated that he is the kind of American willing to betray the core American principle of 'remember, but do not live in fear.' 

As for Barack Obama, seeing the pictures of him at Yad Vashem was as difficult for me personally as it is important for the future of this country.  What I see in Barack Obama's visit to Yad Vashem is a re-emergence of a core American principle that has been trampled underfoot over the past 8 years of George W. Bush and in recent days by the campaign of John McCain.

If we as a nation are to come together, face the challenges ahead of
us, and work side-by-side towards real solutions, we must begin by
honoring the memory of those who suffered in the past, but do so
without fear.  'Remember, but do not live in fear,' is principle not always easy to live up to.  I first understood its value during my year at Yad Vashem.  But since, I have met many people in America and elsewhere who embody that principle in so many ways. 

As Americans in the year 2008, we each have a lot of work to do to get past the fear injected into our public life over the past 8 years.  Each of us can start down that path by looking closely at the pictures of Barack Obama at Yad Vashem and seeing in them not just a American leader paying respect to fallen heroes and victims of World War II, but an opportunity to reject the fear that has crippled America for far too long already.