Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Us and Them and Genocide

I want to tell you about the time I tried to convince Jewish high school students that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a big mistake. I’m not sure it worked, and I’m not sure I’m right. You can let me know.

Let me start with some background. I work for an Israel advocacy program called Write on For Israel. Every year, over 20 Jewish 11th graders from various schools and synagogues meet for seven Sundays for a long, full day of study and training. The following summer we go on a 10 day fact finding tour of Israel. In 12th grade, they work on advocacy projects in the local Cleveland area, as well as a trip to D.C. for some political activism. The program is in its second year, here in Cleveland. The pilot city, New York, is in its eighth.

Last month I accompanied half the first cohort on their Washington trip. It was two crazy busy days. Among other things we met with William Daroff, (Jewish Federations of North America Vice President for Public Policy), Jennifer Laszlo Mizrachi, (Executive Director, The Israel Project), Tina Tchen & Danielle Borrin (Director and assistant director of the White House Office of Public Engagement), Howard Kohr (Executive Director, AIPAC), Aaron David Miller (Public Policy Scholar), four local members of congress and three more congress members from Florida, and the Jordanian ambassador to the U.S. All of that in two days! Phew. It was super impressive and informative.

Amazingly, we had time in the morning for a visit to the USHMM. On the way there I played devil’s advocate with some students. Here is a summary version of that conversation:

Me: Why should America have a national museum about the destruction of the Jews of Europe from 1933 - 1945?
Kids: It is an important museum for Americans to learn from the past to prevent it from happening again.
Me: Well, a: it has happened over and over again. And b: why not make a genocide museum explaining the 20th century phenomenon, and exploring America’s role in it as savior and bystander? The Shoah can be the central exhibit, by why does the nation’s capitol need a museum entirely devoted to it?
Kids: Well, mostly Jews paid so they get to have what they want.
Me: Ah. Does that make it a good idea? By that I mean, is this the best way we want to present ourselves as Americans to D.C. tourists?
Kids: Well, there is an Asian art museum, and an African art museum, so what’s wrong with having a Jewish museum.
Me: That’s just it. Its not a Jewish art, culture or history museum. Its a Holocaust museum. What statement does that make? What messages are we sending? How will it be heard?

And so on.

On our tour I asked the docent the following question, “Does the Museum feature any exhibits on America’s questionable humanitarian behavior?” Her answer was that at the end of the main exhibit are two benches, one labeled “for Aryans only”, the other “for Jews only”. She explained that some tour guides will draw the obvious analogy to segregation in many States at the same time that we fought the Nazis.

I have to say, I think that’s weak. First of all, I wasn’t only referring to Jim Crow. I was also referring to Indian persecution, (genocide?) Japanese-American internment, the many examples of the American military and its allies bombing civilian populations in World War II and after. And of course other atrocities and war crimes that went essentially unpunished by America. Its a heck of a list for starters. Just because we won the wars doesn’t mean we should avoid wrestling with our history. As Curtis Lemay himself said, “...I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”

It seems to me that a museum which condemns the German population of the 30s and 40s for the cowardice of not confronting their nation’s evil, (rightly so) should demonstrate the courage to question our own nation’s behavior. That would hopefully inspire vigilant citizenship in visitors from many countries. It would also be an emblem of America’s love of Truth and Justice, over its love for self congratulatory narratives.

Jerusalem should, and does, have a National Holocaust Memorial Museum. A third of our people were wiped out a few decades ago. I think Washington should have a National Genocide Memorial and Prevention Museum. I’ll bet many Jews would have helped fund it.

What statement would that make? Would message would that send? How would it be heard?

What am I missing?

A woman who is concealing her face sits on a park bench marked "Only for Jews." Austria, ca. March 1938.
— Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library Limited

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