'Turning the Holocaust into a global event and preserving it as one is not obvious'
Prof. Yossi Shain
Photo: Amit Magal
A discipline called "memory studies" has developed in social sciences and humanities in recent years.
Memory studies generally differ from the regular history studies which deal with the events themselves and their interpretation, and focus on the battle over the control and shaping of a national ethos and "collective memory," which shape the ethical discourse on the national and international level.
Researchers of collective memory focus on the "shaping of the memory" or the "structuring of the memory." They discuss the collective memory as a political and economic resource, a sort of good money in the national and international arena – its value goes up and down according to the strength it is presented in and which it reflects.
The collective memory which gains international recognition can raise the level of injustice and victimhood of nations and ethnic groups in the international relations system, and grant them higher political and financial compensation. The memory's strength increases as it becomes more acceptable among the players in the international arena.
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If the traumatic collective memory of groups and nations fades, is not accepted or is denied and condemned, the ability to gain from it decreases. Researchers of collective memory in international relations point to the fact that serious traumas and injustices have been turned into a faded and suppressed memory by strong political forces which control the public discourse. On the other hand, claims of controversial injustices have been translated into a political resource, and even financial gains.
The ability to penetrate the international system and fixate the traumatic memory requires hard work. For example, while the battle against Turkey for the memory of the Armenian Genocide has not fallen off the international agenda because of the extensive activity of the unified and rich Armenian diaspora in the United States and France, the termination of the Assyrian community in Iraq has been pushed to the margins of the international discourse.
Israel 'overusing' the Holocaust?Researchers point to the fact that strong countries have a critical role in shaping traumas and injustices in the global discourse. The US and the West are operating out of strategic motives and international interests, and not according to historical and ethical measures. The use of memory and trauma depends on the ability of the victims and their offspring to express their demands in a sharp, persistent and effective way, and their success also depends on the ability to pressure the criminals and their heirs to compensate and acknowledge their deeds.
Does anyone remember the hundreds of thousands of Hutu tribe refugees who were slaughtered brutally only 20 years ago, when the Americans and other Western countries have no interest in it, also due to their favorable attitude towards the new government in Rwanda.
The crimes of the Holocaust are of course the pivotal event in the international collective memory, despite attempts by the Iranians and others to deny the Holocaust. And yet, it should be stressed that turning the Holocaust into a global event and preserving it as one is not obvious. It requires a persistent discussion and persistent compensation which depend constantly on the battle over the Holocaust's presence in the international discourse, and among the nations of the world which are responsible for the crimes, even indirectly.
The battle for the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust is sometimes condemned as being exaggerated, cynical and even as a disguise for the "illegitimacy" of Israeli and Jewish activity. There are even those in Israel who say we are "overusing" the Holocaust.
Of course we must not wear out the Holocaust's uniqueness and status in the collective memory, but we must also understand that Israel, the Diaspora Jewry and their partners in the world must engage in an ongoing and persistent effort to reinforce the Holocaust's place as a global moral compass. We must remind and not forget.