Burning Memories: Sacrifice and the Historical Unconscious
In winter 2009 I accidentally came across a eulogy that I wrote in 1970 for my then best friend, Zvika, who was killed by Egyptian fire at the Suez Canal. I received the news of his death at midnight and hitchhiked through the night to reach the funeral from my army base near Eilat. I sat to write my farewell to him in his family home in the Kibbutz where we grew up. One of the lines in my eulogy said: ‘For many years Zvika and his mother represented the Shoah for me. On hearing the word, I immediately visualized them singing ‘Brothers, the shtetl is burning’, a song that always sent shivers down my spine. Its dramatic melody, coupled with its violent images and terrible helplessness, moved, upset and alerted me to a mysterious danger. Both the text and the melody were written by Mordechai Gebirtig, a Galician poet who was killed by the Nazis in 1942. Gebirtig’s poem, known as ‘The shtetl is burning’ was written in 1938 about a pogrom that took place two years earlier in a small Polish town. It describes the total destruction by fire of the town. The refrain says ‘And you stand by lame, without offering help, without trying to extinguish the burning fire, the fire of the city’. When I started reading what I wrote so many years ago, I did not remember this image of Zvika and his mother singing, and the song of the burning shtetl had all but escaped my memory. Yet, reading my eulogy triggered an avalanche of memories.
Aged 6-7, I used to sleep in the same room as my friend Zvika, in the communal children’s home in the Kibbutz. His father’s name was Mordechai, like that of the author of ‘the burning shtetl’. Zvika’s father was a Holocaust survivor from Galicia, the only one of a large family who emerged alive. He was a very silent man and worked as the chief electrician of our Kibbutz for many years. Zvika’s mother was also a Polish Holocaust survivor, the only one of a large family. She was the only parent who used to come and kiss her son goodnight after we all went to bed. All the parents would have been long gone by then, but she never missed a single night: she could not bear the idea that her son had to go to bed without a goodnight kiss. Her name was Nehama, which means ‘consolation’. I do not know how she came to adopt this name on arrival to Palestine. It now seems to me almost obscene to call her that. Whenever anyone mentioned her name her loss was evoked, but immediately with the injunction to reach or offer consolation. For Nehama though, there was no consolation. Rather, her troubles kept piling up until death redeemed her. As a young boy, I was so deeply impressed by her nightly visits, that one day I told her that she was my second mother. I started visiting her home regularly, insisting on my adopted sonhood. This was how my friendship with Zvika started.
There are a number of powerful Shoah-related scenes that I recall from my childhood, concerning the memories of those around us in the Kibbutz who had been there. Yet, I seldom dwell upon these memories. Until recently, the Shoah did not interest me very much. Were it not for an Israeli colleague, I would probably never have visited Auschwitz (where Nehama and Mordechai came from) when I spent some days at a conference in Krakow in 1983. In the event, I did go to see Auschwitz and the visit strongly inscribed itself on my memory, but without arousing the need to know, reflect, or understand. During my recent time in Berlin the Shoah did not feature in any direct way. Throughout the various periods of analysis that I underwent in the course of the years, I never mentioned anything that related to the Shoah. Nor did I mention my adopting of a Shoah survivor as a second mother. Burning memories, it seems, do not only present with spectacular images, but might also burn themselves out as part of the process of their inscription.
In my mind, the scene of burning in an arson attack, as in the Shtetl poem, is a scene of sacrifice. It is heavy with religious and causal overtones: a scene in which God — whatever or whoever this may refer to — demands something and his demand is met. People acquire power by meeting god’s presumed demand for sacrifice. The impact of the burning shtetl derives from this logic: people, in their quest for power, sacrifice the Jews. The need of the perpetrator to give meaning to his sacrifice mirrors a similar need on the part of the victim. Thus, in the context of the Shoah, Geoffrey Hartman writes about the need to frame loss as sacrifice, to rationalize it as having occurred for some purpose. Indeed, much of the rhetoric that commemorates the Shoah in Israel implies — in various forms — the idea that the Shoah is ethically tied up with the emergence, in its aftermath, of the Jewish state. In a linguistic vein, ‘Holocaust’ means the total burning of the victim in the fire of its sacrifice. As Giorgio Agamben shows, the term ‘holocaust’ sanctifies the concrete Auschwitz crematoria, recreates them by adding a metaphysical or religious resonance. Once the term occupies its cultural singularity, the whole scene becomes sacred. Beyond comparison, untouchable. This sanctification of the Holocaust is, according to Agamben, our blind spot. The point of entry for a vengeful unconscious. I call it ‘the historical unconscious’. Here is how it works.
The scenes of the Israeli army’s attack on Gaza at the turn of 2008 evoked an immense emotional reaction in me. I have close friends in Gaza whose spirit of healing and compassion, despite the atrocities they have lived through, seemed to me admirable. They were, on the whole, remarkably open and welcoming to those Jewish Israelis who, like me, sought contact with them throughout the December attack. When photographs of the victims started coming from Gaza I became very upset: the death, the destruction, the horrible wounds that were caused by new, experimental weapons. Yet, the most unsettling for me were the scenes of the intense fires and the severely burnt bodies caused by phosphorus bombs; the black, shrivelled bodies evoked images of Auschwitz. Something my analysis never contrived to do. The all but total support that Israeli Jews gave to this attack depressed me. Some of my friends who were usually engaged in Jewish–Palestinian dialogue even expressed satisfaction with the Israeli attack.
I was trying to understand this when I heard Robi Friedman of Haifa University give a lecture in which he re-analysed the biblical scene of the binding of Isaac. Friedman did not conceptualize the scene as a test of belief: he thought of it rather as a quest for (religious) power. Belief may have other routes than the readiness to sacrifice life. Compassion, for example. But Abraham went the power way. Friedman did not see Isaac as the prime victim, for Isaac was eventually replaced by the lamb, which was also a living being, albeit a non-speaking one. Perhaps, he said, it was this sacrifice of a non-speaking creature that ended the bible speech on the issue of sacrifice. The morality of the sacrifice of living beings is never discussed in the Bible after this scene, as if all metaphysical and ethical issues concerning the sacrifice of living beings were resolved. I came out of Friedman’s lecture saying to myself: of course, we found our lamb. The people of Gaza.
The role of the Palestinian (the ‘non-speaking being) in replacing the Jew as the paradigmatic historical sacrifice echoes the Israeli refrain: ‘There is no one to speak with’. Of course, this phrase articulates the political argument against negotiations but, to my mind, it also positions the Palestinians as a replacement sacrifice. This chimes with another frequent Israeli dictum, the prime lesson of the Holocaust for the Jewish people: Never again like the lamb to the slaughter. If the Palestinians are the new historical sacrifice, then we have found a lamb to replace our Isaac. The sense of power we gained from attacking Gaza has little to do with security: Qassams may still fall as before. Hamas is now more strongly in power than prior to the attack. But now we have added another layer in the construction of Palestinians as lamb.
In the storyline that started to forge itself in my mind, the historical unconscious of Israeli Jews began working its magic during the mythological war of 1948, when thousands of Palestinians were driven out of their homes and became refugees. This retraced our own Jewish itinerary of exile and homelessness, but we still needed an adequate hermeneutics to tie these events up with our primary mythologies. Consider, for example, the Hebrew poem that most prominently captured the pre-war spirit in 1947: ‘The silver platter’, by Nathan Alterman. The poem anticipates the unavoidable forthcoming Jewish-Israeli death toll that is involved in the establishment of the Jewish state and construes it in terms of the sacrificing of the young. It describes the scene in which, ‘The nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle’, that of a Jewish state. Next, in the poem, as the nation looks on, a young man and a young woman approach who still bear all the signs of heavy fighting. When the nation asks them ‘Who are you?’, they answer ‘We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given to you’. The amazing thing for me here is that death is construed as a wholly internal Jewish affair, an entirely Jewish mythology of the sacrificing of the young. Sacrifice, here, is rendered in all-Jewish terms. Palestinians are not mentioned, not even as an agent of death, not even as a hostile other. The poem has ever since functioned as a prime national articulation of the 1948 ethos and it is widely quoted and read on official occasions. The young man and woman, I would say, were conceived of as contemporary Isaacs, and the lambs, invisible for now, were waiting in the wings for the next step: sacrifice conversion.
To be able to pursue the process of sacrifice conversion, the emerging nation had to overcome compassion, not only for Palestinians, but to its own Shoah victims and survivors as well. Those who returned from the concentration camps and settled in the fledgling Jewish state reported that veteran Israelis avoided hearing their stories and abstained from offering compassion. According to Talila Kosh, in the rush to ensure that ‘we will never again go like lambs to the slaughter’, the Israeli ethos rejected compassion and instead formed itself around the notion of the ‘melting pot’, whose prime agent was military service. In the melting pot, Jews of diverse origins were to become one nation. The melting pot referred to both the process and the vessel in which this process took place. In fact, ‘melting pot’ is a poor translation of the Hebrew expression ‘kur hituch’: kur is more like a furnace than a pot and ‘hituch’ is used to melt metal not to cook food. The image, then, is not a friendly pot but a roaring furnace in which different metals melt to form a new, particularly hard, homogeneous metal. The fact that this expression should so closely evoke the Auschwitz crematoria is nauseating, unbelievable, yet, at the same time, highly obvious.
In Hebrew, ‘victim’ and ‘sacrifice’ are expressed by the same word, ‘korban’. This implies the idea that the move away from victim involves the positioning of a sacrifice, a replacement victim. The itinerary for the new korban has already been set out by our own Jewish history: first exile, then ghettos, then the Holocaust. The exile of the Palestinian lamb was given to us on the silver platter of the Naqba. Alterman’s youngsters were, in fact, Palestinian. During the period of 1948-1953, thousands of Palestinians were dislodged from their homes and we, Israelis, saw to it that this state of affairs would not change. Not so much because of any real threat that the refugees presented to us. Their threat was much greater as refugees, focusing towards us the hatred of the Muslim world. Only, without them we would have had no lamb. Yet, this was not enough. To avert compassion, we still needed a demonizing agent. ‘Hamas’ proved a magic word: Hamas was the incarnation of evil and all Gazans were Hamas, sometimes against their own will, but what could they do against the satanic spells? Ironically, the word ‘hamas’ in Hebrew, means a cry of protest and warning against an extraordinary evil. So, while screaming ‘Hamas’, we burnt the city, and we stood lame, without offering help to extinguish the fire, the fire of the city. And the story of victim conversion may not have seen its end yet. Surely, a full-blown Palestinian Holocaust is part of the unconscious itinerary.
Only through the liberation of Gaza and the restitution of Palestinian justice can we — Israeli Jews — ever hope to liberate ourselves from the throes of the Holocaust and its sacrificing logic.