Trauma Construction and Moral Restriction: The Ambiguity of the Holocaust for Israel

Publication Date: 
June 2011
In: Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering. Edited by Ron Eyerman, Jeffrey C. Alexander and Elizabeth Breese, 107-132. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers 2011
Jeffrey Alexander

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The legendary status of the Holocaust as a sacred evil has inspired international human rights law, new restrictions on national sovereignty, and newly powerful moral strictures against ethnic and racial cleansing. Yet, even as this markedly universalizing construction became ever more deeply institutionalized in Western Europe and North America, the Holocaust came to be configured in a radically particularistic manner in Israel and the Middle East. This chapter traces the drastically different trajectories the Holocaust memory took for the Israeli right-wing, the Israeli left-wing, and their Arab neighbors. For Arab nations neighboring the new Jewish nation, for occupied Palestinians inside Israel or in exile, and for radical Islamicists the world wide, the Holocaust’s reality was fiercely challenged and the extraordinary nature of Jewish trauma ridiculed and denied. Meanwhile, inside the boundaries of the Jewish state, religiously conservative and politically right-wing Zionists came to understand the Holocaust as a tragedy that was unique to the Jewish people, not as a tragedy of our times. The Israeli version of the Holocaust trauma drama reinforced ethnic and religious boundaries rather than pointing to the necessity for transcending them. Where Israeli left-wing parties have historically attempted to draw on the Holocaust metaphor in extending sympathy toward the Palestinian plight, such attempts were often ill-received by mainstream Israeli society. These divergent paths the Holocaust trauma followed underscore the autonomy of the traumatic event from its referent and demonstrate the culturally variable routes its remembrance may take.