This is a guest post by Ben Cohen of Z Word
In the end, Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the President of the UN General Assembly, decided not to attend the Holocaust commemoration ceremonies at UN Headquarters here in New York. One can speculate endlessly as to why D’Escoto – whose choice of metaphor to describe Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians is “crucifixion” – bowed out. Perhaps it was because he didn’t want to be in a room where he wasn’t welcome; perhaps something inside him dreaded the prospect of looking actual Holocaust survivors in the eye just a few months after he embraced the world’s most well-known exponent of Holocaust denial; perhaps (let us not forget those who will inevitably say this) he was “leaned on” or “pressured” or “prevented” by you-know-who.
D’Escoto did, however, send a message to the gathering, read out by Rwanda’s UN Envoy. In its tone and substance, the message was supremely safe and eminently laudable, if completely unoriginal. The Holocaust was a consequence of demonizing Others (”Roma, communists, gays and lesbians, and most of all Jews.”) Its most basic lesson, if the cry “Never Again!” is to have meaning, is the need for tolerance. The election of President Obama is an inspiring demonstration of where such tolerance can lead.
Anyone who knows D’Escoto’s reputation will have a field day picking holes in these remarks. The word “genocide” is mentioned several times, for example, but no current examples are provided. In another setting, D’Escoto would doubtless have pointed to the conflict in Gaza, which he regards, as he told Al Jazeera, as a “genocide.” In this setting, though, a mention of Darfur would have been more appropriate. But Darfur didn’t figure. Its absence might be put down to the fact that Palestine’s international partisans, like D’Escoto, are irritated by talk of the slaughter there, which they regard as a Zionist plot to change the subject. A likelier explanation still is that the UN doesn’t regard what is happening in Darfur as a genocide.
Acts of recognition and commemoration can be very confusing, therefore, particularly in the inverted world of the UN, where a genocide can be recast as a “civil war in which all sides are committing atrocities” and, equally, a nasty regional conflict in which culpability can be distributed among several parties is suddenly defined as a “genocide.”
Why is this? Our view of history – more precisely, the way in which we remember the recent past in the public domain – generally tends to be cluttered by the political imperatives of the present. Holocaust Memorial Day 2009 demonstrates this beautifully. The furore in New York over D’Escoto was based upon a sense, particularly among Jewish organizations, that his attendance would soil the event. Just by being there in person, many observers said, he would have shifted attention away from the past crimes of the Holocaust to the present allegations of “Israeli genocide.”
Try, though, to imagine D’Escoto in another context. Were he a local government official in Catalunya, he would not have delivered a speech either in person or through a surrogate; there would have been no event at which to hear such a speech. Instead, he would be defending the statement that “marking the Jewish Holocaust while a Palestinian Holocaust is taking place is not right.” Ditto if he served with the local authority in the Swedish town of Lulea. Or if he was an official of the Muslim Council of Britain.
The point is this: the objection to D’Escoto was never really about his physical presence. In another country he would have been visible by his purposeful absence. Rather, it centered upon fears about the representation of the Holocaust.
In the last few weeks, the Holocaust has been commemorated, in a manner of speaking, nearly every day: it is present in the accusations of genocide committed by the IDF, it is audible in the comparisons between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto, it is visible in the banners which equate the Star of David with the swastika. No-one, believe me, has forgotten the Holocaust. Even those who deny its occurrence, like the Iranian President, perpetuate the discussion about it.
And that is why I was left profoundly uncomfortable with the final sentence of D’Escoto’s remarks: “Let us remember and learn about the crimes of the past in order to prevent them today and in the future.” A harmless platitude, you might think? Maybe, had that sentence had been uttered by a schoolchild, or by a diplomat whose only concern is protocol. But coming from a man who has too often turned the lessons of the Holocaust against Jews themselves, and who believes that Jews have morphed into their persecutors, it sounds very, very sinister.