Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, began at sundown last evening. It is the holiday, the holy day, in the annual calendar when Jews all over the world remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who perished in the Holocaust. Not that we can ever forget during the rest of the year. But those martyrs and heroes have our singular focus and attention on this day.
And what do we remember? We recall that they were all murdered, and they were murdered simply for being Jews. While there is still time, and there remain a few survivors among us, we honour them. Commemoration and remembrance are the central motifs. And we remember them not simply as an instrument of commemoration as we do when we honour the war dead in Israel (11 November, Remembrance Day in Canada.) We remember those lost in war as a lesson and a promise. Never Again! For Holocaust remembrance, the phrase is repeated over and over, even though we are well aware that the killing of others because of their identity has been repeated many times since – the Tutsi in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing and murder of the Rohingya from Myanmar. In Rwanda, the victims were called inyenzi or cockroaches.
We remember to pay tribute to diversity even as Israel, the country created by the Jews and for the Jews – but not exclusively – the country that, in the last election in March, voted in its first unequivocally racist party to the Knesset.- Jewish Power led by Itamar Ben-Gvir – a party that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) labeled “racist and reprehensible.” Jewish Power is the heir of the ideology of Meir Kahane, an American-born racist rabbi who promoted a Jewish theocracy, the banning of intermarriage between Jews and Palestinians and the expulsion of those Palestinians.
Jewish Power is one of the three parties that forged the Religious Zionist Party under the leadership of Bezalel Smotrich; it won 7 seats. Party members advocate driving the Arabs out of Israel. They advocated instituting apartheid in the Israeli health system so that Jewish women would not have to give birth to Jewish children beside Arabs. And they espouse such ideas even though 20% the workforce in the health field – researchers, specialists, general practitioners, nurses, health technicians and aides – are Arabs. Instead of a health sector consisting of Arabs who work side-by-side Jewish Israelis at every level, they would exorcise the Palestinian Israelis.
Yet Yom HaShoah is a testament to diversity. Further, every religious and ethnic group struggles with the tension between that diversity and the celebration and continuation of unity. Yesterday, at the invitation of Dr. Payam Mohseni, I attended a symposium (a virtual one) on Diversity and Unity in Transnational Shi’ism. Every people, every religion, has the same problem. Yet Jews do not honour the minorities slaughtered everywhere, but only the six million Jews murdered in the Shoah and the extraordinary survivors. We honour particularism, not universalism.
How then by remembering such a past can we educate our children? How can we say, “Never forget!” and “Never again”? How can we use remembrance to educate and inspire all Jews to respect the dignity of others? It is a day which is solemn. It is a day which is poignant. It is a day of readings, of poetry and memoirs, of testimonials and of music – and it is mostly the music that I remember and that stirs up memories in me. And I remember not only what was lost and who was lost but also what endures and who endures. It is a day to recall a period in which a mighty chasm opened up in the history of the Jewish people and swallowed up one-third of us. But it is also a commemoration of continuity.
There are many occasions to celebrate survival and continuity. But there are also occasions that threaten that same survival. The election of the Kahanists is one of those threats. On a much lesser and lower note, the Oprah Winfrey interview with the duke and duchess of Kent, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, took place. Peggy Noonan, the Pulitzer Prize winning political columnist of the Wall Street Journal, insisted that this was not just “a highly charged celebrity interview,” but an occasion which threatened the continuity of a millennium-old institution, the British monarchy. “It was history, a full-bore assault on an institution, the British monarchy, that has endured for more than a thousand years.” Not quite in the same league as the Nazi assault on the Jews who have endured for over three millenia, but nonetheless. a verbal and performative assault.
What does this event, the Oprah Winfrey interview that I already wrote about, that event that occurred in a very minor note, have to do with the resounding and stirring music of the Holocaust? Racism, for one. That was a common theme. But there was another. As Peggy Noonan pointed out, Harry claimed his brother and his father were bugs, bugs trapped by the tabloids that control whether the throne will be sustained. Populist people power using the press has entrapped the institution of the monarch that, at one and the same time, is held in awe because of that press, at the same time as it is periodically denigrated by that press to such an extent that the continuity of the institution is threatened.
The monarchy was revealed as not only fallible given contemporary dominant values – racism runs rife through the institution – but the members of the royal family are weak and vulnerable. The Jews, though they have lasted over three millenia, were also shown by the Shoah to be weak and vulnerable. Thus, one of the purposes of Yom HaShoah is to show that the Jews have survived, that they have come through the fire of Nazi persecution and ovens to re-emerge as stronger and more creative than ever.
But the pain and suffering caused along the way are central. There was an enormous cost. Sometimes the Jews are accused of wielding that pain like a weapon to advance the Zionist cause and to play on the guilt of the others. But, contrary to myth, Israel was not created to salve guilt, but to get rid of a problem – the Jewish refugees languishing in the camps three years after the end of WWII. The Jews are and have always been a nation, a long persisting one, and the holidays Jews celebrate and the memories they honour are part of the mystique that ensures stability and continuity to its members. Indeed, memory is weaponized.
Why? Because, to quote the great philosopher Meghan Markle, “Life is about storytelling. About the stories we tell ourselves, what we’re told, and what we buy into.” It is “storytelling through a truthful lens” that, however horrific, offers hope and is uplifting. Peggy Noonan complained that “public life has gotten extremely, unrelentingly performative…everyone is always performing—the politician, the news anchor, the angry activist.” In such a world, the actor has a distinct advantage.
Which brings us to Brave New World., Aldous Huxley’s dystopic novel published in 1932 that is lauded as predicting with greater clarity and insight the perilous state of the present world in which reproductive and media technology and drugs seduce us into a somatic world of sleep learning and pleasure-seeking to create a society of classes and castes each living in its own characteristic silo.
There is a misfit in this world, Bernard Marx, though an Alpha Plus and member of the elite in terms of his mental attributes, is a resentful depressive, cowardly, jealous, unmistakably Jewish and an outlier – then shorter in stature and lacking the civil graces of the British as his abrasive personality challenges not only the methods of keeping people peaceful, but the whole enterprise.
Marx and his partner Lenina travel to New Mexico and a “Savage Reservation” where they see people who grow old, suffer from diseases and speak other languages. And practice exotic religions. What motivates Marx is revenge, revenge against his boss who wants to “ethnically cleanse” the Brave New World and exile him to Iceland. Marx returns from New Mexico with John who turns out to be the illegitimate son of his boss. Marx exposes his boss to public humiliation and shame, thereby averting his own punishment. At the same time, the one skill John, the illegitimate son of his former boss, possesses is as a performer since one of the two books he had when he grew up was the Complete Works of Shakespeare. In effect, a professional and thoroughly trained and cultivated performer is used as a foil to reveal the emptiness of the performances of everyone living in the Brave New World.
It is a world of hypnopedic conditioning for most and, for the odd exception, like Marx and John, a differential conditioning that makes them both misfits in the programmed life of Brave New World. Aldous Huxley in an interview in 1958 with Mike Wallace of NBC (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alasBxZsb40), described that dystopia as a product of overpopulation – Huxley, thereby, seemed to endorse physical, pharmaceutical and technological birth control methods in his novel, even as he satirized them. However, ultimately the society was more a product of social conditioning than of genetic engineering. The enemy of freedom, the enemy of rational thought, was brainwashing and thought control, but not through terror and threatening violence as in George Orwell’s 1984, but through advertising.
Drugs were used to alter our minds without any physical side effects. Drugs and propaganda. Propaganda and drugs. Not terror. Aldous Huxley preached how to save democracy. It was necessary to free the rational side from unconscious forces that condition us and exert thought control through influencing our appetites and desires. Thus, advertising was the tool for imposing a social order of compliance. In Orwell, the objective in itself was power. It was not just an instrument. In Huxley, formal authority was an instrument to exert control without coercion. Instead of society kept in check by fear, the management of our frustrations was used to accomplish the same ends. Soma rather than LSD was the drug of choice.
Supplemented, of course, by the control and manipulation of what you could know. This psychological and chemical condition was complemented by small doses of oppression, but otherwise the oppression was unseen and unrecognized. As Will Self put it in his debate with Adam Gopnik over whether Brave New World or 1984 was the most prescient novel, the Alphas in Brave New World simply suffered a life of constant deprivation by being kept soaked in the equivalent of bathtub gin.
The solution was not a command economy and coerced production, but the consumer ideal of satisfaction through the ingestion of one chemical product or another. Natural reflexes had to be deconditioned. The love of nature had to be abolished for natural feelings were the enemy. Instead, manufactured nature was nurtured as the object of desire. The satisfaction of needs and wants were directed by advertising to such an extent that one did not feel one was being conditioned as that very process took place. Instead, what was prevalent was mandatory promiscuity and internet pornography that was as chemically satisfying as the real thing without the emotional side effects.
Instead of terror, hardwire the mind and expose it to sensuous satisfaction through its lifetime. Distribute morality in a bottle of pills. Oxy-Contin and prozac are but different versions of soma – and less effective. In a world of consumption and conditioning, advertising, war and strife had become superfluous.
The problem is that Yom HaShoah reminds us that, while such an exaggeration of our current condition in the developed world is full of insights, George Orwell is equally if not more important because, as the 6 January attack on The Capitol made clear, filling our minds with lies and operating only to satisfy self-interests was not sufficient. In the end, you had to gain control of the command centre. Then, violence was needed. Fortunately, the amateurs and misfits behind the uprising and the effort to hijack an election were not only rank amateurs. They were incompetents. The centre of power was effectively unguarded. But they failed to take control though they also recognized that violence was needed to achieve their goals. The estimates of what was really required were grossly insufficient. .
More importantly, YomHashoa not only reminds us of the importance of terror and torture in exercising control, but the importance of defining and oppressing the other – whether that other be Black or Asian, Jew or Muslim. We require not only the dystopia of Brave New World, but of 1984, now rampant in the Third World where that is a primary method of social control. Aldous Huxley is insufficient. We also need George Orwell’s prescience.
However, even taken together, they may provide a negative alter-world, but they do not provide a solution. For both books and authors are products of their time, seeing as the ideal rationality freed up from the passions or imprisoned by them. They eulogized independence of choice when, individuality was put on a pedestal, when, in reality, we must learn that we are not primarily our own decision-makers but tellers of collective tales. Narratives more than individual reason provide our benchmarks. And it is emotional not rational intelligence that needs emphasis. Both Huxley and Orwell were fundamentally wrong in their conception of the individualistic rational ideal underpinning their stories which were narratives of a possible, and horrendous, world, rather than narratives of our actual existence.
Celebrating and honouring the dead and survivors of the Holocaust offers a concrete antidote to the warnings of both Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. For the implication of the distilled remnant of what is left when the dystopic elements are evaporated is a portrait so unappealing and so contrary to life and experience that it becomes at least understandable why the dystopias they describe might be allowed to be developed. YomHashoa is a reminder.