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Sefarad, Auschwitz, Israel March 15, 2011

Posted by cristobalgomez in Uncategorized.
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What to say about these three names that has not already been said. The truth is that written in this order, they tell a historical, but above all, human narrative of the essential experience of the Jewish people since the times of the Middle Ages until the present. This sequence contains the experiential DNA that inevitably affects the identity, or if you will, the collective soul of an entire people.

The backdrop, omnipresent in this trajectory, has been and is anti-Semitism, an expression of hate that is rooted in the dawn of history. The first mass extermination of Jews dates back to the days of Pharaoh Thutmose III, and perhaps the myth of the Promised Land is a reaction to that experience. What’s certain is that, since then, the vital experience of this people has come to be tied to words such as slavery, ghetto, expulsion, pogrom, excessive violence, and genocide. But also to others, such as memory, faith, overcoming, and above all, hope. Hope, which perfectly defines the melody of the Israeli national  anthem, Hatikvah (“The Hope”). This infinitely complex duality results in a way of being and conditions a highly misunderstood collective behavior through the  intoxication of the perennial virus of anti-Semitism, which as such, transforms with time in order to survive, defeating the moral vaccines that emerge from the best values that humanity has had to offer.

But returning to the title, to what purports to be the origin of this tale, which is no more than the personal perception of the writer, we must travel to the times of the Sefarad, which for centuries was the home to hundreds of thousands of Jews. Today it is estimated that there are almost two million descendents of the Sephardic people worldwide. Those who visit the Auschwitz extermination camp and head to the end, to the commemorative plaques honoring all of its victims, written in all of their languages, will discover that there is also one written in the Sephardic language. I have never understood why there is no similar type of monument in any prominent location in any big city in Spain. Who knows how many of the Sephardic victims of the Holocaust perserved in their houses, in whatever remote locations in central Europe,  the keys to their homes in that Spain that they called Sefarad.

Recently in Cordoba, the names of the 169 Jews who perished in the fires of the Inquisition between 1483 and 1733 were screen printed onto the front of the Casa Sefarad.  This was without a doubt an essential act of justice, but it was also one more step towards the creation of the common memory that takes us back to the times prior to the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims.

Much has been written about that time. I am referring to the times of Al Andalus, the golden age of coexistence between the Three Cultures. Coexistence and interconnection that brought about scientific and philosophical development far ahead of the rest of Europe.  For many authors, it is no more than a false myth, a kind of positive revisionism, or reconstruction of an invented dream. For many others, it is entirely the opposite, as they affirm that in Spain, there is no record of pogroms against Jews as they existed in much of the rest of Europe.

The expulsion decreed by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 put an end to this golden era, removing part of our essence and giving rise to what has been termed the “Dark Spain.” The various anti-Semitic myths, which have endured overtime by transforming and adapting to the peculiarities of each era, were already there. The libel, conspiracy theories, the legends of power in the shadows, the grotesque fabrications about the kidnapping and murder of children, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the pejorative characterization of the Jewish factions, and a long etc. which seems to have no end.

That flow of anti-Semitism had extended throughout almost the entire Christian and Muslim world for hundreds of years. This is confirmed by the various councils and synods throughout all of Europe in which they, for example, ordered the burning of holy Jewish books, prohibited marriages and sexual relations with Jews, denied them access to public jobs, ordered their detention in ghettos, and a long etc. filled with humiliation, cruelty, dehumanization, hatred, and extreme violence.

But the European Jewish communities continued to survive and achieve a certain degree of prosperity. Albeit, through a general tendency of inbreeding, more or less as a measure to care for their tradition, or perhaps more exactly, to protect it. Subsequently, the intellectual lights of the enlightenment had their impact, and internal debates among the Jews about modernity, active participation in the societies in which they were embedded, and the search for an appropriate balance between tradition, identity, modernity, and emancipation emerged.

However, the anti-Semitic venom persisted and tended to get worse. The theories about racial supremacy that would arrive with the nineteenth century would make it even more dangerous and lethal. In 1852, a book written by Joseph Arthur Gobineau would come to light, with a title that could not have been clearer: An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, riddled with anti-Semitic affirmations and references to the Jewish people as a factor in the degeneration of civilizations. That is precisely one of the principle theses of this racist pamphlet. The author sustains that racial mixing is one of the causes of the fall of the civilizations founded by the white race. Hitler himself would explain this in his own way in Mein Kampf: “I was disgusted by the conglomeration of races gathered in the capital of the Austrian monarchy; disgusted by that promiscuity of the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Serbs, Croatians, etc. and amid them all, an eternal disruptive bacillus of humanity, the Jew and always the Jew.

Gobineau would be far from alone, his work was crucial for that of Stewart Chamberlain, who in 1899 published The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a book with two strong ideas: the application of the theory of the evolution of species to the human races, with the intention of demonstrating the supremacy of the Aryan race, and Pan-Germanism, building on the work of Wagner and sustaining that the only option for maintaining the “German racial purity” was to continue marginalizing the Jews.

That persistent anti-Semitic venom, entrenched in ideas, values, attitudes, actions, and social behaviors throughout all of Europe, pogroms included, would have natural consequences for the affected group. Many were the triggers in an accumulative, never-ending process. But Dreyfus is frequently quoted as the straw that broke the camel´s back. Alfred Dreyfus, captain in the French army, Alsatian Jew, was unjustly accused of treason and publicly stripped of his stripes in an act of humiliation and banished to the prison on Devil´s Island in the French Caribbean of that era. That was an intoxicated process of anti-Semitism that with time would be proven false. At that same time, Emile Zole wrote his “I Accuse,” denouncing the intolerable wave of prevailing nationalism in France during the end of the nineteenth century, embodied in the cry “Death to Dreyfus, Death to the Jews.”

In this intellectual and political context, Zionism was reborn. And I say reborn, because as a concept and political and spiritual vocation, it is much older. Thomas Herlz, a Jew of Sephardic origin (born in Hungry to a German-speaking family) was a journalist and above all political activist who propelled it decisively. The objective of Zionism  is clear: the unity of the Jewish people, living in their historic homeland, in a Jewish state with Jerusalem as the capital.

Zionism is not only a political option that reacts against the prevalent anti-Semitism of the era, but it is also the conviction of the right to make the historical homeland of the Jewish people a Jewish State. It should not be understood, therefore, that Israel is only the payment to the International Jewish Community for the crimes of the Holocaust, but rather that it is the recognition of a historical right.

Nevertheless, the “incredible ascent” of the Nazis to power (driven by their devastating discourse of racial supremacy and  massively destructive anti-Semitic hatred, and  infinitely amplified by fanaticism, hatred, and what Kant defined as “radical evil”) revealed that this historical right was also essential for survival.

On November 9, 1938, the genocidal machinery was launched in Germany. On that one night alone, between 2000 and 2,500 people were murdered, and it is estimated that almost 8,000 properties owned by Jewish families were massacred. 30,000 people were deported to concentration camps, where they would be eventually be exterminated.

The call for the Final Solution would come only four years later. The Nazis decided to exterminate the European Jewish population, and they created industrial mechanisms to carry out this decision. Extermination camps, the lethal Cyclone B gas, the crematory ovens, the infinite cruelty, the radical dehumanization, the experiments of the Nazi Mengele, the inconceivable atrocities. The unprecedented degree of aberration achieved, the determination employed in meeting their target, and the cruelty with which it was carried out made the Holocaust a crime whose exceptionality reaches to today. Nothing has been, and nothing is comparable in magnitude and moral depravation, to this radical perversion of the human condition. It warns us of the consequences of hatred and intolerance and acts as a perennial warning of an essential truth: “if this has happened, it could happen again.”

One of the contemporary forms of anti-Semitism is precisely historical revisionism, consistent with the Goebbelsian maxim that one lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth. Despite the irrefutable evidence, the testimonies of survivors, or the presence of concentration camps (turned into horror museums, where anyone can verify on-site the grim extermination machinery devised by the Nazis) throughout the entire continent,  the denial of the Holocaust reproduces, grows, and posions the moral duty of memory and remembrance of its victims. And what is even graver, it facilitates the political and ideological conditions to repeat the Holocaust.

The denial practiced by the Nazis and extreme right-wingers, and by Islamic fundamentalists, if you will, is of variable radicalism. The Revisionist Conference convened by President Ahmandineyab of Iran, who explicitly declared the destruction of Israel as his political project, was a notorious and unfortunate example that was attended by a curious range of ideological factions in perfect anti-Semitic communion. It had the historical value of being the first conspiracy of this nature organized with public money.

The famous speech of the President of the United States, Barack Obama, to the Muslim world given at the University of Cairo included a paragraph that has gone relatively unnoticed, in which he condemned and warned against the immorality of the denying the Holocaust.

On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed, after a vote of the Assembly of the United Nations, which passed a resolution offering the partition of Palestine into two States: one Jewish and one Palestinian. That land occupied during the centuries of the Ottoman Empire, and subsequently the  British protectorate, had the first opportunity in centuries to find a reasonable solution for an adverse fate. Nevertheless, the situation could not be more complicated and intricate. An impossible maze of desired lands, without defined boundaries, considered by both parts to be irrevocable, allowed for a war to break out within hours.

The Arab Palestinians proclaimed the Nakba, disaster in Arabic, and the spiral of uncontrollable hate that continues into the present in all possible forms of terrorism and conventional war.

Classic anti-Semitism, like a good mutant virus that adapts to environmental conditions in order to continue its destructive intoxication, has found a new way to survive, and I would almost say, to multiply. An example of this is “anti-Zionism,” a political expression shared by neo-Nazis, conservative leftists, and Islamists of various degrees of radicalism. I wonder: Is it legitimate to be anti-Zionist? And the answer is “yes, of course it is.” This is not the problem. The problem is when anti-Zionism is the rationalization of the old and new anti-Semitism. For instance: conspiracy theories, the myth of power in the shadows (well documented in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), the stereotype of the unscrupulous Jew who kills innocent children, and a long etc. which provides evidence of the many anti-Israel positions.

You already know the argument: “I am not anti-Semitic, I am anti-Zionist;” or “I do not have anything against the Jewish people, but Israel has turned Gaza into a concentration camp,”  or “Speaking of the Holocaust, the Jews are now the ones doing the same thing that the Nazis did, to them.”

I do not have the slightest doubt that the entire Israeli government merits close scrutiny and tough criticism about the subject, and at the same time, I do not have the slightest doubt that it is a free, pluralistic, demanding, contradictory society, that like any other national opinodromo, is a pendulum that touches all strands of political thought, from the most unpresentable to the most inspirational.

But in those statements are anti-Semitic perversions. Firstly because it minimizes the Holocaust, but also because it is an unnecessary offence to its victims, and in the background is another way to criminalize Israel, with lies as its instrument. Israel exists in a hostile geographical context with objective threats that do not hide their pretenses to destroy it. Hamas, Hizbula, the regime of Ahmadineyab, Al Quaeda, among many others of the sort.

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