In a 2011 lecture delivered to the National Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, Professor Michael Marrus, one of Canada’s foremost experts on the history of the Holocaust, made a statement that could be interpreted as a caution: “However the Holocaust is remembered . . . there is nothing more important than that memory be consistent with the truth about the Holocaust . . . its course, its character and its place in the history of its time.”
As Canada assumes the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance this month, Mr. Marrus’s admonition takes on an increasingly urgent tone. This high-profile international role comes at the same time that the face of Holocaust education and remembrance is undergoing a critical transition as it moves away from reliance on first-person testimony as the generation of survivors passes away.
Of course, the memory of the past can help us to better our future. However, in today’s Canada, the exploitation of the Holocaust has become all too acceptable, as we see various people and groups taking it up as a foil for unrelated political ends.
In too many instances, the Holocaust is used, in media and politics, to deliver a message about the present time: That our enemies are out there, and that it is our duty as Canadians to be on guard at home and abroad for threats to our way of living. These purported threats that come in many forms: the erosion of Canadian values through imported religious traditions, the targeting of our troops in Afghanistan, the increasingly sophisticated methods of international terrorist recruitment, and the delegitimization of the state of Israel and the prospect of military action against it.
At the same time, Holocaust remembrance is becoming increasingly enshrined in the fabric of the Canadian government. Whether it is through holding a reception this month to mark the anniversary of the publication of Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s book None is Too Many, applying for membership in the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, or granting upwards of $1-million through the Community Historical Recognition Program to Jewish organizations to carry out projects related to Canada’s history of anti-Semitism, the Conservative government’s commitment to promoting awareness of the Holocaust has yet to be matched by any other ruling party.
Yet this is occurring at a moment when Canada’s role in the world is changing: We are no longer content to play our traditional role as the honest broker on the international scene. Rather, Canada, this government seems to believe, should use its voice to intimidate anyone they deem a likely supporter of a future holocaust: individuals, organizations, or “rogue” states.
The government’s position is matched by advocacy groups, who, operating with slogans such as “Never Again,” have taken up the mantle of Holocaust victimhood and turned it towards a target which they view as an existential threat to the state of Israel and the Jewish people more broadly: Islamic fundamentalism, or, as it is often called by them, “radical Islam.” Some will recall the deeply distasteful advertisement published in the National Post, in which B’nai Brith Canada identified the “common objectives of Nazism and Radical Islam,” exhorting us to “wake up from our slumber – before it is too late.”
In a sign of the level of comfort we have attained in using the Holocaust for political ends, B’nai Brith Canada, despite having openly compared Islamic fundamentalism to Nazism, was awarded a government grant of $1 million to found the National Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. This was part of the Government of Canada’s application for membership into the IHRA (then known as the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research), and the existence of the National Task Force supported Canada’s successful bid for IHRA chairmanship.
A sense of perspective is badly needed here. In recently released research, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum identified some 42,000 concentration camps, labour camps and enforced Jewish ghettoes in Europe. The vastness and sheer efficiency of these mechanisms of genocide is unprecedented. With this information readily at hand, one must question the motives of those who would make comparisons between Iran, for example, and Nazi Germany. Of course, Islamic fundamentalism should be of concern. However, to compare it to Nazism is simply spurious. Rhetoric should never come at the expense of historical accuracy, or an informed and measured response to current political realities.
We are at a pivotal moment where we must ask ourselves: in which direction do we want the memory of the Holocaust to take us? Do we want to learn about the Holocaust in earnest, understand its context and its causes, and take from it the lessons that will make us better global citizens? Or do we want to take from it the fear that we must be on guard at all times, for it is only a matter of time until the next genocide?
With new research on the terrible scope of the Nazis’ genocidal system continuing to emerge, the need to study and remember the Holocaust for its own sake seems clear. As Canada steps onto the international stage at the IHRA, it is time to pursue historical memory in spite of politics.
Tema Smith studied Jewish philosophy with the Canada Research Chair of Modern Jewish Thought at McMaster University, and is the former project coordinator of the National Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research