February 04, 2008
Tony Judt, in the New York Review of Books, on Hannah Arendt and the "Problem of Evil":
If there is a threat that should concern Jews — and everyone else — it comes from a different direction. We have attached the memory of the Holocaust so firmly to the defense of a single country — Israel — that we are in danger of provincializing its moral significance. Yes, the problem of evil in the last century, to invoke Arendt once again, took the form of a German attempt to exterminate Jews. But it is not just about Germans and it is not just about Jews. It is not even just about Europe, though it happened there. The problem of evil — of totalitarian evil, or genocidal evil — is a universal problem. But if it is manipulated to local advantage, what will then happen (what is, I believe, already happening) is that those who stand at some distance from the memory of the European crime — because they are not Europeans, or because they are too young to remember why it matters — will not understand how that memory relates to them and they will stop listening when we try to explain.Mr Judt's account in this essay of the change in attitudes to studying the Holocaust, from the immediate post-war period to the late 20th Century, is also fascinating.
In short, the Holocaust may lose its universal resonance. We must hope that this will not be the case and we need to find a way to preserve the core lesson that the Shoah really can teach: the ease with which people — a whole people — can be defamed, dehumanized, and destroyed...
[I]f history is to do its proper job, preserving forever the evidence of past crimes and everything else, it is best left alone. When we ransack the past for political profit — selecting the bits that can serve our purposes and recruiting history to teach opportunistic moral lessons — we get bad morality and bad history.