Defending Natalie Portman on Holocaust: Sometimes it can be subverted to fear-mongering

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Actress Natalie Portman has kicked off a controversy with remarks about how to remember the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, in which the National Socialists murdered 6 million.

Her critics have run off on tangents and presented a lot of red herrings. Portman did not question the distinctiveness of the Holocaust, but rather outlined what she thinks should be taken away from it.

She made the remarks in an interview with The Independent:

““I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education. Which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things… We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times and reminds us to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also. Not used as a paranoid way of thinking that we are victims.”

She continues: “Sometimes it can be subverted to fear-mongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen’. We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, anti-Semitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I don’t mean to make false equivalences, we need it to serve as something that makes us empathetic to people rather than paranoid.”

She can pinpoint the moment that she came to this realisation – it was in 2007, on a trip to Rwanda to trek with gorillas. “We went to the museum there, and I was shocked that that [genocide] was going on while I was in school. We were learning only about the Holocaust and it was never mentioned and it was happening while I was in school. That is exactly the type of problem with the way it’s taught. I think it needs to be taught, and I can’t speak for everyone because this was my personal education.”

Her remarks did not imply that Rwanda was equivalent to the genocide of the Jews. She was saying that people who lived through a Holocaust should be extra sensitive to massacres of others, should highlight these further genocides– not because they are equivalent but because having been genocided should produce empathy.

She also warned against any fascist use of the Nazi genocide for the purposes of far-right nationalism, the nursing of grievances against others, the paranoid political discourse that sees every political challenge as 1938 and every oppositional movement as equivalent to Nazism.

She was talking not about history but about psychology, not about comparative statistics but about emotional maturity, not about past wrongs about about present-day moral compass.

We all know Likudniks who use the genocide as a get out of jail free card, who think they can do no wrong because, Holocaust. They are not unique. All massacres and genocides are available for both extreme nationalist and empathetic purposes. The difference does not lie in how many were tortured and killed. The difference lies in what we take away from it.

Look at Japan. The Japanese right wing, exemplified by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has difficulty recognizing that Japan did anything wrong in the 1930s and 1940s.

But the majority of the Japanese public is pacifist despite having been nuked by the Truman administration. (Two-thirds of the Japanese public reject Abe’s legislation to allow the Japanese army to be deployed for warfare abroad). Whatever their resentments about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most Japanese cite them as a reason for which war in general must be avoided– i.e. in the sort of spiritually mature manner that Portman is calling for.

Note that I am not comparing the experience of civilians being nuclear-bombed to the Nazi genocide against Jews. They are incommensurate experiences, both productive of long-term historical trauma. The question is, how should we remember and deploy them in today’s world? The majority of the Japanese public has the right idea, in my view, while I think there is something pathological about the Likud Party (just as there is about the Japanese right wing). It is legitimate for Jews to be wary of racial bigotry directed against them by populist movements and to take what steps they can to protect themselves from it– that is a lesson of genocide. But to confuse protests against the illegal Israeli annexation of the Palestinian West Bank with racism is just naked nationalism, a demand to be freed from all critique or constraint because of past suffering. It is not the demand of a grown-up.

Portman is being prophetic in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, where there were no voices more critical of ancient Jewry than the Isaiahs. She is calling us all to turn hate and trauma not to the purposes of aggrandizement and suspicion but to those of care for today’s victims. Those who cannot understand her need to check their ethics.

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Related video:

Harvard University: “Natalie Portman Harvard Commencement Speech | Harvard Commencement 2015”

23 Responses

  1. Bibi Netanyahu and his supporters have been constantly complaining that this is 1938 and Iran is Germany. He did it in 2006

    link to ynetnews.com

    And they are doing it today–all in order to put a halt to the Iran Deal.

    And they would be right if Jews in in Germany and the Warsaw Ghetto commanded the most powerful military in the region, backed by 100 nuclear weapons, backed by the most powerful military country in the world.

    Of course it is a ridiculous analogy. And those who make it are only trivializing the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. Shame on them.

  2. Thank you, Juan, for your careful language in describing the situation.

    “She was talking not about history but about psychology, not about comparative statistics but about emotional maturity, not about past wrongs about about present-day moral compass.

    We all know Likudniks who use the genocide as a get out of jail free card, who think they can do no wrong because, Holocaust. They are not unique. All massacres and genocides are available for both extreme nationalist and empathetic purposes. The difference does not lie in how many were tortured and killed. The difference lies in what we take away from it.”

    I have explored many types of English wordings to help describe these intricate close-ups of individual and group beliefs, I like my formulations regarding “social and psychological imperialism” and my long-winded attempts to show how human beings do create their psychologies, their philosophies (and sciences and religions) and their economics and politics in every choice they make in the course of their every day lives. I’m getting some readers around the globe, and am proud of it, here I want to congratulate you on your ability to explain this situation in everyday language, I love your summation:

    “But to confuse protests against the illegal Israeli annexation of the Palestinian West Bank with racism is just naked nationalism, a demand to be freed from all critique or constraint because of past suffering. It is not the demand of a grown-up.”

  3. After reading this empathetic and wise reflections on her personal experience, I am glad she played the role of Princess Leia’s mother in the Star Wars prequels.

    Anyone who cares for justice and protection for humans has to feel troubled that while the Rwanda genocide was going on in our high tech, easy communication world, the education system was not talking about it.

  4. A very intelligent and thoughtful young lady running the risk of Likud ire and retribution aimed at her career. Good luck, Natalie.

  5. Surprised and pleased by the expansive wisdom of her comments and hopeful that they will have an impact on young Jews, especially the more economically privileged among them, and those for whom the history of Jewish oppression forms a significant part of their identity. Hopefully as well, non-Jews with very static ideas about the use of Holocaust history will have a rethink about their relationship to it.
    Portman is using her celebrity in a wonderful way: showing people another more expansive way of being.
    Finally, because my inner-fashionista is always on the watch, I’m especially curious to know who’s responsible for designing that eggplant-print dress. (Kidding, sort of).

  6. I would suggest that “the majority of the Japanese public is pacifist BECAUSE OF having been nuked by the Truman administration.” And given the timing –100,000 dead in a matter of minutes — comparable to the Jewish Holocaust in Europe on a per capita/per minute basis.

  7. Bravo and Brava. Well thought out, well expressed.
    All you need is love.

  8. I am unsure why Mr. Cole felt the necessity to add disclaimers about describing the Rwandan genocide to the Holocaust – both were attempted genocides of a specific ethnocultural group. The fact that the Hutu government did not have the sophisticated machinery of death Nazi Germany did does not make the suffering of their victims any less. Dead is dead, whether the person was gassed or hacked to death with machetes. At its height, the rate of killing in Rwanda approached the deadliness of the most intensive period of mass killing during the Holocaust.

    I am a couple of years older than Ms. Portman and unlike her was very well aware of the Rwandan genocide. As such, I can sympathize strongly with her statement, as it falls in line with the lesson I learned – that what is important to learn is why human beings would ever choose to commit mass murder on such scales at all. Focusing purely on a specific set of perpetrators or victims has no real power to prevent such future events.

    • I simply underlined that each genocide is different; the Rwandan one was not, as you say, industrialized the way the Nazi one was.

    • I agree absolutely with your last point. I am older still and recall sitting in the Regal cinema watching Pathe news coverage of the opening of concentration camps. The images merged in my young mind with countless others from the war. It did not occur to me to put them in a separate category because the victims were mostly Jewish, in fact I don’t remember that information even being part of the commentary. It was simply man’s inhumanity to man and it electrified the neck and shook the place to heavy silence.

    • Let’s not forget the Indonesian genocide, which the US tacitly supported. That was done with knives too, and the Army behind it is still the Army of Indonesia.

  9. I think the key is having a functioning moral compass and a grasp of ethics combined with logic and reason. Add knowledge to that and then one is in a proper place to make judgments on issues like this. All too often in this country people are just uninformed about the Palestinian experience. All too often we see false comparisons to Nazis and communists thrown around without regard to historical facts. Sometimes one can take too fine an approach, however. Is it worse to be killed by a bullet fired up close or from a bomb dropped from 10,000 feet? In one of Robert Fisk’s books he summed up the situation in the Middle East as, “There is no right and wrong, only wrong.” There are so many horrors that are perpetrated and will be perpetrated we must not shy away from denouncing any that occur. We also must not use pejorative terms without evidence to characterize events that are much less than horrible. I think that is Portman’s point and it is a good one.

  10. Re: the mention of Japan’s history books: Any time I hear someone mention that Japanese history books give students a sanitized version of the Japanese Government’s behavior in World War 2, I always think of the Texas School Board, and also about how history books in the US now portray the Civil War as about state’s rights rather than slavery…

    • Yes, with regard to our recent steps backward in editing our national history, the notable thing about American Exceptionalism is that we are not at all exceptional.

    • All Americans are raised with the myth that racism was a misunderstanding, an accident, and had nothing to do with the Founding Fathers and the founding principles of our society (limited govt, states’ rights, property rights). Therefore, there’s no danger that restoring those principles will be used to bring back the horrors of our past.

      Yet the Right keeps trying to undermine the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. They seem to have a plan that requires this. I wonder what it is.

  11. Praiseworthy and inspiring. We need more words of Compassion. That´s Real Wisdom. Thanks.

  12. Genocide is the mass murder of a people based on, ethnic or political beliefs.

    In China, during Chairman Mao’s revolution he murdered 50 million because of their political beliefs. In Ukraine in 1932 -1933 alone Stalin’s Bolsheviks murdered between 1.8 and 2.7 million. By the end of the thirties those who opposed collectivization the numbers deliberately starved to death during the “Holomodor” is estimated between 7 and 9 million.

    The Holocaust in numbers ranks third. Hitler killed more but the “Holocaust” only refers to Jews killed.

    It has become a get out of jail free card for Zionists. Norman Finklestein calls it the Holocaust industry.

    Zionism, American Exceptionalism, are racist ideologies. The only defense is to accuse others first of racism.

  13. Good for her. She knows what any liberal Jew knows — that in last years the Holocaust has been exploited for political purposes while Jewish ethics seem to have been totally ignored. Jewish ethics + the 20th century Jewish experience SHOULD have resulted in a very different set of compassionate viewpoints. Instead we have AIPAC, neocons, and Pamela Geller.

  14. Mark me down as skeptical. Sure, Portman’s remarks on the Holocaust here are reasonable. Laudable even. But after reading so many other remarks from her that seemed to me to be reflexively Pro-Israel, and with her film coming out soon (later this year?) based on Amos Oz likely backing a two-state solution, yada yada yada, I unfortunately see her statements here as early pre-emptive “liberal” PR for the coming backlash her “conservative” film will stir. And even though it will almost no doubt actually be a very conservative film (politically…), it will likely be referred to as “liberal” or “progressive leaning” by the critics. Yes, call me crazy. But it’s gonna take A LOT to get me back to being the kinda Portman fan I was 20 years ago after she knocked it outta the park with Beautiful Girls. Yeah… I have a hard time separating Art & Politics. Or separating talk of the Holocaust from Israeli politics for that matter. And for that I blame Israel. Completely. Whaddayagonnado…

  15. You can’t change the past but may be able to change what is taking place right now.

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