Howard Jacobson: Can't Jews be allowed to remember their past?

In Lithuania – where once even the Nazis had to avert their gaze – swastikas now have legal blessing

Related Topics

Here's a story I've just read online courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. I think it's funny – funny in the telling – others might not. You'll see why there are likely to be differences of opinion about the story when I say it concerns the spray-painting of swastikas in a Brooklyn neighbourhood.

Anyway. The swastikas, along with a number of racist slurs – "Die Jews" etc – were found on a Saturday evening on a couple of houses, an apartment block and the Yeshiva of Brooklyn Boys School. Two days after their discovery, a man charged with making anti-Semitic phone calls to elderly Jewish women "has emerged" as prime suspect. He is Mr David Haddad, 56, who had been staying with his mother – never a wise thing to do at that age – just a block or two from where the swastikas were found. The piece concludes with the sentence: "Mr Haddad told detectives he is Jewish but not practising."

That's the part I find funny. Jewish but not practising.

The article doesn't say whether or not the cops laughed. They probably knew not to. Swastikas are not meant to be a laughing matter. But reader, the idea of a Jew painting swastikas on walls and then telling detectives he is not practising is hilarious. It's like Dawkins having to explain that the reason he's not wearing a crucifix is that he's not believing – the present participle leaving open the possibility that he will one day resume.

It's a can of worms, of course. Mr Haddad might be a Jew who hates Jews – this is not an unknown phenomenon – or he might be painting swastikas to whip up rage against anti-Semites. Or he might not have done it. Whichever it is, we're in deranged territory. I'd like that to be a given whenever and for whatever reason a swastika makes its appearance. We're in Madsville.

You wouldn't think that needed to be said. Whatever tone we consider appropriate to take about the Holocaust, however many Jews were or weren't destroyed, and regardless of the political distinctions some might wish to draw between sincerely remembering the Holocaust and cynically deploying its memory, it is surely self-evident that the swastika symbolises a period of murderous hysteria from which we are wise to disassociate ourselves.

Does that mean we can't even take the piss? I don't think so. Using clips from the film Downfall, which showed the disintegration of Hitler's mind, in order to make fun of Alex Salmond, as the Labour MP Tom Harris did last week, cannot be said to trivialise the crimes of Nazism. Denigrating Nazis should not be confused with denigrating the victims of the Holocaust.

There's a perverseness in making the very word Holocaust sacred when the thing it denotes was an outbreak of mass barbarism that most of us still find it near impossible to comprehend. Though for the memory of its victims we cannot adequately express our reverence, for the thing itself we cannot show too much contempt.

The question has then to be asked whether turning up for a swastika party in Val d'Isère and toasting the Führer, as a number of LSE students have just done, or attending a Nazi-themed stag night in a French ski resort, as the Conservative MP Aidan Burley recently did, amounts to showing contempt or reverence – the reverence not being for the victims of Nazism but the Nazis themselves.

Myself – whatever the troubling coincidence of Alpine snow in these two incidents, hinting at the white superiority of the Aryan, and leaving aside the Nazi salutes, and the fact of a Jewish student getting his nose thumped at the Val d'Isère bash – I doubt that a sincere Nazi nostalgia was the motive force in either. I'm prepared, anyway, to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume nothing more sinister than naughtiness and historical ignorance – the naughtiness we expect from MPs and the historical ignorance we expect from LSE students – was in play.

I agree, nonetheless, with those who see the above as symptomatic of a trivialising of a terrible event, a coarsening of feeling about it, which at the last can do more damage to our collective memory of the Holocaust than the literal-minded grotesqueries of actual deniers crawling across what's left of the camps with compasses and protractors, measuring chimneys, calculating how much gas and how many bullets, ever will.

Little by little, week by week, in country after country, the rights of Jews to remember their recent past with outrage are being whittled away. In Lithuania – once a killing field so bloody that even the Nazis had to avert their gaze – swastikas have reappeared with legal blessing. Ah, that's just Eastern Europe, we say. But even here, the prevailing and unquestionable perception of Israel as the most heinous of all nations provides the pretext for a reinvigoration of many of the old slanders (chosen people, organ traders, financial Machiavellians, blah blah), or at the very least for a relaxation of those scruples which 20 years ago or less would have made an invitee to swastika party think twice before accepting.

To those who call this paranoia, I say the following: the giving of offence might be a fundamental right but it is not a duty; it is no less fundamental to a civilised society that we take one another's sensitivities seriously. To scoff at Jews for fears rationally expressed and steeped in experience is only to corroborate their deepest dread.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Why it won’t be the i wot won it – our promise to you

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor