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

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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.

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