A Larger Consciousness

Howard Zinn


years ago, when I was teaching at Boston University, I was asked by a Jewish

group to give a talk on the Holocaust. I spoke that evening, but not about the

Holocaust of World War II, not about the genocide of six million Jews. It was

the mid-Eighties, and the United States government was supporting death squad

governments in Central America, so I spoke of the deaths of hundreds of

thousands of peasants in Guatemala and El Salvador, victims of American policy.

My point was that the memory of the Jewish Holocaust should not be encircled by

barbed wire, morally ghettoized, kept isolated from other genocides in history.

It seemed to me that to remember what happened to Jews served no important

purpose unless it aroused indignation, anger, action against all atrocities,

anywhere in the world.


few days later, in the campus newspaper, there was a letter from a faculty

member who had heard me speak – a Jewish refugee who had left Europe for

Argentina, and then the United States. He objected strenuously to my extending

the moral issue from Jews in Europe in the 1940s to people in other parts of the

world, in our time. The Holocaust was a sacred memory. It was a unique event,

not to be compared to other events. He was outraged that, invited to speak on

the Jewish Holocaust, I had chosen to speak about other matters.


was reminded of this experience when I recently read a book by Peter Novick, THE

HOLOCAUST IN AMERICAN LIFE. Novick’s starting point is the question: why, fifty

years after the event, does the Holocaust play a more prominent role in this

country — the Holocaust Museum in Washington, hundreds of Holocaust programs in

schools — than it did in the first decades after the second World War? Surely

at the core of the memory is a horror that should not be forgotten. But around

that core, whose integrity needs no enhancement, there has grown up an industry

of memorialists who have labored to keep that memory alive for purposes of their



Jews have used the Holocaust as a way of preserving a unique identity, which

they see threatened by intermarriage and assimilation. Zionists have used the

Holocaust, since the 1967 war, to justify further Israeli expansion into

Palestianian land, and to build support for a beleaguered Israel (more

beleaguered, as David Ben-Gurion had predicted, once it occupied the West Bank

and Gaza). And non-Jewish politicians have used the Holocaust to build political

support among the numerically small but influential Jewish voters – note the

solemn pronouncements of Presidents wearing yarmulkas to underline their

anguished sympathy.


would never have become a historian if I thought that it would become my

professional duty to go into the past and never emerge, to study long-gone

events and remember them only for their uniqueness, not connecting them to

events going on in my time. If the Holocaust was to have any meaning, I thought,

we must transfer our anger to the brutalities of our time. We must atone for our

allowing the Jewish Holocaust to happen by refusing to allow similar atrocities

to take place now – yes, to use the Day of Atonement not to pray for the dead

but to act for the living, to rescue those about to die.


Jews turn inward to concentrate on their own history, and look away from the

ordeal of others, they are, with terrible irony, doing exactly what the rest of

the world did in allowing the genocide to happen. There were shameful moments,

travesties of Jewish humanism, as when Jewish organizations lobbied against a

Congressional recognition of the Armenian Holocaust of 1915 on the ground that

it diluted the memory of the Jewish Holocaust. Or when the designers of the

Holocaust Museum dropped the idea of mentioning the Armenian genocide after

lobbying by the Israeli government. (Turkey was the only Moslem government with

which Israel had diplomatic relations.) Another such moment came when Elie

Wiesel, chair of President Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust, refused to

include in a description of the Holocaust Hitler’s killing of millions of

non-Jews. That would be, he said, to "falsify" the reality "in

the name of misguided universalism." Novick quotes Wiesel as saying

"They are stealing the Holocaust from us." As a result the Holocaust

Museum gave only passing attention to the five million or more non-Jews who died

in the Nazi camps. To build a wall around the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust

is to abandon the idea that humankind is all one, that we are all, of whatever

color, nationality, religion, deserving of equal rights to life, liberty, and

the pursuit of happiness. What happened to the Jews under Hitler is unique in

its details but it shares universal characteristics with many other events in

human history: the Atlantic slave trade, the genocide against native Americans,

the injuries and deaths to millions of working people, victims of the capitalist

ethos that put profit before human life.


recent years, while paying more and more homage to the Holocaust as a central

symbol of man’s cruelty to man, we have, by silence and inaction, collaborated

in an endless chain of cruelties. Hiroshima and My Lai are the most dramatic

symbols – and did we hear from Wiesel and other keepers of the Holocaust flame

outrage against those atrocities? Countee Cullen once wrote, in his poem

"Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song" (after the sentencing to death of

the Scottsboro Boys): "Surely, I said/ Now will the poets sing/ But they

have raised no cry/I wonder why."


have been the massacres of Rwanda, and the starvation in Somalia, with our

government watching and doing nothing. There were the death squads in Latin

America, and the decimation of the population of East Timor, with our government

actively collaborating. Our church-going Christian presidents, so pious in their

references to the genocide against the Jews, kept supplying the instruments of

death to the perpetrators of other genocides.


there are some horrors which seem beyond our powers. But there is an ongoing

atrocity which is within our power to bring to an end. Novick points to it, and

physician-anthropologist Paul Farmer describes it in detail in his remarkable

new book INFECTIONS AND INEQUALITIES. That is: the deaths of ten million

children all over the world who die every year of malnutrition and preventable

diseases. The World Health Organization estimates three million people died last

year of tuberculosis, which is preventable and curable, as Farmer has proved in

his medical work in Haiti. With a small portion of our military budget we could

wipe out tuberculosis.


point of all this is not to diminish the experience of the Jewish Holocaust, but

to enlarge it. For Jews it means to reclaim the tradition of Jewish universal

humanism against an Israel-centered nationalism. Or, as Novick puts it, to go

back to "that larger social consciousness that was the hallmark of the

American Jewry of my youth". That larger consciousness was displayed in

recent years by those Israelis who protested the beating of Palestinians in the

Intifada, who demonstrated against the invasion of Lebanon.


others — whether Armenians or Native Americans or Africans or Bosnians or

whatever — it means to use their own bloody histories, not to set themselves

against others, but to create a larger solidarity against the holders of wealth

and power, the perpetrators and collaborators of the ongoing horrors of our



Holocaust might serve a powerful purpose if it led us to think of the world

today as wartime Germany – where millions die while the rest of the population

obediently goes about its business. It is a frightening thought that the Nazis,

in defeat, were victorious: today Germany, tomorrow the world. That is, until we

withdraw our obedience.


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