“Israel offers a florid illustration of how disastrously collective memory can deform a society.”
The man who expressed that opinion in an article promoting his new book which was published in the Guardian on March 2nd 2016 – David Rieff – was invited two weeks later to take part in a programme marking the centenary of the Easter Uprising which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ show. Listeners heard a panel of historians and writers discuss various aspects of that chapter of Irish history in what was overall an interesting and informative programme.
At around thirty minutes into the broadcast the discussion turned to the topic of collective memory with writer David Rieff telling listeners that:
“…collective memory isn’t memory in the historical sense. It is the series of…ah…it’s cherry picking the past, if you will, in the service of the present or some political view struggling for dominance in the present – that’s what it is.”
Listeners may have been somewhat surprised when – at 33:54 – presenter Tom Sutcliffe elected to introduce the Holocaust into a programme about Irish history.
TS: “OK: what about the classic instance of the duty of remembering the Holocaust? Err…would it be better if we forgot that?”
DR: “Well first of all, with respect, eventually we’re going to do. And second – I’m sorry again to bring in geologic time but it is surely at least worth taking to some extent into account. And the second thing is it seems to me…ah…that memory is different as long as there are people alive, or at least people alive who knew people who were alive. So that yes; as long as there are survivors of the camps – of which there are a few – as long as there are the children of those people – of which there are many – and grandchildren, fine. But in a hundred years? In two hundred years? Yeah, I think it might be time to let it go. And, even in terms of the memory of the Holocaust, it seems to me the memory of the Holocaust as it is deployed in Israel has been nothing but negative.” [emphasis added]
Given that Rieff had previously laid out his views on Israel’s ‘deformed’ society in that Guardian article (of which the producers of this programme must surely have been aware), the appearance of that latter throwaway politicized comment cannot have been too difficult to predict – especially following the presenter’s introduction of the Holocaust cue. Nevertheless, Sutcliffe refrained from challenging it –and not least the very interesting choice of the word “deployed” with its military connotations – before moving the conversation along.
And so – entirely predictably – uninformed listeners who had presumably tuned in because they wanted to hear a programme about Irish history therefore went away with the added ‘expert’ impression that Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust for “negative” ends.