Philosophical Reflections on Iran’s 2006 ‘International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust’ (Part 1/4)

Four Questions: The Intertwining of Revision and Politics: In the Iranian Minister of foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki’s December 11, 2006 speech at the now notorious ‘International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust’, he declared to all (not merely the scientists and researchers) the attendees: “[W]e see today that the Islamic Republic of Iran and all those who think that scientific research about a historical event is necessary are subject to some unfounded accusations.” (Mottaki, Manouchehr. “Text of Speech by His Excellency” IPIS: Institute for Political and International Studies. December 11, 2006.) There are references to the necessity of a scientific account of the Holocaust on virtually every page of the transcript. Symbolically, there are an equal number of references in the speech to the status of the Palestinians and the necessity of a scientific method for evaluating the Holocaust.

But why, one might ask, is this symbolic? Those of us who followed the conference as it was covered by the largest of the North American media outlets might be skeptical of such a connection. After all, the political ramifications were often the last aspect of the conference these news agencies raised, if raised at all. Both the Associated Press and CNN’s reports from the opening day of the conference confirm this. If the CNNonline user managed, without being distracted by an advertisement flashing on the site urging them to ‘click here now’ to lower their mortgage rates, to make it to the end of the story, they would have found a tiny bit of information that appears as the last and least important aspect of the conference: “Mohammadi [Iran’s deputy foreign minister of research] said if Iran accepts the validity of the Holocaust, the next question examined will be, ‘Why should the Palestinians pay for the Holocaust?’ (“Iran Hosts Holocaust Conference” CNN Online. December 11, 2006.) Mohammadi said Tehran also plans to host conferences to look into what he described as genocide by Europeans against Native Americans, Africans and the Palestinians.”

The task of this series of posts is to raise an issue not adequately discussed at the time of the conference. How are we to respond to the interrelationship of (a) calls demanding scientifically verifiable research to question the historical validity of the Holocaust and that (b) these historical revisions be brought to bear on the status of politicized events in the Middle East and beyond?

In order to carry out this task we will consider three main questions: (1) In the past, the Holocaust has been treated (and re-presented) in popular formats such as Hollywood films and graphic novels. These formats initiate discourse and discussion that can be the means for a positive means of ‘working through’ trauma. Is this increasing desacralization of the Holocaust related to the arguments of the Iranian conference attendees and the greater enterprise of Holocaust denial and revision? (2) Does the Holocaust not emerge from this desacralization as a historical event, enmeshed in the murky world of Middle Eastern politics and intersecting with issues such as American foreign policy, Iran’s nuclear program, Zionism and the founding of the Israeli state? (3) How do altercations to the sacred nature of the Holocaust transform the event itself into something we might consider more formally ‘historical’, and as such, into an event whose legitimacy can be understood as resting on the validity of empirical and scientific evidence? (4) Lastly, it is evident that Holocaust scholars will find themselves increasingly faced with questions regarding scientific and quantifiable historical facts.

Often such facts are, paradoxically, advocated by figures or groups whose concern is less with the objectivity of history than with arguing an underlying political or racist agenda. Has it, unfortunately, become the duty of Holocaust scholars to engage with deniers on their own terms? In a climate where decisions regarding the fate of existing nations such as Israel and Iraq hinge on such a war over facts can we risk allowing deniers to speak about the Holocaust unchallenged? Where does this position discourse(s) of the Holocaust not grounded in such a factual, positivistic or scientized lexicon? As I will argue, it is becoming clear that we must engage with those who speak of the Holocaust in a phrasing of empirical fact and scientization in order to protect the status of other phrasings such as those of survivors (either first, or second generation survivors) whose conceptions of the Holocaust are manifest in a language of feeling or even silence.

Working-Through and Holocaust Denial: Positive and Negative Aspects of Desacralizing the Holocaust: Durcharbeitung refers to working-through the pathology of trauma. It allows for a talking cure. Talking cures allow the sufferer to bring to presence something initially ignored. As opposed to treating the Holocaust as if it were a sacred and unquestionable void in history, working-through trauma is about being open and dealing with it. As opposed to constant repetition and pathological acting out, ‘working through’ is about concretizing an event (or some aspect of it) and exploring it. The ability to heal depends largely on factors relating to the survivors’ ability to narrativize their experience. Working through trauma via narrativizing or an aesthetic approach allows us to return to the traumatic event while simultaneously venturing away from its literalness.

The concretization of a traumatic event, an action we might advocate in order to work-through trauma, might be thought of as its desacrilization. While graphic novels like Maus or films such as Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful and Night and Fog spur productive discussion about the Holocaust we find a different sort of discussion creeping in the shadows of what they have concretized. When Hollywood creates a historical epic about the Holocaust, viewers might leave the theatre with a historicized conception of it. In other words, viewers may leave the theatre (or their armchair if they were reading Maus) with a dissipated sense of awe and uniqueness that the Holocaust may have previously connoted. The ‘aura’ of the event may have significantly diminished – rendering it as subject to the same historical gaze that we might focus upon any other historical occurrence. But, as we saw a moment ago, desacralization, dissipation, or altering, of the ‘aura’ of the Holocaust had positive benefits for working-through trauma. How do we reconcile (a) this positive working-through with (b) racist or right-wing groups whose Holocaust denial or revision hinges on the same desacralization? How are we to deal with this phenomenon when gatherings such as the Iranian Conference have the potential to affect the direction of world politics?

… to be continued …

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~ by dccohen on January 15, 2010.

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