A new Netflix docuseries has dropped, and if you haven’t seen it yet you probably should. Wild Wild Country is a six-part series detailing the rise and fall of Indian guru Bhagwan Rajneesh’s utopian community established in the wilderness of Oregon. It’s an absolutely wild ride that includes rigging local elections, one of the nations longest wiretapping cases, the poisoning of a small town, and immigration fraud on a massive scale. The different sides of the story are told through a combination of archival footage and new interviews conducted with people from every facet of the story. One thing that struck me was the depth to which everyone interviewed, regardless of whether they were a part of the commune or an enemy of it, whole-heartedly believed they were on the right side of history.
One of the people interviewed was Bhagwan’s former personal secretary and mastermind of most of the crimes that happened, Ma Aanad Sheela. She was a central figure throughout the series, and listening to her talk without any sign of remorse about what she did was one of the most surreal parts of watching the show. The Holocaust becomes involved at this point because of two pieces of archival footage that play in the third episode of the series. In the first on, a local Oregon man states that Sheela is “the closest thing to Hitler that I have ever seen in my life, and I have seen the people coming out of Buchenwald and I’ve seen them come out of Dachau. The only thing she don’t have yet is the ovens”. Later in the episode another towns-person says that they’ve got “a concentration camp up there” in reference to the town the followers of the Bhagwan had built.
There is no doubt that Sheela committed crimes, and in fact she went to prison for them eventually. Unfortunately, this is an example of someone using the Holocaust and Hitler of the “ultimate evil” in order to evoke a specific feeling because there was no evidence that there were Holocaust-like activities happening in the camp. Although this occurred shortly after the Jonestown massacre, there were virtually no similarities between the two communities. Of all Sheela’s crimes, mass murder was never among them.
On March 23rd a Holocaust survivor was murdered in her Parisian home, and this act has sparked renewed discussion into what the future of Jewish safety will look like. According to the Washington Post, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu reached out the the son of the victim shortly after the murder took place to express the sentiment that “Israel embrace[es] you”. What may have once been read as a statement made just to comfort could be taken much more literally in this day and age. The past five to ten years have seen a sizable increase in Anti-Semitic crime, vandalism, and rhetoric throughout the world but especially in France.
Netanyahu went on to say that “…the struggles of our people are still ahead of us”, echoing a sentiment whispered by Jews globally in a time of uncertain futures. If a Holocaust survivor, by all account a fairly revered class of people in modern times, can face this level of violence it makes it hard to imagine that any of us are safe. As we have talked about in class, the possibility of another attempt at genocide or even just officially sanctioned state violence is real. In my opinion, the sentiments that Netanyahu expressed wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the 1930’s had Israel existed back then. Israel’s presence as both a safe haven and a possible target might change the outcome of the struggle Netanyahu mentions, but only time will tell.
As some of you may know (because I talk about it all the time) I work in a bookstore. One of the perks of my job is getting to read advance copies of books, and one of the books I read that came out recently was Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher. Sadness centers on the story of Jonathan, a soon to be 18-year old former American Jew who moves with his family to Israel to finish out high school. He meets Arab twins Laith and Nimreen and quickly develops an intense and intimate friendship with them that is complicated by the combination of Laith’s deep belief in the Palestinian cause and Jonathan’s impending entrance into the Israeli military.
While most of the book focuses on how the trio navigate this complex relationship, an important part of Jonathan’s story is revealed by his grandfather, a man who escaped Greece during to Holocaust by fleeing to Israel and starting a new life. One of the biggest driving forces behind Jonathan’s patriotism for Israel and his desire to join the army is the legacy of this man and hearing about the persecution he faced. One of the most beautiful sections of the book happens when Jonathan takes a trip to Greece alone in order to try and visit his grandfather’s hometown. When he gets there the reality is that nearly every trace that there was a vibrant Jewish community in Salonica has been erased, and with it the history of violent persecution they faced that wiped them out. A key theme in the book is trying to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict as two groups of people who both feel they have been persecuted, and instead of that being a bonding point it is at the core of what drives them apart. This scene for me is the point at which I understood Jonathan’s character the best, and it serves as a perfect foil to the story of the twins’ grandmother’s persecution at the hands of Israeli soldiers that is told earlier in the book.
While I would certainly not call this a Holocaust book there is no doubt in my mind that all of its character’s motivations are informed in some way by the Holocaust. Some might argue that you can’t have a modern Israeli novel that is removed from the Holocaust, but in this case the relationship is explicit and central to the story. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a base understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict but wants to be able to see it through the eyes of nuanced and well-developed characters.
According to the World Jewish Congress (which sounds like what the conspiracy theorists believe in but I swear is a legitimate organization that does important work), the amount of antisemitic/Neo-Nazi imagery and posts about Holocaust denial rose 30% between 2016 and 2018. The WJC compiled a report on the topic and by studying the time period of January 1st-24th for each year they were able to come up with that statistic.
The report further outlines why this is concerning, beyond the general trend. Firstly, the sheer number is alarming. For the 2018 period, about 550 posts per day fell into one of the above categories, culminating in 15,800 for the entire month. Secondly, the content of the posts have changed. The WJC says that while in 2016 many of the posts were “jokes” or memes, 80% of the posts in 2018 were serious and/or explicitly hateful. While I personally don’t think that any antisemitic or Holocaust related material is justifiable on social media, the rise in “intentional antisemitic discourse” as the WJC calls it is honestly alarming. I often hear people, especially in campus environments, say that w have to be tolerant of all kinds of speech and that we shouldn’t be worried about this kind of thing because they are a fringe group that could never gain power. To me this study demonstrates exactly where that kind of thinking gets us, and it’s not a good place. Social media can be an excellent tool for mobilizing social movements and disseminating information, but when this kind of culture is allowed to thrive it severely impacts the ways that I as a Jewish person can interact with social media.
Here is a link to the article I first heard about the study in, as well as the study itself:
In an attempt to promote a new law censoring how people speak and write about Poland’s relationship to the Holocaust, Poland has rolled out a series of social media campaigns that seek to change the narrative of Polish compliance with the Nazi regime. Part of the campaign is an advertisement that is being shown as sponsored content on YouTube, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
To add to the strangeness, the advertisement is not just being shown in America. The other country it can currently be found in is Israel, meaning that the two countries with the largest Jewish populations in the world are the target audience of the ad. In spite of the falsehoods it presents, the video doesn’t actually violate any of the social media websites’ advertising policies and so it will continue to show on some of the most widely used social media available
In class we have discussed the different approaches to shaping the individual survivors’ narratives, and to me this seems like a slap in the face to anyone who experienced atrocities in Poland or at the hands of Poles. In trying to re-frame the narrative to make their country look better the creators of this law and this advertisement are completely invalidating the experiences of survivors. This feels like gas-lighting on a massive scale, and I can’t even begin to explain how surreal it feels for Jewish people to have something like this pop up as they’re trying to watch distracting YouTube videos.
Here is a link to a Vice article on the subject as well:
On Bill Maher’s talk show, “Real Time”, last night, Maher discussed his favorite subject, Donald Trump. On this particular show Maher also decided to make a Holocaust joke. Maher started by talking about how Melania and Donald Trump’s wedding anniversary was the other day and how Melania was supposed to be on a diplomatic trip with him, but insinuated that because of the allegations of an affair between Trump and an adult film star Melania stayed home. The comedian finished the bit by saying that Melania went to the Holocaust Museum, which she went to on Thursday to honor Holocaust Memorial Day, in order commiserate with the victims. Maher was implying that Melania’s situation of being married to Trump was similar what Holocaust victims, joking that she wrote “I know the feeling” in the guestbook at the entrance.
To me, jokes like this minimize the reality of what Holocaust victims and survivors went through. For someone to say that a woman who made the choice to marry a billionaire and has everything she could ask for is in a similar situation to Holocaust victims because he doesn’t like the person she married isn’t original or funny in my opinion, and even the crowd groans when he says it. As we have discussed in class there are certain situations in which it might be possible to make a joke that has to do with the Holocaust, but I don’t think the context of either the comedian’s relationship to Judaism or the context of the joke makes it work. My concern with jokes like this is that people who see it but don’t know how horrific the Holocaust really was will never take the time to learn what happened, which is exactly how we get wide spread ideas that the Holocaust doesn’t matter or that Jews need to stop talking about it.
I’ve also attached a link to the Washington Examiner article that I first heard about the incident in: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/bill-maher-makes-a-holocaust-joke-about-melania-trumps-marriage/article/2647302
On Thursday the 17th, the Anti-Defamation League released their annual report of extremist-related killings, and in 2017 white nationalists topped the list. While not all of the killings done by white supremacists were related to Neo-Nazi ideology, at least two of the murders detailed had ties to such organizations. First was the murder of Richard W. Collins III, an African-American student in Maryland who was killed by a member of the Neo-Nazi Facebook group “Alt-Reich Nation”. Second was the murder of Heather Heyer in August at the “Unite the Right” rally in Virginia. I found out about the report from an article that was posted on Tumblr, a blogging platform, that discussed the rise in white supremacist related murders since 2016. The report, as well as the press release that accompanied it, go into depth about both the incidents themselves and the motives of the extremists. I personally found it interesting that while it is statistically correct to say a majority of the crimes were committed by white supremacists, the two examples above were the only ones that explicitly mentioned Neo-Nazi ideology as a factor in the crimes. While I know there are many white supremacist organizations, I think the recent visibility of Neo-Nazi organizations and ideology made me assume that more of these incidents would be related to those. This is an important reminder to me that while Neo-Nazis are certainly still a massive problem that is gaining pop culture recognition, there are many other organizations that are doing similar work and harm.