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Thursday, August 28, 2014

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Memory, memorials and irony

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I understand that science knows very little about the brain and how it functions. Thankfully, when injured, it’s flexible enough to regain function in unused sectors. But when it comes to clarifying the processes of memory, scholars are at a loss.

How do we remember and why do we remember?

For human beings, memory is critical, both for individuals as well as for the collective.

Memory guards our past and converts it into a heritage, without which we cannot claim a future. It’s not just a matter of seeking continuity as individuals or as a community. It’s also about addressing our human need for legitimacy and authority. Our very existence and distinctiveness as a species seems to stand on this connective tissue of memory.

It appears so elusive, yet, without understanding the physical mechanism, we can look to its social mechanism. We have a variety of human social institutions that ritualize and confirm collective memories of key happenings. We celebrate personal or national events in a variety of ways through religious and national festivals that enable us to maintain and reflect upon certain memories that are essential to our distinctive identities.

This past summer, we marked two momentous and tragic moments in history. Both had been undeclared.

Seventy years ago, on July 16, 1942 in France, 13,152 Paris Jews were gathered in the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup and taken to the death camps. Fewer than 100 survived. The roundup was conducted by the French police, not the Nazis. This year marked the first commemoration of that event in France. It stands as a primary example of the processes of history, forgetfulness, memory, responsibility and memorial.

On the other hand, we have the anniversary of the 1972 Munich Massacre and the absence of any sense of responsibility – in the sense of responding to it – from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Forty years ago, 11 Olympians were kidnapped and massacred. They happened to be Israeli nationals. Therein lies the tale. If they were from any other country… but then they would not have been targets if they had been from any other country. Not only did Israel make a plea for a minute of silence at the opening ceremonies of this year’s Games, but the victims’ surviving relatives openly called for some recognition, some format for a moment in time.

Eventually, countries such as Canada and the United States joined the appeal, but the IOC refused. Despite all the contrary facts and arguments, it said the Games weren’t the appropriate venue for such a memorial. What nonsense! They held memorials for 9/11 and in Vancouver for a dead luger. What liars.

The 11 Israelis who were murdered died as Olympians, symbols of all the values of the Olympics. They came to represent their nation in peace, in a sporting event, putting aside political divides and issues, to show the world that it’s possible. But the murderers undermined that very Olympic spirit, and by not holding a memorial, the IOC gave a victory to the murderers! It allowed them to blackmail the Games, to hold them hostage once again, and to thus reduce those very Olympic values. Never again will we be able to watch these games and claim that they stand for peace over politics, or that we can overcome what divides us. (As if we ever could after the 1936 games.)

So what do we learn?

The collective does not want a memory with Israelis in it. Holding a memorial would have claimed these 11 Israelis as truly Olympian. By refusing to do so, the world community has said that they remain Israeli, not Olympian. Why? This is the face of the new antisemitism. It is not anti-Judaism. The disdain and odium is directed against all things Israeli now.

Thus, I found it quite ironic that at those very same Olympic Games this summer, something Israeli woke up the audience and the world.

When the American women’s team won the gymnastics’ gold, did you notice the last number? Alexandra Raisman, a Jew, sealed the victory for the U.S. team with a floor performance that had everyone clapping rhythmically, joyously in the gym. The whole crowd was with her as the judges gave her the needed score for a great victory. And the tune that brought the house down while she performed? Havah Nagilah, that great old Israeli song.

This column appears in the August 16 print issue of The CJN

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