Who would ever imagine that in 2011 Canadians would be arguing about whether or not the Nazi extermination of over six million European Jews deserves a permanent place in a national museum dedicated to the subject of human rights? I would suggest this is actually evidence of a serious deficit of historical understanding and in fact justifies the need for such a gallery.
But, one wonders if the recent attack on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and its Holocaust gallery is the result of historical misunderstanding. The level of open hostility directed specifically toward the Holocaust gives one the sense that the attack is politically motivated. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing is an attempt by a small number of people to open old wounds between the Ukrainian and Jewish communities, something that is antithetical to the goals of this museum and its founders. As a Winnipegger, I have many friends with Ukrainian ancestry and they are all supportive of the museum and its Holocaust gallery. Actually, not a single person I know in Winnipeg or throughout the country, regardless of their ethnic background, resents the fact that there is a Holocaust gallery in the new museum.
It appears two organizations — the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) and Canadians for Genocide Education (led by James Kafieh, the former president of the Canadian Arab Federation) — insist on levelling human history for political reasons. The Ukrainian Famine and the internment of Ukrainians are not being excluded but are in fact locked into the current museum plan, as promised by the founders. The protest of these groups clearly targets the Holocaust for having a prominent place in the museum and the Jews, who go unmentioned by name in every public letter, for dominating the CMHR with their own particularistic suffering during the Second World War. This is the real issue at work here and it's time to confront it publicly and to expose it, finally, for what it is.
The problem with the CMHR is it is mired in the politics of Canadian ethnic identity rather than rooted in the scholarly study of genocide, Holocaust, and human rights. Subjective feelings are influencing content and design choices rather than objective historical and legal reality and this does not bode well for the international reputation of this institution. This is something about which taxpayers and voters should be worried.
No scholar of comparative genocide believes all genocides are the same. This is a politically motivated delusion rather than a historically accurate contention. What we know is the same is the nature of human suffering. No one would suggest the suffering of a starving Ukrainian is any different than that of a Jew starving in the Warsaw Ghetto. But that is not the issue. The museum is dedicated to presenting the history of human rights law and activism and the reasons for its international development during and after Hitler's war. Canadians know that the Nazi German state-murder of European Jewry is one of the most egregious violations of human rights in the history of our species. It is, in fact, largely in relation to Hitler's crimes against the tiny Jewish minority of Europe that the Western world produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, and the Fourth Geneva Convention (for the protection of civilians in wartime) in 1949. In fact, the very definition of genocide was developed in 1943 in reaction to the Nazi assault on European Jewry. Polish Jewish jurist, Raphael Lemkin, who lost 49 members of his family in the Holocaust, coined the term and drafted the UN Convention document.
The fact that this wholly irrational crime against an imaginary enemy occurred in the middle of the 20th century in the European heartland challenges our most precious assumptions about the progressive humanistic nature of education, science, and law; about the enlightened and ethical nature of European culture and religion; and, about the strength of democracy in periods of severe economic and political crisis.
The inclusion of a permanent Holocaust gallery in this museum does not elevate the suffering of Jews above Ukrainians or anyone else for that matter. The simple fact is Hitler's systematic murder of Europe's Jews was the catalyst for the development of international human rights law and activism and it is the study of the Holocaust that has in fact precipitated our current cultural obsession with racism, genocide and human rights. If it were not for the humanistic desire on the part of Jews — particularly Holocaust survivors and their children — to educate humanity about the evils of racism and the need to protect universal human rights through the study of the Holocaust, we would not have this new national museum. How on earth can this kind of generosity and goodwill be perceived as dominating and exclusive?
Even more troubling is how the UCCLA could mail an offensive postcard to Canadians across the country.
The front cover of the postcard depicts a fat pig with a bullwhip overseeing an emaciated horse dragging a wagon. The image is taken from the 1947 Ukrainian edition of George Orwell's novel Animal Farm. In the story, the pigs are the Stalinist communist ruling class who enslave and dominate all the other animals but claim hypocritically that "All animals are equal." The back of the UCCLA postcard has a pig whispering into the ear of a sheep in a conspiratorial manner, "All galleries are equal but some galleries are more equal than others." Clearly, the pigs are supporters of the Holocaust gallery, which is characterized as a vehicle of domination, inequality, and exploitation. The imagery of the Jew as pig has a very long and well-established history in European anti-Semitism, and of course it is also a theme today in Islamic anti-Semitism (Jews are purported to be the descendents of apes and pigs).
We should not assume this hateful postcard reflects the general sentiment of the Ukrainian Canadian community about the Holocaust gallery specifically or the Jewish people in general. However, the postcard was produced and distributed across our nation by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association and this group does claim to speak for Ukrainians in Canada.
Quite frankly, the fact that this kind of postcard was distributed in Canada in 2011, without shame or conscience, by an organization that claims to protect civil liberties, is astonishing. This alone demonstrates the clear need for this museum, its permanent Holocaust gallery, and for the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism.
Let all Canadians of good conscience reject these divisive tactics and the politically motivated assault on the Holocaust gallery. Hopefully, the CMHR will finally make leading professional historians the arbiters of their exhibit content and design instead of the morass of Canadian identity politics.
Dr. Catherine Chatterley teaches modern European history at the University of Manitoba and is the founding director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism based in Winnipeg. www.can-isa.com