Monthly Archives: April 2007

Time to Rethink How We Teach the Holocaust

[this article was printed in the London Jewish Chronicle, a pdf of which can be found here. Full pre-edited article text below]
Remembering the Holocaust is one of the few imperatives of contemporary Jewry, one of the few things the disparate streams of the Jewish people can agree upon. But what exactly are we remembering? The Shoah narrative is normally retold in a way that positions the Jews as an object in someone else’s drama: the subject is Hitler, his rise to power, and what he did to the Jews. In this narrative, the Jews only react after the fact, bewildered. Jews here play the part of the powerless victim, a person with little to no agency. As in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the Jews are nothing but supporting actors in Oskar Schindler’s story; as in Roman Polanski’s Pianist, it took the goodhearted Gentiles to save the talented Jews; as in the much-recounted story of Anne Frank, the most Jews could do was hide away and hope.
The hammering home of the status of the Jew as a powerless victim has instilled a nearly reflexive contemporary Jewish identification with any party that is perceived as powerless, deeply affecting Jewish identity. The passion of the post-genocidal generation of 1968 was rooted in this self-identification. As the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut records in his masterful political memoir, The Imaginary Jew, “from Spartacus to Black Power, an instinctive and unconditional solidarity united me with all of the earth’s damned.”
Leading members of today’s young generation also find power and solace in the identity of the Jew as the Other. Jennifer Bleyer, the founder of the iconic Heeb Magazine, which is directed at young intellectual Jews, wrote that she “preferred the definition of Jews as ultimate outsiders.” Popular youth magazines and websites heavily reflect this opinion. That a young hip British group chose to call itself “Jewdas” shows this yearning for pariah status isn’t limited to one corner of the Diaspora.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with identifying with the underdog. Unfortunately, however, in today’s post-1967 world, fellow Jews are rarely seen as the underdog, and Israel in particular is increasingly not seen as worth of solidarity. Instead, the ultimate underdogs in many people’s minds are the Palestinians.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with supporting the Palestinians either, providing one does so in the context of supporting a two-state solution that confers self-determination for the Jews as well. But in recent years, leading members of the Jewish intelligentsia have pushed that option off the table—justifying their opposition to Zionism with allusions to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. As Alvin Rosenfeld cites in a pamphlet published by the American Jewish Committee, scholars such as Jacqueline Rose have compared Herzl’s Der Judenstaat to Hitler’s Mein Kamf, Michael Neumann states that Israel has embarked on “a kinder, gentler genocide,” and collections of “progressive” Jewish writing such as Wrestling with Zion edited by Tony Kushner and Alisia Solomon sprinkle each essay with just enough references to the Holocaust as to take the comparison of Zionism and Nazism as a given. One need not agree with Rosenfeld’s conclusions to be shocked by his citations.
To confront this strain of thought that would turn Jews against the Jewish State, and to provide a more realistic understanding of Jewish power and our options in the Middle East, it could do us well to remember what we as a community did do with that power that we did have at the time–and what responsibility we bear as a community for the tragedy and the smokestacks. Few of us remember the vociferous debates within world Jewry before the demise of European Jewry began. For example: In 1935, the Menorah Journal – a leading intellectual journal of American Jewry – published an article by propaganda scholar and journalist Louis Minsky arguing that American Jews had been too aggressive thus far in their dealings with Hitler. Arguing that “the policy of fighting antisemitism by public agitation, parades, mass meetings, oratorical invective, persistent moralizing, boycott” has been disastrous, Minsky further claimed that “the aggressivist strategy, far from succeeding, has, on the contrary, aggravated the situation both in Germany and in this country.”
This line of argument is echoed by many in the Jewish community today when Jews attempt to take on threats broadcast loud and clear by elements in the Middle East. Instead of uniting against Iran, or providing a solid front against the same Hamas that keeps kidnapped soldiers and reporters from even the Red Cross, prominent intellectuals rail against the “Israel Lobby” in the leading intellectual publications, calling Jews to think twice about supporting the policies of the democratically elected government of Israel–all the while blaming the community for being too aggressive. Historical events may not repeat themselves, but historical relationships do-and unless we remember our own failings prior to the Holocaust, we might be doomed to repeat the consequences.
If we want the Jewish People to grow every stronger as a supportive community, it is time we rethink the narrative we teach our children. As history has proved time and again, the international community will not step in to stop a genocide in progress, no matter how many times we call upon them to remember times past. Never again is a fine slogan; but if we truly want to see these words borne out, we need to recognize which “again” we should never once more repeat: never again should we be powerless to act, and never again should we choose inaction when genocide crouches at the door.

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May our memory serve us well this Passover

As the eve commemorating the passing-over of the Israelite homes in Egypt approaches here in New York, I hoped to share with you the following thought:
Communities are developed along the lines of shared memory–and the stronger the narrative of that memory, and the more one can agree on that memory’s story and meaning, the stronger the community.
The Exodus, of course, is the gold-standard of communal recollection; Once a year, nearly two-thirds of all Jews in the US–and probably a significant more in Israel and around the world–sit down to recall the creation of our People. Moreover, the Exodus narrative has inspired generations and peoples across space and time. From the Founding Fathers of the United States to the Liberation Theologians of South America, those seeking collective freedom have come back time and again to our story of communal liberation and sought solace in our history.
Interestingly, however, the more we Jews assimilate into our surrounding societies, the less wetend to focus on our own story and the more we also attempt to incorporate the stories of others into our own narrative. Hence haggadot that tell of slavery around the world, or haggadot that incorporate ideological themes of identity politics.
Is this open-ended narrative a sign of strength? A way to bring the unaffiliated or un-emotionally-connected into the fold? I’m not so sure. As Jonathan Mark recently wrote in the Jewish Week, “On your wedding anniversary you don’t buy flowers for other women.” Sometimes giving a little exclusive attention to one person helps do more good to the world than sharing one’s attention with many.
As such, on this Passover I do not wish you to free yourself from your internal Pharaohs, or to set yourself anew upon freeing slaves in sub-Saharan Africa. These are all noble causes and should indeed be taken up, and once the holiday passes there will be an entire year ahead to focus on ridding the world, macro and micro, of injustice and fear.
But for today, for Passover, I wish us all to remember that many of the problems that beset humanity can only be solved through collective action–and that since organizing masses of people to work towards a common goal takes a strong narrative to direct myriad energies, that sometimes we need invest in our own narrative, unfiltered and unadulterated. This is that time; today is the day.
I wish us all to remember that in the Hebrew tradition, there is not such thing as an individual existing alone–even in the story of Creation it is written, “man and woman He created them,” together, because we as humans are collective animals–who can create great things when united, and destroy whole worlds when our narratives conflict.
As such, in recognition of that awesome power inherent in society, I hope we may all find awe in the unlimited potential in our small corner of humanity, despite or rather inspite of all of its complications, and I hope we will use this Passover to reinvest our energies into the story of our People, crossing ideological and denominational and geographical boundaries to develop a stronger shared narrative for these new times ahead.

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