Saturday, February 25, 2012

Why it’s Time for Jews to Get Over the Holocaust | The Beacon

Why it’s Time for Jews to Get Over the Holocaust | The Beacon

From a talmid in my first year teaching at MTA.

Why it’s Time for Jews to Get Over the Holocaust

The following article is not an editorial and as such does not reflect the official stance of The Beacon or its editors, but is written to reflect the opinion of the author.

The comments below are being moderated for ad hominem content. As we state in our Mission Statement, “The Beacon has chosen to provide a comments section to foster debate and conversation among our readers. Comments that abuse this privilege and resort to character attacks or personal insults are subject to removal.”

The Holocaust is considered the seminal event of modern Jewish history. In fact, it is usually taken as the line which differentiates between modern and pre-modern Jewish history. It is portrayed as the inevitable end toward which millennia of Jewish history inexorably led, the sum total of all our years in Europe, and the ashes from which Jewish autonomy, in the form of the State of Israel, was reborn. Modern Jews have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the memory of the Holocaust remains forever fresh. It’s about time they stopped.

This is not an opinion that is likely to be met with much applause from the Jewish community, which has dedicated untold resources, both financial and human, toward perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust. The remembrance of the Holocaust is considered to be an integral part of what it means to be a Jew, no less than if we had been instructed regarding it “Zachor Eis Asher Asah L’cha Hitler,” remember that which Hitler did to you (c.f. Devarim 25:17)*.

To be sure, the Holocaust is crucially important. But why does it need to be singled out as if it’s more special than other historical events, like it’s qualitatively different from other historical events, like it’s more than a mere historical event? While the Holocaust was on a much greater scale and horrifically well-organized, it was far from the first incident of a dominant power killing those deemed “inferior” on trumped up charges. Humans have been perpetrating horrible atrocities on each other for centuries.

If anything, the over-emphasis on the particulars of the Holocaust may be taking attention away from the universal human traits that made the event possible. The real lesson isn’t about Jews and Germans and 1935. It’s about the powerful and the weak, the superior and the Other, and its messages are for eternity. Doesn’t the Holocaust lose some of its meaning if its significance is magnified to the point where it can no longer be considered in context?

Holocaust denial is considered a crime in over a dozen countries. Surely this is an overreaction. Do we arrest flat-earthers? Ancient Astronaut enthusiasts? Believers in ghosts? Why should denial of a historical event be considered a crime, something detrimental to society? Those in favor of criminalizing Holocaust denial tend to answer that it invariably masks anti-Semitic sentiment, and therefore preaching denial of the Holocaust is tantamount to incitement to commit a hate crime. I find such logic absurd.

While I don’t deny that most Holocaust deniers are anti-Semites, I don’t see that as sufficient reason to imprison them. One cannot be punished merely for denying the truth. That is an individual’s prerogative, until it harms somebody else. And Holocaust denial has never actually harmed anyone, nor has it led to a rash of hate crimes. At best, it’s only one reason among many. Hardly reason enough to deem it a thought-crime.

Obviously, propagating ignorance of the truth isn’t a good thing, especially when that truth is an unsettling revelation about the flimsiness of human morality, but why is it worse to contradict established opinion regarding the Holocaust than to break with a consensus on anything else? Bad history is bad history, but we don’t generally arrest rogue academics, as offensive as their views might be. But Jews have fetishized the Holocaust, and built it up until it now represents all that is evil in the world. Thus, denying the Holocaust becomes synonymous with embracing the worst of humanity.

The Holocaust is also, apparently, too big to trivialize. Woe to anyone who makes a stray “Nazi” comparison. Or, to pull from current events, look at the backlash against the Chareidim who appropriated Holocaust imagery to protest the Israeli government’s clamping down on their presumed right to force women to the back of buses and throw stones at people they don’t like. Now, as should be obvious from the previous sentence, I am in no way defending the Chareidim. But I was disheartened to see how viscerally people took their protest.

It wasn’t just because of the untruth of their assertions, or because of the selfishness and shortsightedness required to compare the enforcing of the civil rights of others to genocide. It was that it was the Holocaust. You just don’t reference the Holocaust. Not like that, not so flippantly, so wrongly. You just can’t. It’s become something sacrosanct in our culture, an event never allowed to slip into familiarity, but something expected to remain eternally as raw as the day it first came to light. But no event can adequately bear that weight.

Historical events, even major and traumatic ones, have a way of being woven into the fabric of cultural memory, as they stop being news and start being history. People make casual, inaccurate references. It’s part of becoming commonly known human history. If anything, that’s good for the Holocaust. It means that everyone knows about it, everyone’s aware that something like it happened, even if they’re a bit fuzzy on the details. But then again, a fair amount of people aren’t quite sure which countries were fighting in the American Revolution. Yet we all know what happened on July 4th.

The Holocaust has been imbued with so much significance, has received so much attention, that it can be difficult to remember that there once was such a thing as a Judaism that didn’t live in its shadow. But soon there may be again. The survivors are not immortal. At this point, there are no Holocaust survivors below the age of 70. Within 30 years, there will be almost none, period. It is very easy to keep something in the public consciousness when living witnesses to it are prevalent enough that administrators can call (at least) one in to every school on Holocaust Memorial Day. But as the survivors’ numbers lessen, and eventually, what they survived will fade to become another entry in the history books.

Historical events, as earth-shattering and history-ending as they seem at the time, eventually fade from the forefront of public consciousness and became memory: not the sort of memory that a person reflects on every day, but the sort of memory that sits in the back of the mind, always there but rarely focused on. And one must wonder, when the survivors are gone – when there is no more opportunity to let children hear firsthand testimony of the Holocaust – how much of a loss will that be? With all of the effort that has gone into recording testimonies of the Holocaust, from Yad V’Shem, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and others, has it not been documented enough? What are we missing? What more is there? We’ve recorded all we can. There are few historical events that have undergone greater scrutiny and preservation. Perhaps we can finally rest and acknowledge that we’ve done enough to ensure that the Holocaust can never be forgotten.

In a recent poll, it was found that most young Jews do not see their Jewish identity stemming from the Holocaust. This might seem shocking to the baby boomer generation, the survivors’ children who were forced to confront their parents’ painful past after decades of silence. But it makes sense. Who defines themselves by a horrific genocide? Who wishes to see themselves as eternal victims? What kind of Jewish identity doesn’t extend beyond the attempts to systematically exterminate us seventy years ago?

As more time passes between the Holocaust and the present, it is only natural for it to fade into the background and become merely another historical incident. People can’t focus on the past forever. It’s only natural that they move on, and it’s time for Jews to accept that.

*A play on the Biblical verse “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt,” considered the source for the commandment to eternally remember the Amalekite attack on the Israelites just after they left Egypt, and to ultimately eradicate the entire nation of Amalek. For more information:

105 comments, mostly hostile, follow.

See also:

I am a person who has spent most of my adult life dealing with the aftermath of the a daughter and daughter in law of five Holocaust survivors--after my father in law died, my mother in law married another survivor. I was the education coordinator of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Suvivors in the 1980s and founded the first second generation group in NJ in 1980. I was one of the many people involved with the founding of the museum in Washington, and served on the governor of NJ's Holocaust Education Commission I have been involved in Holocaust studies, made speeches, designed commemorations, wrote articles and am in the process of putting together a teacher training conference with the theme of Rescue as Resistance. I even wrote a book called Why Should I Care? Lessons from the Holocaust.

I carefully read what young Mr. Weinriech wrote and I read the truly outrageous, disgusting, know-nothing curses of him by supposedly Jewish students who study Torah, yet show the world on facebook that they are NOTdecent Jews and that their parents spent lots of money for nothing on Jewish education.

It happens, that for the most part, Weinreich is echoing what Jewish teachers, scholars, theologians and community leaders have been arguing about for more than 30 years. And for the most part, I agree with almost everything that young man wrote. You should never be a Jew because Hitler or other people killed Jews. He is correct in saying that basing your Judaism on revenge is stupid, counter productive and does nothing for Judaism except twist it into a religion of hate. We should never embrace Judaism to spite Hitler.

You are Jewish because you love the Torah, the ethics and the human decency of it. Period. Basic human decency seems to be missing here, except in the posts from my grandson Akiva, whose has made me very proud with his answers to those of you who hate people who have a thought that isn't the same as yours. For the record, most scholars and rabbis agree with Weinreich and not with the knee-jerk ignorant, death threats, curses and non-thinking responses from most of you.

In fact, I may not even disagree with Weinreich's points about Holocaust deniers because of FACTS. We know, in America, the land of weapons of mass distraction (Matisyahu's beard, Whitney Houston's funeral etc.) you never ever ever are supposed to let FACTS stand in the way of what you FEEL, because facts have no value to people who don't want to be bothered. Stephen Colbert calls that truthiness. And that's what most of you are showing me in your comments--truthiness matters, facts mean nothing. But we empower the deniers everytime we pay attention to them. Don't believe me? Ask Prof. Deborah Lipstadt. Better yet, read her book on Holocaust denial and the David Irving trial.

The Holocaust is the most documented event in the history of humanity. It will not go away or be olbiterated ever. As Jews, we have to mourn our dead and we learn from our tradition that Kaddish is for the living, and we are instructed to move on. The Holocaust and Yom HaShoah should be part of our liturgy, like Tisha B'Av.

Weinreich is correct again when he says that Jews are not the only people who have been singled out as the other through history. We are not. And there are those who are suffering genocide even today. However, if you make the Holocaust yours alone, and refuse to see the suffering of others or use what you learned from it to prevent other genocides, then there is ZERO reason to remember the Holocaust--no reason at all. To paraphrase Santana, a famous antisemite, "If you ignore history, you will be doomed to repeat it."

The Holocaust is a universal story. It is not Jews only. It is not ours to keep as holy as a Torah, it is a despicable chapter of our planet's history. To sanctify it, to use it as an excuse to verbally destroy someone you disagree with is to be no different than the Nazi youths and fascist sympathizers whio bullied thier Jewish classmates in the years leading up to the churban. What you students did here to Weinreich, according to Halakha, is no different than murdering him.

That also means that you are, al pi halakha, not permitted to use the Holocaust as an exucse to treat people of other ethnic groups and religions like garbage. That desecrates the memories of the kiddoshim. Never Again does not mean Jews Only.

Furthermore, using the Holocaust to create a siege mentality that allows you to vote for people in America who support Israel, but deprive women, the poor and ethnic groups of their human rights, is morally reprehensible. I have heard over and over again, from American Jews, that they don't care about anything except Israel and will vote for adulterers, theives, liars and worse because they think these people will help Israel. They won't. These people weaken America and democracy. A weak America cannot be a strong partner to Israel. Israel can take care of itself, it has one of the strongest economies in the world and it is a technologically advanced nation.

But psychologically, Israel suffers from Holocaust guilt because of the terrible ways they treated the survivors, even as the war was starting, with their terrible record on rescue and their horrible treatment of Holocaust survivors living in Israel today. None of this is acceptable to a true Jew. (Don't believe me? Google it. Haaretz, Yediot Acharonot, the Jerusalem Post, all carry stories on a regular basis.)

I think that it may be time to talk to Dr. Shawn and ask her to call for a special assembly to talk to all of you about these issues and show you that Mr. Weinreich shouold be admired for his thoughtful courage, and not be battered with death threats. Those of you who do things like that are bad Jews who have learned only bad things from the Holocaust--the opposite of what we intended when we began the movement to teach it. In fact, you students have proved Weinreich's point, over and over and over again. (Please excuse the typos, but I am furious at what I read in this thread.)

Here too, several comments, mostly hostile, follow.
Personally, I think the choice of the title is extremely unfortunate and so are some of the modes of expression in the essay. I do not necessarily disagree with his position in the abstract.


  1. Well I'll statement my qualifications up front: I'm the son of survivors which means my opinion matters.
    I think this opinion could have been stated a little differently with the same impact: it's not time to get over the Holocaust but it is time for most non-religious Jews to treat it as the only important event in Jewish history.
    It comes up every April and August - the same people who have never heard of Tisha B'Av and don't care if we ever had a Temple are furious when we frummies don't treat Yom HaShoah as a national holiday. For these people Jewish history began in 1933. Chielmnicki? The Crusades? The Inquistion? Fuggedaboutit, we only care about Hitler.
    Why marry Jewish? So as not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory!
    Why should we consider that Reform convert over there Jewish? Because he would have been Jewish enough for Hitler!
    Why should we support Israel? To prevent another Holocaust!
    The same people who give pennies for Jewish education give generously when it comes to a local Holocaust memorial or museum. The same people who can't tell you the last time 1 in 3 Jews were killed (hint: it's tied to that holiday in August they've never heard of) demand you not pay the slightest perceived disrespect to Yom HaShoah.
    It's time for Jews to get educated, not hyperfocused on one thing.

  2. why would you post this extremely dumb article? the beacon has become so desperate to generate controversy, it is willing to publish any drivel that comes its way. this, however, is not a reason to give them attention.