How not to remember the Holocaust

holocaust cartoon

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I’m troubled.

History is important, because justice today depends on a correct understanding of yesterday. If your vision of the past is distorted, then your objectives for the future and present actions can be morally wrong, pragmatically futile, or both. If you don’t believe this, think about the consequences of the false Arab and leftist narratives about Israel and ‘Palestine’.

Therefore, understanding what Hitler did to the Jewish people, what historical trends led up to it and how the world responded, is critical for all of us today. There needs to be a Holocaust remembrance Day and it ought to tell its story in detail, over and over to each generation of humanity, and not just to Jews and Europeans.

But certain ways of observing this day make me very uncomfortable.

One is what I call the ‘universal kumbaya Holocaust observance’. The message here is that there are lots of genocides, they are all similar, and we have to try to understand our fellow man in order to prevent them. I went to an event once in which it was said that the real Holocaust encompassed 11 million people — Jews, Gypsies, gays, disabled and mentally ill people, etc.  I didn’t understand how they got to 11 million, nor why they stopped there: about 60 million people died as a result of WWII, probably about half of those in the European theater. Estimates range from 10 to 20 million Chinese dead in the conflict with Japan. Perhaps they should have lit 30 candles for the evil done by Hitler, and added another 30 for Imperial Japan?

The trouble with a universalized observance is that it obscures the significance of the specifically Jewish genocide, the fact that the Holocaust was the perfection, made possible by modern technology and careful planning, of the pogrom, the culmination of  the hundreds of anti-Jewish murders committed over the centuries simply because the victims were Jews, as the Nazis said, a final pogrom which would, for once and for all, erase the Jews from the world.

And by hiding the meaning of this event in plain sight, as it were, among all the other horrors of war, it also absolves today’s Jews from the responsibility to find their own solution to the specifically Jewish problem of endemic Jew-hatred, which has not gone away.

Another kind of Holocaust observance is the ‘emotional binge’, in which participants try to bring themselves to the point where they can almost feel the doors of the gas chambers closing on themselves or (worse) their children, in order to fully internalize the ‘real meaning’ of the Holocaust. These events include talks by survivors about their experiences, dramatic performances and even re-enactments in which participants play the role of Jews and Nazis (all of these have been done in my community). The common characteristic is that they are intended to evoke the strongest possible emotional responses.

The catharsis provided by emotional binges is greatly enjoyed by some people, but it adds nothing to the understanding of history. Indeed, it creates a dangerous fixation on the dead Jews of the 1940s, to the detriment of those living today.

Finally there is the ‘symbolic but trivializing gesture’. A local synagogue is attempting to collect 6,000,000 buttons in remembrance of the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of Hitler. It was explained that this is a big number, and the stack of buttons that they will make will help people visualize the extent of the Holocaust.

It’s hard to comment on something quite this silly. Collecting, storing and displaying that many buttons is  a large effort, which one imagines could be exerted to much more effect in some other way. Personally, I have no problem visualizing 6,000,000 people: I just think about the Jewish population of today’s state of Israel.

Which brings me to the general problem I have with all of these ways of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust. They are entirely consistent with total ignorance of the real lesson of the Holocaust for Jews, which is not that 6,000,000 is a big number, or that the death of a child is horrible, or that genocide is bad everywhere, in Rwanda or Armenia or anywhere else.

This is why it is possible for some Jews to light candles, cry, and ‘dialogue’ about the need for cross-cultural understanding with non-Jews until the cows come home, and then go out and (for example) join a demonstration against Jews moving into eastern Jerusalem.

The Jewish lesson of the Holocaust is this: Jew hatred is real, it is dangerous, and it is not possible for Jews to depend on others, no matter how well-intentioned they may seem, to protect them. For almost two thousand years, the Jewish people depended on others, and the result was periods of tolerance interspersed with persecutions, expulsions and murder.

Generations of Jews have learned this lesson from events: Herzl learned it from the Dreyfus case, and Jabotinsky from the Kishniev pogrom of 1903. Unfortunately, the history of modern Israel is also filled with such ‘teaching moments’.

There is a solution to the problem. It doesn’t end Jew-hatred and it doesn’t absolutely guarantee Jewish survival. But it is the best chance for the latter, in both the physical and cultural senses. It is, of course, Jewish independence — that is, Zionism.

So here is my idea for an appropriate Holocaust remembrance event: a teach-in on the subject of Jewish history, in which people would learn not only what Hitler did, but why, and how this was part of a long tradition of evil.

And it wouldn’t hurt to add a discussion of the history of Zionism and the state of Israel, to counteract the poisonous Arab narrative. Because acting justly in the present requires correctly remembering the past.

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2 Responses to “How not to remember the Holocaust”

  1. NormanF says:

    The real lesson of the Holocaust is not that dead Jews should be remembered.

    No – the real lesson of the Holocaust is all about how living Jews are treated! That is the lesson no one bothers to learn.

    And with anti-Semitism at record high levels in the contemporary world, the Jewish people and Israel are in more danger than ever before.

    It should be added, none of the world’s Holocaust’s museums and workshops are doing anything to counteract it. The acid test is not the tears shed over dead Jews; the acid test is in how the world treats Jews alive today in the human family.

    We all need to learn that lesson.

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    I agree with this, and it explains to me a number of Holocaust ‘commemoration’ phenomena I had not understood.
    The lesson that the Jewish people should not depend on others for the safety and security is to my mind the first reason and justification for the state of Israel. There are others I know deep in Jewish religion and history but this is the first reason as I understand it.
    But there is also a certain difficulty and irony with that reason. The fact is no matter how remarkable the building and development of Israel has been it has still not achieved, what no state I know of can achieve, a security totally dependent on its own means and powers.
    This means that forging ties with others is still essential,above all the tie with the world’s greatest power, the United States. This of course leads to complications and difficulties of its own.
    All I am saying is that there is a certain danger in believing in the principle of depending on ourselves alone- i.e. we do it in such a way as to totally isolate ourselves from others. We have not done that and there are signs as chronicled in a recent article by Efraim Inbar that in fact our isolation is less than ever.
    What is true is that we face dangers like that no other people or state has to confront. And the more we have control of the means to defend against them the better our situation is.

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