Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Those Who Should Know Better

Nazi comparisons have always bugged me. Since the time I started researching my family and found dozens upon dozens of names of the dead and missing, I intuitively understood that to compare someone to a Nazi was to abandon any pretense of intellectual consideration in exchange for scoring a cheap emotional shot. In my experience, when people invoke Nazism and the Holocaust to comment on modern issues (with the exception of those actually involving genocide), they almost always do so in a way that cheapens past events (and victims) as well as the contemporary ones they are trying to bring attention to.

I am used to seeing this kind of non-thought from a whole swath of people. I saw it from young liberals in High School and college during the Bush years. I see it often from conservatives in media punditry today. But, while I found that kind of rhetoric frustrating, upsetting and even disturbing, there was a part of me that also understood the mentality behind it-- simply put, these people usually had very little knowledge about the Holocaust or Nazism, and so for them it was an almost entirely rhetorical concept. Someone was bad, the Nazis were bad, therefore the guy that cut you off, the mall cop giving you a hard time, the politician you disagreed with-- they were all Nazis. Simple. It was stupid and enraging, but marginally understandable.

However there is one particular group that I never expected to hear violating Godwin's Law. That would be Holocaust survivors themselves.

There is a story making very small circles in the Jblogosphere. It is written by Ynet, which is known for having a pretty solid anti-religious bias, so I am aware that there may be some exaggeration or misinformation in it. However if the thrust of the article is in any way accurate, it reflects a troubling low point in Jewish discourse.

According to the article, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who lost much of his family to the Nazis and spent his childhood as the youngest inmate in Buchenwald, said the following, to a group of high school students, no less:

"Marrying gentiles is like playing into the hands of the Nazis," Yad Vashem Council Chairman and former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has been quoted as saying to students from Ramat Gan's Ohel Shem High School. According to the students, the rabbi made the remark during a lecture on the Holocaust and on his personal memories as a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp which he delivered to teenagers who had returned from a trip to Poland. Lau's remark and the nature of his lecture caused several 12th graders to walk out of the auditorium during the lecture, the students said. One of the teens who left the room explained, "As far as I understood, the lecture's point was that marrying non-Jews is forbidden, and according to Rabbi Lau, marrying gentiles is 'playing into the hands of the Nazis.'

I think it's important to stop here and think about this. The Nazis murdered most of R. Lau's family. Not "theoretically" murdered, not "spiritually" murdered. Murdered, murdered. I understand how intermarriage, particularly the sort that was extremely popular a generation ago when the Jewish partner usually wound up raising their children Christian, if not converting themselves, can be seen as troubling, if not downright painful to Jews from religious backgrounds. But as someone who actually suffered under the Nazis, it frankly boggles the mind how an intelligent person like Lau could actually make this comparison in any serious way, much less repeat it to young students. It also reflects an extremely binary viewpoint, which is also quite surprising coming from Lau, who historically has tended to bring a fair bit of nuance to his public speaking. To compare intermarriage to the Holocaust, or suggest that it is some sort of Nazi-esque tactic, ignores the fact that intermarriage exists in a very long continuum, all the way from raising children with no Jewish content or identity whatsoever, all the way to, well, this lady:
I run into you over and over at many of the parallel events of our lives, pick-up times of our school-aged children, brisenchasunas, Shabbos lunches.  Baruch Hashem, Baruch Hashem. You have heard it by now from your friends, children’s teachers, rabbis, rooftops. My husband is not Jewish. We have been married eleven years. Our kids attend an Orthodox day school; we maintain a kosher home and we keep Shabbos.  I make kiddush in our house, one day my oldest son might take over.  Or not.  Not your typical intermarried family with the predictable outcome of a forbidden union but it makes you uncomfortable all the same.  I failed the ultimate test.
By every standard of logic, attitudes like the one allegedly shared by Lau (I have too much respect for him to accept this as fact without a little more confirmation) consistently fail. On a moral level, people who intermarry are certainly not comparable to Nazis. They are individuals who love each other and their children and, presumably, try to raise them as well as they know how. On the issue of Jewish continuity and education, intermarried families, again, run the gamut. While some parents may decide not to educate their children about their (partial) heritage, others do-- sending their kids to Hebrew school, to Jewish camp, to day schools, volunteering at their shuls, sitting on boards, donating time and money, etc. And, for that matter, there are in-married Jewish couples who do none of those things-- and yet they are not accused of "playing into the hands of the Nazis," though doing nothing does just as much to further assimilation along.

The only area where R. Lau is partially correct is regarding the issue of whether intermarried couples are making babies with halakhic status. Obviously, in a case where the mother is not Jewish or has not converted, according to Orthodox halakha (AOH), the child is not Jewish by Orthodox standards. However, focusing on this single issue ignores two important caveats:

1- The fact that someone is born not Jewish (AOH) does not mean they may not at some point decide to become Jewish (AOH). I'm obviously biased but I would assume that I would be much more inclined to consider converting to a religion or formally joining a community where I had been welcomed, not insulted, deemed defective, or, of course, been accused of being the offspring of an evil Nazi-esque tactic.

2- Not being born (or not "turning out" a certain way) is not the same thing as actively being killed. It sounds obvious but there you go. I understand that in traditional Judaism this issue is sometimes muddied (hence the controversiality of birth control, among other things), but, really, let's be clear on this. The fact that one has a non-Jewish (AOH) child is not remotely the same as having a Jewish child who is then killed. One is a tragedy, an unspeakable crime, a horrendous trauma that will permeate and affect the rest of your life. While the other may not be some people's ideal for themselves or their family, it is profoundly NOT the same thing as having a child being murdered. A child is a wonderful blessing. They are filled with endless potential. They can be or accomplish amazing things, they can be kind and wonderful human beings. They may even, shock of shocks, do things that help or positively impact Jews without being one! (Say, a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer, or a politician, or anything else under the sun!) When people say things like "If my child turned out to be gay/not Jewish/not religious, it would be like they were dead," what they really mean is that either they're incredibly narrow-minded, or that they're just not thinking.

If people really want to test this analogy, have them go talk to Leiby Kletsky's parents. These people actually had their son violently murdered. They have actually lived through the hell that this causes. Do you think they would consider a living, breathing Leiby with questionable halakhic status to be no different from the mutilated body they buried a few months ago? Do you think they wouldn't trade one for the other in a heartbeat?

A disturbing analogy? I agree. But anyone who doesn't realize that this kind of insane-- and incorrect-- logic is ultimately where the "assimilation/intermarriage = Holocaust" analogy leads needs to start paying attention.

As someone who saw children (and teenagers, and adults, and elders) be murdered, really murdered, by sadistic, evil monsters, I can only hope that R. Lau is too wise-- and sensitive-- to have really said this. (Though the fact that his office admits that he mentioned intermarriage and "generations of Israel's enemies" makes me concerned that something similar may have been said.)

Hat-tip: Failed Messiah.


Anonymous said...

"Marrying gentiles is like playing into the hands of the Nazis,"

This sentiment is nothing new. I heard it decades ago (you don't want to know how many decades ago) when I was of marriageable age.

And it's totally off-base. The Nazis didn't go after Jews because of their religion, they went after them because of racial ideology. If you were assimilated, intermarried, it didn't matter, off you went to the camps. All you needed was one Jewish grandparent, and your DNA was tainted. (And in supreme irony, that's the same criterion, deliberately picked, that the Israelis used to define "Jewish" for the Law of Return.)

Thus, in order to really foil the nefarious ideology of Nazism, Jews should be marrying gentiles (preferably "Aryan" gentiles) right and left, in order to ensure that Jewish DNA totally infiltrates completely and unalterably into the non-Jewish population.

So the business about "completing Hitler's job" by intermarrying is utter and total nonsense.


Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

I had heard variations of it over the years, but given that I'm of a generation where most of the survivors were either already gone or getting pretty long in the tooth, I couldn't remember nonsense like these coming from any of the people that had actually been through the Holocaust. I suppose it makes sense given that there were plenty of survivors whose experiences wound up making them particularly bitter, fearful, and antagonistic towards non-Jews. This would seem to be the "logical" next step in that progression.

Still, it's upsetting and disappointing to hear. You'd think of all people, actual Shoah survivors would have some more perspective and sensitivity about when it's appropriate to throw around Nazi references.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

It's actually a completely screwed up statement. Intermarrying with non-Jews defies the Nazis because they were interested in separating us out of the general population and then exterminating us. A situation in which Jews freely married non-Jews around them was Hitler's nightmare.
But you're right: the word "Nazi" has long ceased to mean what it should and has become an insult against someone who annoys you. i recall a few years ago my office nurse described an annoying neighbour who kept prying into her business as "the f--king Gesetapo". I stopped her and pointed out to her what the Gestapo was and she was horrified but she'd grown up and that was just an insult she'd heard tossed around without any understanding of where it came from.