Thursday, April 19, 2012

Obligatory Wittily-Titled Yom HaShoah Post

Shoah Day is here again. Look for the oldies under the Shoah label. After several years I've finally updated my In Loving Memory list.

There have been some interesting Shoah-related tidbits floating around the Judeosphere the past couple of days. Item One: A Haredi crank that has complained about Yad Vashem whitewashing the Haredi experience has done it again, and once again while he may have a point somewhere, you'd be hard-pressed to find it in his shrill, hyperbole-filled attack. Here are my two favorite parts:
According to some experts, between 50%-70% of those murdered by the Nazis, were "traditionally religious Jews." There is no reason to assume the percentage of survivors who were religious was any less. But in the rooms of Yad Vashem only one of the 50-60 video monitors playing taped testimonies of Holocaust survivors shows a Haredi Jew. By choosing to record and display taped testimonies of mostly secular Jews, Yad Vashem is giving a distorted picture of the religious affiliations of the survivors. This gives the false impression that few ultra-orthodox Jews survived the Shoah.
First of all, there is a scholarly argument to be made for a relatively slow survival rate for Haredi Jews. Simply put, the more Haredi you were, the more you were likely to stand out and thus be singled out for persecution. The more risks you were willing to take for your Judaism (trying to keep kosher in a camp, fasting on Yom Kippur, growing a beard, etc), the lesser the likelihood of you surviving the war. However, let's not even go there. Instead let's talk a little about extremely broad criteria and poorly sourced statistics. Exactly what rubric is being used to identify people as Haredi as opposed to some other stream along the Orthodox/traditional continuum? Beards? Hats? Membership in specific political parties or community institutions? I love how there's no consideration of the documented fact that plenty of Jews started the war religious and ended it with major crises of faith. How do we count them? Are yeshiva students who became secular for a decade after 1945 but then became b'aalei teshuvah included as "Haredi" after the fact? This whole thing is not as simple as Dr. Crankypants would have us believe. There may be an issue with a lack of representation at Yad Vashem (which could also be related to a historic distrust of the institution by the Haredi community, hint hint), but you're playing fast and loose with some goalposts here, sir.

Second favorite part:
Unfortunately, these changes fall far short of what is needed. As the premier Holocaust museum under Jewish auspices, Yad Vashem dishonors the memory of the six million by continuing to present a distorted and incomplete record of the Shoah. No, not all those who perished in or survived the Shoah were Haredim. But many more Haredim did survive than the 2% represented by the one videotaped testimony currently on display.
Got that, Holocaust museum? You're not doing your job to my satisfaction, so you are dishonoring the memory of every Shoah victim. Way to go. Yeah, good luck getting Haredi input going with the Yad Vashem board now, man. I'm pretty sure just about the worst insult you can say to curators of a Holocaust museum is that they dishonor the memory of the Holocaust.

I suppose the one bright side of this whole thing is that after generations of disparaging Yad Vashem as a godless enterprise of the Zionist state, the fact that now people in the Haredi community are offended at being left out can only be seen as progress.

Item Two: Peres and Netanyahu both participated in Yom HaShoah ceremonies in Israel. It's interesting to examine their speeches:
The president and the prime minister both mentioned Iran, but while Peres dedicated it one small paragraph, preferring to draw from the Holocaust lessons of Israel's duties to its non-Jewish citizens and the ideal of tikkun olam instead, Iran occupied nearly two thirds of Netanyahu's address. 
...Netanyahu, as he has done in previous years on Holocaust Remembrance Day, lost little time in drawing the historical comparison. This time though, he went a step further and launched on a lengthy reckoning with those "who do not like when I speak such uncomfortable truths. They prefer that we not speak of a nuclear Iran as an existential threat." 
He asked whether "these people lost all faith in the people of Israel?" and accused them that they "have learned nothing from the Holocaust." Here also he had an historical comparison. Netanyahu likened himself to the Likud's spiritual father, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who warned the Jews of Poland in the 1930s of the impending storm "but the leading Jewish intellectuals of the day ridiculed Jabotinsky, and rather than heed his warning, they attacked him." So now, Israeli politicians who disagree with Netanyahu on Iran are being equated to those who failed to foresee the Holocaust. 
He didn't mention Barack Obama by name but Netanyahu also had a historical comparison for the American president. He is the equivalent of Jan Karski, leader of the Polish resistance who refused to speak up on behalf of his Jewish compatriots. 
"Karski was a decent, sensitive man, and they begged him to appeal to the conscience of the world against the Nazi crimes. They described what was happening, they showed him, but to no avail. They said: 'Help us. We have no country of our own, we have no government, and we even have no voice among the nations.'” 
He also had an answer for "those who believe that the unique evil of the Holocaust should never be invoked in discussing other threats facing the Jewish people. To do so, they argue, is to belittle the Holocaust and to offend its victims." To them Netanyahu said:
"Not only does the Prime Minister of Israel have the right, when speaking of these existential dangers, to invoke the memory of a third of our nation which was annihilated. It is his duty."
What I find particularly fascinating about this is that a few years ago, Peres seemed fully aboard the Iran-is-the-New-Nazi-Germany train, too.

It is hard to fathom why despots such as Hitler the Nazi, Stalin the Bolshevik and Ahmadinejad the Persian chose the Jews as the main target for their hatred, their madness and their violence. Perhaps they targeted the Jewish people because of its spiritual power -- a nation poor in material possessions, but rich in values -- for he who is infected with megalomania fears the power of the spirit...
We have learned that our spiritual heritage is dependent on physical security. A people that lost a third of its members, a third of its children to the Holocaust, does not forget, and must not be caught off-guard. 
The first lesson we took from the Holocaust, therefore, was the need to immediately establish a Jewish homeland -- a Jewish state. Without it, the survivors would have been left homeless, and their lives would have remained exposed and prey to destruction. The State of Israel is not merely the Jews' protective shield, but an ideal of historic import: to be a nation with a moral message. 
Existence and heritage are inextricably linked. We never asked other nations to defend us, and we have made the decision that spiritual conflict will not divide us. 
We must not let the memory of the Holocaust diminish, and we must ensure that the memory-bearers do not lessen in number. The Jewish state must ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, for our people have just one country... 
Israel must be an example to its children and a source of pride for those Jews who do not live here. The Jewish people helped establish the State, and the State must now help its people, preserve its identity, give its children a Jewish education and enable the Jews to ensure that their descendents remain Jewish. 
The IDF has given security to the State of Israel, whose soul thirsts for peace. In Israel's eyes, peace is not just a matter of political wisdom, but a fundamental Jewish imperative.

Interesting progression there.


Antigonos said...

What the haredim conveniently like to forget is that Hitler's definition of a Jew was having one Jewish grandparent: it was racial, not religious.

2%? 3%? Who cares? Even today, the percentage of the Jewish people who regard themselves as Torah-observant [not just haredim] is barely 10% of the total. Frankly I think the "badge" of "who suffered most" in the Holocaust is disgusting.

I also don't like it when the Holocaust is disassociated from history. It wasn't a unique phenomenon. It was simply, in point of numbers, the largest catastrophe. But as a rabbi once pointed out to me, from the viewpoint of Jewish survival, had the Babylonian Exile gone on for another 50 years or so, Jews would probably have become extinct. It was only because there were still a few very old men who had been children old enough to have memories of the Temple Cult to transmit to Ezra and Nehemiah, that made it possible to either rebuild the Temple or reconstruct the liturgy. No synagogues then, no siddurim, no Talmud. However horrible it was, the Holocaust never endangered American Jewry, which by WWII was the world's largest population of Jews. Putting the Holocaust in its correct context is why I always recommend Andre Schwarz-Bart's "The Last of the Just" as the best book on the Holocaust. It begins with the massacre at York in 1190 and ends in Auschwitz.

There's a lot of talk out there about the "Holocaust mentality", i.e. a bunker mentality. I prefer to think of it as a "Jewish survival mentality". Remember the Haggadah: "In every generation..." When we stop worrying about how to survive as a people, we stop surviving. [Or we become like Peter Beinart, that shmuck]

Friar Yid said...

I agree that it is appropriate to put the Holocaust in proper context (and to try to learn lessons from it), but I think it requires a delicate balancing act to get right. There is no question that plenty of other atrocities have happened before (both within the Jewish sphere and beyond it). However I think there is some legitimacy in pointing out some of the unique mechanisms in the Holocaust-- the racial vs. the religious angles, the use of, for the time, extremely modern machinery and technology to kill, etc. Obviously there is a big political/ideological component to this discussion too (my observation is that committed Zionists, particularly Israelis, see the Shoah's lessons in some very different terms than Diaspora Jews).

The danger in putting the Holocaust "too far" in historical context, for me, lies in the fact that then it becomes very easy to catalogue it as "just another tragedy," and the perpetrators as "just another set of killers." It becomes over-universal. While I am fully aware that the Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum, in a time and culture where people continue to use and abuse the terms Nazi, Hitler, Gestapo and Auschwitz, I feel it's very important to keep those terms linguistically contained within THEIR proper context. "Nazi" is not an umbrella term for me. It's highly specific, because the Nazis, the real Nazis, are the people that murdered my family. Period. Not a cop hassling someone on a bus, and not some other dictator in some other part of the world. They may be bastard, they may be evil, but they aren't Nazis-- we already HAVE Nazis.

My feeling is always that whether it's liberals or conservatives bashing a US President or Bibi going after Mahmoud, comparing someone to Hitler is a non-productive activity. It doesn't get you anywhere; it doesn't convince anyone. Mahmoud is bad enough being Mahmoud; you don't need to claim (or then try to justify) that he's also Adolf. If you want to talk about who's really dishonoring the Holocaust, its victims and its survivors, I have to say I think it's folks that don't understand or respect it enough to keep themselves from rhetorically abusing and exploiting it.