“ ‘Here we go,’ Finkler would say whenever the question of Israel arose, ‘Holocaust, Holocaust,’ even though Treslove was certain that Libor had never mentioned the Holocaust. It was always possible, Treslove conceded, that Jews didn’t have to mention the Holocaust in order to have mentioned the Holocaust. Perhaps they were able by a glance to thought-transfer the Holocaust to one another.”
Those lines, from Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, express crassly, albeit tidily, a distinct problem.
The Holocaust is seemingly inescapable, even when it is not mentioned, which is rarely. Growing up, The Holocaust was its own topic in religious school, and any encounter with it was entirely tautological. Why do we study the Holocaust? Why must we be Jewish? Why do we have to support Israel? Because of the Holocaust. Holocaust, Holocaust.
You still see this today. You know half the speakers at AIPAC will pointedly bring up the Holocaust. Any anti-Semite from the Near East is compared to Hitler. Much like my childhood religious school tautologies, these invocations are meant to end the conversation: these people are the worst of the worst, and Israel will do ANYTHING to prevent a second you-know-what. And it isn’t merely in the context of Middle East politics; well-meaning non-Jews will come and speak with me in hushed, reverent voices having read Night or The Diary of Anne Frank wanting to see a real, live Jew, as if we’re some kind of endangered species. Why? The Holocaust justifies all.
After 37 years of these, I’ve started to develop a headache. Not because of the Shoah—quite the contrary. Every time I meet a survivor, I’m amazed by them and their stories, and frequently their humility, optimism, strength and temerity. Every story is unique, and each storyteller deserves reverence. Likewise, the worst event in Jewish — nay, WORLD —history, demands attention, and deserves specialized curricula, museums and programming, as well as liturgies of remembrance. To do otherwise would be an act of heartlessness, of evil.
Rather, it is the sense that we’ve drawn the wrong conclusions. The Holocaust is not a stick to herd Jews into affiliation; only joyful, meaningful engagement will do that. When we say “Never Again”, too often we include to us, when we shouldn’t qualify the sentence at all. The Shoah taught us the absolute barbarity of the world; we should feel obliged to fight bigotry and genocide in all its forms, not just root out anti-Semitism. Or use it to justify actions that require thoughtfulness. And too frequently, the Shoah is a means for non-Jews to see us as victims.
April 7 and 8 we will remember, as we should. We will be called to action. But let’s be called to the correct action — to remove hate from this world in every form, to remind us to uphold everyone’s right to self-determination. To live Jewishly and joyfully through learning and deep, nourishing spirituality. And then, let us act as we ought, as we’re meant: as a nation of priests, a light to the nations.
Rabbi Yair D. Robinson is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Del.