By Yehuda Kurtzer
After decades of fearing that we would forget the horrors of our recent past, I am starting to fear the opposite possibility: that we Jews remember our history all too well but feel powerless to act on its lessons.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine invites analogies to our traumatic past. History begs us to learn from what came before. These analogies to the past are never perfect. Seeing analogies between past and present does not mean we think that anything that happened in the past would be identical to anything happening in the present.
For comparisons to be useful, however, they need not be exact. It is enough for us as Jews to see familiarity in the past and resemblance in the present. We do this to activate our sense of responsibility, to ask if we have seen this plot point before, to figure out how we are supposed to act in the story to change the inevitability of the outcome. We become different people when we remember, as the past merges with the present and points to the choices we might make.
But now: What if we remember well, but cannot act upon it? Will Jewish memory become a prison of our powerlessness?
I grew up believing that appeasement was just one rung above fascist tyranny itself, and at times possibly worse: Appeasers replace responsibility with naivete and facilitate demonic evil even when they know better. The narrative of the West juxtaposes Churchill the hero with Chamberlain the villain; the philosopher Avishai Margalit uses Chamberlain as the archetype of the “rotten compromise,” for making concessions that make people skeptical of the morality of compromise altogether. I know that the sanctions regime imposed against Putin’s Russia and his oligarchs are the most severe in history, and still I wonder: What is the threshold of appeasement, and will we know if we have crossed it?
We still debate FDR’s decision not to bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz. It was a viable option, and we know this because Jewish leaders pleaded with American officials to consider it, and they decided against it. None of us has any idea whether such a bombing operation would have succeeded, much less whether it would have made a dent in the Final Solution. But our memory of the story makes us wonder whether it might have, and it makes us furiously study the current invasion, seeking opportunities for a similar intervention.
At the same time, we fear that we will only know what actions we should have taken a long time from now, and that our children will study such actions with the same helplessness that plagues us when we read about FDR’s decisions.
My great-grandparents came to America well before World War II. But I have read about and feel chastened by America’s turning away Jewish refugees during the war. I am in shock watching the largest and fastest-developing refugee crisis unfolding before us and seeing our country failing to participate in a proportionate way — given our size and economic power — to the absorption and resettlement efforts. Why do we have a museum celebrating American intervention in wartime, as we do in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and why do we have such a profound educational apparatus focused on helping Americans understand how to not be a bystander, if not for moments like this?
It is not hard to imagine the museum that will one day mark this unfolding atrocity.
Our insistence on memory — and the belief that it will change things — never quite works. This is because the invocation of memory can be banal, and because it can pull us apart.
“Never again” is everywhere now — Meir Kahane’s appeal to Jewish self-defense became a rallying cry to prevent genocide, a banner to fight immigrant detention, a slogan for schools and gun control. And whatever we wanted the legacy of the Shoah to be, we have in no case been successful. American presidents mouthed these words seriously even as they failed to intervene, or intervened too late, to stop genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria and elsewhere. If the fear was forgetting, it was unfounded. But remembering and acting on the memory is something else entirely. The legacy of our past indicts us when we can’t carry the former into the latter.
I never expected — even watching the politics of memory pull apart the legacy of remembering for opposing political ends — that we would shift from a fear of forgetting to the fear that comes with remembering. The past glares at us now, it revisits us every day in the news cycle, and I am scared. It is not because we have forgotten it, but precisely because we remember it, and we do not know how to heed it.
Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis podcast.