On Holocaust Remembrance Day
Jacob is a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. He is writing his dissertation on Jewish-state relations in communist Czechoslovakia. He lectures regularly at the St. Louis Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center. Jacob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The results of a recent study shocked the Israeli Army (http://tinyurl.com/7337tob). It seems that their program of sending officers to visit Auschwitz backfired among a significant cohort, actually diminishing their attachment to Jewish nationalism, the State of Israel, and their symbols. The study registered no change in their relationship to “universalist” values, which was weaker before the trip than the officers’ affinities for national particularism.
What lessons are we supposed to learn from the Holocaust?
Why should trauma and cataclysmic violence produce better generations? We often hear about cycles of violence within families. Why then do we react with indignation and disbelief to stories of postwar anti-Jewish violence? Why do opponents of Israel expect an eviscerated and shattered people to have risen immediately to their self-proclaimed calling as a “light unto the nations?” Is McCarthy so hard to understand?
The political and cultural leadership of the 1960s, which had experienced at least WWII and sometimes WWI, deeply feared the rise of a new generation that did not share their traumas – that did not share their political consciousness. Communist leaders confronted this through an autocratic bureaucracy. In America, Nixon rose on the shoulders of the “silent majority.” Jewish leaders introduced the “Holocaust” as a unique object of study and a center-piece of Jewish culture in novel and activist tones.
I am a child of people who came of age in this Holocaust culture. I visited Auschwitz three times before I was 17, participating in programs designed to scare (scar?) me Jewish – to inoculate me with a taste of the Shoah against non-Zionism and the lure of bacon. I cannot count the terrible films I’ve seen on the subject. Educationally bankrupt and morally questionable, they failed and they hurt.
Recent surveys suggest that young American Jews relate less intensely with the Holocaust than my generation. I am not so sure. My course on the Holocaust this semester is packed with predominantly Jewish students, as it is every year and at most universities… and they really get it. They simply relate to it differently. They see it, as has been elsewhere argued, as a universal event perpetrated on Jewish bodies… They understand the dark implications of ethno-nationalism.
This brings me back to the Israeli study. Why did the officers’ attachment to universalist values not rise commensurately with the decline in their particularist attachments? The answer, I believe, is simple: because the Holocaust reveals terrible truths about the human animal: our sadism and our proclivity to group-based violence. (“The horror… The horror…”) Why should awareness of that event – without proper focus – usher optimism into the world?
Fortunately, our fascination with the Holocaust reveals a second human quality: our deep shame for the darkest parts of our nature, whether we call it original sin, the fall of man, the decline of the generations, or some secular variant thereof like “degeneration.” Perhaps an inclination to this counter-instinct can in part explain the recent historiographical turn to the study of memory… It redeems us.
So what is the lesson of the Holocaust?
For us as humans, it must extend beyond the pith of “Never Again!” Too many genocides have occurred since 1945 for these words to do anything but sting. Even this critique has already become banal. We must first acknowledge and expect our own deplorable ugliness – not as an aberration or flight from what it means to be human, but as a normative and constitutive aspect thereof. Only then can we celebrate that we reject our profound ugliness when we legislate, judge, and fight – when we circumcise our hearts and when we afflict our souls.
For us as Jews, however, the Holocaust can have no lesson aside from the historical. The evocation of the Holocaust has brought, I believe, only negatives to political discourses about Israel. It has failed to keep our children keeping kosher.
Mourning remains important, but we must allow and perhaps encourage Yom HaShoah to change in tone. With increasing temporal distance and as we collectively recover from the Holocaust, Yom HaShoah will feel more and more like Tisha Be’Av – and that is a very good thing. Letting go of acute pain is difficult and scary, but it is a crucial step in healing. This is particularly so when we are talking about generational processes. Hopefully, we will soon come to focus on what was lost, rather than the loss itself, and in so doing re-acquire a rich heritage with which to play – and seriously so.