Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Prism of the Holocaust

In an earlier post, in the context of how Orthodox Judaism started in America (10/29), I differentiated between refugees and Holocaust survivors. My confidence in this distinction was recently shaken by an experience I had at a shabbus meal at my friend’s house. The guest of honor was a charismatic and well-known left-wing Israeli artist. Her lifelong fight for civil liberties and decency made everyone sympathetic to her talk. She spoke passionately throughout the evening and kept the other ten participants spellbound. Her thesis was as follows:

“My parents are Holocaust survivors and I am a second generation Holocaust survivor. I feel the trauma of the Holocaust in my very being. I have never been as pessimistic about Israel as I am today. Here I am, growing up in a home which never stopped talking about the Holocaust and how our relatives and friends were murdered. And now, when I look forward to the future, I see an Iran that is threatening to destroy me with a nuclear bomb. I believe those Shiites are actually crazy enough to do it. For the first time since I’ve been born, there’s a threat of a Holocaust in front of me. Where am I to go? Which country will take me and my fellow countrymen? And who wants to leave? I have lived in Israel my whole life. I don’t want to become a refugee. So my life comes down to this…a Holocaust in back of me and a prospect of a Holocaust in front of me.”

Everyone was somewhat taken aback, and people began chipping away at this dark vision. The first point that was established was that her mother was already in Israel by 1939 and her father escaped from a work camp in the middle of the war, but never was in an actual concentration camp. When the suggestion was made that perhaps she is not a second generation Holocaust survivor, she became so overwrought that no one had the courage to pursue the suggestion. Someone then asked how a country that didn’t have an optimistic future could survive. Someone suggested looking at religious people who are generally optimistic. The word religious triggered a diatribe about her fellow citizens. Charedim are impossible because they are all shirkers. Who can talk to a charedi if he doesn’t go to the army? The right wing is impossible because they are all flirting with fascism and ethnic cleansing. Anyway, they have accepted the idea of fighting forever. The religious Zionists also won’t do since they are religious and, as a left-wing Israeli, she is deeply committed to secularism. In fact, she emphasizes this was the first Shabbat meal she had ever attended that was conducted in the traditional Orthodox manner. After hearing this last tidbit, everyone realized perhaps the comparison to the Orthodox was not the way to go.

People tried one last gambit. It was suggested that Jewish life needs some other basis than survival and the Holocaust. There has to be something positive about Jewish life; something to celebrate and enjoy, which provides meaning and purpose. Some Jewish traditions and culture have to be celebrated or else all one has is a sort of dog eat dog world. She was not appeased. After a while, it began to dawn on me that the woman actually enjoyed the pessimism and hopelessness. It was precisely this darkness that gave her courage to go on. The Holocaust was, for her, a sort of beacon of meaning through which she could interpret the world. Take away the Holocaust and you just have capitalism, selfishness and a normal boring life. This Israeli version of anti- religious secularism, held together by a defeated labor Zionism, holocaust consciousness and the constant fight for survival has become unyieldingly pessimistic.

It is frequently said that any Israeli government must prevent the emergence of an Iranian atomic bomb because of the memory of the Holocaust. It is also frequently said that anything less than the most vigorous aggressive response to the “axis of evil” will yield the same result as appeasement of the Nazis did in the thirties. In fact, the Muslim religious fanaticis engaged in terrorist activities are labeled Islamo-fascists in order to bring out the similarities to Nazis.

Neither I, nor anyone else, have any clue how the future is going to play itself out. No one can say, with any certainty that bad things will not happen. What is fairly certain is that it won’t happen the exact same way it happened in the Holocaust. Even if history repeats itself, as it sometimes does, it is never as a clone of the previous period. There is something wrong, mistaken, foolish to analyze the future in terms of a rearview mirror of the past. If everything is going to be fit into the prism of the Holocaust, details are going to be missed, possibilities are going to be overlooked, and in a strange way, because of a repetition compulsion, the events that are most dreaded are more likely to occur. Sometimes traumatized people act in such a way so as to bring about the events they most fear.

Why is a politician like Netanyahu saying “It's 1938, and Iran is Germany. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state." What does he expect people to do? If it is the holocaust why isn’t he encouraging people to leave? I can only conclude that he, and Lieberman and Efie Etam don’t exactly mean what they say, and are frightening people in the hope that they will turn to the hard right for a solution. It is even scarier to watch Olmert cover his right flank by essentially repeating the same thing. The rhetoric itself will force Israel to bomb Iran. I don’t want to enter into the very serious question what is the correct policy towards Iran. What I am saying is that the government should retain maximal flexibility and not allow an analogy to Hitler to force it to adopt a policy that might be unwise.

In my opinion, the strongest antidote to using the Holocaust as a basis of foreign policy is to create a Jewish cultural and religious life in Israel that is life-enhancing and gratifying. The best reason for defending Israel and fighting for its survival IMHO is to protect a way of life that has independent value and meaning. Using the holocaust for political or foreign policy goals is not a good way to proceed.

10 Comments:

At 2:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talk about a cliffhanger!

 
At 2:43 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Very sorry...I didn't realize the last part of my post failed to print. My apologies.

 
At 5:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My confidence in this distinction was recently shaken by an experience I had at a shabbus meal at my friend’s house."

It was never a good thesis. There were many people who personally survived but lost family, siblings, etc. There were refugees who underwent trauma before coming here of one form or another, possibly combined with losing some or all family, but weren't in camps, and may even have escaped relatively early. There were many religious people who escaped but still felt that the religious world of their youth would not be fully recreated = some of these went on teaching the next generation, but with a greater or lesser undertone of mourning. The Holocaust was all around, even if the people didn't go through it themselves. It's true that people who lost more family were more conscious of the loss, but the Holocaust certainly did form the subtext for much of what went on. It wasn't necessary to mention it, it was a given.

Heilman may use the Holocaust as a hammer, and every subject is a nail, but that doesn't mean the Holocaust wasn't the backdrop for most of what went on in the first two generations postWWII.

 
At 6:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all due respect, you should have simply seen that you had a nut job at the party.

 
At 11:09 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 5:29... I claimed the postwar Orthodox culture was not shaped by survivors but by efugees and others. The issue today is the children of refugee/survivors.OTOH who is to say how a person ought to feel? OTOH I know many people whose parents escaped from the Nazis, some barely, with the Nazis in hot pursuit that wouldn’t dream of claiming they are victims. Not everyone who claims victimhood has a claim on others, nor must others automatically acknowledge such claim. For all we know these feelings of being children of escapees from Hitler can be transmitted for many generations. It is, after a while, a way of looking at oneself and also at the world, a philosophy of life as it were.

Your thoughts confirm what other has said. I continue to take issue with conflating the Holocaust as a subtext, the Holocaust as a way of recognizing the old European world cannot be recreated, the Holocaust as a cause of a greater or lesser tone of mourning and the active memories of the full blown unspeakable nightmares of the camps.

anonymous 6:46…The woman may have had some issues, as the expression goes; and as we age who doesn’t. I told the story because I feel it is representative of a certain Israeli secular use of the Holocaust as a way of finding purpose and meaning in the ongoing struggle. In Israel, unlike America the Holocaust was repressed really and actively until the Kasztner and then Eichmann trials. People who were in the camps for many years wore long sleeve shirts to hide the numbers, because they were ashamed to admit they had allowed themselves to be marched off to a concentration camp. When the Holocaust was finally opened up as a legitimate topic of discussion it was politicized and joined with the new Zionist images of heroic valor and Massada. The Holocaust continues to be much more emotionally charged in Israel than in America, where it has a less palpable feel.

 
At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonymous 6.46 says:

I think you are overdoing it. Healthy people whose parents survived though they lost siblings do not overreact whether they are Israeli or American. I have visited places my parents and grandparents dealt with in Europe without any accompanying hysteria. In fact I was born in 1948 and was always aware of the family consequences of the Holocaust, even as a small child. One truth I noted was that my parents, who escaped from Germany days before the invasion in 1939, always distinguished themselves from the "Greener" who were in the real "Lager."

I find it strange indeed that your Israeli acquiantance would portray her family's situation worse than it was. Check further and see if there is not some additional factor to explain that.

 
At 9:02 PM, Anonymous quietann said...

There are some "professional victims" out there who use the Holocaust for that purpose. I had a room-mate once who proudly counted herself as a member of 13 different victimized groups, including descendant of Holocaust survivors (3 of her 4 grandparents were in the camps). Not my favorite room-mate!!! It is possible that your guest was a professional victim like this... But I have had friends whose parents spent time in the camps, and I don't think any of them were unaffected by their parents' experiences.

I feel it very deeply, in my bones, even though it is unlikely that any relatives closer than second or third cousins were in the camps. Maybe I'm screwed up for it, but it's part of what makes me want to be Jewish.

My sister-in-law (mentioned in your new post) is another sort of Holocaust casualty. Her parents were born in Prague in the mid 1930s and fled the nazis in the late 1930s with their parents and siblings. They shed their Jewish identity along the way through 4 different countries as refugees (though they have Orthodox relatives who ended up in Australia and Chile). And it is *not* a topic of conversation. Ever. There are a lot of people out there like this and for the most part, they are lost to Judaism.

 
At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"anonymous 5:29... I claimed the postwar Orthodox culture was not shaped by survivors but by efugees and others. The issue today is the children of refugee/survivors.OTOH who is to say how a person ought to feel? OTOH I know many people whose parents escaped from the Nazis, some barely, with the Nazis in hot pursuit that wouldn’t dream of claiming they are victims. Not everyone who claims victimhood has a claim on others, nor must others automatically acknowledge such claim. For all we know these feelings of being children of escapees from Hitler can be transmitted for many generations. It is, after a while, a way of looking at oneself and also at the world, a philosophy of life as it were."

I've lost you here. I know the culture was shaped by refugees, not survivors - I just think that many of the refugees were driven, to a greater or lesser extent and more or less explicitly depending on the person, by the Holocaust, and overall, the Holocaust was the subtext for much of what was going on. I don't think this implies the refugees felt like victims - on the contrary, many people who I think were influenced by the Holocaust would not dream of calling themselves survivors or victims (even if objectively they were to a degree). They might consider themselves lucky ones, who escaped relatively intact. I know that the refugees in my family considered themselves relatively unaffected by the Holocaust - this doesn't mean that the Holocaust was not the big elephant in the room even if it wasn't explicit. As I understood it, you were arguing that the refugees went on, created life as was comfortable and natural for them, wanted to be "elegant" and etc and the Holocaust was not a big factor. I disagree with that assessment, even though I agree that the culture was formed by refugees, not survivors and that the Holocaust was not always an explicit factor.

"Your thoughts confirm what other has said. I continue to take issue with conflating the Holocaust as a subtext, the Holocaust as a way of recognizing the old European world cannot be recreated, the Holocaust as a cause of a greater or lesser tone of mourning and the active memories of the full blown unspeakable nightmares of the camps."

I agree that these distinctions are important (and were important to the refugees/survivors). I thought your original thesis went further, to denying the Holocaust was that important in reestablishing Jewish life in the US altogether, simply because most were not survivors. It's true though that the community that was recreated here was not a community of survivors, per se, and if it had been, it would have looked different.

 
At 1:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"anonymous 6:46…The woman may have had some issues, as the expression goes; and as we age who doesn’t."

I thought you were supposed to get over your "issues" as you got older. Is there no hope?

 
At 2:36 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 6:46...very interesting pt. I need an entire post to even attempt a serious answer.

I was responding to the remark about her being nuts, by effectively saying such a judgement by my standards is too harsh and supercilious. I have great respect for this woman despite my many disagreements.

 

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