At 10 a.m. on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli Jews come to a stand-still. Drivers stop their vehicles on the highway when the memorial siren sounds throughout this small country. Schools time their own ceremonies and assemblies to coincide with that nationwide moment of shared silence.
The nearly ubiquitous observance of this act of commemoration by Israel’s six million Jews makes that moment of silence one of the most widely observed of all Jewish rituals. Commentators sometimes point to this rare example of Jewish unity as a response to the grisly immutability with which humans were categorized and exterminated by the Nazis. The Holocaust was too big — too sweeping, too comprehensive in its ambition to criminalize the act of being a living Jew — to suffer the narrow bickering that characterizes the other culture wars of the Jews.
Yet the memory of the dead — who were too numerous, and murdered with too much grim purpose, to allow any Jews who lived afterward the comfort of psychological distance — lends a primordial power to the contradictory ways that Jews understand the meaning of the slaughter.
The Holocaust may be vast, both in its historical reality and in the way its memory looms over the present — as the social critic Theodor Adorno famously put it, no one “whose organ of experience has not entirely atrophied” can believe “that the world after Auschwitz, that is, the world in which Auschwitz was possible, is the same world as it was before.” But it is still ultimately a human experience, doomed to shape the intuitions and identities of those who come after.
This is itself a horror. The unbearable human reality of the Holocaust – try to bear the thought of the six final minutes of life granted to the shivering, naked children herded by the SS’s emaciated Jewish slaves into the gas chambers before the Zyklon B gas finished its work; now repeat the attempt hundreds of thousands of times – has suffered the ignominious fate of all remembered agonies: it has turned into a story.
Or, rather, many stories, each given a kind of absolutist urgency by the scale of the suffering they try to explain.
In the early 1950s, a young, impoverished and embattled State of Israel debated how it should commemorate the genocide, which was still too fresh to be encapsulated by the familiar narratives told to Jewish children today.
For the religiously minded survivors of Europe, the extermination of European Jewry was different only in scope, not in essence, from the catastrophes of the Jewish past – the Roman conquest of Judea, the expulsion from Spain. They sought to commemorate the gassed children of Auschwitz on Tisha B’Av, the late-summer fast day that Jewish tradition associates with these foundational disasters.
The gas chamber was for them a familiar part of Jewish history, an entry in the established litany of sufferings that the Jews must carry in their exile, a function, like those other tragedies, of the human world’s alienation from divine mercy, and a crime, like all crimes, that will find its redress at history’s messianic conclusion.
Secular Israelis, meanwhile, argued for the springtime date of the 14th of Nissan, the day on which the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the largest Jewish rebellion against the Nazis, was launched.
The message here, too, was a profound one, and diametrically opposed to the religious view. The industrial murder of millions, the bending of German civilization and industry, science and politics to the meticulously planned extermination of entire classes of human beings, was, as it were, merely the default state of the human condition. Human beings are cruel, so dependence on their moral compunctions is itself immoral.
To Israeli Jews of that generation – nearly all of them refugees in one sense or another, nearly all of them heirs to the Herzlian warning that the growth of European mass-societies and nationalistic identities leaves no room for minorities – the Holocaust is the final catastrophic proof that the ancient Jewish strategy of long-suffering resilience is ill-equipped to survive an age of murder by totalitarian bureaucracies. The pogroms of the late 19th century, under whose pressure the early Zionists coalesced into a movement, were no longer a danger to just some Jews; technological innovation transformed the pogrom impulse into an existential danger for all Jews.
The Zionists, too, saw in the Holocaust a kind of continuity. German bureaucratic ability, not ideological innovation, allowed this “pogrom” to murder six million instead of six thousand.
The thing worth knowing about the Holocaust, then, is not that Jews died, but that Jews, at least some of them, at least some of the time, resisted.
The remembrance day’s official name, from its founding in 1953, is “Day of Remembrance for the Holocaust and the Heroism.” In the 1950s, the “the” that preceded “heroism” pointed to a specific heroism – not of the victims who struggled to maintain their dignity in the face of extermination, but of those who fought back, who grasped even in the depths of despair the Zionist ethos that history is changed not through acceptance of one’s fate, but through action.
The seculars won the debate over the calendar. Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day was moved 13 days later to the 27th of Nissan, but this shift, which avoids a conflict with the holiday of Passover that begins on the 15th, only highlights the Zionist story. Holocaust Remembrance Day now comes a week before the remembrance day for Israel’s war dead, and eight days before Israel’s independence day on the 5th of Iyar. Just as the week-long holiday of Passover reenacts the Biblical exodus from slavery to religious redemption at Sinai, so the week from 27 Nissan to 5 Iyar reenacts the passage of the Jews from their diasporic role as the paradigmatic victims of the inexhaustible human capacity for cruelty to their new condition, a self-reliant nation that obtains its safety and freedom through its own exertions.
For Israelis, the vow of “never again” is essentially a strategic vision. The Jewish victims of Auschwitz were not the only universally applicable symbols to emerge from the death camps; so were the Nazi perpetrators. The very fact that the Nazis existed means Nazis can exist, do exist, and will exist in the future. Some deride Israelis as living in “post-trauma” from the Holocaust, as too ready to see Nazis reincarnated in every critic of Israel. This sort of reductionist mockery is drowned out by the continued tolerance of mass-murder even on the part of the most liberal of Westerners. Rwanda, Syria, Congo, Sudan – all acts of systematic murder that for all their diversity of context and cause share one important characteristic with the Holocaust: they reveal the lie at the heart of liberal-minded talk about “shared humanity” or “international community.”
Yet such talk makes up the third major Jewish story about the Holocaust.
For Western liberals, including many of the world’s English-speaking Jews, “never again” is an ethos not of self-reliance or the need to buttress one’s own defenses, but of the unfathomably high costs of immorality and moral compromises, and of the lack of tolerable alternatives to the pursuit of liberal values.
“Never again” thus becomes an affirmation of the very moral universe that for Israelis collapsed at Auschwitz. English-speaking liberals, who remember World War II from the perspective of saviors rather than as victims or perpetrators, tell the story of the Holocaust as the moment when the ancient debate about the need for morality in politics was finally ended.
It is not hard to see how these very different Holocausts – the word itself is an interpretation, a story, and thus inevitably a disservice to the thing it purports to name – necessarily clash. Where the Haredi view accepts and even lends spiritual meaning to the experience of brutality, the Zionists reject the helplessness that enables it. Where the Zionist instinct is to fear reliance on others, the liberal one is to fear intolerance of others.
Humans are never simple. These narratives of the Holocaust do not divide cleanly between the Jews. Israeli generals, whose lives are devoted to upholding the Zionist version of “never again,” regularly urge adherence to its liberal meaning. Most American Jews, who ultimately see in American-style liberalism the surest means of preventing another Holocaust, accept whole-heartedly the Israeli argument for self-reliance. And most Israeli Haredim, while committed to the official Haredi rejection of the heretical Zionist obsession with self-reliance, are decidedly hawkish on questions of Israeli national defense.
Yet each group resolves the tensions between these stories very differently. Israel’s Yad Vashem museum leads visitors through a dark, winding exhibit of the horrors of the Holocaust that ends with a sunlit exit onto the peaceful green hills of a sovereign Jewish Jerusalem. Were it not for that newfound sovereignty, one comes to feel, the dark tunnel would never have ended. Liberalism is a moral virtue, to be sure, but if there is a lesson in the agonies of the 20th century, it is surely that reliance on magnanimous humanitarianism will not stave off annihilation.
In Washington, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum dwells at length on the responsibility of good people during dark times and publishes press releases lamenting the international community’s inaction as hundreds of thousands are butchered in Syria. Just as the American story is a universal one, so the American story of the Holocaust is universalist. The founders and donors to the museum are hardly opponents of Zionism, to be sure, but ultimately believe that the Nazi scourge was ended by the willingness of free nations to sacrifice for the sake of their own and others’ liberties. The Nazi surge across North Africa toward the nascent Jewish community of Palestine was not stopped by the proud Zionists, but by the blood and treasure of Churchill’s Britain. Only the expansion of human liberty, and the commitments of future generations to fight for that liberty, can prevent another Holocaust.
And in the Haredi seminaries of Jerusalem and New York, there is real gratitude for the beneficence of American liberalism and the sacrifices of Israeli warriors, but these are overshadowed by the fear at what might be lost by succumbing to these modern solutions.
In an editorial earlier this week, the Israeli Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman railed against the “typical Israeli ignorance” demonstrated by the Israeli day of remembrance. The 27th of Nissan is “a miserable time for mourning,” it complained. “Of all the months of the year, they hit on the month of Nissan, in which one does not mourn,” as it is a time traditionally associated with Passover’s joyous celebration of redemption.
The editorial drew a firestorm of condemnation from many Israelis, and it isn’t hard to see why. It did not mince words.
“As terrible as it is to say, it must be said again and again: the war of [Zionist] secularism for independence as a solution to the Jewish question is a pretense. It isn’t natural. Even if it sounds ‘diasporic,’ this is the painful truth, and this reality does not have a solution: ‘Israel were created for the exile…but when they do the will of God, God promises [in Leviticus 26], “and I shall break the bars of your yoke.”‘
“The natural state of the Jewish people is exile! Its normal state is within the pressure cooker of hate and harassment. Those who try to outflank [this reality] will crash against the dividing barrier” of anti-Semitic hate.
Persecution is a necessary part of the Jewish condition, the newspaper explains, “because God wants everyone to understand that it is not by our strength, nor by independence that we can stop the hatred. He wants us to grasp that there are no natural solutions to the inexplicable phenomena of anti-Semitism, a new wave of which is even now washing across Europe.”
Rather, “only Providence can save us,” and this salvation, it affirms, “depends on one condition — that the will of God be done.”
The editorial encapsulated the Haredi despair with Zionist self-reliance. Liberalism and secular nationalism are no salvation from genocide. The Jews are stewards of the flame of revelation, of a covenant that grants redemptive significance to Jewish history. To extinguish that flame is a more complete death than mere murder. What, after all, are the stewards without the flame?
The Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, is an Aramaic hymn of effusive praise to God, calling for “His great name to be blessed for all eternity” and insisting that that name should be “praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored, adored and lauded.” It is a strange prayer for a mourner, who is asked to offer such gushing tribute on tear-stained lips to a God who has just robbed him of a loved one.
Asked about this dissonance, the renowned American Orthodox Talmudist and philosopher Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik explained that the prayer is intended not for God, but for the mourner, who utters it precisely at the moment in which he faces the yawning void left behind by the departed. The life of the deceased was itself a “sanctification of God’s name,” Soloveitchik taught. The Kaddish prayer thus enables the grieving relative to affirm the enormity of what was lost, and to take the first halting step toward true commemoration, the kind that fills the gap of blessings and righteousness left by the dead.
In the Jewish tradition, which lacks even a clear articulation of what happens after death, the rituals of grief are not really about the dead, but about repairing the breach they leave behind in the world of the living.
So it is – how could it be otherwise? – with the Jewish response to the Holocaust.
A vast, diverse yet internally coherent Jewish civilization once stretched across dozens of national communities throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. This Jewish world was extinguished in the 20th century. The Jews who survive are hunkered down primarily in two major Jewish societies: the Hebrew-speaking Israelis and the diaspora’s English speakers. These two worlds share the terminology of Jewish identity, but not its meaning. They are profoundly divided by fundamental differences in culture, history, religious expression, language and politics. This civilizational divide, partly straddled by communities of shared religious sensibilities such as the Haredim, constitutes the most basic fact of today’s Jewish world.
Just as the Jewish mourner is tasked with uttering aloud the blessing that is a human life, so it is precisely when these different kinds of Jews face the yawning gap left behind by that vanished world that they express their own sense of what was lost, and thus the meaning of the Jewish story.
In the 21th century, this Jewish story is a fractured one, a series of bitter clashes between radically different views of what it means to be Jewish. But there is a silver lining. As already noted, critics of the Jews often complain that they live too much in the shadow of the Holocaust. What is important about this criticism is what it forgets: that the Jewish world that died in the last century lived under that shadow in a rather more significant way, even if it was not aware of that fact until the very end.
Perhaps some comfort can be gleaned, then, from the simple fact that the Jews’ present-day grappling with this shadow is ultimately an argument between the Jews themselves. As they wrestle to articulate the meaning of Jewish existence, they do so against and among each other, and are not forced to forge their story, as the last, extinguished Jewish civilization was forced to do, in the narrow confines allowed them by their tormentors.
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