The Use and Abuse of the Holocaust

Remembering the Holocaust, spring 1991

The Holocaust is not easy to write about. The planned genocide of the Jewish people is a horror so terrible that words cannot fully describe it. The events can be de­scribed, but not the revulsion and the sorrow that we feel. They lie beyond vo­cabulary. The memory of the six million martyrs has turned the Holocaust into a sacred symbol. Like all sacred symbols, it has enormous power. Like all sacred symbols, its power can be exploited, both for good and not-so-good.

During the past twenty years, the Holo­caust has emerged as the most important event in modern Jewish history. It over­shadows the establishment of the state of Israel as the focal happening of the contem­porary Jewish experience. In the Diaspora, it is the event that Jewish teachers, leaders, and clergy are most likely to invoke when they wish to mobilize a Jewish audience or to influence a Gentile one. Even in Israel, politicians use it to justify state policy and to promote political programs.

The power of the Holocaust symbol can be used for good. It can be used to fight racism and to remind people of the horrors of genocide. It can be used to promote Jewish identity and Jewish survival. It can be used to arouse sympathy for the victims of oppression. It can be used to remind us of the human potential for cruelty and depravity. It can be used, as we Humanis­tic Jews use it, for a philosophic purpose, for the Holocaust is painful evidence that we live in an indifferent and morally ab­surd universe without a loving and just God — without any external moral power to relieve human beings of their full re­sponsibility to make this world a better world.

The dramatic increase in Holocaust conversation, Holocaust studies, and Holo­caust media programs during the past two decades has been a salutary trend, reinforc­ing all the positive purposes for which the Holocaust symbol can be employed. But the Holocaust symbol can be exploited for less than good, even when the intentions of the exploiter are good. And the power of the symbol is so great that it is an attractive icon for people with questionable moral agendas.

Here are some of the abuses I resent: I resent the attempt to win the “contest” of victimization. Some Jews seem to have a need to prove that they are the most abused victims in human history, that no one else has suffered as much as they have. Now, indeed, we Jews may be the worst- abused people in the annals of the human race, and our genocide may be the most terrifying genocide that ever occurred. But this reality serves no good purpose when it justifies our treating other people’s suffer­ing with invidious contempt, negating the significance of their pain because it does not seem to be as deep or as extensive as our own.

When Israeli politicians use the Holo­caust to justify the oppression of the Pales­tinians, the symbol is abused. To assert, as Meir Kahane did, that the suffering of the Jewish people frees them from the moral constraints imposed upon others is the same invalid argument that some radical black leaders in the United States invoked to justify black violence. Pain, no matter how intense, cannot justify inflicting pain upon others. Jewish suffering cannot take away the significance of Palestinian suffer­ing.

The proposed Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., offends me. To erect a monument to the evil of genocide that commemorates only the genocide of Jews is a cruel and ungenerous response to the tragedies that are part of the history of other American minorities. Should an American monument in the center of the American capital acknowledge only the suffering of the Jews because the Holocaust was more terrible than the massacres of Armenians, Afro-Americans, and North American Indians?

I resent the substitution of Holocaust history for Jewish history. So much em­phasis is now placed on acquainting both Jews and Gentiles with Jewish suffering that too little precious time is devoted to announcing Jewish success and Jewish achievement. To present the Jews as essen­tially the eternal victim is a dangerous educational approach. It cultivates pity and self-pity more than it encourages es­teem and self-esteem.

The sudden blossoming of Holocaust museums all over the country disturbs me. In my city, Detroit, there is a Holocaust museum, but there is no general Jewish museum. Jews and Gentiles have the opportunity to experience the horrors of the Hitler era, but they have no opportunity to experience the breadth and power of the rest of Jewish history. In community after community, this same situation is repeated. It seems to me that if a Jewish community can afford only one museum, that museum should be devoted to all of Jewish culture. A Jewish museum with a room dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust makes more sense than a Holocaust museum that makes Auschwitz the symbol of Jewish identity.

Our use of the Holocaust symbol needs ethical guidelines. The symbol must respect the evil of all genocidal oppression and must rescue Jews from playing the role of the “chosen people” of suffering. It must take its rightful place in the story of the Jewish people. It cannot become a substitute for Jewish history and the prime focus of Jewish identity.

The Holocaust symbol, at its ethical best, is a cry against racial arrogance. It would be sadly ironic if it came to be used to sustain a new and different arrogance.