Ben Carson by Gage Skidmore

Ben Carson, the Shoah, Guns, and Nonviolent Resistance

Ben Carson had quite a run of the mouth last week. (I wrote about a different offensive remark here.) The comment that has the American Jewish community in a tizzy is this one on Thursday:

I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed…

Followed by this one on Friday:

“That’s total foolishness,” Mr. Carson said to ABC, in response to criticism from the Anti-Defamation League about his Holocaust comments. “I’d be happy to discuss that in depth with anybody, but it is well-known that in many places where tyranny has taken over they first disarm the people. There’s a reason they disarm the people. They don’t just do it arbitrarily.”

The response was almost immediate. The ADL weighed in. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum weighed in. Various scholars and historians weighed in. They all pointed out that Carson’s history was wrong (the Nazis had loosened gun control laws that had been strengthened under Weimar), and that his understanding of the Holocaust was offensive. Nazism, racism, and antisemitism killed six million Jews and millions of other people, not gun control. Once again, Carson had proved that being a skilled brain surgeon did not stop one from being an idiot.
One line of rebuttal to Ben Carson’s remarks, however, is itself problematic. Jacob Bacharach, writing in The New Republic, is offended because Carson is reviving the myth that Jews did not resist the Nazis when, in fact, they did.

Eastern Europe, in this narrative, remains vast and undifferentiated. That Jews, cosmopolitan and rural alike, did resist remains unremarked. This serves the American self-image as the singular vanquisher of Hitler’s regime, which was unstoppable and inexorable until our boys made the beachhead at Omaha. But, though it failed and was overwhelmed, there was active resistance in Nazi-conquered Europe throughout the war, and Jews were among the resisters. We do remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but we forget that there was armed resistance throughout the ghettos of Poland and the occupied Soviet Union, more than one hundred instances in all. There were uprisings in the camps, in Treblinka and Sobibor and eventually in Auschwitz. Jews fought among partisan resisters in almost every country in occupied Europe. They formed their own partisan resistance groups, like the Bielski partisans in occupied Poland (now Belarus), often facing both German and Soviet forces.

The problem with Carson is that he is repeating the myth of the sheep led to slaughter, and also that the valiant though minuscule resistance did not and could not vanquish the largest war machine on the planet.
For Bacharach there are only two choices. On the one hand there were those who resisted. On the other hand there were those who were led to the slaughter. It was not their fault as they were facing an overwhelming enemy but, yet, they were led to the slaughter like sheep. This binary understanding is behind the Israeli government’s decision to call Holocaust Memorial Day Yom Hashoah ve-Hagevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Day. The fact of being led like sheep to slaughter was unchallenged. The only redemptive aspect of the Shoah (and the only way it could fit into a Zionist pedagogy) was that there were a handful of Jews who were killed fighting.
This move reiterates the notion that violence is the only option for resistance. One can either die fighting or die like a sheep. This erases the memory of those who engaged in other forms of resistance. Those who contributed to the underground oyneg shabbes project which recorded the lives of the Jews prior to and during the Shoah. Those who continued to practice their religion in the face of the murderous Nazi oppression. Those who challenged God. Those who risked their lives keeping others alive. Those who worked in slave labor factories yet sabotaged the munitions or cars that they were supposed to be building. Those who comforted others who were in the same dire circumstances. All of this is resistance. Nonviolent resistance.
There are those who might object that all the nonviolent resistance was futile—the resisters were killed anyway. Yes they were, as were those who resisted violently. However, those who resisted nonviolently left a legacy of beauty in the face of horror and violence. Those who resisted violently, left a legacy of violence. Those who resisted nonviolently remind us that nonviolence is always an option, that the military option is not always best.
I am in no position to judge those who made decisions under the circumstances of Nazi terror. However, we should never make the mistake of identifying resistance with violent resistance.

One thought on “Ben Carson, the Shoah, Guns, and Nonviolent Resistance

  1. I’d urge you to read my article in the just-published Autumn edition of Jewish Currents magazine about the definition of “resistance” and the understanding that most — not just some — Jews participated in it. I also discuss the political/ideological reasons that resistance has ben erased from popular Jewish history. The entire JC edition is devoted to the Jewish resistance.

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