Culture, Global, Identity, Israel, Religion

Rejecting Holocaust Day: Good for the Jews

Holocaust Day is frequently presented by Holocaustians as a day that should be celebrated universally by world Jewry and preferably the entire world, for the sake of both. But it is neither a Jewish holiday nor a secular ecumenical one, though it is frequently promoted as both. It is a Zionist construct.
Jews will often feel pressure to respect this “holiday,” at least nominally. Holocaustians in particular will attempt to guilt trip at least tokens of public respect from the affiliated Diaspora Jewish community and from gentile political leaders for their High Holiday. But while some Holocaustians are not intentionally acting as the enforcer of the Zionists (though many certainly are), they are still responding to their directives.
Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was looked upon as a secular messiah by many in the secular Jewish community. Consequently, he was able to cross a shul/state division like no other secular Jewish leader in history.
Ben Gurion acted as a one man Sanhedrin, instituting new Jewish “holidays,” including Holocaust Day. He did not do so because of a perceived theological need for such a holiday. In fact, Ben-Gurion could have done much more than he did to mobilize pressure for the rescue of European Jewry. But actively fighting the Holocaust on a broad scale wasn’t a main priority for Ben-Gurion during the war. It became a more public priority after the war ended. This may have not have been particularly helpful to the Jews who were killed, perhaps, but political expediency has its own time line.
Ben-Gurion had no right and no authority to create a new Jewish holiday (beginning at nightfall of course, like all major Jewish holidays, thank you) celebrating the Holocaust, but he certainly had a great sense of timing. He placed his Yom HaShoah eight days (he knew we’d like that number, it’s laden with Jewish symbolism) before the Israeli Independence Day.
“Out of the ashes,” indeed.
Elie Wiesel – The “voice of a generation” is frequently portrayed as a humanist and a universalist. On some level he certainly is. Certainly when on TV, and in eloquent speeches with very important people in attendance. But perhaps it is not quite that simple and liberal with this brilliant, tortured writer from a chassidic background. A closer look at his writings suggests something else; a man very angry at God, with a broken, if not shattered faith, who has little hope that the nations of the world will ever desist in hating Jews. I don’t really believe that the Holocaustian Godol Hador was ever so naïve to think that Holocaust museums or chanting “Never Again” would stop genocide globally anymore than WWI was “The War to End All Wars,” even if he did hope it might mitigate it. I don’t believe that he ever believed the organized cruelty he witnessed at a tender age would have been prevented if only the assailants were once recipients of educational supplements on historical Jewish suffering.
It seems more likely that this man who worked for the Zionists, the right-wing Zionists, is at heart a nationalist, and his museum and focus perhaps are not only dedicated to preventing and ending genocide, but ultimately for the more limited and attainable goals of reminding Jews (more than gentiles) of their vulnerability without the apparatus of a Jewish state, and to teach the gentiles (as well as Jews) that siding with Israel’s enemies is usually a form of anti-Semitism, and should be called out as such.
If so, this is admittedly a brilliant strategy. But this means that although he fashioned this war plan against anitsemitism from excruciating pain, and though he certainly has sympathy for others facing a similar fate to the one he endured, Wiesel does not lead Holocaustism primarily to stop genocide, but to promote Zionism. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, through his attempted intervention in parallel genocides, an involvement that if led by Jews, underscores the continued need and justification for supporting Israel.
But the same battle plan, no matter how brilliantly layered, cannot be employed over and over again without your opponents eventually getting wise to your maneuvers.
Tisha B’Av – As Menachem Begin protested at the time of the creation of Holocaust Day, we already have a day of national Jewish mourning. It is filled with specific, awful events throughout Jewish history, including events this past century, and the start of something much more horrifically inclusive to the real tragedy of both the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto than the celebrated uprising whose starting date was originally chosen for Holocaust Day.
While the technology employed added a horrific dimension to this tragedy in terms of cruelty and horror, there were other very significant and extensive eras of death and destruction for the Jewish people. We just don’t have them on video.
There is no need for another day of mourning. The fact that Tisha B’Av didn’t fall eight days before the creation of the modern State of Israel and can’t be usurped by the Zionists is unfortunate, but Jewish history occasionally has its disappointments.
Still Too Soon – It is never a good idea to set policy according to emotionalism. When it comes to tragedy, it takes time to put it the tragedy in perspective. This is certainly true for a national tragedy as well, and the larger the tragedy, the more time it takes.
Many Jewish people still have trouble setting policy without caving to Holocaustian hysteria when it comes to the Holocaust. If you can realistically attach the word “Holocaust” to any cause or policy, it is all but a blank check for almost anything, especially one also promising the elixer of education. Never enough Holocaust education. Skepticism of any present or planned initiative, no matter how valid the concern or criticism, is still reacted to as if the skeptic is a Holocaust denier.
Like any religion, Holocaustism is axiomatic. But Holocaustism is also addictive. The effects of the current dosage alway wear off, and greater quantities must be ingested. Taking their ultimate goal straight from Samuel Gompers, the motto should not be “Never Again,” but “More, more, more.”
How long will the Jewish community act as an enabler and flip the bill for this costly habit? How long will gentile Americans continue to pretend they accept the idea that Holocaustism is their national responsibility to honor, support, and continually expand?
Museums and public memorials are still being built by Holocaustians with no regard to their incremental value versus their opportunity cost, never mind the ever more dubious choice of locations.
Education programs for gentiles are implemented without considering possible adverse reactions. Ethnic groups that suffered domestic tragedies are pushed aside and under our European tragedy. The scope of our emotionalism is so public and extensive that even movies that add very little new insight continue to be awarded Oscars, because there is no business like the Shoah business.
We are an ancient civilization. We remain a vibrant one in some sectors, but we are risking our identity by insisting on a death camp culture, or a reaction to our death camp culture. Liberal and secular youth with nominal Jewish identities and education are not at risk at forgetting the Holocaust. Such fears are unreasonable, the opposite of the reality. They are at risk of not remembering anything else before the Holocaust. We are implicitly advocating a response of either militancy or victimology, both particular and universal.
The Labor-Zionists by and large weren’t concerned about the potential problems they created through their critical contributions to Holocaustism including Yom HaShoah, in part because they believed it. For them, the Diaspora is a death camp, and Zionism is the only path “out of the ashes.”
But for those of us who do not believe there is only one path or one solution, and do not accept the simplistic view of dystopia assigned to the last two thousand years of Jewish history in its entirety, rejecting Yom HaShoah is critical, both for Diaspora and Israeli Jews.
Our response will take much more time.
Acquiring the necessary distance for a proper perspective is prolonged by the visual documentation so frequently played from this time period. We are still reeling. There are still new Jewish support groups especially tailored for the younger descendants of the survivors.
It is still too early to add a substantial amount of new prayers on Tisha B’Av. The nominal prayers added to Lamentations are a reminder that the Holocaust will be dealt with comprehensively when we are finally able to have perspective.
We must wait at least another couple of generations longer.

19 thoughts on “Rejecting Holocaust Day: Good for the Jews

  1. If you’re suggesting that without Zionism or Israel, there would be no Yom Hashoah, I think you’re dead wrong. Judaism and Jewish ritual is contingent upon tradition and remberance. Hello? We just came out of a rememberance holiday! Pesach anyone?
    Yom Hashoah in some shape or form would have been established. It was just a question of who. The fact that Zionists picked up on it first doesn’t say anything about “Holocaustism” but rather about who thought it was most important to discuss it. Whether their intentions were not altogether the most sincere, that’s debatable, as you posit here.
    Oh, by the way, The Pianist did add something that previous Holocaust movies did not. The book it was based on, unlike many other works like Schindler’s List etc., was written immediately following the war. The story itself shows emotions of the Holocaust almost immediately after it occurred. To simply reject it out of hand is to be a little too dismissive.

  2. Jared, you wrote,
    “To simply reject it out of hand is to be a little too dismissive.”
    Well, I loved the soundtrack, because I love Chopin. I don’t mean that in snide way. It is one of things I found so problematic. That the soundtrack spoke to me so much more than this celebrated movie.
    You wrote,
    “If you’re suggesting that without Zionism or Israel, there would be no Yom Hashoah, I think you’re dead wrong.”
    That may be true, but it wouldn’t have the same intensity, as Holocaustism itself would be different as well.
    It seems to me that Wiesel emerged as leader not only because of his writing, but in part because of his willingness to translate the Holocaust into a mandate for supporting the State of Israel. If this wasn’t an issue, I don’t think Holocaustism would be accepted with the same level of insatiability. Adherance to Holocaustism began spiking after the Six Day War, when American Jewry became galvanized by Israel’s victory and the recapture of Jerusalem, and spiked further in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. These might be important correlations.

  3. One reason that the Holocaust is linked with the State of Israel is the argument that had there been a Jewish homeland at the time such a thing would not have happened. And we should not forget that many of the builders of the stae came from Europe and had first had experience of the war. Whatever its affiliations today, Yom HaShoah comemorates and honors the millions of our fellow Jews who were murdered not to mention the millions of other human lives that were taken for being different. If you don’t like the current message by all means present a new one, but don’t boil it down to a matter of a poilitical guilt trip.

  4. The central Zionist aspect of this Yom ha-Shoa was the decision to place it at the date of the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto, and to simultaneously call it “Yom ha-Shoa ve-ha-Gevurah,” as if the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was emblematic of the Shoah and not anomalous. This violated a halakhic sensibility which resisted placing focuses of mourning in Nisan. I believe that Menachem Begin suggested that the day be moved to Asarah be-Tevet, but of course it is too late to turn it back. This very day, which stretches into a week in the media, is indeed a Zionist reading of the Shoah. The Zionists were right about history, and the proclivities of the Gentiles, but here they chose to rub it in.
    If there was no State of Israel , R”L, the Shoah would be the central event of the 20th century and popular Judaism would be a lachrymose tradition IMHO, as the Armenian church has no positive mandate in their education beyhond teaching their genocide to a dwindlling and distracted younger generation.

  5. Intriguing post, David.
    My own frustrations with Yom HaShoah are twofold: 1) as you say, we already had a communal day of mourning for our tragedies throughout history (so why not add the Shoah to the list of things we remember at Tisha B’Av) and 2) I think the focus on remembering the Shoah, while a valid way of remembering the suffering of our immediate forebears, is tragically limited unless it impels us to act against other acts of genocide in our own time.
    I hadn’t thought of Yom HaShoah as a kind of intensifier of the automatic Zionism many Diaspora Jews enact, but now that you’ve put it that way I think there may be something to that. Regardless of whether it was part of the intent when the holiday was created, I think it’s part of the effect the holiday has had.

  6. Very interesting and well written post David. And in the end, we vote with our feet. NONE of my friends, religious or otherwise (we’re all in our late 20’s and 30’s) attend these events.

  7. Kelsey, quick question: how many members of your family were murdered by the Nazis? Cause my entire family was effected–my grandparents survived more than you could bear–and I’m not ready to give up a day to remember the terrors that modernity wrought.
    Which is why the Holocaust is different than Tisha b’Av and any other memorial day we have: Tisha b’Av is to help us remember what happens when we ourselves cause our own destruction; Yom HaShoa reminds us that even the most “enlightened” and “progressive” of civilizations can turn nasty and horrid and plan mass murder.
    Westerners and post-Enlightenment and post-modern thinkers like to believe that religion is the problem, irrationalism the root of human evil. Holocaust remembrance day reminds us that the evil of human nature finds expression in every age, on any continent. That is a message that we should not ever forget.

  8. Uzi, you said
    “And we should not forget that many of the builders of the state came from Europe and had first had experience of the war.”
    No one is forgetting that, Uzi. Really, there is very little risk of forgetting these things even without Holocaust Day. Again, for secular Jews, the problem is remembering anything else.
    Ariel Beery, you wrote,
    “Kelsey, quick question: how many members of your family were murdered by the Nazis?”
    Ariel, with all due respect, that is an emotional response, and we simply can’t continue to respond this way when discussing the Holocaust or setting policy. Proof again we need to wait before deciding how to commemorate this period religiously.
    “Westerners and post-Enlightenment and post-modern thinkers like to believe that religion is the problem, irrationalism the root of human evil.”
    Maybe when they are 19 and still resent having gone to Sunday School. And we can’t set policy because of a couple of smug academics who chair pride themselves on being more scientific than those ingesting “the opium of the masses.” Who the hell can realistically blame religion on all the 20th century horrors? And let me ask you this – are these people more likely to skip over the horrors of Hitler, or are they more likely to get soft on Mao? And does Holocaust Day address the horrors of Pol Pot?
    “Holocaust remembrance day reminds us that the evil of human nature finds expression in every age, on any continent. That is a message that we should not ever forget.”
    So does Purim, and so does Tisha B’ Av. They both address different potential outcomes of this evil. No Jew who celebrates these two holidays properly, without revisionism, risks forgetting this. We know which one screams “Holocaust,” and it will be absorbed into it at the right time, augmenting the Holiday in a very major and meaningful way.
    The first trains arrived at the death camp on Tisha B’ Av, Ariel. Which event sounds more appropriate to holocaust commemoration, Ariel, — that, or the uprising, so tied into this Zionist holiday? Do we commemorate what happened to six million Jews, or do we celebrate our physical military strength and response during this era which was how this date was selected, and delayed a couple of weeks only because of pesky Passover?
    This choice and focus of those creating Holocaust Day wasn’t just about rejecting passiveness in the face of anti-Semitism. It wasn’t even just about rejecting the Diaspora as well. It was also about rejecting Judaism itself.

  9. Kelsey, with all due respect, I think you have to relearn your holidays. Purim and Tisha b’Av and Holocaust Remembrance Day are not all about the same thing. Purim, if my memory of BZ singing the Megilla serves me correct, is about how one person can make a difference–foiling a plot against the Jews–and then how a community can rise up to defend itself when it is unified against external enemies.
    Tisha b’Av, if my memory of Lamentations serves me correct, is about the destruction of the Temple in the most part due to the fact that the Jews hated each other so much that they couldn’t come together to find a solution to the political problems of their day.
    Holocaust Remembrance Day, different than the two above, should serve to remind us that the Enlightenment and the attendant idea of Cosmopolitanism that seduced so many Jews to stay quiet during Hitler’s rise, is not the Messianic Age.
    Now Kelsey, are you really chiding me for being emotional about a memorial? That’s the whole point of memorial days–to empathize with the violence and tragedy that would have swept us up with it if we were alive then, and, therefore, to remember that the cool rationalism of the world sometimes stands back as millions are cleaved to death (Rwanda) or murdered village by village (Sudan).
    Wait a minute–Kelsey, I seem to remember you being somewhat opposed to the overtly Jewish involvement in the Stop the Genocide in Darfur movement. Am I noticing a pattern here?
    And no, you never answered my question. And yes, it is relevant–if you grew up with stories recounted to you about how your grandmother was pushed through the barbed wire on a speeding death train at the age of 9, and then survived in the woods for months only to later be picked up and held hostage by a Polish farmer who abused her, or of your grandfather surviving and then escaping Treblinka to go into the woods in search of partisans, or of your grandmother in Morocco being forced to leave her house in Marakhesh to find hideout in Casablanca for fear of the Vichy, or…etc.–then, well, then I’d give you more credibility. Me myself, I commemorate all of these experiences: the survival, the struggle, the uprising. As a graduate of Hashomer Hatzair I am especially inspired by the children 11 and 12 years of age in the Warsaw Ghetto, who recognized that a Jewish identity did not have to consist of prayers and waiting for the Messiah–or of enlightenment liberalised rationalism with its attendant hip fads of the day–and that a death with the dignity associate with defending your people is better than one taken passively.
    As to BZ’s point–which is completely different that DKelsey’s, considering that BZ wants to commemorate the day just not on the date chosen–I think you’re a bit too anti-Halakhic-while-rabbinic for your own good. Take a look at the last part of your post:

    May we be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and may all of humanity learn from the lessons of the Shoah.

    Funny thing happened on the way back form the Diaspora–we don’t have to mourn Zion and Jerusalem anymore. We can celebrate them. Because we’re there. And if, chas v’shalom, people decide to do something about the “Israel Lobby” and its control of American Foreign Policy, we’ll have a place to go…without immigration restrictions this time.

  10. Btw, the ironic thing about this thread is that I think the Holocaust is way to overplayed as a core tenant of American Jewish identity. Too many Jews remain Jews because of the Holocaust instead of being drawn to the positive aspects of Jewish identity. But cancel Holocaust remembrance day? That’s just overreacting. More on this on BlogsofZion so as not to overfill your comments.

  11. Ariel, you wrote,
    “Purim, if my memory of BZ singing the Megilla serves me correct, is about how one person can make a difference–foiling a plot against the Jews–and then how a community can rise up to defend itself when it is unified against external enemies.”
    No. The text absolutely refutes that, That was Mordechai’s point to Esther, warning her of personal destruction if she declined to help, but not warning her that the Jewish people’s fate as in her hands. G-d would or would not save the Jews — the only question in Esther’s power was whether or not she would be the instrument to do so.
    You wrote,
    “Tisha b’Av, if my memory of Lamentations serves me correct, is about the destruction of the Temple in the most part due to the fact that the Jews hated each other so much that they couldn’t come together to find a solution to the political problems of their day.”
    That was the second temple. The first was destroyed for all sorts of reasons. The expulsion of Spain something different still, etc, etc. There is no one cause for the sorrow of the Jewish people.
    “Holocaust Remembrance Day, different than the two above, should serve to remind us that the Enlightenment and the attendant idea of Cosmopolitanism that seduced so many Jews to stay quiet during Hitler’s rise, is not the Messianic Age.”
    Frankly, this should have been learned in WWI, which really dashed the general hopes for the Enlightenment in general society.
    “Now Kelsey, are you really chiding me for being emotional about a memorial?”
    No, sorry, I can see how I sounded like that. Please forgive me, that’s not what I meant to say. I mean that we can’t create policy from that place, that’s all, and it’s being done all the time.
    And if you must know, yes, like most Ashkenazim, I have relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust, and no, it was not extensive or direct as in your family’s case.
    But setting policy generally and even nationally in the U.S. should not be left to the most nogayah b’davar.

  12. Kelsey, I understand your qualms with Holocaust Day. A Zionist construction, it all too often is used as a tool to demonize the diaspora as “weak” and unnatural (do I detect an hint of that in Ariel’s response, “A death with the dignity associate with defending your people is better than one taken passively”?). Mark Ellis argues in “Ending Auschwitz” that as Jews, and non-Jews, we have a choice: whether to treat the Holocaust as a unique horror in human history that entitles the Jewish people to systematically abrogate the rights of other peoples; or to truly say “never again”: remember the Holocaust in such a way that we truly struggle to prevent another systematic dehumanization of a people, whether genocide or not: to Rwandans, Sudanese, African-Americans, or Palestinians.
    There is an incredible tradition within Judaism of reappropriation. I argue that instead of “rejecting” Holocaust day, let us invert the meaning given to it by its Zionist originators. This could mean any range of things: organizing a protest on behalf of the rights of Palestinians; leading a discussion on racism in America; calling in your congressman to voice your support for the humans in Darfur who are being systematically murdered, raped, and starved; or remembering the Holocaust itself in a way that is not Zionist.
    I have volunteered to do a reading at my university’s memorial service from “From a Ruined Garden”, by Jonathan Boyarin and Jack Kugelmass. It is a collection of translations of Yizkher Bikhr: memorials book written (mostly in Yiddish) in the late 40s and 50s by survivors and immigrants from Eastern European shtetlach, towns, and cities where the Jewish communities were destroyed. In doing so, I hope to memorialize and celebrate the people and their culture in such a way that honors the lives they built in the Diaspora.
    If we should not mourn during nissan, then let us instead make Yom ha’Shoah a time to vibrantly remember and celebrate what was lost, and to fight so that no people ever again is systematically robbed of its humanity by another.

  13. Great post David.
    Growing up in Israel on a diet of grainy black and white films showing piles of shoes and eyeglasses, it is clear that the six million were drafted to fight Israel’s wars – largely against thier will.
    Largely neglected is the behavior of Zionist organizations in Germany before and during the rise of Nazism. Add to that, of course, the behavior of Jewish fascists (IZL, LEHI) as they made numerous attemps to forge alliances with Musollini and Hitler.
    Also neglected is the lobbying in the US by Zionists against allowing more Jewish refugees to enter the US, and the fight to deprive many DP camp residents from choice, as they were held hostage to Zionist interests.
    All of this is more recent memory, as Israeli papers such as Haaretz do cover this history.
    I’ll be attending a holocaust service btw. It is still possible to commemorate it respectfully.

  14. Now I do have to take issue with Kelsey’s interpretation of Purim. For one, Esther is the one book that fails to mention G-d at all. Plus, Mordechai’s warning says, “If you remain silent, you yourself will suffer.” A side point, easily missed amid the graggers and hamentashen, but I think that in itself is significant.
    We have days set aside for Yizkor, so why not for the Shoah? If we’re expected to mourn every day, it’s too much. If we’re expected never to mourn, we’ll explode.
    And as I see it, the magnitude of the Shoah necessitates a separate day to commemorate it, apart from Tisha B’Av. Placing it in the Omer fits, and putting it right after Pesach, while making it harder to surrender entirely to a sense of deliverance, reminds us that no victory is absolute.
    Yes, there was very likely an intent in the creation of Yom HaShoah to remind us that Eretz Israel is there, to save the Jews from another such cataclysm. I can appreciate this intent; if there had been a homeland in the 30s and 40s, the average Jew might have had better odds at survival. I can also see the short-sightedness of this thinking; as we’ve seen in the modern day, Israel has become a wonderful target for many anti-semites, as well as concrete evidence of an ongoing World Zionist Conspiracy for others.
    But Yom HaShoah is still young enough for us to redefine it. I’m glad to say that this year, among my peers at shul, the focus is on Darfur. Far too many gentiles think of the Shoah as that unthinkable crime that was perpetrated upon “those Jews,” the one that could never happen to anyone else. And precisely because we were the target, we cannot think of it in the same terms. Without an effort to connect our remembrance of the Shoah to current policies of genocide and ethnic or social oppression affecting people throughout the world, we let ourselves be “othered” in the worst way possible: we become “those poor Jews” — the eternal victims.
    We should remember our dead, and we should honor their memory. If all we do is nurse our wounds, we dishonor Jewish culture and Jewish ideals. We cannot stand idle whle our neighbors bleed, and Yom HaShoah is a reminder of that fact in a way that Purim and Tisha B’Av could never be.

  15. Absolutely, Noach.
    Here’s the entry on BlogsofZion where Kelsey and I are continuing the debate.
    We don’t need to collapse all of our memorials into one day. The year is long enough and the world messed up enough that it could do us well to remember every once in a while the different types of evils that exist in this world.

  16. At a reading from his award-winning compilation of Medieval Ashkenazic Jewish customs, “The Book of Customs”, Scott-Martin Kosofsky noted that there had been a day to remember and mourn the murders done by Crusaders passing through the Rhine Valley on their way to the first Crusade. We continue to remember the events, although the commemoration is no longer a part of the Jewish calendar.
    We can quibble about the timing, but it seems entirely consonant with Jewish history to commemorate the Holocaust in our time, and for many generations to come.
    I do not deny that there is an unsavory industry that has grown up around this commemoration, but I think that has to be considered separately. The commemoration matters, no matter who decided on the day or why.

  17. Man I cannot believe so many of you dignified this odious post with serious responses.
    I’m sorry, Mr. Kelsey, that you have allowed Zionists to interfere with your reverence for murdered people.
    But that’s your own issue. It’s no reason to abolish an important holiday, no matter the political affiliation of the individual that decided on what day to observe it.
    You people scare me.

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