Tzaddik or weasel?

I always sensed something basically greasy about the profession of Holocaust survivor. But if other people wanted to treat Elie Wiesel as a saint, it didn’t seem like my business to disillusion them. But he’s torn it with his obnoxiously illogical statement about Jerusalem.

Many years ago, friends took me to see a talk by Elie Wiesel. I’d never heard of him or read any of his writings, but I gathered that he was regarded as a sort of tzaddik: a saint, a holy man.

Now I’ve always had a non-standard attitude toward the Holocaust. When everyone else insists it’s important to remember, I’m much more inclined to try to forget. It seems to me that rehearsing that disaster tends to make Jews feel self-righteous and suspicious of non-Jews, and to make non-Jews feel guilty toward Jews. And while one consequence of a feeling of guilt may be a desire to make amends, that’s not the only possible consequence. As Hobbes says (Leviathan, Ch. 9):

To have done more hurt to a man than he can or is willing to expiate inclineth the doer to hate the sufferer. For he must expect revenge or forgiveness; both which are hateful.

And of course that is especially true when the “guilt” is merely hereditary and notional. Very few living non-Jews bear even passive responsibility for what happened to Europe’s Jews, and it seems to me bad manners – to call it by no harsher name – to continue to shove ancestral guilt in their faces.

That view did not predispose me favorably toward someone who had made Holocaust survivorship into a profession. Therefore I somewhat mistrusted the almost visceral sense of loathing Wiesel’s performance made me feel. I can’t remember any details, but the man absolutely creeped me out. Obviously very smart and polished, he seemed to exude the same odor of fake sanctity that you can smell on some of the slimier televangelists.

That experience didn’t make me want to read or hear any more from Mr. Wiesel, but everyone else still seemed to regard him as a tzaddik, and I’m not very eager to smash other people’s idols. Since I had no call to comment, I’ve mostly kept my silence; I thought of him as “Elie the Weasel,” but didn’t say anything about it. After all, the man has tried to generalize the lesson of the Holocaust into intolerance for all genocide, as when he confronted Bill Clinton on Bosnia.

But just this morning the same friend who invited me to see Wiesel speak decades ago sent me an exchange of letters about Jerusalem printed in various newspapers last week.

The first letter, by Wiesel, is in the worst sort of Jewish-fundamentalist style, inventing facts and citing the Bible in lieu of arguments. (Has Wiesel ever written on the irony that the Biblical story of the conquest of Canaan is a story of what we would now call “ethnic cleansing”? Even if you take the Biblical account literally, what it says is that Jerusalem is ours because we stole it fair and square from the Jebusites [cf. 2 Sam. 5].)

The second letter engages in rational discourse, pointing out for example that the Zion of Jewish prayer constitutes about 1% of the area of municipal “Jerusalem” – which has had its borders so extended as to be larger than Paris – and reverting to the Bible only for the verse “Zion shall be redeemed with justice.”

Judge for yourself; I’ve pasted in both letters below the fold. But from now on I’m saying “Elie the Weasel” out loud.


by Elie Wiesel

As published in The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal on April 16, 2010 and in The New York Times on April 18, 2010:

It was inevitable: Jerusalem once again is at the center of political debates and international storms. New and old tensions surface at a disturbing pace. Seventeen times destroyed and seventeen times rebuilt, it is still in the middle of diplomatic confrontations that could lead to armed conflict. Neither Athens nor Rome has aroused that many passions.

For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture—and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, it IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and its joy are part of our collective memory.

Since King David took Jerusalem as his capital, Jews have dwelled inside its walls with only two interruptions; when Roman invaders forbade them access to the city and again, when under Jordanian occupation, Jews, regardless of nationality, were refused entry into the old Jewish quarter to meditate and pray at the Wall, the last vestige of Solomon’s temple. It is important to remember: had Jordan not joined Egypt and Syria in the war against Israel, the old city of Jerusalem would still be Arab. Clearly, while Jews were ready to die for Jerusalem they would not kill for Jerusalem.

Today, for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.

What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps which will allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?

Jerusalem must remain the world’s Jewish spiritual capital, not a symbol of anguish and bitterness, but a symbol of trust and hope. As the Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav said, “Everything in this world has a heart; the heart itself has its own heart.”

Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul.

— Elie Wiesel

(co-signed by 42 fellow Nobelists)


[April 23, 2010 ]

Dear Mr. Wiesel,

We write to you from Jerusalem to convey our frustration, even outrage, at your recently published letter on Jerusalem. We are Jewish Jerusalemites – residents by choice of a battered city, a city used and abused, ransacked time and again first by foreign conquerors and now by its own politicians. We cannot recognize our city in the sentimental abstraction you call by its name.

Our Jerusalem is concrete, its hills covered with limestone houses and pine trees; its streets lined with synagogues, mosques and churches. Your Jerusalem is an ideal, an object of prayers and a bearer of the collective memory of a people whose members actually bear many individual memories. Our Jerusalem is populated with people, young and old, women and men, who wish their city to be a symbol of dignity – not of hubris, inequality and discrimination. You speak of the celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one.

For more than a generation now the earthly city we call home has been crumbling under the weight of its own idealization. Your letter troubles us, not simply because it is replete with factual errors and false representations, but because it upholds an attachment to some other-worldly city which purports to supersede the interests of those who live in the this-worldly one. For every Jew, you say, a visit to Jerusalem is a homecoming, yet it is our commitment that makes your homecoming possible. We prefer the hardship of realizing citizenship in this city to the convenience of merely yearning for it.

Indeed, your claim that Jerusalem is above politics is doubly outrageous. First, because contemporary Jerusalem was created by a political decision and politics alone keeps it formally unified. The tortuous municipal boundaries of today’s Jerusalem were drawn by Israeli generals and politicians shortly after the 1967 war. Feigning to unify an ancient city, they created an unwieldy behemoth, encircling dozens of Palestinian villages which were never part of Jerusalem. Stretching from the outskirts of Ramallah in the north to the edge of Bethlehem in the south, the Jerusalem the Israeli government foolishly concocted is larger than Paris. Its historical core, the nexus of memories and religious significance often called “the Holy Basin”, comprises a mere one percent of its area. Now they call this artificial fabrication ‘Jerusalem’ in order to obviate any approaching chance for peace.

Second, your attempt to keep Jerusalem above politics means divesting us of a future. For being above politics is being devoid of the power to shape the reality of one’s life. As true Jerusalemites, we cannot stand by and watch our beloved city, parts of which are utterly neglected, being used as a springboard for crafty politicians and sentimental populists who claim Jerusalem is above politics and negotiation. All the while, they franticly “Judaize” Eastern Jerusalem in order to transform its geopolitics beyond recognition.

We invite you to our city to view with your own eyes the catastrophic effects of the frenzy of construction. You will witness that, contrary to some media reports, Arabs are not allowed to build their homes anywhere in Jerusalem. You discover see the gross inequality in allocation of municipal resources and services between east and west. We will take you to Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families are being evicted from their homes to make room for a new Jewish neighborhood, and to Silwan, where dozens of houses face demolition because of the Jerusalem Municipality’s refusal to issue building permits to Palestinians.
We, the people of Jerusalem, can no longer be sacrificed for the fantasies of those who love our city from afar. This-worldly Jerusalem must be shared by the people of the two nations residing in it. Only a shared city will live up to the prophet’s vision: “Zion shall be redeemed with justice”. As we chant weekly in our vigils in Sheikh Jarrah: “Nothing can be holy in an occupied city!”

Just Jerusalem (Sheikh Jarrah) Activists

1. Ada Bilu 2. Alon Harel 3. Amiel Vardi 4. Amit Lavi 5. Amit Miller 6. Amos Goldberg 7. Ariela Brin 8. Assaf Sharon 9. Avichay Sharon 10. Avishai Margalit 11. Avital Abudi 12. Avital Sharon 13. Avner Inbar 14. Avrum Burg 15. Barbara Spectre 16. Bernard Avishai 17. Daniella Gordon 18. Dani Schrire 19. Daniel Argo 20. Danny Felsteiner 21. Daphna Stroumsa 22. David Shulman 23. Diana Steigler 24. Dolev Rahat 25. Dorit Gat 26. Dorit Argo 27. Edna Ulman-Margalit 28. Eitan Buchvall 29. Eli Sharon 30. Freddie Rokem 31. Galit Hasan-Rokem 32. Gideon Freudenthal 33. Gil Gutglick 34. Guga Kogan 35. Guy Feldman 36. Hagit Benbaji 37. Hagit Keysar 38. Haya Ofek 39. Hillel Ben Sasson 40. Ishay Rosen-Zvi 41. Itamar Shappira 42. Jonathan Yaari 43. Judy Labensohn 44. Judy Labensohn 45. Julia Alfandari 46. Levi Spectre 47. Liran Razinsky 48. Maya Wind 49. Mical Raz 50. Michael Ritov 51. Miriam Farhi-Rodrig 52. Mirit Barashi 53. Mirit Barashi 54. Moshe Halbertal 55. Naama Baumgarten-Sharon 56. Naama Hochstein 57. Nadav Sharon 58. Neria Biala 59. Nili Sharon 60. Noa Lamm-Shalem 61. Oded Erez 62. Oded Na’aman 63. Ofer Neiman 64. Omri Metzer 65. Paul Mendes-Flohr 66. Peter Lehahn 67. Phil Spectre 68. Ra’anan Alexandrowicz 69. Ram Rahat 70. Ray Schrire 71. Reuven Kaminer 72. Roee Metzer 73. Ronen Mandelkern 74. Roni Hammerman 75. Sahar Vardi 76. Sara Benninga 77. Sharon Casper 78. Shir Aloni Yaari 79. Shir Sternberg 80. Shlomi Segall 81. Silan Dallal 82. Silvia Piterman 83. Tal Shapira 84. Tamar Lehahn 85. Tamar Rappaport 86. Uri Bitan 87. Yafa Tarlowski 88. Yaron Gal 89. Yaron Wolf 90. Yehuda Agus 91. Yonatan Haimovich 92. Yoram Gordon 93. Yotam Wolfe 94. Yuval Drier Shilo 95. Zehava Galon 96. Zeev Sternhell 97. Zvi Benninga 98. Zvi Mazeh 99. Zvi Schuldiner

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

23 thoughts on “Tzaddik or weasel?”

  1. Mark, I don't know you or your familial situation, but I can say that as somebody with numerous immediate and (close) extended family members with numbers tattooed on their arms, who still are pained at talking about the situation, your inclination to try to forget the Holocaust is fairly offensive.

    Recall – there are two reasons that Jews want to "Remember – Never Forget" – there is the external type you discuss (i.e. getting non-Jews to make reparations), and then there is a more sincere, internal, type. The former, an external version, can be debated. I agree that it is a dicey situation, and I often share your sentiment of an uneasy feeling when people play the "Holocaust card." The second type of "Remembering" is internal, and is to honor and pay tribute to those who did suffer and survive, and who came out of Europe and retained their faith and rebuilt their lives and built families with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. We all, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc., say on Passover night, "in every generation there are those who try to destroy us . . . and the Lord saves us from their hand." Well, as Jews, it is part of what we do to understand this, and to thank God for this, and this is part of the remembrance of the Holocaust – despite the horrors of what happened, as clearly evidenced by those still among us who have constant nightmares about the Gestapo and Mengele, it is us who are here, and it is our survivors who are only now reaching the ends of their lives on their own terms, surrounded by families and good memories, while those who tried to destroy us were destroyed long, long ago. I can't imagine it is this type of "Remembering" that you have issues with.

  2. The 'odor of false sanctity" captures it perfectly. Quite aside from Wiesel's loftily agnostic positions on real issues of nuclear war, I remember being at a ceremony where someone read from Wiesel's hagaddah commentary something about how violence was completely alien to the Jewish tradition. My dad, who had had a religious education, cracked up and recited "Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands!"

  3. It's a pity to hear that about Wiesel, although I've known for a long time that he had a blind-spot the size of the Temple Mount when it came to anything regarding Israel. That line of his, about how "Jerusalem is above politics", particularly made me laugh – the reason he's even posting an ad on it is precisely because of politics.*

    * Or it's one of two major reasons. The other one being that he and his foundation are broke, having lost almost all their money to Bernie Madoff's scam, and they need to drum up attention and draw potential donors.

  4. Someone on commented not long ago that Weisel's innovation was that he had "weaponized the Holocaust." I wouldn't put the blame entirely, or even mostly, on his shoulders, but it's very clear that that is indeed what has been done. The Holocaust is used as a weapon, a bludgeon to silence anyone who dares speak out against Israel's sordid land grabs.

  5. Wiesel seems to be taking a Deuteronomic view that Jerusalem is special, as opposed to the earlier tradition which did not make Judea any more special than the other tribal areas.

    I agree with MJP that the Twentieth Century extermination of European Jews should not be dismissed. It's a reminder that Christian Europe was always a brutal place – at least towards nonconformists. With that in mind, re Mark's:

    "It seems to me that rehearsing that disaster tends to make Jews feel self-righteous and suspicious of non-Jews, and to make non-Jews feel guilty toward Jews."

    I'd put it this way:

    "It seems to me that rehearsing that disaster tends to make Jews feel self-righteous and suspicious of Christians, and to make Christians feel guilty toward Jews."

    Which I think is totally legitimate and still something to keep in mind. (Also, what does Mark think about the move to make Pius XII a saint?)

  6. @MJP:

    We all have different family situations. My father was a survivor of several Nazi camps. He wanted to forget everything that had happened before Harry Truman invited him to America. (Well, that's how he saw it.) I don't remember him speaking of earlier life more than twice. Primo Levi once divided survivors into two kinds: those who never wanted to remember, and those who never wanted to stop witnessing. My father was of the first type; your family members seemed to be of the second.

    I'll go my father's way, and live for the future. "Never forget" is reminiscent, to me, of the Balkans, or Ireland, or the South. "Never forget": irredentism, revanchism, tribalism. As far as memory goes, Milgrom-Roberts should suffice. We all have the potential to be Nazis regardless of our past sufferings, and that is enough never to forget.

  7. Joe, your point is well taken. We are, however, comparing apples to oranges. You father has every right to refuse to discuss, and to try to forget, his ordeal, and I respect that. However, regardless of the feelings of individual survivors, I believe that the next generation(s) has no right to unilaterally decide to forget what happened. To do so would be to disgrace the memories of those who perished, as well as of those who survived. I choose to remember not because my relatives want me to; in fact, they rarely speak of it. Rather, I remember to honor those who died and to pay tribute to the sacrifice made by my relatives who persevered through times I can't begin to imagine and still deal with it daily when they see their tattooed skin. You are welcome to disagree, but I strongly believe that this type of internal remembrance is essential.

  8. I thought a big part of the point of Holocaust remembrance was prevention of more genocide. I hardly think we humans are at a place where we can start talking about putting all that "behind us." I have a friend who is Latina who used the think American Jews talked too much about the Holocaust, but I've never agreed. I think other groups don't talk enough about their painful histories, which is one reason Americans are so unbelievably ahistorical. Gee, I wonder why so many "Salvadorians" (yes, someone on primetime *actually* called them that….!@!!!) live here now? People here have no clue, and don't get me started on Arizona. (Btw, !no one! on the telly seems to remember **why** all those undocs started going through AZ in the first place!!!!! Oh. My. God. Are you kidding me????)

    Talking about painful things that happened to you is, at least in the beginning (and probably later too if you're sensitve) rather more of a sacrifice that you make for the benefit of others. The normal human pattern is to not want to talk about pain, and that's what allows the same crimes to be committed, over and over again. Weren't we just talking about child rape a little while ago? Well how do you think the lid got blown off that? Do you think it was easy for the first few people who talked about it?

  9. Mark, I understand that you disagree with Wiesel about the issue of Jerusalem. But your response strikes me as unduly harsh. After all, Wiesel's letter could have been much, much worse. Imagine, for example, if he had

    – Completely ignored the issues at hand, focusing instead on remarkably nasty, personal ad hominem attacks;

    – Gratuitously introduced the Holocaust into the discussion, where it clearly did not belong, for the sole purpose of impugning the character of someone he disagreed with;

    – Heaped scorn on another's deeply and sincerely held religious faith; or

    – Stooped to childishly making fun of someone's name.

    Now, what an outrage *that* would have been!

    Granted, Wiesel doesn't quite measure up to your standards of civil, intellectually rigorous debate. Still, I somehow find it difficult to fault him for that.

  10. I agree with NCG's comment above — our heritage is quite a violent one. I've never really understood the reason we try to spare one another the truth — you know, movie ratings, etc. Let people deal. As far as I'm concerned, much truth is very hidden. One must dig for it and be willing to ask uncomfortable questions. The word anti-semite, for instance, supposedly has come to mean anti-Jewish, but Arabs are semitic as well. People should not conform to political correctness without having an open understanding of what is continually buried under the carpet. I believe patriotism should first of all be towards humans, not some imposed value system needing constant propping up with falsehoods.

  11. Another view on Holocaust remembrance (from a non-Jew): as previous commenters have shown, the real question is, why remember this? What is the goal? For individuals who suffered because of it the goal may be personal healing; or they may use forgetting. For later generations, who never knew anyone involved (and we are getting to that point) it could be a cautionary tale, and an inspiration to fight similar evils today. (Though they are usually only similar, and not equivalent: most episodes of ethnic cleansing continue to involve forced relocation, with death as a byproduct, rather than mass murder as a method).

    However, remembrance can also turn toxic: examples from the Balkans and Northern Ireland come to mind as long-lived cases, and the recent Confederate History month shows the same thing at work in the USA.

    I'll suggest that the intersection of Holocaust remembrance and Zionism can lead in such a direction, by suggesting that Jews are uniquely threatened, and can be made safe only through the existence of Israel: in which case the remembrance has extended from what the Nazis did, to the idea that anyone anywhere might. My sense is that the actual survivors were clear that the Holocaust was something done by Germans, and reacted accordingly, say by refusing to speak German ever again. Broadening this lesson to apply elsewhere leads to the every-enemy-is-Hitler view that has backfired so often.

    To end on a lighter note, from Mark Twain (in, I believe, Pudd'nhead Wilson):

    "We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it–and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again–and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore."

  12. MJP says "I believe that the next generation(s) has no right to unilaterally decide to forget what happened."

    WTF? Speaking of "rights," who appointed you to make that decision? If you want future generations to remember something, you have a duty to help make it memorable. By some means other than issuing normative declarations.

  13. DCA, it's funny that your animus towards Israel drives you to forgive specific ethnic prejudice against Germans, but not more general caution about the threat to the weak and stateless from the powerful and ruthless. In fact, there's nothing "toxic" about observing that statelessness can lead to danger–it's precisely what the more sane advocates of a Palestinian state invoke. (The Palestinians themselves, on the other hand, have historically been largely indifferent to this concern, considering themselves part of larger, state-endowed groups–the Arab nation, the Ummah. That's why they've rejected repeated offers of statehood, preferring instead to act as soldiers seeking to reconquer Israel from the Jews on behalf of their larger polity.)

    Anti-Zionism (in the West, at least) is usually more of a manifestation of dogmatic political leftism, anti-Americanism, "third worldism", and the like, than of anti-Semitism. But to focus–in this day and age, when Middle Eastern anti-Zionism routinely goes hand in hand with Holocaust denial, or even Holocaust celebration–on the supposed moral failings that the Holocaust induced in, of all people, the descendants of *its Jewish victims*, is to cross that red line in an exceedingly ugly manner.

  14. It's pretty clear that Dan Simon and MJP are not familiar with Peter Novick's "The Holocaust in American Life," a fairly scholarly analysis of American cultural attitudes about the genocide of Jews in Europe, after WWII and then particularly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

    Mark K. is being a little hyperbolic, but I can tell you as a Jew who is also president of the synagogue which my family attends, there is an overkill in the way the Holocaust is discussed and sacralized. The point should really be that there is no hierarchy about who can and cannot speak about the Holocaust, whether it should be central to our understanding of what makes us Jewish, etc.

    My uncle, who is a Holocaust survivor, strongly disagrees with Weisel's "the Holocaust is unique" argument. He was originally in the forget about it camp, then changed in the 1980s when his parents, also survivors, started losing their memory. But I should not have to use my Uncle's experience to be able to speak about the topic. Such a position reminds me of those who say, "You've never been to Israel? Then how can you comment on Israel at all!" To which I respond for myself or others, "Then I guess you have no business talking about modern Iran–or Zimbabwe–or discussing the old Soviet Union. Of course, Paul Robeson went to the Soviet Union 20 some odd times. Funny, he missed the gulags. When you go to Israel, how many Palestinian checkpoints have you gone through dressed in Bedouin clothing?" My turn for some hyperbole, I guess…

  15. I think we can read MJP a bit more charitably.

    You could read MJP as saying that S/HE has no right to cut HER/HIS family away from THEIR past. I understand this. It is private; a very different thing than the Holocaust industry, and its occasional slide into the worst kinds of victimology.

    The worst thing about the Holocaust industry is that it has deprived American Jews of all other sources of identity, apart from Israel.

  16. Thanks, Joe S. Maybe I should read MJP more charitably. But charity begins at home, and I think MJP needed to be more charitable as to why Mark reacted to Weisel's statement as he did…

    At our synagogue, we are teaching our religious school children about Talmudic ethics and trying to impart Judaism as a religion of living and looking toward each child's future. They learn about shtetls and the lives of Sephardic Jews in the past two centuries, and they definitely learn about the Holocaust. But we must give more richness and diversity to the overall Jewish experience than a singular horrific series of events that occurred in Europe 60 to 70 years ago.

  17. Mitchel, I completely agree that "there is no hierarchy about who can and cannot speak about the Holocaust, whether it should be central to our understanding of what makes us Jewish, etc." So why should people who have read Peter Novick have any more privilege in this debate than those who haven't?

    I also happen to agree with you completely that the Holocaust wasn't a unique historical event, except in terms of scale. In fact, genocides and atrocities have been stunningly common in the postwar era, "never again" notwithstanding. What I find truly bizarre is the number of people on both sides of the issue for whom the question of the uniqueness of the Holocaust is a kind of proxy for the question of whether Israel can be accused of horrific crimes. If anything, the recognition that mass barbarity is pretty much a routine feature of the global scene should help people recognize the pettiness of the world's extreme focus on, say, the building of apartments in this or that neighborhood of Jerusalem.

  18. Dan, I never said you had no privilege in the debate, I just said it would help move the debate forward if you and MJP had taken a look at a particular scholar on the subject of the way we discuss the Holocaust. You know that, of course, but vanity required your false analogy.

    You are also inverting, FoxNews style, the point that some who promote Holocaust sacralization are using the Holocaust as a sword to deflect criticism of Israel. That occurs, and it is proper to point that out. Those of us who don't want to sacralize the Holocaust and are critical of Israeli policies in the West Bank on the subject of settlements are those who agree that the Holocaust should be a discussion separate from Israel.

    Still, I must say I have heard Jewish teens who have just returned from an Israel trip say, "I am Jewish because of the Holocaust and Israel." To which I slap my head in sadness…:-)

  19. Mitchel, I think that sort of Jewish identity is fast diminishing. These days, active, observant Jews are far more supportive of Israel and Holocaust-conscious than secular, assimilated ones.

    During most of the twentieth century, Zionism, and later the Holocaust, were alternatives to religion for secular diaspora Jews who still identified fairly strongly as "culturally Jewish". Today, however, there are no longer any barriers to complete assimilation (in America, at least), so Jews who wish to shed their religious baggage can–and frequently do–simply reject all things Jewish, including religion, Zionism and Jewish history, retaining only a vague ethnic label of "Jewish ancestry" that means about as much as, say, Polish ancestry. As a result, if you meet a pro-Israel American Jew who considers the Holocaust to be of personal importance, he or she is far more likely than not to be an active, religiously committed member of the Jewish community, rather than simply a flag-waver.

    As for separating the Holocaust from discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I agree completely–and therefore wonder why both you and Mark Kleiman couldn't resist making the connection, where both Elie Wiesel (of all people!) and I scrupulously avoided it.

  20. Wow… spend 12 hours away from the RBC and get torn apart… seems par for the course, though.

    Mitchell – I agree with much of what you say, and thanks for taking the time to debate me – but you seem to have misread my reaction to Mark. I totally agree with Mark's reaction to Elie Wiesel – 100%! So to say that I should read Mark's statement about Wiesel more charitably – perhaps you misread my comments.

    As far as your synagogue point, you are correct. We must give children a rich Jewish experience – but that doesn't require that we don't teach the Holocaust.

    In terms of Novick's work, no, I have not read it, but thank you for pointing it out. I don't, however, see the relevance to my point. Yes, the Holocaust "card" is overplayed, but I have already quite clearly said that I think that is wrong. I don't see how that has anything to do with my assertion that internally, as a Jewish community, we should be remembering this event and paying tribute to those among us who have suffered.

    Some Fool – I'm not sure your post merits a response, but I will do so anyway – what, exactly, would you like to me do on this forum to make sure that the Holocaust is remembered? I would gather that my discussion of the subject and statement of my views qualifies. But, in addition, you have no idea what I do within my family and within my community to help remember the Holocaust. Suffice it to say that I take that duty seriously. But once again, its a duty to remember that is internal (whether that means to oneself, to one's community, or to the entire Jewish people is debatable), not to flaunt it to the world. I would NEVER approach a non-Jew and start discussing the Holocaust in any situation other than a purely academic one. There is no use to that, and, as Mark quite correctly pointed out, possibly detriment. Try making useful comments instead of harping on one line which you have no idea about and launching a profanity-laden response with a mask of righteous indignation.

  21. Dan Simon:

    If someone's "deeply and sincerely held religious faith" boils down to "My tribe gets to dispossess all other tribes because God says so," then yes, I'm prepared to heap scorn on it. As to the substance of Wiesel's argument (if you can call it that) the 100 Jewish inhabitants of the Jerusalem on this planet (as opposed to Wiesel's imaginary Jerusalem-in-Heaven) demolish it quite thoroughly, and I have nothing to add.

  22. Dan, thank you for not escalating my somewhat snarky response–as I read my previous post tonight after work.

    On the substance, I want to say to both Dan and MJP that I am not calling for us to ignore the Holocaust in our synagogues/temples. I just want the Holocaust put into the context of a larger historical narrative, and to increase the focus in our religious schools on the values of Jewish living through Talmudic ethical studies.

    I also believe there is a growing disconnect in temples/synagogues between Jews in their 30s, 40s and 50s and their elders, with the latter being far more often primarily defining themselves as Jews based upon Israel and the Holocaust. The teens I spoke of in my previous post were the exception, rather than the rule, as they are the ones going to Israel for the propaganda trips that Jewish organizations sponsor.

    The statistic that is most disconcerting to me is that 70-80% of people in America who define themselves as Jews do not belong to a synagogue or temple, or even have membership in any Jewish organization. I think part of the reason for that statistic is the disconnect from wanting to define one's Jewishness through a foreign government or a horrific event in Europe 60 years ago. That is not the only reason, but it is, I believe, one of the reasons…

    Finally, I hope that those who read this comment thread will take a look at Novick's book. It is nothing if not thought provoking as to how we have spoken about the Holocaust (even the way we started to use that term) over the past 60 years. The other great book on the subject of being Jewish in America is Dershowitz's "The Vanishing American Jew" which is also from the late 1990s, but is still timely and well argued. And I say this as someone who has long detested Dershowitz's hawkish views on Israel and his unfair attacks on anyone who dares to agree with editorial writers for Haaretz instead of Charles Krauthammer or Daniel Pipes. The book reveals a side to Dershowitz I wish he'd show more, which is a more scholarly and sometimes humble (!) side to his writing. Us trial lawyers have a hard time with that, I know!

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