In the 1980s, as the generation of Holocaust survivors began to age, the Jewish world found itself pondering some relevant questions: What would happen after the last of the survivors were gone? Who would then bear witness to the greatest crime in history? And how could we ensure that their legacy did not die with them?
The organized Jewish world did its best to come up with answers. But now in 2023, as Jews around the world prepare to observe Yom Hashoah—the day set aside in the Hebrew calendar to remember the victims and heroes of the Holocaust—a different though related question must be addressed.
With most of the men and women who suffered through the Nazi war to exterminate European Jewry having passed away and even those who were child survivors reaching well into their 80s, the Jewish community faces a different dilemma. The preservation of their testimony and the institutions that have been set up to ensure that the Holocaust is not forgotten is no longer in doubt. What remains tentative is whether the massive effort that has gone into Holocaust commemoration has done much to help combat the efforts of the current generation of antisemites who currently present a formidable threat to Jewish life. The work of those who have labored mightily to guarantee that the 6 million slain by the German Nazis and their collaborators aren’t forgotten is of great value. But not only has this effort failed to address contemporary perils to Jewish life, their success may actually be doing as much to hinder Jewish self-defense as helping it.
In the first years after the Holocaust, the work of memorialization was not at the top of the Jewish world’s “To Do” list. Yet by the 1960s, that began to change.
By this time, the natural reluctance on the part of many survivors to speak about their experiences began to be replaced by a determination to preserve the memory of those who were lost and of the crimes committed against them. The cause of Holocaust commemoration became, along with support for Israel, the twin pillars of Jewish communal life.
The ensuing decades would lead to a surge in the building of Holocaust museums throughout North America, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in addition to smaller ones in cities with significant Jewish populations. Also created were archives of survivor testimonies on film and video. Holocaust education became something of a growth industry, funded in large measure by a Jewish community that regarded the task as a sacred obligation.
This field produced legions of newly minted scholars for universities and colleges eager to offer courses on the subject and enough books to fill their libraries. Even more important, it also created curricula intended for schools that could fulfill the mandates for such courses that were established by many states.
The cause of commemorating the Holocaust succeeded in a way that may well have exceeded even the expectations of many survivors. Yearly ceremonies on both Yom Hashoah and International Holocaust Remembrance Day (established by the United Nations in 2005 and falling on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945) are now staples of not just American life but throughout the West. Politicians of nearly all ideological stripes pay homage to the Six Million. The Holocaust has also been well-represented in films, theater and literature. Many children in the United States and other nations are now given at least some sort of rudimentary lesson about what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945.
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Yet in a twist that is as ironic as it is tragic, the emphasis on Holocaust education has done very little to combat or suppress the ever-present virus of antisemitism. Just as horrifying is that the focus on the Holocaust has to some extent served to distract people from contemporary threats to the Jews.
Part of the failure here is conceptual.
Integral to much of the campaign of memorialization was the worry that focusing solely on the fate of the Jews would not provide a lesson that might help prevent subsequent genocides. In that way, many in the Jewish community became committed to trying to universalize the Holocaust. They wanted Holocaust education to teach everyone to oppose all sorts of prejudice, intolerance and/or violence against minorities.
That was a noble goal but a disservice to both history and to the question of contemporary Jewish security.
Even on its own terms, this form of Holocaust commemoration has been a dismal failure. No amount of invocation of the Nazis’ crimes has served to mobilize the world against new genocides, which went on in places like Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan or today in Western China, amid the indifference of the West.
This was a misunderstanding of the nature of the antisemitism that produced the Holocaust.
Contrary to the universalizers, who feared that the Shoah would be marooned in history if it was not enlisted in the laudable cause of making everyone nicer to each other, Jew-hatred is not an ordinary form of prejudice. It is, as the Holocaust and the current campaign against Israel illustrate, a way of organizing intolerance for a political cause. Stripped of this context, Holocaust education becomes just one more anodyne call for civility. As such it not only fails to counter garden-variety bias but actually winds up ignoring actual antisemitism when it appears in the guise of appeals on behalf of “human rights” that deny Jewish rights and the right of Jews to defend themselves.
The popularization of Holocaust education became so embedded in Western culture that it morphed into more of a metaphor about something awful than a specific crime whose purpose was to rid the world of the Jews. The “anyone I don’t like is Hitler” rule even applied to many liberal Jews, who were quick to label American political opponents like former President Donald Trump as the moral equivalent of the Nazis. Some on the right are also willing to play the same game, comparing anything they don’t like to the Holocaust. Such analogies are always wrong even though few on either side of the political aisle are willing to condemn them when they are spread by their allies.
Even many of those who were contributing to the demonization of Israel and using the tropes of traditional antisemitic discourse to do so thought that they, too, were entitled to speak reverently about the Holocaust. Nothing illustrates the absurdity of this trend more than the devotion of a United Nations that is a cesspool of antisemitism to Holocaust memorialization. That Jew-haters like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) have no shame talking about the need to remember the Shoah is shocking but nevertheless tolerated, even by many Jews who ought to know better. As writer Dara Horn memorably articulated it in the title of her book, People Love Dead Jews. It’s the living ones, especially those who are willing to defend themselves and the sole Jewish state on the planet, who are not so popular.
The attention on Holocaust memorialization also often failed to acknowledge the way Israel and its supporters had become the stand-in for traditional antisemitic scapegoats. Indeed, the resistance, even among some Jews on the left, to the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism centered on its acknowledgement of the way that falsely smearing Israel, especially by accusing it of Nazi-like crimes, had become one of the principal expressions of Jew-hatred in our era.
Those who labored to create and fund all the museums, archives and ceremonies deserve our gratitude. They are important in and of themselves. But it turns out they don’t do much to answer contemporary threats, even when it concerns issues like Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons to create a new Shoah.
The way many Jews view the Holocaust as the sum total of the Jewish experience in a way that ignores or downplays the richness, beauty and joy of our heritage, has had the unintended consequence of undermining communal life. This has also had the effect of legitimizing those who think that remembering the Shoah should have nothing to do with the fight to preserve today’s Jews.
This Yom Hashoah as we honor the victims, we need to remember that the only proper memorial to the Six Million is a thriving Jewish state that was created too late to save them. Now that we’ve ensured that the past is not forgotten, it’s time for Jews to concentrate their efforts on defending live Jews with as much fervor and dedication as was demonstrated on behalf of the memory of the Holocaust.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.