As we commemorate the most pivotal event in the history of the world during the last millennium — the Holocaust and the annihilation of six million Jews — one cannot escape the sense of déjà vu as we witness Jews being shot in synagogues and bullied and physically attacked as they walk the streets of major American and European cities, as well as the daily demarcation and defacing of Jewish stores, cemeteries, and institutions. This “new normal” is familiar, if not identical to, acts during the years of the Holocaust and is reminiscent of how the world stood silently by as Jews were singled out, as has been the case throughout the generations.
Today, almost 75 years after the Holocaust, for most American Jews, remembering and commemorating the Holocaust is a fundamental component of what being Jewish means to them. In a Pew Research Poll “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” in response to the question “What’s Essential to Being Jewish?” the No. 1 “essential” was “remembering the Holocaust.” Seventy-three percent of respondents listed the Holocaust as the primary essential of Jewish identity as opposed to, for example, “Leading an Ethical and Moral Life” (69 percent), “Caring about Israel” (43 percent), and “Observing Jewish law” (19 percent). What makes these research results significant in terms of how American Jews define their Jewish identity in regard to the Holocaust is that America is a tolerant, open, and accepting society for Jews. American Jews are free to practice their faith as they wish and yet they still regard the Holocaust central to their Jewish identity despite the Holocaust occurring on a different continent, many years ago, and not in the country that they live in.
Yet despite this overwhelming admission by American Jews and despite the daily antisemitic events occurring throughout America, more and more voices can be heard stating that it’s time for Jews to get over the Holocaust and suggest that now is the time for Jews to move on and stop making the Holocaust the most pivotal event in Jewish history. These same voices have even suggested that Jews should stop obsessing over the Holocaust.
For many liberal Jewish academicians, mankind has been perpetrating horrible atrocities on other human beings for centuries. They seem genuinely puzzled as to why Holocaust denial is even considered a crime in over a dozen countries. Surely, as far as they are concerned, this is an overreaction. Do we arrest those that believe and express the opinion that the world is flat? Why should denial of a historical event even be considered a crime, something detrimental to society?
Historical events, as earth-shattering and history-ending as they seem at the time, eventually fade from the forefront of public consciousness and become memory. When Holocaust survivors will no longer be around and when there is no more opportunity to let children and educators hear firsthand testimony of the Holocaust, will the Holocaust be just another event studied in world history classes? Will all of the effort that has gone into recording testimonies of the Holocaust be enough to preserve historical memory in terms of the magnitude and uniqueness of the Holocaust?
There are few historical events that have undergone greater scrutiny and preservation. Perhaps we can even acknowledge that we’ve done enough to ensure that the Holocaust can never be forgotten. In a moral world, in a world that differentiates between good and evil, right and wrong, this kind of preservation of historical memory would probably suffice. However, today in the age of globalization, in which everything is viewed through the prism of cultural relativism, facts and evidence are not enough. The enemies of the Jews and of Israel not only claim that the Jews exaggerate and that the Holocaust was made up so as to justify the establishment of the State of Israel, but they take this one step further and falsely claim that Israel itself is implementing a Holocaust on the Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank.
Sadly yet not surprising, many Jews are not immune from the politically correct trivialization of the Holocaust and acceptance of universalism as the intellectual context of interpreting world events. Yet, Jewish identity that ignores, belittles, or moves beyond the systematic attempt to exterminate the Jewish race 75 years ago cannot possibly fathom the significance and importance of the establishment of the State of Israel. The Jewish people made a conscious effort to rebuild out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Those that regard the Holocaust as just another unfortunate event cannot be depended on to understand that for modern Israel, in order to deal with existential threats, Israel must do whatever is necessary to ensure that “never again” will not remain an empty slogan.
Those who depict the Holocaust as just another historical event should be reminded of what the Holocaust was all about. In Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, he describes in detail the core horror of Nazi action in collaboration with locals in Bolechow, Poland, in September 1942:
“The story of Mrs. Grynberg was a horrible episode. The Ukrainians and Germans, who had broken into her house, found her giving birth. The weeping entreaties of bystanders didn’t help and she was taken from her home in a nightshirt and dragged into the square in front of the town hall. There, she was dragged onto a dumpster in the yard of the town hall with a crowd of Ukrainians present, who cracked jokes and jeered and watched the pain of childbirth as she gave birth to a child. The child was immediately torn from her arms along with its umbilical cord and thrown. It was trampled by the crowd and she was stood on her feet as blood poured out of her. She stood that way for a few hours by the wall of the town hall, afterwards she went with all the others to the train station where they loaded her into a carriage in a train to Belzec.”
In every generation, the Jewish people have had to deal with the threat of annihilation. In ancient Egypt, it seemed that the Jews would be gone. In ancient Persia, it looked like Haman would have his way and annihilate the Jewish nation. Yet, all of those so-called great and powerful empires have disappeared, never to return, and against all odds, we, the Jewish nation, are still around, not just surviving, but thriving not only in Israel but throughout the Jewish world.
The enormity of the Holocaust, however, with the majority of European Jewry being systematically murdered, is a singular event that defies comparison in the last millennium. In retrospect, the Holocaust compels Jews to confront their own Jewishness. After such unspeakable events such as the one described above, every Jew must look inside themselves and consider: Hitler tried to exterminate my people and the world stood by in silence. Will I, through apathy and indifference, become a partner to Hitler? Or will my life convey a testimony to the glory of the Jewish people and its resurrection from the ashes? That is the real reason that it’s not the time for Jews to “get over and move beyond” the Holocaust nor to agree to rebrand the Holocaust as just another sad episode in world history.
Ron Jager is a 25-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. Since retiring from active duty in 2005, he has been providing consultancy services to NGOs, implementing psychological trauma treatment programs in Israel. Ron serves as a strategic adviser to the chief foreign envoy of Judea and Samaria. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ronjager.com