According to one respondent to my recent article, Understanding the Holocaust: Shoah in Historical Perspective, Jewry should, “seek the causes (for antisemitism) in our own acts.” Self-blame is not an uncommon response to tragedy. Rape victims are one group that comes immediately to mind. But what motivates such a comment as we Jews, by our own actions, invite antisemitism, are somehow responsible for the Holocaust?
Several years ago a prominent Israeli rabbi attributed the massacre of a bus load of children by terrorists as G-d’s punishment for the “sins of Israelis.” As if G-d targets children, uses terrorists to carry out His will. In the wake of Shoah, seeking to somehow explain the inexplicable, some orthodox Diaspora leaders suggested that Shoah was G-d’s punishment for the sins of our people in Europe. But as in the Israeli bus massacre, most Jews victim to the European slaughter, during and for centuries before Shoah, were mostly the pious and the poor, those least likely to be Halachic “transgressors.” And was the hand of G-d also present in the elimination of Eastern Europe’s famed Hasidic centers, for the murder of orthodox communities dedicated to a life of learning and Halachic tradition? I, for one, prefer not to seek G-d’s intention in such events.
Jews have experienced anti-Judaism during most of our Diaspora existence, and at great cost in life. As I observed in my earlier submission, one prominent Holocaust research center suggests that, had Jewry not been subject to two millennia of European persecution our numbers today would equal that of the entire British Isles!
Since we had never experienced anything on the scale of Shoah, we could not have anticipated, taken evasive or direct action to the emerging danger. Yes there were those few, Jabotinsky and Abba Kovner, for example, who by intuition born of their Zionist background were more sensitive and alert to the unfolding events. But Martin Buber was more typical of general Jewish understanding and response: antisemitism was a pendulum that was now at its extreme. Germany would, he believed, sooner or later pass through that terrible period and life to return to normal for the Jews. As a result Buber urged German Jewry to remain in place, to wait out the storm.
Sixty years later Shoah is part of our Diaspora experience. We cannot now pretend that such a thing as a government organized effort to murder each and every Jew alive, including non-Jews defined “Jewish” due to a single grandparent convert to Christianity (1930’s German legal definition) is impossible, unthinkable. It is an established fact. We ignore at peril to self and our future generations that the Holocaust is the latest, but not last development in a process begun two thousand years ago. As that prehistory and cultural experience served as precedent for state-organized murder (Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremburg referred to Luther’s writings as inspiration and justification), so does the nearly successful Final Solution of the Jewish problem serve the future. The road to Shoah may have been twisted in detail, but the process was continuous and straight.
So Shoah is neither unique in history, nor a mystery beyond human comprehension. It did and, if history serves, will again befall us, for the solution was not yet final. The Holocaust was not an invention of the twentieth century as so many of our historians would have us believe, an event comparable to other such 20th century genocides. It was only the most recent in a long and continuing process. The only real contribution of the twentieth century was technological: those computers IBM provided Hitler, the software IBM developed to identify and locate each and every Jew for arrest and murder; Henry Ford’s assembly line adapted to the problem of mass production and disposal of human corpses.
While each of us, every Jewish adult alive today, may choose not to study the evolution of antisemitism and Shoah, still we cannot avoid awareness of Shoah as a real and recent event. Our responsibility for another such occurrence is not in somehow acting to encourage its recurrence since that is a permanent characteristic of the fabric of western culture, but in choosing to ignore its precedent. Our guilt lies in Denial, a denial expressed in insisting that our particular chosen homeland is “exceptional,” that such a thing cannot happen here. Denial was the response of our German community, with far more justification. Had not Jews settled the Danube one hundred years before the Common Era? Had not a Jew been prime minister in the Weimar Government in the years before the election of Adolph Hitler? Had not a Jew authored the Weimar constitution which was the very foundation of Weimar German democracy? Where else, or since, had our people resided longer, achieved such prominence, contributed to and been more accepted and assimilated?
For we who lived an ocean away from Europe’s death camps antisemitism was little different in popularity and intensity. Nativism, antisemitism and isolationism kept the United States neutral towards German persecution of their Jews, leaning as much to join Hitler in the crusade against the “godless” Soviet Union as to ally with America’s traditional ally England against the German threat. Even the Nazi program of racial hygiene which inspired the Holocaust was modeled after the American “science” of eugenics, America’s effort to create its own white, Nordic master race.
Had Henry Ford or Charles Lindberg, populist antisemites and isolationists decided to accept the Republican Party nomination and opposed Roosevelt for the presidency and won, a real possibility before Pearl Harbor, then it takes little imagination to appreciate the likely outcome for New World Jewry also. Even under the Roosevelt Administration the US built concentration camps to imprison its Japanese-American citizens.
As our German experience proves, antisemitism does not require a religious base. Western society is anti-Jewish by history and tradition. This is a fact we cannot, by our actions, change. The starting point for eliminating antisemitism would be for Christianity in all its forms to delete those anti-Jewish references from its gospels. But that is unlikely to happen since to do so would be to throw into question the divine inspiration of the texts as the true word of God. And where would that leave Christianity?
And where does this leave the Jewish people?