How not to remember the Holocaust

International Holocaust Remembrance day was observed this week. I suppose it is a good idea to have such a day, if simply to counteract the increasing popularity of Holocaust denial. But some aspects of it are disturbing.

There is the continuing phenomenon of Americans and Europeans who are moved to tears when they contemplate the horrific murders of the Jews of 75 years ago, while at the same time supporting the true heirs of Nazi ideology, the Palestinian Arabs and the Iranian regime (not to mention the crocodile tears shed by politicians like Barack Obama, a true enemy of the Jewish people, who recently had the chutzpah to call himself a “liberal Jew”).

The Germans, who provide massive funding for NGOs working against Israel’s interests everywhere, might behave better if they could forget about the Holocaust. The preferred outlet for their feelings of shame seems to be to try to get people to believe that Israel is worse than their grandfathers who served in the SS.

There are also those who see in the Holocaust a “lesson” that “Jews should not behave like Nazis” and criticize the arrest of terror sympathizer and provocateur Ahed Tamimi as Nazi-like behavior. Some have even compared her to Jewish heroes who were murdered by the Nazis.

This past Shabbat I listened to an Israeli rabbi say in front of his congregation that the arrest and deportation of illegal migrants from Israel is similar to the way the Gestapo rounded up Jews for deportation to extermination camps. “Of course, I am not making a comparison…” he said. But of course he did make the comparison.

We shouldn’t need to denounce this vile inversion of history. It’s odious to compare the besieged Jewish state’s response to the endeavor to destroy her with the almost-successful attempt by the Germans to exterminate the Jews of Europe. It is so wrong, so backwards, that our trying to survive as a people should be compared to that. But apparently, this isn’t obvious to many people, even Jews. Even rabbis.

Then there is the universalization of the Holocaust. I once attended a memorial service in which 11 candles were lit for the “11 million victims of the Holocaust.” I believe the 11 million number came out of thin air, but it is supposed to represent the Jews plus Roma, homosexuals, disabled and mentally ill people, and so forth that were murdered by the Nazis.

But why stop there? The Nazis murdered 100,000 Polish intellectuals, doctors, teachers, officers, members of the upper classes and so forth in order to destroy Polish culture so they could Germanize the parts of Poland that they intended to annex to the Reich. They, too, should be added. And what about the roughly 24 million Soviet citizens (civilians and military) who died in the war? Hitler was responsible for killing them, too.

The uniqueness of the Holocaust is that the Jews were targeted for extermination for their genetic content. The Nazis saw the Jewish people as a species, like the polio virus, and wanted to eradicate us. Their goal was that there would be no more Jews in the world, ever. The thoroughness with which they approached this task was remarkable. Nobody else got that treatment. Not the Poles and not the Roma (among whom the Nazis pardoned individuals of “pure blood” or who “didn’t act like Gypsies” or who had honorable war records). No such exceptions were made for Jews.

I am ambivalent, therefore, about the utility of an international day to remember the Holocaust. But especially for Jews there are clear lessons that can be drawn from history (and one of them is not that Israelis are in danger of becoming Nazis):

The most important lesson is about self-reliance: the world community, even those parts of it that understood what the Nazis were doing and the degree of evil involved, was unwilling to take even small steps – absorbing Jewish refugees fleeing Europe, bombing the tracks to the death camps, allowing Jews to enter the British Mandate of Palestine – that would have made a great difference in the outcome for the Jews of Europe. The Jewish people – and other peoples, like the Kurds today – must understand that their survival depends upon obtaining and deploying the means to protect themselves. They cannot rely on anyone else.

A corollary to that principle is that one needs to have a consciousness of oneself as a member of a people. Don’t think that when they come for you, you can say that you are a “citizen of the world.” Your enemies know what you are, and if you want to defend yourself, you better know too.

Another corollary: know the enemies of your people. They will usually tell you who they are themselves. Understand them and never turn your back on them.

Do not think that the world has progressed morally since 1940. It hasn’t.

Finally, understand  that war is not only fought with guns and bombs. The Nazis prepared the way for the Holocaust far in advance by the use of propaganda. They employed the Big Lie technique to demonize and delegitimize a people, just as the enemies of the Jewish state are doing today. Self-defense starts by fighting back against the lies.

Today it seems that the real lessons of the Holocaust have not been learned, even by Jews, despite all the emotional catharsis that takes place on the various Holocaust memorial days.

That is unfortunate, because the consequence of not learning something easily from history is learning it the hard way from current events.

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