Monday, November 19, 2007

Holocaust and Identity

Guy Carmi made an assertion that is possibly true. If it is, it is very disturbing:

The Holocaust is an integral part of our Jewish and Israeli identity.

Think of it: "Holocaust R Us." Maybe he didn't mean it quite that way. He was arguing against a law that would limit freedom of expression by curtailing references to the Holocaust. But it seems that a lot of people really feel that the Holocaust is part of their identity. An annual survey in the United States found consistently that "the Holocaust" ranked first among the things that people said define Jewish identity. This embarrassing result was apparenty avoided in subsequent surveys by dropping that response possibility.

Many people will be sore at me for saying this, but the Holocaust is not part of my identity. It is not what makes me a Jew, a Zionist, an Israeli, an intellectual, a man, a nudnik - me. I don't have a number tatoo. I don't have nightmares about the Holocaust. I think about it. Family members I did not know personally died in the Holocaust. But it is not part of my identity or my Judaism. I don't define Jew as "a person who was a victim of the Holocaust or had relatives who were victims of the Holocaust." Judaism existed before the Holocaust, and I existed only after it. The Holocaust is part of the history of the Jewish people. As I am a Jew, it is part of my collective history. The Holocaust was part of Hitler's identity, not mine. He did it, and he thought it was a good idea, and his name will forever be associated with it. Hitler and Eichmann and the whole gang.

I am a lot of things as far as identity goes: Jew, Zionist, American, socialist, lover of women, of science and literature and of furry animals of all kinds, person with insatiable intellectual curiosity, son of the Middle East, Palestinian.... Yes I am a Palestinian and the son of American-Palestinians and the grandson of Palestinians and great-grandson of Palestinians, from before there was a place called Palestine. Our people were called Palestinians before 1948, not the Arabs. That is part of me. Humus and Barad (ices) and my grandfather's Turkish army uniform and the grusch with a hole and a house with walls a meter thick in Beit Yisrael are all things I know something about, along with a 1935 Ford automobile on blocks and hula hoops and "all the way with L.B.J." Likewise, the calm voice of the radio announcer saying, "This is an emergency. Israel is undergoing a missile attack. Please stay calm and enter your sealed rooms." These are all some part of me. But I am not a Holocaustist.

I am not a Holocaustist, because I don't see any value in dwelling on it and it is not a positive value. The Jews must not become the Holocaust people. Holocaust for Jews is like a disease or an affliction. A person or a people can do great things despite a disease or tragedy, but never because of it. There is no great spiritually uplifting message to be garnered from the Holocaust. It was a terrible event that must not be allowed to occur again. People really can do such things, and no god intervenes to stop them. There are special reasons why Jews are more vulnerable than others to such events, but in principle, human cruelty can apparently be unlimited. Those are the only messages.

To say that the Holocaust is part of Jewish identity or Israeli identity is declaring that we are a people who will have a persecution complex forever and ever. It is to say to everyone and ourselves, "This is who we are and this is what we have to offer: Auschwitz, Maidenek, Bergen Belsen, Treblinka. Naked people lining up and waiting to be gassed. If you choose to join us, then you are buying in to a big piece of misery." The revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto can be part of my Jewish identity and our collective identity perhaps, and Hanah Senesh lives in all our hearts as does Ann Frank, but not the Holocaust.

I am balding, but I was not always balding and I was always me. It is not part of my identity. The Jewish people did not always have the Holocaust history.

Imagine that your child is just growing up, and he or she says, "What are Jews?"

You say, "We are Jews."

Child says, "OK, but what are Jews?"

Would you say "Jews are the people who were victims of the Holocaust?"

What happened to "people of the book?" "Bnei Yisrael?" "Inventors of abstract theism?" "Scions of Abraham." "The people who produced the Bible," the people of Spinoza and Albert Einstein? Of Bar-Kochba and Judah Maccabee? The Holocaust cannot be "part" of an identity. If it gets a hold of a bit of your identity, it has to become all of it, like being the hunchback of Notre Dame -- that's who he was, or like Cyrano with his nose. People who survived the Holocaust can define themselves that way, and sometimes they must. For others to do so is wrong. Those people are a part of us. The Holocaust itself is not.

Poets, philosophers, princes and warriors, scientists and saints, all are to move over and eventually they must move out, because there is no longer room for anything else once the Holocaust moves in. This is the danger facing American Jews, who seem to overwhelmingly mention the Holocaust as the defining Jewish event. It got out of hand, because it is like an intellectual tapeworm or some virulent cancer. There is no half way with the Holocaust. It is not the sort of thing you can keep in a corner. Over three thousand years of magnificent intellectual achievement and astonishing bravery would be thrown away for ashes and bitterness. What normal person would define themselves that way and what normal people would base their national existence on the Holocaust? "I get incinerated, therefore I am?"

The Arabs of Palestine built their identity around the Nakba - their "disaster." Their national events all correspond to mini-disasters in the "Nakba" and their national heros are all people who helped to bring the Nakba upon themselves. There is no Palestinian Arab Albert Einstein and no Palestinian Spinoza, and no Palestinian Jonas Salk. This is a people that must cling to refugee camps and to distorted memories of their Nakba in order to be sure to retain its identity. And as long as they remain obsessed with the Nakba they will never produce any such heros and role models.

We are not a people who created ourselves or recreated ourselves in 1945 because of some crazy Germans led by a crazier Austrian. We are one of the oldest peoples in the world, with a special magic secret that allowed us to survive as a people throughout 2,000 years of history. Whatever that secret is, and whatever we have brought to the world, we must not throw it all away because of those lunatics and their criminal nightmare. If we do, if we make the Holocaust part of our identity, then they will have won.

We must not ever forget the Holocaust, but we must never make it part of our identity as a people or let it take over our identity. There were other holocausts in Jewish history. There was a holocaust following the rebellion of Bar Kochba. A very large proportion of our people were murdered or exiled and sold into slavery, as evidenced by ancient lore and backed by recent archeological findings. There was another holocaust at the time of the Crusades. A large part of European Jewry was apparently killed then as well. These events became part of our history, not part of our identity. The results and events of the Holocaust certainly shape who we are, and how we think about ourselves and even about god, but the Holocaust is not part of my identity. We are, perhaps, the people who survive holocausts, but if we make the holocausts part of our identity, we will not survive them as a people. That is an empty sort of identity, useful for nothing and attractive to no one.

Ami Isseroff

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  • "people of the book" is something some jews seem to think a compliment, but it comes in derision from the moslem world referring to a people who have no living prophet, only a book.
    a cantor my daughter knows in nyc says there are two types of jews; those who know how much the holocaust has f'd them up and those who don't. this statement seems more honest to me than your special pleading. but then, balding *is* a part of my identity.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 19, 2007 at 10:05 PM  

  • "People of the Book" in Islam refers to both Jews and Christians, as fellow religions who respect the Old and New Testaments. However, the JEWS adopted the term for ourselves, to mean people of the Old Testament Talmud etc. and then in the enlightenment and thereafter simply referring to the priority given to education in Jewish culture. In Hebrew "Am Hasefer" - it is automomous from Islam.

    It has another meaning - "The book" - the Bible - was the vehicle for maintaining our national identity.

    Your cantor, if he exists, is confirming what I wrote - indeed Jews has a problem with the Holocaust. But your cantor has no imagination. He thinks that because he has a certain relation to the Holocaust - probably because he is a European Jew - so must everyone else. If your grandparents died in Auschwitz then of course the Holocaust looms large in your life. It is part of your personal identity. It should not be part of national identity. There is a difference.

    But what about Jews of Iraq or Iran or Egypt who were not personally touched by the Holocaust, or Palestinian Jews like my family? How could the Holocaust "f*k them up"??

    Anti-Semites have found a new accusation - "the Jews" (as a group) were warped by the Holocaust. First they make the Holocaust and then they blame the victims. On the other hand, anti-Semites are warped by anti-Semitism and they cannot get away from it. Hitler was more F*ked up by anti-Semtism than any Jew was every f*ked up by the Holocaust. And anti-Semitism, sadly, has not gone away.

    By Blogger News Service, At November 20, 2007 at 2:45 AM  

  • i have no problem with anything in this response. i thoughtlessly confounded the distinction between personal and national identity.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 20, 2007 at 3:55 PM  

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