Friday, October 16, 2009

Understanding the Holocaust: Shoah in Context

In response to a recent contribution to this blogspace, Understanding the Holocaust: Shoah in Historical Perspective, one respondent suggested that we Jews, “seek the causes (for anti-Semitism) in our own acts.” My critic was himself a Jew, and living in Israel. Self-blame for tragedies which befall us is not uncommon. Rape victims are one group that come to mind. But what motivates such a suggestion as we Jews, by our own actions, are possibly responsible for bringing down a Holocaust on our own heads?

Are we Jews somehow responsible for antisemitism, for Shoah? That by our behavior we anger God and bring down His wrath is not unknown in history, or in modern day Israel. A terrorist bus bomb which killed dozens of children was attributed by a prominent Israeli rabbi as God’s punishment for our deeds. In the wake of Shoah there were suggestions by some orthodox figures that Shoah was God’s punishment for the sins of Europe’s Jews. Except that most Jews victims to the European slaughter, in the Shoah and the centuries before were mostly poor and pious, those least likely to fall into the category of “transgressors;” that Europe wiped the most prominent Hassidic centers of Eastern Europe seems not to enter the logic of these pious critics.

So, are we responsible? Certainly not our victims of Shoah or, for the most part, our victims of western persecution before Shoah. Yes there were those few, Jabotinski and Abba Kovner, for example, who by instinct and background were more sensitive to the significance of the unfolding events. But not even Martin Buber, a community leader and educator in Germany, appreciated the significance and severity of the approaching storm. He encouraged German Jewry to wait it out.

But today we can no longer fall back on such excuses as ignorance of Shoah as possible since it is historical fact. Neither can we ignore the obvious connection between the Holocaust, and two thousand years of persecution precedent, and process in the long road to Shoah, because today we have the benefit of hindsight: Shoah is a fact; Shoah is precedent and blueprint for the future. We can no longer ignore the fact that those two millennia of persecution which preceded 1933 provide the historical foundation upon which1933 and a final solution to the West’s Jewish Problem were built.

The contribution of the twentieth century to the West’s nearly successful solution to its twenty century-long Jewish problem was IBM’s computers and software the company created for Germany to locate each and every Jew for death, and Henry Ford’s assembly line applied to the problem of mass production and disposal of human corpses.

While each of us, every Jewish adult alive today, may not give thought to the mechanics of Shoah, still we are each aware of Shoah as a recent event. Our responsibility for another such occurrence is not in encouraging its recurrence, but in ignoring the precedent it represents. Our guilt lies in repeating the tried and failed response of our pre-Shoah German community who, until it was to late refused to accept that their civilized, educated and cultured fatherland was capable of transforming suddenly from welcoming and accepting, into executioner. Was not a Jew prime minister in the Weimar Government in the years before the election of Adolph Hitler? Was it not a Jew who authored the liberal Weimar constitution? Where else, or since, had our people achieved such prominence, contributed more to the beloved homeland?

For we who lived an ocean away from the death camps, we too experienced fear and confusion. Antisemitism in the United States was little different from Europe in popularity and intensity. Nativist isolationism kept the United States neutral and ambivalent, as inclined to join Hitler in the crusade against the “godless” Soviet Union as to ally with England against Nazi Germany. The Nazi program of racial purification which inspired the Holocaust was modeled after the “science” of eugenics, America’s effort to create its own white, Nordic master race. Had Henry Ford or Lindberg decided to oppose Roosevelt for the presidency in 1932 and, as is more than possible, won the presidency then it takes little imagination to appreciate the likely outcome for American Jewry. Even under Roosevelt the US built concentration camps to house Japanese-Americans.

Returning to the beginning, I am not judging the religious dedication of Europeans but suggesting that which should be obvious. As individual or as culture, while we generally have free choice in our behavior, our choices are conditioned by our history. The history of Europe is Christianity, and the theology of hate at the heart of that religion.

St. Paul accused the Jews of rejecting Jesus out of blindness; the gospels accused the Jews of condemning and crucifying their messiah. The theme of anti-Judaism was further developed by such prominent theologians as Sts. Augustine and Aquinas and, most viciously, by Luther the Reformer. I suggest that such anti-Judaism by such important figures in Christian history are bound to impact popular attitudes and prejudices, perpetuating and promoting that which was to become, with the advent of secular society, antisemitism. Nor am I alone in this obvious conclusion as my reference to Ms. Reuther, a highly regarded Catholic theologian herself suggests.

Whether or not Europe has been mostly secular since before Shoah, that would no more remove its identification with its thirteen hundred year long theocracy, and another three hundred years of religious competition between the Church and Protestantism. All contributed to the character of secular Europe, to its attitude towards the Jews. Even Hitler, assumed to have been, and perhaps by some actions was, anti-Christian was, none-the-less a self-affirmed, if conflicted tithe-paying Catholic to the end. Indeed, one platform of the Nazi Party was the establishment of an Aryan-Christian church. So we should not confuse appearance for reality: Christianity is still Gospel-based, and secular Europe is still culturally and historically Christian.

2. As regards Islam, I accept that there is an obvious river of antisemitism. But there is a significant difference between Christian and Islamic antisemitism. Islam is not historically anti-Jewish, at least no more so than anti- any other non-Muslim religion or people. And while I write as a committed Zionist, I also recognize that the Arabs and their Islamic supporters have a here-and-now animus towards the Jews born of conflict over Israel as opposed to an ancient and theologically-based animus. Moslem anti-Judaism will likely pass with resolution of the Palestine problem.

Returning to 3. If the “cause” of Western antisemitism is, as I maintain, Christian theology and its secular inheritors, then it will only begin to diminish with acceptance by the Christian denominations to finally accept responsibility and address the substance of the problem, the anti-Jewish slant of the gospels. While this is unlikely to immediately close the chapter on antisemitism, it will be a first and important step. But more immediate will be the impact on its own community of faith in removing the obvious contradiction between “love and forgiveness” and “hate and rejection.”

For we Jews, while we would applaud this very brave first step towards penance for crimes past, it would have little impact on our security within a community of nations nurtured on the milk, the history of bigotry and vengeance. We are still responsible for our choices, and for our resistance to choose. For we risk not only our own lives on the alter of hope, convenience and familiarity, but our denial of the obvious will have obvious consequences for those we are sworn to protect. Today’s denial will, as among our German community, ultimately cost the lives of our children, or our children’s children. Because the technology that so effectively identified European Jewry back three generations is exponentially more powerful today. And the technology of death born of the 20th century has only grown more efficient at its future assigned task.

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