Arts & Culture

The “American” Holocaust and the American Jewish Dilemma

From almost every vantage point, America has been good for the Jews. Never before have Jews had such a sustained sense of security in a predominantly non-Jewish society. In America, Jews found a country that was willing to embrace their … Read More

By / March 10, 2009

From almost every vantage point, America has been good for the Jews. Never before have Jews had such a sustained sense of security in a predominantly non-Jewish society. In America, Jews found a country that was willing to embrace their religion and appreciate their culture, as illustrated by the widespread use of the term  "Judeo-Christian Tradition" to define the character of American society.

Yet, starting in the 1950s, and continuing today, Jews have expressed an anxiety about the nature of American inclusivity. Even as individual Jews have become increasingly integrated into the American mainstream, Jews have warned that integration on a collective level is a myth. American Jews have instead insistently clung to the stories of Jewish exclusion, above all, to the tragic story of the Holocaust, as a touchstone for the "truth" about the meaning of the hyphen in Judeo-Christianity            . At the same time, however, as the Holocaust has represented the very old story of Jewish exile, it has become something quite different in America. The willingness of Americans to accept the Holocaust as the ultimate genocide, the americanization of the Holocaust or what can be called the "American" Holocaust, has called into question the ur-story of Jewish difference. By affirming the unique suffering of Jews in the Holocaust, America has, oddly enough, affirmed the integration of Jews into American society. The very acceptance of the Holocaust as an ur-narrative of Jewish Americans thus simultaneously arouses all the anxiety and passion of Jewish Americans’ hyphenated status. A Judeo-Christian Society? In the postwar period, when "Judeo-Christian tradition" came into vogue as a term, many Jews were not entirely happy with this new embrace of their tradition by secular society. Some, still wary of a lurking South Beach Holocaust Memorial: by Allie CaufieldSouth Beach Holocaust Memorial: by Allie Caufieldanti-Semitism, claimed the very notion of a "Jewish-Christian tradition" had, and has, sinister intentions. The strongest case against the term was made by the Jewish theologian Arthur Cohen in a series of essays collected in his book The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1957). Cohen argues that the term Judeo-Christian, consciously or not, swallows Judaism whole, undermining its distinctiveness and robbing it of the very rich texture of its tradition. He notes  that the idea was invented by German Protestants "to come to terms with the Jewish factor in Christian civilization… We can learn much from the history of Jewish-Christian relations, but one thing we cannot make of it is a discourse of community, fellowship, and understanding. How, then, do we make of it a tradition?" (xiii). For Cohen the "Judeo" in the Judeo-Christian Tradition (what he calls a myth) is an ostensibly conciliatory gesture of tolerance that masks an attempt to finally, and permanently, undermine Jewish distinctiveness by making Judaism simply a part of Christianity. "The emphasis fell not to the communality of the word ‘tradition’ but to the accented stress of the hyphen. The Jewish was Latinized and abbreviated into ‘Judeo’ to indicate a dimension, albeit a pivotal dimension, of the explicit Christian experience. It was, rather more a coming to terms on the part of Christian scholarship with the Jewish factor in Christian civilization." (xviii) It is significant that Cohen’s antipathy to the Jewish-Christian tradition is not about the erasure of the Jew qua individual. He knew that, as individuals, Jews have flourished in America and will likely continue to do so. His concern, rather, is with Jewish collectivity. He implies that if the Jewish collective is portrayed as simply part of the Christian story, it will lose any sense of distinctiveness that is required for the continuation of the Jewish people. Cohen’s position is reminiscent of Gershom Scholem’s thesis in his short essay "Against the Myth of the German-Jewish Dialogue" (Jews and Judaism in Crisis, 61-64) that this ostensible "dialogue" was a liberal Protestant means to applaud themselves and placate liberal Jews. Writing about the Weimar Republic, Scholem claimed Germany was never really interested in a dialogue where both sides could be changed by the other. Instead, such dialogue was a way to give Jews a voice but no authority. For both Scholem and Cohen, in Weimar Germany and in twentieth-century America, tolerance was deployed as a tyrannical tool of ethnic erasure. In many ways, Cohen’s criticism of Judeo-Christianity stems from his assumption that there is no difference between  the Judeo-Christian tradition in Germany and in America, that the desire to erase Judaism completely that became evident under the Nazis is still at its hidden or "Weimar" stage in America. Cohen wrote his essays in the late 1950s, at a time when Jews and Christians were beginning to face the painful reality of the Holocaust and its affect on American society. From a half century’s remove, at a moment when we can watch the inauguration of an African American president from the front lawn of the official Holocaust Museum, it seems clear that  the Jewish experience in America has been profoundly different from the Jewish experience in Europe. Yet Jews have trouble letting go of this past. They have trouble believing that American Jewry is not simply a new chapter of an old story but a new story altogether. Anxiety of the Hyphen Holocaust Memorial Museum: by Son of GrouchoHolocaust Memorial Museum: by Son of GrouchoThe anxiety that remains today is Cohen’s anxiety: an anxiety about Jewish continuity. What if Jews as individuals thrive but Judaism as a religion and culture dies? It is an anxiety of assimilating too much. Perhaps the most poignant expression of this anxiety may be found in a haunting video from the YIVO archives of the Hasidic rebbe of Muncatcz, Hayyim Elazar Shapira. In the 1930’s, Rebbe Shapira warned his listeners not to go to America because in America one cannot properly observe Shabbat. Tragically, those who heeded his words were most likely dead within a few years; ironically, those who survived and immigrated to America proved Shapira wrong. However, precisely because America has been so welcoming of individual Jews, American Jews continue to worry about the viability of their collective identity. We constantly wrestle with the dilemma of acculturation and difference, with maintaining cultural distinctiveness in the theatre of accommodation. It is an example of what the Jewish historian Gerson Cohen called "the blessing of assimilation." (Cohen, "The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History" in Jewish History and Jewish Destiny). It is what Jews living in a "Judeo-Christian society" may call the anxiety of the hyphen. To counter the anxiety of assimilation, Jews most frequently turn to a narrative of difference. That Arthur Cohen chose to express the anxiety of the hyphen by alluding to the position of Jews in Germany reflects one common and acute articulation of the American-Jewish experience. It is part and parcel of an old Jewish story, a story that served Jews throughout most of their history. It is a story about the margins of existence that extended from curiosity (Rome) to rejection (Medieval Christendom and Islam) to sober toleration (Enlightenment and emancipation). In one telling of this story, a telling echoed by Arthur Cohen’s reference to Weimar, the Holocaust was a piece of this larger history in its most grotesque form. In his 1986 Holocaust Remembrance Day address, "The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust," Orthodox thinker and past president of Yeshiva University Norman Lamm said that the Holocaust must conform to traditional notions of theodicy and is a "continuation of the ancient question of evil and suffering." Even for the post-Holocaust theologians who argue that the Holocaust is a sui generis event, unprecedented in Jewish and world history, its uniqueness is not in the Nazi anti-Semitism that produced the genocide-that fit the old story–but in the very irrational nature of "The Final Solution" as a political reality, that is, the willingness of Hitler and his circle to kill Jews against their own national interest. Or, for some, the uniqueness stems from the overwhelming quality of the suffering-but not from the fact of suffering itself. In almost every Jewish narrative of the Holocaust, the genocide represents an extension of the old story of Jewish suffering. From a theological perspective, the uniqueness of the Holocaust was a tear in the covenental history that predicted, expected and, in some cases, even anticipated Jewish suffering as an act of purification in preparation for redemption. In the case of the Holocaust, the rabbinic category of "the birth pangs of the messiah" as an explanation for Jewish suffering could not bear the weight of this event. For these theologians, the covenant collapsed under the weight of its own doctrine. "Because of our sins we were exiled/punished" was no longer an adequate response to the Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. American Jewry, I suggest (with others), is not part of this story; the story of suffering, alienation, and persecution. There was surely anti-Semitism in America, but the fact that the Jews came as emancipated citizens ultimately protected by the Constitution made a categorical difference, even in the nature of that anti-Semitism. This underlies the Reform Movement’s call in the nineteenth-century to erase the notion of "exile" in reference to America. Jews in Colonial America were respectfully addressed by George Washington in his famous and oft-cited letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790 whose final paragraph included these words laced with biblical imagery: "May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." Even when  anti-Semitism arose in America, the society seemed to have the tools to control it. This is depicted fictionally in Philip Roth’s uncharacteristically optimistic Plot Against America. This is not necessarily due to positive policies and structures. One reason for the temperate nature of American anti-Semitism, as opposed to the rest of Christendom and Dar ‘al Islam, is that America has always been plagued by the question of race more than the question of the Jew. Thus, once the Jew becomes "white," a process that was only fully complete in the post-war period, they are no longer the primary focus of attention. America may be a "Christian" country but the excluded "other" is the African-American and not the Jew. In America, racism trumps anti-Semitism. In America (to paraphrase Cornell West) race matters most. This is an integral part of American Jewry’s new Jewish story. If, however, the American Jewish experience cannot conform to the Jewish "story" of exile, marginalization, and anti-Semitism, what is the nature of its self-fashioning? How can a people who understood themselves in light of a narrative whose very structure was non-acceptance (the very epicenter of its exilic experience, the very core of the rabbinic – as opposed to biblical –  covenant) re-configure its story to include some kind of a non-messianic transformation of itself as an integral part of, in this case, a Christian, or perhaps post-Christian, whole? How can American Jews today own the Judeo-Christian tradition and re-formulate it in a way that conforms to its own collective identity? This is the fundamental struggle that has marked modern American Jewish identity. It is a struggle that can be read most easily in the  developing notion of the "American" Holocaust. Identity Politics and the Holocaust As Peter Novick suggests,America and American Jews were reluctant to own the Holocaust until the 1970’s. This does not mean there were no Holocaust memorials, commemorations, or efforts at Holocaust education among American Jews. There surely were. Synagogues, survivor groups, summer camps and other community groups engaged in Holocaust recognition beginning in the early post-war years. However,  the Holocaust as a defining event, a watershed that would change the collective identities of Jews and Americans, did not emerge in the mainstream until much later. This conceptualization of the Holocaust as a paradigm-shifting event in the American mainstream may have began,  in 1973 with the television airing of the documentary Holocaust and concludes in 1993 when the National Holocaust Memorial Museum was officially dedicated. These twenty years mark the birth of what some have called the American Holocaust, the unique way in which this seminal event of Jewish history became assimilated into the American Jewish experience. The period from the 1970s to the 1990s was the era of identity politics. African Americans had Roots, the 1972 miniseries that dramatized their journey from slavery to freedom. Women, gays and lesbians, chicanos, and other minority groups within the United States also strove, during this period, to define a special identity for themselves (and often to claim special rights). It is perhaps not surprising that American Jews did the same, and that a critical step in this process was to  adopt the Holocaust-an event that had already redefined world Jewry via the creation of the State of Israel– as part of its own "story."  The "facts on the ground" demonstrate that claiming the Holocaust proved a wildly successful means of asserting Jewish identity during an era of competing claims for ethnic uniqueness. The dedication of the  Holocaust museum on the Washington Mall, a sacred American space exclusive to memorializing only the most central moments in American history, became the sign of the success of the American Jewish project of forging its own unique place in American life. There was, however, a downside to using the Holocaust as a lever to raise Jewish identity to the stature of a defining American identity during this era.  The old story of Jewish history, the story of marginalization that had its most grotesque manifestation in the Holocaust, had enabled Jews to have exclusive ownership of their tragedies. But the Holocaust in America was different. In being chosen as the genocide that would define all genocides, the American Holocaust had to be something more than the attempt to systematically annihilate European Jews. It had to become a semiotic sign, an ‘event’ in human (and not just Jewish) history that would teach humanity about itself. American Jews were confronted with a kind of devil’s bargain: to feel fully American meant, in some way, to relinquish sole ownership of its most horrifying tragedy. Universalized Suffering The truth of this devil’s bargain can be found in the way this compromise was resisted, sometimes strongly, by some of the very individuals who advocated for the museum in the first place. Accusations of trivializing the Holocaust came from various camps. The most notable example is that of Elie Wiesel. There is no one individual who did more to bring the Holocaust to the world than Elie Wiesel. The appearance of his short but searing book Night, published in English in 1960 (longer Yiddish and French versions were published earlier), brought the Holocaust to millions of American high school and college students from the 1960’s until today. Among many second-and-third generation American Jews it sparked a renewed interest in their Jewish identity. For the millions of non-Jewish readers, it evoked sympathy for their Jewish neighbors.
A committed humanitarian, Wiesel spend much of his career in what some could call universalizing the Holocaust. By "universalizing" I mean that Wiesel was one of the first, followed by Primo Levi and others, who presented the Holocaust as more than an event of Jewish suffering but as a cipher through which one could experience the deep human anguish of what may be the most barbaric moment in human history. This universalizing tendency  culminated in Wiesel’s keynote address at the dedication of the Holocaust museum. With millions listening to this historic speech, Wiesel could have focused on the Nazi genocide of the Jews. He could have spoken about the precarious nature of the State of Israel and its "existential threat." Instead the highlight of his address was about Sarajevo. He concluded by turning to president Clinton and saying "President Clinton, go to Sarajevo." I found Wiesel’s move stunning. It was as if to say, this museum does not merit this sacred real estate if it is only about the Jews. Yes, it is about the Jews, even primarily so, but it is also about human being’s capacity for evil. And that evil is not only, or even primarily, about anti-Semitism. Today, Wiesel said, that evil is being perpetrated in Sarajevo. Tomorrow, somewhere else. To those suffering, starving, tortured, it simply does matter that the evil source of their pain is not as egregious as the Nazi’s war against the Jews. I mention Wiesel not only because of his stature, but because the courageous work he has done to publicize, and in doing so, universalize, the Holocaust is coupled with an equally committed passion to maintain the Holocaust as sui generis and thus the exclusive property of the Jews. He is quite open about his desire to universalize and simultaneously particularize the Holocaust. For him, the Holocaust is "a unique Jewish tragedy with universal implications." (cited in Walter Goodman, "Israeli Clashes with American Jews about Persecution Past and Present" New York Times, September 9, 1984 I:46). The paradox of this statement is intentional and in my view reflects the American Jewish story more generally.  The same man who stood at the Holocaust Museum and spoke to Clinton about Sarajevo, the same man whose book Night introduced millions of non-Jews around the world to the Holocaust, this same man argued just as passionately about the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a-historical and thus incomparable event in human history. In a New York Times article on April 16, 1978 "Trivializing the Holocaust: Semi-Fact and Semi-Fiction" about the NBC miniseries Holocaust that aired on the same day, Wiesel wrote with a sharp pen about the failures of what he calls a "docu-drama" to do justice to something that cannot be depicted in any form, in any media. Criticizing this docu-drama in particular, but also, criticizing any attempt to dramatize the Holocaust, Wiesel wrote, "But the Holocaust is unique; not just another event…Auschwitz cannot be explained not can it be visualized…The Holocaust transcends history." Toward the end of his essay he continued, "The Holocaust. The ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, can never be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were there know what it was; the others will never know." Novick writes about Wiesel that for him,  "the Holocaust was a holy event that resisted profane representation, that it was uniquely inaccessible to explanation or understanding…That the Holocaust was, in some undefined way, sacred and mandated some sort of special rules for its representation." (Novick 212). Novick cites a very telling question posed to Wiesel that he seemed unable, or unwilling, to answer, his silence (understandable to me) a sign that he stands precisely in the fissure that is the American Jewish experience.  When asked if the non-Jews who were killed by the Nazis were victims of the Holocaust or in addition to the Holocaust, Wiesel did not respond. And he could not. To say they were victims would be to view the Holocaust as not exclusively a Jewish event. To say they were not would undermine his humanitarian sensibilities. This is perhaps best captured by Alvin Rosenfeld when pondering the six million (Jews) verses eleven million (Jews and non-Jews) who perished at the hands of the Nazis between 1939 and 1945, "This discrepancy  in numbers is of no small matter, for it reflects a conceptual difference in what the Holocaust was  and who is to be included among its victims – only the Jews or all those who perished under the Nazi tyranny, including Polish political prisioners, Soviet soliders, gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, the mentally ill, jehovah’s Witnesses, and others." ("The Americanization of the Holocaust" American Jewish Identity Politics, Deborah Dash Moore ed. 2008, p. 47). The tension implicit in the trajectory of the "Americanization" of the Holocaust as something that extends beyond the "war against the Jews" (or at least that it can be used as such) is expressed by many. For example, the Israeli Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer writes, "It was unclear how the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its universal implications (i.e., its Americanization, sm) could be combined in a way that would be in accord with the American heritage and American political activity. (Yehuda Bauer, "Whose Holocaust?" Midstream, November 1980, p. 42). While Bayer’s sentiment is understandable, his desire for exclusivity does not consider the price of such exclusivity in the American Jewish project of constructive acculturation. Closer to home, the Holocaust scholar Alvin Rosenfeld, in his "The Americanization of the Holocaust" argues that the Americanization of the Holocaust, including some programs at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the focus on survivors, rescuers (Schindler’s List, and the Simon Weisenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles all undermine what he determines should be the sole focus of any Holocaust education: the attempt by the Nazi’s to annihilate the Jews. For him, any attempt to widen the scope beyond the victims and their perpetrators is a de-facto de-judaiziation, and thus dangerous distortion, of the Holocaust. Bauer and Rosenfeld, unlike Weisel, do not seem tortured by humanitarianism when it comes to the Holocaust. While Weisel remains wed to the uniqueness of the Holocaust but unlike Bauer and Rosenfeld he is not paralyzed by it. In this sense, it is Weisel who best captures the dilemma of the American Jewish experience. If the Holocaust is a sui generis event exclusive to the Jews, why construct a Holocaust museum in America on the Washington Mall? How can a museum explain, or educate, an inexplicable event? Isn’t the point of such an institution to educate and isn’t education founded on the belief that something can be learned, that there are lessons one can draw that extend beyond the genocide of European Jews? Like Sarjevo? Like Darfur? This is what I heard in Wiesel’s dedication speech and admire in his humanitarian work. But his inability, or unwillingness, to bracket, much less question, his uniqueness claim speaks to the unsettling nature of the 1978-1992 trajectory that gave us the American Holocaust. I do not challenge Wiesel’s claim of the incommensurability of the Holocaust if only because he experienced it first-hand. What I challenge is the way his position is adopted, often reflexively, by those who did not. Unique or Universal? The specifically American tension between the Holocaust as unique to Jews or universal to human suffering became even clearer in 1989, whenAmerican Jews Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz, and Arthur Hertzberg withdrew from a Tel Aviv conference on genocide because the organizers refused to remove a session dealing with the Armenian Case of 1915. Commenting in a letter in The Washington Jewish Week, December 7, 1989, Mark Epstein reflected the views of many others when he wrote that comparing the mass killings in Armenia in 1915 to the Nazi genocide of the Jews threatens to subvert the distinctiveness (he does not say uniqueness) of the Holocaust. While there may have been good reasons to contest the inclusion of the Armenian Case, I think given Epstein’s explanation (I do not know whether Wiesel, Dershowitz, and Hertzberg agreed) we can once again see the dilemma of American Jewry’s desire to attest to the universalization (and thus  the Americanization) of the Holocaust while at the same time wanting to maintain exclusive rights to it as a particular, and exclusive, Jewish tragedy. I can understand the danger of reflexive comparisons. But if the Holocaust is categorically incomparable, how can it be "American." And if it is not American, why is there a commemorative and educational museum on the Washington Mall?
The inexplicability of the Holocaust, its uniqueness, keeps it inside the realm of the Jewish community. Never before have any people fallen victim to anything like "The Final Solution." Fair enough. But is "The Final Solution" part of, or the totality of, the Holocaust? This is the basis of the question to Wiesel that went unanswered. And here I suggest Wiesel’s unwillingness to answer reflects the American Jewish experience – they want it both ways: they want an American Holocaust, but they do not want to pay the price of losing exclusive rights to it. They appreciated the ways in which the miniseries Holocaust raised the consciousness of America about the Holocaust, but they were uncomfortable that the miniseries should become the definitive depiction of an event that cannot be depicted. In some sense, once it is depicted, it becomes public property, part of America’s collective imagination. It is no longer exclusive to the Jews even though the Jews were its primary victims. The Price of Americanization Because Jews came to America already emancipated, the story of American Jewry and Judaism has always been about Americanization. This is largely manifest as accommodation in practice, ideology and belief to the contours of the American political, social, and religious reality. By the 1960’s, this process had reached a kind of completion. Second and third generation American Jews felt fully American. Take, for example, the 1980 re-make of the The Jazz Singer starring Neil Diamond. The figure of Diamond assuming the posture of the Statue of Liberty singing the theme song "America" illustrates how far American Jews had come from the original 1927 version of the "ethnic" immigrant Al Jolson singing Kol Nidre in his father’s Lower East Side tenement Orthodox synagogue. Finally, the Americanization of the Holocaust is an inverse example of Jewish Americanization. The Holocaust as trope allowed Jews to become more deeply integrated into American society, not by their accommodation to America but rather by America’s accommodation to them. By taking on the Holocaust as an American "event," the United States is more than gesturing to its Jews, to all Jews – it is adopting the Holocaust as part of its history. To become an American event, however, requires that the Holocaust cannot exclusively be about the Jews–it must be more broadly about the fight against tyranny, fascism, and evil in all human societies. The Jewish genocide – under Jewish urging – was chosen as a template for that battle of good and evil, and, as such, the Jews have become the quintessential victims in the American imagination (why the Negro slaves were excluded from that particular story is another matter). But the incommensurability, the uniqueness, the incomparable nature of the Holocaust that keeps it exclusively in Jewish hands cannot, in my view, survive its Americanization. Whether the Americanization of the Holocaust is good for the Jews or not depends on one’s perspective. But, it does speak to the way in which Americanization has a price, part of which is to acknowledge that full integration into a host culture requires the reconfiguration of old claims of distinctiveness and separation. Today, many Jews live and thrive in the new story that is America as they simultaneously resist abandoning the old story of oppression and persecution as the basis of their identity. This is, given the sordid history of the Jews, understandable. But if we want to re-visit the "Judeo-Christian tradition" in twenty-first century America where the erasure of Jewish distinctiveness is not an issue partly as a result of Judaism’s successful integration into American society, it is worth looking more closely at the pride Jews take in the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the implications of the good work that it does. We should consider that the museum’s very existence is part of the Americanization of the Jew via America’s adaptation of Jewish history and not visa versa. And, that such a gesture requires a creative Jewish response that is not bound by the old Jewish story of fear, suspicion, and exile. Ironically, it may be the Holocaust and its "Americanization" that frees Jews to think outside the old story, the Holocaust being its most horrific example.  Thanks to Gabrielle Berlinger, Jessica Carr, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, and Devorah Shubowitz.

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