Jewish Journal

Lessons I learned from ‘Mein Kampf’

by Tammy Shel

Posted on Jan. 31, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Reading "Mein Kampf" was no simple task for me. Growing up in Tel Aviv, I learned from a young age that the book was taboo. More than that, it felt like forbidden fruit; as if bringing it home would have contaminated my apartment. Even checking out the book from the library was no simple task. However, as a scholar, a philosopher of humanistic education and a curious human being, an urge grew inside me over the years to read Hitler's own words -- to learn his view of the Jews and why he was consumed with hatred that resulted in the destruction of so many people.

When I first opened the book and started reading it, I saw the face of the infamous author in my head and his voice resonated; it was so vivid that I felt petrified. At the same time, I started reading with the expectation of finding an intelligent and rational doctrine. Instead, I found the book long, tedious, shallow and without any intellectual depth. Likewise, the author was a poor writer (while I read an English translation, I assume it was loyal to the author's writing style). Nevertheless, I had so many questions but very few people with whom I could discuss them. But the urge was there, and I needed to cope with the book. As much as I was appalled and puzzled by the content, I felt that I should have been directly exposed to the book in high school and allowed to read it with a critical perspective.

As I continued reading, I felt the anger of a megalomaniacal being consumed with hatred and obsessed with power. In order to gain power, Hitler needed a convenient enemy, and if he did not have the Jews he would have invented them.

At the same time, I learned how Jews were viewed at that time. Sometimes it even made me proud, because he blamed the Jews not only for controlling the banks but also for being socialists, for supporting labor unions and for advocating democracy. He, of course, loathed Karl Marx and anything that was associated with the Bolshevik revolution. As much as he despised the Jews, it was as if he felt inferior to them, as if he hated them for being intelligent and successful. Strangely, this reminded me of how valuable the Jews' contribution to Western societies was.

There are no adequate words to express the atrocity of the Holocaust. But what is also inconceivable and beyond comprehension is that a nation that generated distinguished philosophers, who wrote about moral philosophy and who were considered enlightened, also generated people who exploited years of advanced science and helped an ignorant human being design a master plan to exterminate innocent and defenseless human beings. In the absence of a pedagogy of inclusive caring, any field is open for negative, destructive exploitation. I began to realize that rather than blotting out his memory, studying this darkest of chapters in history can advance humanity toward a more humanistic civilization.

The more we place a taboo on discussion, the more we open it to questions -- not by rational scholars, but rather by people who have a very clear agenda to disseminate hatred and anger toward Jews and to gain more power and attention.

What I am proposing is a humanist educational paradigm shift. Jews should feel safe enough to cope with their painful past and discuss it openly and bravely through the prism of critical thinking and critical self-examination. This kind of engagement can be the source of strength and power. Jewish tradition encourages us to question everything we learn; this same tradition generated influential thinkers such as the Frankfurt School scholars who carried the flag of critical theory -- Martin Buber, who still inspires scholars who write on caring, and Sigmund Freud, who has done so much to understand the human unconscious.

As a philosopher of education who focuses on the ethics of caring and on the reduction of violence and other forms of injustice, I contend that a lack of critical discussion that emanates from the ethics of caring about the evils of the Holocaust weakens the Jewish community. Questioning does not mean denying.

However, questions about the number of people who died in the Holocaust indicate how much emphasis we place on the number of victims. I argue that focusing on the number is disrespectful to the victims, because each human being is an entire universe. The focus should be on the horrible concept of a plan to exterminate human beings (and not only Jews). This should be sufficiently appalling and alarming.

If we wish to commemorate the Holocaust victims, we must do it not only for the sake of those who perished in that horrible war but for the sake of the present and the future, for the sake of the many defenseless and innocent human beings whose right to fulfill their humanity is being denied on a daily basis, and for those who are killed and slaughtered without being able to defend themselves everywhere in the world. And I am not talking only about genocides -- I am also talking about human trafficking, slavery, domestic and child abuse and more.

The lessons from "Mein Kampf" prompt us to reflect on our interaction with each other as individuals, as human beings. We cannot change the past, but we can change the present and the future.

Reading "Mein Kampf" allows us to emphasize the calamity that the author brought not only on many parts of the world, but also on his own people. It emphasizes that hatred and anger degenerate and destroy humanity. We can teach that no one is immune from such a horrific experience, and that we should learn to be humble, to show more respect toward one another and toward other human beings, to be a role model of a compassionate and caring society. We can teach good leadership by examining the bad, and we can cultivate a better society by distinguishing between bad leaders and good leaders. By having an open discussion on the Holocaust and by teaching "Mein Kampf" as lessons for the future, we can guide young people in how to read it and how to approach history from a critical perspective that emanates from the ethics of caring -- and in the process, teach them how to be better caring human beings and responsible leaders. Cultivating young people as critical, self-reflective, caring and humanist learners and leaders is the best way to advance us toward a more humanistic civilization.

Tammy Shel is a research fellow of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. She is the author of "The Ethics of Caring: Bridging Pedagogy and Utopia" (Sense Publishers, 2007) and is currently teaching a short course on "Lessons From Mein Kampf" at the American Jewish University's Whizin Center for Continuing Education.

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