December 4, 2003
In 2003, We Are STRONG
In 1933 We Were Weak
Item 1: I received a call the other day from a journalist employed by a respected Jewish magazine working on a story titled, "Is a Second Holocaust Brewing?"
Item 2: Arthur Cohn, a well-respected and talented filmmaker repeated in The Jewish Journal and The Forward the canard first uttered by the late Abba Eban, and later time and again by Benjamin Netanyahu, that a withdrawal to the borders of '67 is a withdrawal to the borders of Auschwitz.
Item 3: A friend reported that the Anti-Defamation League's distinguished director, Abraham Foxman, said in an address to the World Council in Los Angeles that anti-Semitism is as prevalent today as it was in the '30s. I don't know what Foxman said. I do know what one intelligent listener heard.
Item 4: A fundraising letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center quotes Simon Wiesenthal as comparing contemporary anti-Semitism in Europe to the '30s.
Item 5: In a confrontation with the UCLA Hillel director, who was in conversation with Palestinian protesters, a female journalist called him a "kapo," as if the term had applicability to anything happening today.
What all of these items share in common is the all too common -- and all too unchallenged -- comparison between the Jewish condition of today and the Jewish condition during the Holocaust. The vulnerability of the 1930s cannot be compared with contemporary Jewish vulnerability.
It was different. And we are different.
The Holocaust was unique. Not every Jewish vulnerability is the vulnerability of the Holocaust, and not every enemy is Adolf Hitler. As Leon Wieseltier wrote, "Hitler is dead." Hitler ruled most of Europe and Yasser Arafat cannot travel more than 150 yards from his battered headquarters.
In a fine book on power and powerless in Jewish history, David Biale summarized the Jewish predicament: From biblical times to the present day, Jews have wandered the uncertain terrain between power and powerlessness, never quite achieving the power necessary to guarantee long-term security but equally avoiding, with a number of disastrous exceptions, the abyss of absolute impotence. They developed the consummate skill of living with uncertainty and insecurity.
The Holocaust was the paradigmatic example of absolute impotence. And today, Jews are an empowered people.
Israel is ranked as the third or fourth most powerful army in the world. And by any scale of power, the American Jewish community is a powerful community, not quite as powerful as the anti-Semities proclaim but far more powerful than we sense ourselves to be.
Jews have wealth, power and influence. They can be seen in the corridors of power in government and industry, in academia and in the media, they face virtually no barriers to career advancement and they can advance without having to abandon or mute their commitment to Jewish faith and their proud membership in the Jewish people.
We are not the Jews of the '30s, and we are not hesitant to advance Jewish issues to the very center of the American national agenda. In fact, we are quite skilled at it; so skilled that U.S. administration after administration has been responsive to Jewish issues, large and small, and supportive of Israel.
After the Yom Kippur War, Jews mistakenly thought that power in the last third of the 20th century would be in control of natural resources -- in Arab oil, the great addiction of the West. In fact, it turned out that over the past four decades, power was in the management of information, and Jews both in Israel and the United States were ideally positioned to benefit from the information revolution.
The recent anti-Semitic address by the prime minister of Malaysia underscored the degree to which the Muslims feel disempowered and socially unprepared for this information revolution, the way that they have not built their societies from the newfound wealth of oil.
Islam, which had been at the center of philosophy and science, which had brought forth classical thought to the Dark Ages in partnership with the Jews living under Islam, had shut itself off from science, closed itself to outside ideas. It is only in dialogue with these new ideas that power is found in the 21st century world.
In the aftermath of World War II and our experience of powerlessness during the Shoah, Jews learned a fundamental lesson: Powerlessness invites victimization. We had presumed with Theodore Herzl and the Zionists that the Jewish State would become a normal state and end the problem of anti-Semitism, and for a time it seemed that it might.
The painful lesson of our time is that Israel can fuel the flames of anti-Semitism, not only quench its fires. Empowerment has not ended Jewish vulnerability; it has merely given us alternate means with which to grapple with our ongoing vulnerability.
In the 1930s, racial anti-Semitism became the dominant philosophy of an expansionist Germany, which soon conquered country after country, and wherever it ruled, it imposed that racial anti-Semitism and the policies that led to the annihilation of the Jewish people. And the Jewish people were powerless to combat it and unable -- perhaps also unwilling -- to marshal the support of the United States and Great Britain, those with power, to adequately respond to the genocide.
The most extreme anti-Semitism is found today in countries where Jews no longer reside, and however bad the situation is in France, its Jewish community is not vulnerable to state-sponsored systematic murder. It is far less vulnerable to anti-Semitism than it was in the late 19th century, when Frenchmen were chanting in the streets of Paris "death to the Jews."
The times are depressing. The generation that lived through the Six-Day War, saw Israel emerge as a military power and a potential economic powerhouse and experienced the collapse of anti-Semitism as a factor in American life was ill-prepared for its resurgence and unable to explain why the Jewish State became the place where Jews are most vulnerable.
Jews on the right see it as more of the same ongoing anti-Semitism, which seems seamless from Hitler to Arafat. And the left can only blame Israel for its occupation policies and because of that, blame seems mute when anti-Semitism is manifest.
Comparing the contemporary situation to the 1930s is to cede to our enemies a power they do not have, an intent they may not share and to disparage the great achievement of the Zionist revolution that the Jews become actors in history rather than its passive victims.
It is to invite upon ourselves not only a nightmare of our own times but the absolute darkness of another time and another place that is not our own, and bears no resemblance to our own. Those who do so manifest considerable ignorance of those times and misinterpret our own.
So let us declare a moratorium on Holocaust analogies. Let us find another way to arouse the interest of our community and to impress upon them the urgency of the contemporary situation.
The contemporary feeling of powerlessness may be explained by our own paralysis. We have heard time and again from Israeli military leaders that the Jewish-Palestinian struggle does not lend itself to a military solution, at least not one commensurate with democratic norms and with values most Jews and Judaism hold dear.
We have employed many tactics in our contemporary struggle, but it seems blatantly clear that we are without a strategy. We don't quite know what we want to achieve or how to achieve it, and consequently, we have empowered extremists who alone seem able to determine the agenda. And because we can't decide what to do, we are reactive and not proactive.
Why be concerned by these false comparison, especially if they are successful in arousing the Jewish community to confront a real problem of anti-Semitism?
They destroy any sense that the Holocaust was unique.
They mislead us and misdirect our concerns. Generals who fight the last war almost always lose.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the University of Judaism.