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Facts of the Holocaust

Holocaust was one of the most terrible events in the history of the world marked by extreme violence and hostility. The ideology provided by the Nazis underlined the descent of the German people from the Aryan race and rejected all other nations. Jews were seen as enemies of Nazi Germany and a threat to its existence. Historians underline that the Holocaust can be approached only through what it destroyed, and what the Holocaust did destroy goes beyond the lives and collective ways of life erased forever. Thesis America could not have prevented the Holocaust from being initiated, thus it should have entered the war much earlier than it did and could have prevented much of the horror from taking place.

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In retrospect, Jewish embarrassments of this kind seem to have been especially prevalent at times when anti-Semitism was moderately strong but not so virulent as to make the attempt at gaining acceptance futile. In present-day America, both the lower level of social anti-Semitism and, from the Jewish side, the decreased sensitivity to the opinions of the gentiles following the Holocaust and in the period of the state of Israel have reduced the anxiety For many contemporary Jews hiding Jewishness has given way to flaunt it. In the psyche of creative individuals, the ineradicable awareness of one’s somehow filthy Jewishness can result in a structure of ideas so far removed from reality as to allow of no other explanation than pathology. Two prominent examples will illustrate the point. Jews are despicable because the bourgeois society that they epitomize is despicable. The emancipation from capitalism (for Marx the bane of modern society) is also the emancipation from Judaism. Marx has projected his own non-acceptance of his Jewish origins upon society as a whole. He need not feel guilty about rejecting the Jewish traditions of his family, for Jewishness is but egoism and avarice. Still, being Jewish is not his problem alone. All who participate in capitalist society are more or fewer Jews. Thus all must trade a wretched Jewish identity for the worldwide fellowship of the proletariat (Arendt, 1994).

Nazi anti-Semitism before the Holocaust had the general effect of restoring Jewish consciousness where it had eroded severely. The most assimilated of German Jews, often for the first time in their lives, now felt the need to confront and reaffirm their Jewishness. At the age of twenty-four, the Nobel Prize-winning Jewish chemist Fritz Haber had converted to Protestantism for the sake of his career. As the head of an important scientific institute, he became an influential figure, especially after he succeeded in developing poison gas for the German army in World War I. But as a racial Jew, Haber was forced into resigning his position in 1933 (Smith, 2002).

Just as ironically as Nazism had initially given the impulse to a deepened Jewishness so did the Holocaust eventually become a major factor in sustaining Jewish identity after World War II. Jewish leaders in the USA early called for a revitalized American Jewish community that would be capable of compensating in some measure for the loss of east European Jewry. Later, and in particular, following the Eichmann trial of 1961, Holocaust awareness increasingly became a major portion of what it meant to be Jewish, especially in the Diaspora. Few American Jews were survivors in the literal sense, but the notion that every Jew living in the post-Holocaust age was a kind of survivor gained increasing acceptance. They were bent on preventing the identity Hitler sought to expunge through physical destruction from succumbing to the subtler pressures of assimilation. In western Europe, greater geographical proximity to the events resulted in a closer focus on the Holocaust and a sense of building upon the ruins of the Jewries that were destroyed (Niewyk, 2002).

In the USA a large share (some have argued too large a share) of Jewish activity has been devoted to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust and fighting contemporary forms of anti-Semitism. Most young Jews know more about the Shoah than they do about any other period of Jewish history. Courses on the Holocaust in colleges and universities are far more popular than other offerings in Jewish studies. Scores of Holocaust institutions keep alive the memory through exhibits, conferences, and educational literature. While American Jews continue to think of themselves, at least nominally, as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, this religious identity does not, for most of them, possess the same salience as does the possibility of new danger to their existence. It is in large measure the memory and message of the Holocaust that create a basis for Jewish unity in spite of religious diversity (Gilbert, 2007).

Anti-Semitism in the contemporary Jewish Diaspora, and especially in the USA, has thus ceased to be ambiguous in its effect. Neither the memory of the Holocaust nor the relatively low levels of current discrimination is driving Jews to hide their Jewishness, let alone to apostatize. On the contrary, antisemitism, especially as collective memory, serves as a basic motive for Jewish identification. The erosive force today comes almost exclusively from the enlightenment side, from the absence of barriers inhibiting the contact between Jews and non-Jews. Jews do not, as before the Holocaust, marry gentiles to escape the odium of discrimination. If they intermarry–as they continue to do in ever-increasing numbers–it is rather because universal values have displaced particularism in both communities. Thus in their effect on Jewish identity enlightenment and anti-Semitism have come into direct opposition. Today, anti-Semitism serves almost exclusively to shore up and intensify Jewish identity (Friedlander, 2008).

In the USA, the need ever and again to prove adherence to the political structures and national values of the states in which they lived had forced Westernized Jews to squeeze Jewish identity into the narrow confines of religious affiliation. To become a Zionist, therefore, was to transcend the pernicious effects of enlightenment and anti-Semitism even while utilizing their benefits. Henceforth reason would serve national purposes; anti-Semitism would not only act as a brake on assimilation, but its unhappy consequences would also point to Zionism as the only adequate solution to the ubiquitous “Jewish Question.” Zionism, then, set out to redirect old and new forces operating upon Jewish identity from within and from without, using their energy to forge a new movement (Dwork and Pelt, 2003).

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Religious adherents allied themselves most closely with the political Zionists, whose most prominent spokesman was Theodor Herzl, the founder of the international Zionist movement. There was a lack of intimacy in Herzl’s vision that made it easier for those traditional Jews drawn to Zionism to cooperate with him. Political Zionists were generally willing to hold questions of Jewish content in abeyance. Their principal concern was to rescue Jews from the physical and spiritual effects of anti-Semitism (Davidson et al 2008). The Jewish society in the land of Israel that Herzl envisaged would approximate the more enlightened societies of Europe. Within that society, the Jewish religion would have a role not greatly different from what it was in the Diaspora. Herzl attempted neither to secularize Judaism nor to absorb religion within the national culture. Although political Zionism, with its insistence that anti-Semitism was a permanent feature of Jewish life in the Diaspora, challenged Western Jews’ sense of security, it was not directed against any particular forms of Jewish expression. It did not berate the religious positions of either modern Orthodoxy or Reform Judaism in the West; it did not criticize traditional values still cherished in the East. Minimally, one could become a political Zionist simply out of the conviction that Jews in distress required a safe refuge–somewhere in the world. As the Zionism of Louis Brandeis in the USA attests, such philanthropic sentiments and the activities flowing from them did not necessarily require a reorientation of personal loyalties or values (Cesarani, 2007).

For existing forms of Jewish identity, it was cultural Zionism that offered the most serious challenge. Ahad Ha-Am, its progenitor and chief spokesman, was an agnostic in belief. For him, unlike for Herzl, Zionism was not principally a matter of externals. It was less a question of altering the conditions under which Jews lived than of transforming the Jews themselves. Herzl’s goal was to give Jews like himself-Europeans of the Jewish religious denomination–their own state, where they could live at peace, freed from the scourge of anti-Semitism. Ahad Ha-Am wanted to transform the Jews’ inner Jewish self. Religion would cease to be its indispensable essence. Yet from the very beginning of Jewish history, belief in the God of Israel had been a sine qua non of what it meant to be a Jew. Until modern times there was no intermediate position between faith in the God who revealed His will to the Jews and conversion to some other religion. Still in the nineteenth century Jews in western and central Europe-no matter how much they assimilated culturally, no matter how little time they spent in the synagogue–as long as they remained Jews, they did not openly assault the religious foundations of Jewish identity. Even when Jews in the West possessed little personal faith, they defined their Jewishness in religious terms, for that was the mode of differentiation allowed them in societies that possessed little tolerance for pluralism of cultures. Enlightened Jews in eastern Europe possessed somewhat more understanding of a Jewish identity divested of religious belief and practice. As the more radical became secularists, they moved rapidly beyond Jewish identity elements of any kind. They severed their ties with Judaism, considering themselves only of Jewish origin while identifying positively as members of a universal proletariat or enlightened humanity (Cesarani, 2007).

For many Americans, the determination of what Jewishness means for the Israeli requires distinguishing sharply between religious and secular Jews. As repeated studies have shown, it is the religious Israelis who feel the most Jewish, since Jewishness to them represents more than just an ethnic identity (Bauer and Keren, 2002). Their fundamental worldview is determined by the Jewish religion. Not surprisingly, they feel close to Jews in the Diaspora, since they share the same religious commitment. Jewishness for secular Israelis, by contrast, evokes ambivalence. Zionism, after all, was a revolt against the Jewishness that the early Zionists criticized so severely both in eastern and western Europe. It was supposed to transcend Jewish passivity on the one hand and the truncated modern religious identity produced by enlightenment on the other. For some secular Israelis, Zionist and then Israeli identity is still seen as post-Jewish. One survey, taken in the mid-1960s, found that the majority of Israeli students in secular schools felt that being Jewish was of little or no importance in their lives (Davidson et al 2008).

These facts suggest that it is wrong to encounter the Jewish ghetto leaders as the darkest page in the history of the Holocaust because there is little evidence in their direct actions and involvement in mass killing. Arendt depicts Eichmann as

Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the entire enterprise [his trial], and was also rather hard to sustain in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused to millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed and almost never reported (Arendt 1994, p. 54).

Although anti-Semitism has declined since World War II, it continues to play a major role in determining Jewish identity. Even in countries where anti-Semitism is least severe, like the USA, Jews nonetheless believe they are potentially endangered. Jewish defense organizations flourish and expand their activities. Supporting them serves as a means of Jewish identification in the present as it has in the past. Since Jews in Israel see their protection of Diaspora Jews as a basic component of the relations between them, the presence of discrimination or persecution has also served to energize the Israeli sense of ethnic responsibility (Benz, 1999). Fortunately, the extreme manifestations of reaction to anti-Semitism are apparently declining, at least in the West. Opportunistic apostasy has diminished greatly as has Jewish self-hate. For many Americans, Anti-Semitism has become most important for Jewish identity not as a force operative in contemporary society but as the memory of the Holocaust. The intense consciousness of that event is felt as a particular imperative to preserve Jewishness and as a universal task–based on the Jews’ having been singled out–to prevent anything resembling a Holocaust in the future. The sense of Jewishness represents the strongest component of Jewish identity in America today. Although, as noted earlier, Jews tend to understand Jewishness principally as denominational, most religious Jews link Judaism closely to Jewishness. Their synagogue activities are ways of expressing ethnicity. Attending religious services is something Jews do as members of the Jewish people. Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews will not quickly dissolve their shared sense of solidarity.

References

Arendt, H. (1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem, Penguin Classics; New Ed edition.

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Bauer, Y., Keren, N. (2002). A History of the Holocaust. Franklin Watts; Revised edition.

Benz, W. (1999). The Holocaust. A German Historian Examines the Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cesarani, D. (2007). Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes and Trial of a “Desk Murderer”. Da Capo Press; New Ed edition

Davidson, J. et al. (2008). Nation Of Nations: A Narrative History Of The American Republic Volume II Since 1865. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Dwork, D., Pelt, van R. (2003). Holocaust: A History. W. W. Norton & Company.

Friedlander, S. (2008). The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. Harper Perennial; Reprint edition.

Gilbert, M. (2007). Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (Making History). Harper Perennial; Reprint edition.

Niewyk, D. (2002). The Holocaust: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Smith, L. (2002). Voices of the Holocaust. Penguin (Non-Classics).

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