ALL British Jews alive today know that their survival during the Nazi period was determined essentially by geography and little else. Fortunately, the Nazi empire did not expand fast enough or last long enough to realize the finality of the Final Solution. Thus, for those Jews, for whom fate decreed that their forebears would settle in lands not decimated by the Nazis, the recent televising of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah was an extraordinary experience. In the countries where the Nazis wreaked their vengeance, the film created intense debate. In the Peoples Republic of Poland, the raw nerve of Polish-Jewish relations was nakedly exposed. Lanzmann’s examples of the primitive ignorance of the Polish peasantry was a visual page from the history books—a startling fulfilment of our own worst nightmares. Jews, for those peasants, were Christ-killers, gold-hoarders, dishonest traders and work-shy housewives. The ghosts of the past caused both anguish and resentment in Poland.
In the United States, a country of minorities and a traditional haven for the persecuted and non-conformist, the screening was a major event. In Britain, however, there was a muted response, a bare ripple of interest. No doubt the subject matter deterred some and the length exhausted others. Perhaps one explanation for this reticence lies in the fact that Britain had no direct experience of the Holocaust which therefore is not embedded so firmly in the collective national psyche.
In the discussion which followed Shoah on British television, Yehuda Bauer of the Hebrew University suggested—almost as an aside—that people in the United Kingdom do not really understand the dimensions of the Jewish tragedy in those terrible times. According to Bauer, the prevailing attitude is that the Jews were simply one category amongst many to have been subjected to the violence of the Nazis. What seems to have been lost since 1945 is not the memory of the Holocaust as a demonic event, but the specificity of its victims: it happened to the Jews. As a martyred people, these Jews are often mythologized into a universal symbol which is sometimes coloured with christological significance. The power of Lanzmann’s film was that it demystified the Holocaust and stripped it of its untouchability.
As political problems emerged after the war, one after another, the Holocaust, which for Jews defies comparison, no longer became so for many non-Jews—especially for the post-war generation. Non-Jews will point to the murder of millions of Kampucheans. Many Jews will probably nod in agreement but also ask why the world sat back and let that happen. Emil Fackenheim recently addressed this question:
In entering into this controversy, philosophy must weigh both sides of it, and cannot do so without profound self-immersion in the Holocaust in its scandalous particularly. To avoid doing just this is the philosopher’s great temptation, for it is a philosopher’s habit to generalize. In this case, he is therefore tempted a priori to reduce the Holocaust to genocide-in-general, or even to man’s-inhumanity-to-man-in-general. He must resist that temptation. To avoid self-immersion in the Holocaust would be to lapse into escapism—to be unphilosophical. (Midstream, August/September 1987)
And yet Holocaust code words have become an important element in the baggage of ideological and political struggle. Epithets used to depict that terrible period have been appropriated to describe the evils of a plethora of regimes who imprison their peoples and violate every human right. They have been mustered and enrolled in the propaganda of many a just cause. Many Jews draw the line in the use of this special vocabulary when it is applied to Israel and Zionism. Although Palestinian nationalists have slowly learned that the propagation of such crude propaganda is politically counterproductive, some members of the far left have yet to comprehend this point. Such commentaries have found a resonance in the mainstream left and in liberal circles too. Whilst the more bizarre aspects have been sanitized, the “Holocaust” language of the far left has been employed in a simplistic attempt to delegitimize Israel as a state and Zionism as an ideology. Anti-Zionism may not be antisemitism in a majority of instances, but the insensitivity of expression persuades many Jews to perceive it as such.
If the far left exudes ignorance about Jews in its depiction of the Israel-Palestine conflict, then the right often exhibits residual traces of social anti-Semitism. Discounting the neo-Fascists, the “old” right often subsumes the Holocaust within the patriotic struggle against the evil of Hitler’s regime. The late Sir John Colville, Churchill’s secretary, wrote just before his death that
the time has come for the Jewish people not, indeed, to forget the Holocaust but to regard it as a crime against all humanity. . . . Due allowance Must be made for sensitivities stemming from centuries of persecution; but Jewish nationalism and indeed separatism, as mirrored in the pursuit of Dr Waldheim, is not at all in the long term interest of the Jewish people who ought to regard themselves as a dynamic part of a large civilized community.
In pre-war Britain, Jewish leadership traditionally adopted a low and sometimes servile while publicly to avoid anti-Jewish prejudice while apparently combatting it vigorously in private. By accentuating a similarity to non-Jewish Britons, the hope was that this would pay political dividends. This deliberate policy of acculturation has had some very adverse effects on long term communal development while doing little in practice to further the cause of a multi-cultura1 society. Perhaps the most unsavoury aspect has been the tendency, with few exceptions, to opt out of national debates, in which Jewish thought and experience could make a valuable contribution, and to participate only on questions of vested Jewish interest.
As a reaction to the public face and, centrally, to the Holocaust itself, rather than to the policies of their predecessors, communal leaders have undoubtedly spiced up their rhetoric and preached the doctrine of vigilance. It could not be any other way. Moreover, that doctrine is expounded constantly and fervently by the generation of Jews who lived through that black period—yesterday’s survivors and today’s soothsayers. This is their historic legacy, bequeathed to succeeding generations.
This moral duty however has sometimes been interpreted in an unhealthy fashion by communal policy-makers and commentators. For many communities such as Anglo-Jewry who bear the guilt of the fortunate, survivalism has become a central plank of policy. It is invoked in the cause of fund-raising by the imagery of the physical destruction of Israel and in the sloganizing of the “cultural genocide” of Soviet Jewry or the “concentration camps” of Jewish prisoners in the campaign to liberate the refuseniks. Professor Steven M. Cohen (of Queens College, New York, and the Hebrew University) recently noted that
during the last two decades, hardly an issue has risen to the top of American Jewry’s public agenda that has not, in some way, been propelled to prominence by our anxieties over threats to the very survival of the Jewish people. The champions of one cause after another arouse and enlarge upon Jewish fears of group extinction. More often the Jewish public hears that failure to act will result in some unspeakable catastrophe. . . It seems that to mobilize Jews these days requires that one paint the grimmest of scenarios, and make it seem not merely plausible, but downright probable. (Moment Magazine, June 1987)
Although such tactics may arguably pay political dividends in the short term, they also dilute and blur an understanding of the Holocaust in general. For the post-war generation of Jews who generally reject survivalism as the only programme on the Jewish agenda, it is more a question of balance between vigilance and innovation, of creating a vibrant Jewish present as well as remembering the terror of the recent Jewish past. Indeed, the shadow of the Holocaust has undeniably created differences of approach between the generations which are perhaps more than generational in a conventional sense. Many younger people deeply believe that a genuine monument to the cultural and spiritual riches of the Jewish past—a world that no longer exists— is the construction of a meaningful Jewish future. The paradox is that the Holocaust which destroyed the past often places restrictions on the building of the future. This is a temporal situation from which there is no apparent escape.
Conversely, it would also be incorrect for the critics of survivalism to interpret its evolution within the framework of conspiracy theory—as if it was premeditated and planned. Moreover, unworldly approaches which do not appreciate the psychological impact of the Holocaust and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel upon the generation of survivors, more often than not induce an emotional response detrimental to rational dialogue.
Shoah raised many uncomfortable questions which often have no answers but, undoubtedly, Lanzmann’s clear statement will help us to analyse and clarify our own progress in the twilight of catastrophe.
Jewish Quarterly Winter 1987