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December 30, 2009


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Patrick S. O'Donnell

It seems to me that there are some compelling reasons why one might wish to maintain a "comparatively greater focus" on the Holocaust, for it remains

…an occasion to talk about evil and suffering in general (e.g., through a renewed examination of pertinent texts in the Jewish tradition, say, the Book of Job or works by Maimonides, or by contemporary Jewish philosophers), or the theodicy question in particular (cf.: Oliver Leaman’s conclusion that ‘There can be little doubt but that the theology of the Holocaust is for many thinkers unconnected with the theodicies which preceded it, so that any understanding of the phenomena of evil and suffering will have to be on different lines from those acceptable in the past.’)*;

…(not unrelated to the above) an occasion to discuss the meaning and belief in God in the Jewish tradition, as well as questions of the meaning of life (and death) in general;

…an opportunity to comparatively examine the collective suffering if not genocidal experiences of other peoples: is the Holocaust an absolutely unique event (i.e., representative of a ‘break’) in both Jewish and non-Jewish history?;

…“a potent emotional justification for many things in the world Jews support, in particular the state of Israel” (Oliver Leaman);

…an opportunity to examine how non-Jews think about this event: politically, psychologically, ethically, religiously, philosophically, etc.;

…an opportunity to examine the question as to whether or not self-defined Jews, religious or not, are under some sort of obligation to accord this event some kind of priority in thinking about their individual and collective identity as Jews (i.e., relative to the myriad other phenomena connected in one way or another to Jewish identity);

In addition, I think both Jews and non-Jews should dispassionately examine the questions and arguments raised in two books by Norman G. Finkelstein: The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London: Verso, 2001 ed.), and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008 ed.).

*Please see Oliver Leaman's book, Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I might have mentioned that I've yet to read David's post.

David Bernstein

"Yet I'm slow to accept David's assertion that the comparatively greater focus on the Holocaust than on the rest of Jewish history is 'disturbing and unhealthy.' Yes, the Holocaust was but a moment in a five-plus-thousand-year history, but it was a trauma of epic proportions, and a very recent one. It seems entirely natural to me -- even, perhaps, healthy -- for the event to loom overly large in the Jewish people's collective cognition and self-image for something of a long while."

I agree with you, actually, except that I never said there shouldn't be a "comparatively greater" focus on the Holocaust. What I said is that one shouldn't focus on the Holocaust to the exclusion of the other three thousand years of Jewish history. So it's fine for Brandeis students to want to take a class on the Holocaust. Not so fine if that's there only scholarly encounter with Jewish history.

Howard Wasserman

One more piece to this centrality: Out of the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust came a period of relative strength, power, and comfort for world Jewsry--1) The Jewish State (one constantly under fire and threat, but existing and thriving nevertheless) and 2) Jews enjoying religious freedom, prosperity, and social and political power in America (greater than we have enjoyed in any host country in the past 2000 years?), without serious systemic anti-Semitism or physical danger.

Jeff Lipshaw

Interesting. Are any of you children of Holocaust survivors? I am, in the sense defined by the U.S. Holocaust Museum, under which a Holocaust survivor someone who lived under Nazi rule between 1933 and 1945. My grandparents, with my mother (then 5) and aunt, left Germany for the U.S. on April 1, 1939; my grandfather had spent several month in Dachau immediately prior to their departure.

My grandfather passed away in 1960 when I was six, but I have a keen recollection of him, of the German they spoke in their home, and of the "uncle" who wasn't really an uncle but who fled with them and lived with them. What's more, in 1960, that relative strength, power, and comfort Howard describes was not yet choate; it was all still fresh.

The reason I say all this is because I don't see the Holocaust, at least in my children, as an event as central to their consciousness and identity as it was to me. Indeed, my son was a Jewish Studies minor at Michigan and I don't think he took any classes related to the Holocaust (his favorite class was one that focused entirely on the mystic Reb Nahman of Bratslav).

Eric Muller

Jeff, my family background is almost identical to yours.

I do see the Holocaust as important in my kids' consciousness and identity, but I suspect that's because they know how important a part it is of mine.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

My wife's grandparents on her father's side, both doctors, fled Nazi Germany in 1936 with their three children, one of whom is my father-in-law. I recall seeing a photograph of my wife's grandfather from World War I, in which he served as a doctor in the German army.

From Finkelstein's introduction to the first of the aforementioned books: "My original interest in the Nazi holocaust was personal. Both my father and my mother were survivors of the the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi concentration camps. Apart from my parents, every family member on both sides was exterminated by the Nazis."

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