Over the years it has become increasingly prevalent for individuals to compare people, groups, and events to Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Beyond just condoning this, American Jews are often the ones making these claims, using the memories of our ancestors and the suffering of our people as a card to play in various political games. This phenomenon in which terms relating to the Holocaust have become a generic phrase to mean “bad” should come as no surprise. It’s a reflection of the growing disconnect between American Jews and our people’s tumultuous past. We have never truly dealt with the full implications of the Holocaust the way Israeli Jews are compelled to.
When the gates to Palestine were finally taken down and Holocaust survivors were free to return to the Jewish homeland, they were greeted by Israel’s first war for survival. They also found themselves surrounded by the “new Jew”, a society which had spent the beginning half of the century reclaiming the land under the worst of conditions while learning to defend itself from attackers. This hardened society, equal parts book and sword, looked down on the survivors, often viewing them with a sort of distrust. Many questioned what these individuals had done to survive, and were embarrassed by their presence. They had been led like sheep to the slaughter, so went the thinking, while the Jews of Palestine had worked to change their destiny, becoming a new breed of Jew, strong and self-reliant. How could Israeli society understand their experience?
While the survivors of the Holocaust suffered with their pain in silence, a debate raged in the Knesset that brought the issue back to the forefront of society. In 1951, Israel grappled with the prospect of German reparations. As historian Martin Gilbert put it, “survivors and non-survivors alike felt the pain of the Holocaust even more during the reparations debate because of the very notion that money could in any way compensate for the suffering.” As Menachem Begin led the opposition to accepting reparations, Israeli society was first scratching the surface of the emotions that had been repressed.
This release of emotion continued a decade later in 1961 when Adolph Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, was put on trial following his capture by the Mossad in Argentina. As the Holocaust was once again brought to the public eye, hundreds of survivors were given the opportunity to testify publicly, a right previously denied them at the 1945 Nuremberg Trials. As years of repressed feelings were released in public, Israelis came together in this atmosphere of vulnerability to finally embrace the survivors and accept the pain and suffering as part of their culture and our history as Jews. As Daniel Gordis described the result of the Eichmann trial, “David Ben-Gurion also had an emotional agenda. Israel’s young people had been raised in a society that had thus far avoided confronting the Holocaust. It was time for a public reckoning.” But what happened to the reckoning for American Jewry?
In the diaspora, many Jewish immigrants created insulated communities, recreating a modern shtetl. Survivors often kept to themselves, holding their memories close. When they spoke of their experiences it was to their children. Their accounts of the Holocaust created a “Survivor Syndrome” in which their descendants were scarred by the pain, able to recount the horrors as if it was they who had lived them. The offspring of survivors were taught to be thankful for the shoes on their feet, for the food on their table, and for the roof over their head. They also inherited trust issues and a fear of “others”. Surrounded by Jews who fought to assimilate with American culture at all costs, these survivors and their children took a different path than their peers in Israel who were immersed in a society that was defined by its Jewish character.
While Israel used the Jewish past to fuel a Jewish future, Americans tried to fly under the radar. As the geographical distance from the Holocaust and the size of America allowed many Jews to push it from their minds, many survivors were left to cope internally. Living in a free America subdued painful feelings yet it also led to suppression or ignorance of the Jewish struggle. In Israel, where Jews were the majority, it was only a matter of time before they faced a reckoning. In America, where Jews were a tiny minority, and survivors kept an even lower profile, no such opportunity has arisen. As Yossi Klein Halevi commented, “the total public and even private space made the Holocaust seem mythical.” Wounds need to be acknowledged, otherwise the lesson is lost.
While American Jewry failed to internalize the Holocaust in its entirety, we risk even worse damage to Jewish youth in the diaspora by not teaching them properly. Each generation has less of a connection as our distance from the Holocaust grows. Images can’t substitute for the stories and emotions passed down directly from survivors. Those without parents or grandparents who lived through the horrors can’t possibly understand the importance of remembering.
Perhaps the divide between American and Israeli Jewry can best be traced back to the ways in which each society grappled with the legacy of Holocaust. In Israel, it was understood that the founding of the Jewish State was in spite of the Holocaust. The Jewish longing for our homeland is part of our DNA. The first aliyah took place from 1882-1903 and was followed by four decades of restoration before Hitler destroyed a third of our people.
In America, there is a common misconception that Israel appeared out of nowhere as some sort of apology for the mass murder and a world that largely turned a blind eye. American Jewry has borrowed this idea all too often and it is now commonplace for Jews to be heard saying that Israel exists because of the Holocaust. This is on us for not accepting our fair share of the blame for the silence of both our government and people during the Holocaust, as well as the common opposition to Zionism as an idea before catastrophe struck. The lines have become blurred because in America, the distance from our homeland and the lack of familiarity with its issues has allowed many to forget that both Zionism and the foundation of the modern state of Israel are rooted in Jewish survival.
The Jewish mentality developed down two very different paths. Israel as a whole was quicker to embrace its reckoning and therefore Jewish survival was often at the forefront of public discourse. Prime Minister Begin might be the best known example of this obsession with preventing Jewish suffering, but he was not alone. Both Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin had well documented issues with American Jewry.
They were frustrated with American Jews’ distance from the Yishuv’s struggle for independence, believing that American assimilation had clouded our judgment. Jewish prosperity had become more important than Jewish survival. Somewhere along the way, Jews in the diaspora began to mistakenly believe that donating money to Israel gave them a vote in her policies when all that philanthropy did was assuage our guilt for avoiding our own reckoning.
Even when American Jews were waving Israeli flags with pride, the conversation of Jewish survival was often taboo. Golda Meir can be revered by many in the United States, yet many Israelis have not forgiven her for her mistakes leading up to the Yom Kippur War. Rabin is worshipped by the left in America for his role in the Oslo Accords, but he was elected twice in Israel for his military brilliance and his undying commitment to her security. Benjamin Netanyahu is frequently vilified for this same commitment to Jewish survival. Foreign to American Jews, it is his dedication to this idea that has allowed him to maintain the trust of his people. Bibi is not the source of discord among Israel and the diaspora, he is merely the modern voice of the issue that underlies Israel’s creation – Jewish survival. For American Jews, this voice clearly hits a nerve.
Two years ago today, we lost Elie Wiesel. As the face and the voice of Jewish survival, Wiesel also had the unique capacity to serve as a kind of surrogate father or grandfather of all of those whose families were not affected by the Holocaust or Israel’s wars of survival. He was our connection to the pain and an example to all those born in this wave of Jewish prosperity.
On the two year anniversary of his death, we need to honor him and all of the other victims and survivors. We don’t need to do this by hashtagging “Never Forget”. Who can remember what they never knew? We need to honor them by keeping their experiences alive. We need to honor them by integrating their pain and their shame into our teachings so that we can take responsibility in facing our reckoning and joining our Israeli family in prioritizing Jewish survival. We need to honor them by avoiding the trap of using the Holocaust as a synonym for immoral behavior. This will help ensure that future generations born into a world without survivors will understand who we are as a modern people.