Analysis from Israel

Note: This column originally ran on April 23 but has not previously been posted on my website

Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in Israel just a week before Independence Day, and for Israelis, those days are thematically as well as temporally connected: One of many reasons why a Jewish state is needed is to save Jewish lives. Young American Jews also acknowledge a thematic connection. Shockingly, however, the connection many have been taught to see is the exact opposite: that the Holocaust is why a Jewish state shouldn’t exist—or at least, why they as Jews shouldn’t care about it.

Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have believed this. But then I read the column that Haaretz published on April 11, the eve of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In it, Steven Davidson described the standardized Holocaust-education curriculum he teaches his sixth-grade Hebrew-school class in Brooklyn, N.Y. As he noted, he is just “one of hundreds of Jewish educators across Canada and the U.S. to utilize the Holocaust curriculum developed by the nonprofit organization, Facing History & Ourselves.” Since 1976, this curriculum “has educated over half a million students in the U.S. and Canada about the Holocaust.”

So what does it teach Jewish students? “The lesson,” Davidson explained, “tasked me with writing a quote on the board: ‘I love my daughters more than my nieces, my nieces more than my cousins, my cousins more than my neighbors. But that doesn’t mean that we detest our neighbors.’ ” He asked his students’ opinion of this sentiment; unsurprisingly, all but one approved it.

And then, “I revealed to the class who said that quote: Jean-Marie Le Pen, Holocaust-denier and renowned xenophobe.” And also renowned anti-Semite, though one can see why Davidson didn’t mention that. After all, the whole point of this lesson is that loving some people more than others is evil—the kind of thing only a Jean-Marie Le Pen would do. Why confuse the message by mentioning Le Pen’s hatred for Jews, in particular, as if that were something Jewish students should care about?

The ensuing discussion drove the point home. One student soon “realized” that this quote is “like America First,” Donald Trump’s slogan, and Trump is a far greater symbol of evil to these students than Le Pen, whom most had never heard of before. As Davidson noted, “My sixth-graders generally hate Trump because nearly all their parents do.” Soon, students were explicitly connecting Trump to the Nazis: “During another lesson, a couple of students related the Brownshirts and Nazi rallies to Trump encouraging and retweeting violence on his behalf.” The conclusion of this logical progression was clear: Loving some people more than others is Nazi behavior—something no good Jew can countenance.

Of course, any parent who actually cared no more for his own child than for some random child down the block would probably be indicted for child neglect. But the curriculum’s designers know the instinctive parent-child bond is strong enough to overcome such indoctrination; that isn’t their target.

Rather, their target is the bond Jews feel for their fellow Jews. Because that isn’t one of humanity’s deepest instincts; it’s very much a learned behavior.

The canonical Jewish texts taught it by intertwining universal principles with particularist messages about the special obligations owed one’s own people, like “All Israel are responsible for one another” (Talmud Shevuot 39a) or “The poor of your own city take precedence” (Talmud Baba Metzia 71a). Yet even American Jews who never studied these texts used to be taught this behavior. Most Jews of my generation can remember charity boxes at home in which we put money for Israel or Hebrew-school events when we wrote letters to imprisoned Soviet Jews; the unambiguous message was that we had a responsibility to our brethren.

Today, many American Jewish children are taught the exact opposite: that feeling any special responsibility toward their fellow Jews is Nazi-like behavior, and only if they eschew such feelings can they be good Jews who have internalized the Holocaust’s lessons. Given this, is it any wonder that in a 2013 Pew Research poll, 73 percent of American Jews deemed remembering the Holocaust an essential part of being Jewish, but only 43 percent said the same for caring about Israel and just 28 percent for being part of a Jewish community?

This also explains why many young American Jews are “distancing” themselves from Israel. American Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum have increasingly blamed this on Israeli policy (see, for instance, last month’s New York Times op-ed by World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, a longtime Republican and supporter of Israel’s ruling center-right Likud Party).

Yet even if Israeli policy fulfilled American Jews’ wish list in every particular, that still wouldn’t give them any reason to care about Israel one whit more than they do about any other country. Only if they felt a special affection and concern for their fellow Jews—and hence for the Jewish state where almost half of world Jewry lives—would American Jews have reason to feel any special affection and concern for Israel.

Instead, they are taught that special affection and concern for their own people is wrong. And if so, then special affection and concern for the one country on earth belonging to their own people is doubly wrong. In fact, the Jewish state’s very existence is wrong, because states shouldn’t be concerned with the fate of one particular people any more than individuals should.

Thus it’s no surprise that when the National Survey of American Jews asked respondents in 2007 whether they would see Israel’s destruction as a personal tragedy, about 80 percent of Jews aged 65 or older answered yes, but only 50 percent of Jews under 35 did. After all, why should Jews who have been taught that particularism is evil feel bereaved at the loss of the world’s only Jewish state?

And that is the tragic irony of Holocaust education in America today: Young Jews are being taught that the only way to internalize the Holocaust’s lessons is by becoming indifferent to the possibility of a second one. For the destruction of Israel, with its 6.6 million Jews, would assuredly be nothing less.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on April 23, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

One Response to How Holocaust education distances Jews from Israel

  • Michael Caplan says:

    Thank you, Evelyn – your posts are wonderful, even when they’re about something awful. Your spirit and strength shine through always.

    I agree with what you’ve written here, but want to add that, while one’s allegiance may, according to Judaism, be to one’s people first, Judaism also by definition acknowledges the sacredness of each individual life. So there is real warrant, on an abstract level, for taking a side against one’s people if they are doing wrong, for the sake of the larger universal truth.

    The simplistic intellectual mistake made by these would-be universalists, however, the obstacle to their understanding of real-life universality, is to confuse particularity with sameness. It’s clearly not that every person or group must be dealt with “the same way” but rather must be treated in accordance with their particular situation and its needs, that is, according to how the particulars of their situation relate to universality-oriented criteria of just treatment.

    More crucial even than this mistake (which is, in itself, an understandable step on the way to a more complex and realistic way of thinking) is the emotional betrayal that underlies it and that makes it possible, a betrayal of those who are in reality the victims of persecution.

    It is not their feelings FOR others that is the problem, it is rather how this claim is used to mask their feelings AGAINST a specific group – the very same group that has historically been the target of such persecution and, with ironic cruelty, their very own group – thereby putting the lie to their claim itself.

    I needn’t be Jewish (and am “only” patrilineally so, and not religious) to be able to see the demonization and subsequent persecutory injustice that remains the hallmark of anti-Jewishness to the present day, and that most truly determines Israel’s status as the “Jew among nations” (Poliakov), as the “global Jew”. But it takes a special kind of Jew – “self-hating”, “assimilationist”, “AsaJew”, whatever – to blind oneself not only to the harm being inflicted on one’s own people, but on this particular persecuted people, the most systematically and continually persecuted in history.

    They are not merely failing to put their own first (which, taken simplistically as we are today wont to take everything, could obviously become xenophobic and isolationist), but that they are “unconsciously” targeting their own by means of the very effort to be “fair to everyone”, and this when “their own” are the very people being targeted by everyone else, more and more.

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The International Criminal Court’s fundamental flaw

In my last column, I noted in passing that the International Criminal Court’s blatant anti-Israel bias is merely a symptom of a more fundamental flaw. That isn’t self-evident; court supporters would doubtless argue, just as many people do about the United Nations, that while the court’s anti-Israel bias is regrettable, it’s an isolated flaw that doesn’t outweigh the benefit of ending impunity for atrocities.

What convinced me both that the ICC is unredeemable and that the impunity problem has a better solution was actually a book by one of the court’s ardent supporters—Philippe Sands, a law professor and international lawyer who has worked on ICC cases. In East West Street, Sands traces the development of two key concepts in international law—crimes against humanity and genocide—to their respective culminations in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and the Genocide Convention of 1948. But for me, the real eye-opener was his description of the international wrangling that preceded the Nuremberg Trials.

Nuremberg is sometimes derided as victor’s justice. And in one sense, it obviously was: Four of the victors of World War II—America, Britain, Russia and France—decided to put senior officials of their vanquished foe on trial. But what was striking about Nuremberg was the massive degree of international concord required to hold those trials. Lawyers representing several very different legal systems and several very different systems of government nevertheless had to agree on every word and even every comma in the indictments. And since those lawyers were acting on their governments’ behalf, political approval by all four governments was also needed.

In contrast, the ICC needs no international buy-in at all to pursue a case. Granted, its prosecutors and judges come from many different countries, but they represent neither their home governments nor their home legal systems. Politically, they represent nobody but themselves. Legally, they represent one particular interpretation of international law—an interpretation popular with academics and “human rights” organizations, but less so with national governments.

At first glance, both of the above may sound like pluses. Prosecutorial and judicial independence are generally good things, whereas many governments and legal systems leave much to be desired when it comes to protecting human rights.

But the ICC’s version of prosecutorial and judicial independence is very different from the version found in most democracies because the latter is not completely unconstrained. In democracies, prosecutors and judges are constrained first of all by democratically enacted legislation, and usually by democratically enacted constitutions as well. They’re also constrained by the fact that they, too, are citizens of their country, and therefore share concerns important to most of their countrymen—for instance, national self-defense—but unimportant to judges and prosecutors from other countries (which those at the ICC almost always will be).

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