Holocaust Memorial Day and Parashat Mishpatim
A few days ago, it was Holocaust Memorial Day. In a couple of days, we’ll hold our own ceremony in Brighton. It will be open -this is very important- to all the citizens. Because Holocaust Memorial Day is for the general community. We Jews commemorate the victims of the greatest genocide in human history, on a specific day in the Jewish calendar: Yom ha Shoah.
Before I go on I want to explain why the Holocaust is the greatest crime in human history and why we Jews should not be afraid to state this in public. The horror of the Holocaust is not a matter of numbers. In terms of numbers, there have been genocides far more deadly in human history. The extermination of the more than 50 million American natives comes to mind. Also, nobody counted how many people were murdered in Africa or deported as enslaved people, they were indeed more than 30 million. And please don’t forget good old Comrade Stalin with his more than 20 million victims. And 15 million Chinese died of starvation under Mao Zedong. These genocides, and many others, outnumber the one decreed by the failed painter with one testicle and by his cronies.
Yet, the Holocaust is a unique event in human history. Not for its numbers, but for its logic. All the massacres I have numbered above -and many others- were driven or dictated by the economy. Imperialism. Colonialism. The will to appropriate resources. Or the fantasy to create a completely self-sufficient Communist utopia.
I am an old Marxist. I know that human history is driven by the economy. And economy motivates all the horrors of human history, including all its genocides. Except one. Because from an economic point of view it makes absolutely no sense to load people on a train in Thessalonika to carry them to die in Poland, 1500 kilometres away. It’s an absolute waste of resources. It just does not make sense. Even more during wartime, when resources are by definition limited.
From a strictly economic point of view, it does not make sense that the convoys directed to the camps always had precedence over the trains bringing soldiers to the Russian front. Even when Germany was losing the war. And this horror, this unexplainable horror, went on for years.
This is madness. Organised madness. If we focus only on the numbers, we lose sight of the horror of the Holocaust. It defies every logic, but at the same time, it was accurately, efficiently, rationally organised.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, we, people who live in the Western world remember this organised horror madness and -this is the part I find very problematic- we are supposed to learn the lessons from the past.
But to learn what? If I may ask. When Holocaust Memorial Day was instituted, the assumption was that the more we talk about the Holocaust, the more we educate people not to repeat the horrors of the past. This learning exercise has been prepared in a very careful and accurate manner. By learning about the Holocaust in all its small details, we are supposed to learn the values of tolerance and inclusion, of multiculturalism and hope.
A monument to such an effort is the Holocaust Museum in Washington, perhaps the most famous Holocaust Museum outside Israel. It is massive. The history of the Holocaust is narrated very accurately, in excruciatingly painful details. Someone has calculated that a visitor who wants to read every line of the panels on display in the Holocaust Museum in Washington will need more than two weeks to conclude the visit. After such deep full immersion, you’re supposed to emerge permanently vaccinated against antisemitism.
And so let me ask: did it work?
Do we live now in a more tolerant society, more multicultural, or -dare I ask- less antisemitic them it was in 2005 when Holocaust Memorial Day was instituted? Ladies and gentlemen, let me remind you that man called Jeremy Corbyn who was about to become Prime Minister in this Country. Part of his followers talk about the Holocaust only to parrot the Palestinian propaganda, according to which Israelis are worse than the Nazis. While the others do not talk about the Holocaust at all: they believe that Holocaust education is part of a Zionist conspiracy.
Oh yes, we are happy that Jeremy Corbyn did not become Prime Ministers. The speeches of his cronies -Chris Williamsons, Richard Burgon and John McDonnell- are simply terrifying, as redolent as they are of antisemitic stereotypes. If they were in charge, such nonsenses would circulate with Governmental approval. Luckily we have escaped such shame. But we should ask ourselves how was it possible that these people found themselves in the anteroom of power, challenged by no one except us Jews. I thought that British people — accurately educated- have learnt to recognise antisemitism! There is clearly something in the education about the Holocaust in the UK that simply doesn’t work.
I suspect that this “something that doesn’t work” is that we put too much stress on survivors. The Holocaust was not a place where people survived. Surviving was an exception. It’s fine and good that students meet with survivors. But we should teach the students that surviving was not a rule.
Yet, teaching about the Holocaust has become teaching about Jewish survivors, and righteous Gentiles, forgetting that they -too- were exceptions.
One of my favourite writers, Howard Jacobson, has written extensively about Holocaust education as the opportunity for Europeans to absolve themselves. I am not following him in his cynicism (you should read him anyway). The bravery and courage of those who stood against the crowd should always be honoured, precisely because they were exceptions, not the rule.
But think about it: those survivors whom we meet almost invariably come from Western Europe. It should be said that before the Holocaust, a minority of Jews lived in cities in Western Europe. Masses of Jews lived in rural Poland, Romania, Ukraine. And they did not survive. No one rescued the masses of Jews in remote villages in Eastern Europe, where the local peasants were more than happy to get rid of the Jews.
Yes, there are survivors who came from that world, that vast region of Eastern Europe that was Poland or Russia or Hungary depending on the time of the day. They survived mainly because the Nazis did not have time to finish the job, and massively they tried to immigrate to the Land of Israel. And this is not -let’s be honest- the most glorious page of British history.
I’m afraid that we forget what the Holocaust has been by turning it into an opportunity to educate the European youth on the values of tolerance. Frankly speaking, there are so many other opportunities in European history to teach the values of tolerance.
Think of the religious wars in England and in France in the 16th and 17th centuries. Think that at a certain point, after centuries of blood-shedding, Catholics, and Protestants realised that people who have a different opinion regarding whether Jesus is really present in the Eucharist could be citizens of the same State. It was an extraordinary discovery and actually the birth or religious tolerance. Do you want an event to use as a teaching opportunity about toleration? The end of the religious wars in Europe is a good start. But of course, there are no survivors around, And crucially there are not righteous Gentiles we can honour for that.
You see, I’m a Rabbi. I live in the Diaspora, and my work is to remind the Diaspora that we have a Jewish calendar patterned along the cycle of the Tora readings. Holocaust Memorial Day is not part of the Jewish calendar. It has been established on the civic date of the liberation from Auschwitz. Properly said, it is the Christian date. The so-called civil calendar numbers the year from the birth of Jesus. It is a Christian calendar. Anyway, 27 January, Holocaust Memorial Day, does not fall every year at the same point of the cycle of Torah reading.
Our calendar does not include Holocaust Memorial Day. 27 January is not a Hebrew date. This means that every year in the Shabbats around Holocaust Memorial Day, we read from different portions of the Torah. I think that this year there is a profound contrast between -on one side- the Torah reading of this Shabbat and -on the other side- Holocaust Memorial Day. Holocaust Memorial Day is meant to teach tolerance, which as I said I find uncomfortable.
In this week’s Torah portion, there are many mitzvot, religious commandments, and today we have read some of them. Most of these commandments are about the difference between Hebrew slaves and Gentile slaves.
I hear the alarm bell ringing from our contemporary sensitivity. Why read this stuff? Are we about to teach that slavery is legitimate? Or that discrimination should be done between Hebrew workers and foreign workers?
Of course not! Thanks to the interpretation of the Rabbis, the Oral Law, this piece of ancient Middle Eastern legislation has become the most humanitarian and decisive condemnation of slavery. I hope I will have soon the opportunity to teach how this fascinating intellectual process has developed (you know, it’s called: Judaism).
But think about this: the distinction between a Hebrew slave and a foreign slave, in a Hebrew text, is there to teach to the Hebrew reader, that is us: “you also can become a slave”. Not by chance is found in the same Torah portion that orders to not oppress the stranger “because you also have been a stranger”.
These passages about the Hebrew slaves are there to teach the Hebrew of today the virtue of empathy. Empathy between Jews. Because you obviously feel empathy first and foremost for the members of your family, of your community, of your tribe. Empathy does not mean “recognising the common humanity”. This “common humanity” is quite an abstract concept (and indeed there is no Hebrew equivalent) Empathy means being able to feel the feelings of other human beings, without leaving out the concrete particularity, such as, for example, being Jewish.
Here’s the paradox. By insisting on “common humanity” and of course “many other genocides” we are forced to leave home our specific history, our memory, our identity. We are required to forget being Jewish.
Here’s a highly disturbing episode. Four years ago, a Jewish employee at the Anna Frank Museum in Amsterdam (the most visited Holocaust Museum in the world) was forbidden to wear the kippah because -he was told- the open display of religious symbols could upset the visitors. And please note that the Anna Frank museums offer the visitors explanatory leaflets in all the languages of the world (Arab included). Except for Hebrew.
This happens when you turn the Holocaust, the persecution of the Jews, into a tool to teach the values of religious tolerance. The Hebrew language and the Jewish religion become symbols of divisiveness. Do you want to affirm the “common humanity”? You have to silence your particular Jewish identity
Does it mean we have to cease taking part in the commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day and stop holding these ceremonies at Meadow View, which should be -in theory- open to all the citizens, but as you know, only Jews go? Of course not! If anything we should hold the flag in spite of those who want to turn such a day in commemoration of Palestinians sufferings, as certain people in our city are already preparing to do.
But because I’m talking to my community and this is a Jewish community, I wanted to share with you my discomfort,. One of my predecessors, Rabbi David Mayer, used to say that almost all Jews can say the names of five concentration camps, but few Jews can name the Hebrew names or the five books of the Torah.
There is so much more in Judaism than the memory of the Holocaust We cannot make our identity coincide with the Holocaust. It will be offensive toward these Jewish masses in Eastern Europe for which the Torah was literally life and who perished during the most horrendous genocide in history, which still we struggle to understand.
By all means, see you tomorrow at the cemetery but also hopefully see you soon in shul.