I can still remember hearing in my childhood that the last Confederate soldier or the last Union soldier or the last freed slave had died. By then, of course, the Civil War had long since passed from the realm of living memory to that of historical event. Or at least it had for those of us growing up in the North. In law school, I learned from my Southern friends that the Civil War was still very much a part of their self-identity.
The Holocaust too is in the process of entering the realm of history. Even the youngest survivors are fast approaching seventy. Within the next five years, the steady flow of their memoirs will cease. Even those one-step removed, who write and speak passionately of the dozens of grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins on the other side of the ocean whom they never met, are no longer young.
For the gentile world, the Holocaust is already history. The regained comfort Europe’s educated classes feel talking again about ``the Jews" demonstrates this. Indeed something akin to the negation of the Holocaust is taking place in Europe. Israel is accused of brandishing the Holocaust aloft in an attempt to avoid scrutiny for its own Nazi-like policies against the Palestinians.
Even among young American Jews, the disconnect between the horrific suffering of sixty years ago and the reality of their lives – suburban malls and manicured lawns and picturesque Ivy League campuses – is so great as to render comprehension nearly impossible.
``For my children, the Holocaust is ancient history," says Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt. I can still remember touring Yad Vashem one Tisha B’Av with a group of American Jewish high school kids. As they hurried through the record of the demonic fury poured out on European Jewry, the question most on their minds was: ``Where was Jennifer last night."
Yet even as the connection to the Holocaust wanes, it remains one of the main pillars of the core religion of American Jewry, the other two being Israel and fear of resurgent anti-Semitism. The Holocaust tops every other factor in Jewish self-identify. Between 75% and 85% rate the Holocaust an important factor in their Jewish identity – as opposed to 7% who view the study of Torah texts as an important aspect of Jewish life.
At the intellectual level, the Holocaust provides no coherent basis for continued Jewish life. What follows from being a member of the most persecuted and long-suffering people in history? Does any sane person seek to become one more link in the chain of suffering?
True, on an emotional level the Holocaust can be a powerful trigger for reconsidering the meaning of one’s Judaism. Contemplating what the Jews of Europe endured during the Holocaust, some young Jews will be filled with an inchoate sense of debt to the victims. The suffering of Europe’s Jews cannot obligate them to be the same kind of Jews their ancestors were, but they feel that they owe it to those ancestors to know something of their Jewishness before casually abandoning it forever.
I can still remember reading the Book of Fire, one unremitting chronicle of massacres, mass expulsions, and pograms, at Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum, and asking myself: How could my ancestors have chosen, in generation after generation, the near certainty of exile or pogram for themselves and their children? What was the source of their power, and could I too still tap into that source at this late date in history? I wondered.
But if for some study of the Holocaust is a trigger to increased Jewish study and learning, for most the Holocaust has the opposite effect. The Holocaust is the strongest element of American Jewish identity, Jacob Neusner observes, precisely because requires so little of Jews in their day-to-day lives. Not even a check to the Anti-Defamation League or Israel Bonds.
Over three thousand years of Jewish history has been telescoped into one catastrophic event. As a consequence of this obsession with the Holocaust, American Jews’ primary image of Jews is as victims. Jewish identity for them is largely negative, something imposed externally by those who hate us rather than freely chosen. No wonder that this litany of persecution and victimhood has proven thin gruel for transmission to the next generation.
The time has come to focus on Jewish living, not just Jewish death.