Monday, January 30, 2017
Holocaust, Shoah, and unique group experiences
Lost amidst President Trump's offending Muslims the world over was his offending many Jews with his Holocaust Remembrance Day Statement. The statement spoke of the "depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people," without mentioning that more than half of those, the primary targets, and the raison d'être of the Nazi efforts, were Jews. Spokesperson Hope Hicks defended the statement by pointing to the 5 million victims of other groups, including "priests, gypsies, people with mental or physical disabilities, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah's Witnesses, anarchists, Poles and other Slavic peoples, and resistance fighters." Chief of Staff Reince Priebus tried to do the same on Meet the Press on Sunday, producing a fascinating three minutes of video (after the jump) in which he stares blankly ahead while concocting a word soup of adjectives to describe the Holocaust, including "horrible event," "miserable time in history," and "extraordinarily sad." All without ever saying, explicitly (as opposed to blandly agreeing with Chuck Todd's premises) that Jews were the central victims.
Jewish groups were outraged. Stripping away its uniquely Jewish nature is an element of denial--"many people died, not only Jews, and it entailed nothing programmatic or unique to history. And it divorces the event from 2000 years of unique anti-Semitism that made it possible. Fortunately, Preibus reminded us that Trump has Jewish family members, which will be his get-out-of-jail-free card for the next few years.
The question of universalizing affects what we even call this thing. I prefer the Hebrew word "Shoah" (literally, "destruction" or "total destruction"), although that word could isolate the event, and its victims, from the rest of the world and of world experience (not unaided by that historic anti-Semitism). On the other hand, a generic English word such as "Holocaust" allows for the Jewish element to be ignored, perhaps for those same reasons, just as Trump did here.
Updates: First is Deborah Lipstadt in the Atlantic, labeling this "de-Judaization of the Holocaust" as "softcore denialism."
Second is WH Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who was beyond annoyed by people nitpicking of the statement, insisting it had been "praised" (without mentioning by whom) and arguing that President Obama's "anti-Israel" policies of the last eight years are a bigger deal than a statement remembering the Holocaust. Three remarks. First, Spicer makes me long for Ari Fleischer. Second, every statement from the White House trying to defuse this keeps coming back, without acknowledging (or maybe even recognizing), the problem--that the statement is troubling because its memory of the Holocaust is historically wrong in significant ways that play on anti-Semitism. And third, the downshift of how much Trump loves Israel, because: 1) Israel is not the Holocaust and 2) what Trump loves is Benjamin Netanyahu and his government--which is not "Israel" in the same way that Donald Trump is not "America."
I don't like Shoah or Hebrew-isms in general. The people that died had the same relationship to Hebrew as devout Catholics had to Latin circa 1960. It was a dead liturgical language, it wasn't they live their lives in. That was most often Yiddish, and sometimes Polish, Russian, German, Romanian, etc.
Israelis, and Modern Hebrew is an Israeli language, ought not to be allowed to claim as their sole inheritance all things Jewish. We Jews of America are just as much heirs to thousands of years of tradition as they are.
Posted by: brad | Jan 30, 2017 2:10:06 PM