Like many other communities, Rockland County, N.Y., where I served a congregation for 27 years, had a Holocaust Museum and Study Center. Soon after we moved back to Philadelphia, this community started fundraising for the new National Museum of American Jewish History. I must say I was thrilled that it would have a unique – and positive – focus.
Of course survivors and their families deserve special attention and recognition of the terrible years spent in hiding and in camps and of the devastating effects of the deaths of so many of their relatives and friends. But as time has moved on, the Holocaust has become a dim memory except among a shrinking number of people. As a result, I find many survivors upset that “they” don’t care about what happened anymore.
I believe we need to rethink our approach.
Recently I attended the Freedom Seder Revisited program at our National Museum. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who wrote the first Freedom Seder in 1969 to commemorate the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, had been asked to reminisce about the origins of his Haggadah. Instead, he took us forward and spoke of what a new freedom seder would look like, incorporating such issues as human trafficking, hunger, fairness to immigrants, slavery to fossil fuels, and more.
In similar vein, I believe our approach to the Holocaust needs to emphasize the evils of racism and prejudice against any people. We cannot expect young people, Jews or non-Jews, to sympathize with Holocaust victims except as an example of the suffering they see all around them. “Holocaust education” must denounce in no uncertain terms all scapegoating and bias, including ways in which even Jews use broad brushes to condemn whole groups: our frequent failure to try hard to understand Islam and to reach out to U.S. Muslims, and the blind eye we turn to the devastating effects of occupation and settlement building on Palestinians. We need to ask: What might have been different had the world taken action against the Nuremburg Laws?
Our legitimate emotional responses to the Holocaust, when they overcome reason, make it difficult to analyze accurately current situations, leading to a paranoia that immobilizes or, worse, to failed policies. Israel is especially susceptible to drawing erroneous analogies. It acts as if its military, one of the strongest in the world and by far the mightiest in the Middle East, cannot defend it against its neighbors. So Israel misses opportunities to do everything possible to bring about peace, harming its own standing in the world and the psyche of its own citizens. American Jewish leaders should not be surprised when Jews and certainly non-Jews find our insistence on Holocaust education dissonant with our often-uncritical defense of Israeli policies.
We also do a disservice to the beauties of Judaism when we turn the Holocaust (and anti-Semitism in general) into a sine qua non of Jewish identity. A healthy identity is built on positive traits; the Holocaust is a reason NOT to be Jewish – “lest something similar happen to me,” as it were. We best ensure the Jewish future by emphasizing celebration and social justice, traditionally part of what it meant to become a learned and devoted Jew.
As we face a future of limited resources, both in terms of time and money, we would do well to place our bets on creating positive Jewish experiences here at home, focused on what matters to our children and to the society in which they have the great fortune of living and thriving.
Rabbi George Stern, the former executive director of Neighborhood Interfaith Movement, is a consultant to nonprofits.