01 May 2006

Yesterday's Darfur Rally & The Holocaust

I went to the Save Darfur rally yesterday in Washington, DC as part of a group of YCT students (there were roughly 10-12 YCTers there). There were a lot of people there, especially Jews, surely making a קידוש השם (lit., sanctification of the Name, but colloquially, something that makes Jews look good) showing that many Jews are concerned about the plight of the people of Darfur who are being slaughtered, raped, etc. by the Janjaweed militias.

I first heard about what was going on in the Darfur region two years ago (when I was in Israel) when I read a blurb about it in the Economist (and I felt cool that I knew about it while many people didn’t). In the past year or so, fortunately the situation there has had its profile raised along with the public’s conscience being raised about it (unfortunately, there are still some people who are in the dark about it), culminating in various efforts to help the people there.

Yesterday’s rally (and others across the country) was certainly a strong showing of people’s showing of their concern for the situation. Hopefully, there will be more UN troops to be sent in the region to defend the people who are being persecuted there. Anyways, as to my thoughts on the rally: I thought that it got very repetitive and that one only needed to be there for maybe a half hour to absorb the central messages (although one would have had to have been there longer to hear important speakers (one guy came up to me and asked if “the two main speakers – Clooney and Obama” had yet spoken)) of “Never Again,” “Not on my watch,” and others, raising the specters of previous genocides and massacres, such as the Holocaust, Cambodia, Armenia, and especially the most recent one from the last decade what went on in the Balkans.

My thought here will focus on the appropriation of language used in reference to the Holocaust as well as ideas therefrom, especially considering that Holocaust Rememberance Day occurred last week. It was clear that not only was the social justice idea of saving these people and protecting them driving so many Jews to be concerned about what was going on, but also the memory of the Holocaust seared in their memories. While that’s fine, I would like to discuss Jews and the Holocaust.

For a couple of years now, I have been unhappy with the unusual obsession of Jews with the Holocaust. This [non-sexual] fetishization of the Holocaust has resulted in being the focus of classes and so forth in the field of Jewish Studies. While I accept that the Holocaust was a watershed in Jewish history, in terms of demographics (both in numbers and in geographic movement), and its influence on theology, eschatology, and philosophy, and even in popular thought, I disagree with the idea that it should be studied as something that is Jewish. Let me state this more clearly: The Holocaust was not Jewish. For clarification, yes, six million Jews died, but so did five million gentiles, so it was clearly not an event that affected only Jews. In terms of uniqueness, yes, Jews have been the most specially affected by it, but that shouldn’t license them to a monopoly on the tragedy.

So what do I think of it? I think it’s a human issue. When one studies the Holocaust, I think it is an issue which one can learn about human life, similar to other genocidal actions (that is, unless one studies the effects of the Holocaust on Jewish life and thought) and not about Jewish life or thought, thus my view of its inappropriateness in courses or even minors in Jewish Studies apartments.

Nevertheless, as the recent AJC report shows, the Holocaust holds a profoundly deep connection for many Jews to Judaism, but I find it horribly sad that people are trying to cling onto past national tragedies rather than onto living a Jewish life – if Jews are maintaining a connection to the dead through some sort of feeling for them without living in the present either for them or themselves in some sort of reificatory manner (to say nothing of God), what good does it do? Aside from satisfying some sort of psychological need, that sort of thing will not last past one or two generations and is ultimately an empty one. (The underlying moral here is that the while the Holocaust is a powerful emotional tool for encouraging a connection to Jewish tradition in some sort of fashion, it is eventually insufficient.)

Oh, lastly, I would like to say that it's my wish that what's going on over in Darfur end this moment, unfortunately, that's not how the world works. Even if there were to be a UN force assembled, even that would still take time.
(While I could have included copious amounts of links to other blog postings about the rally, I will only post the link to my classmate, Ben, on his thoughts on the rally.)

Tags: , , Holocaust, , , ,


Anonymous said...

So Rabbi, you find it sad that people choose to "dwell" on the Holocaust?...but you joke about kiddush hashem?

Perhaps Jews who "fetishize" the Holocaust are a bit deeper than you seem to be. Perhaps they cannot be Jewish without struggling to know and understand this tragedy. Perhaps they want to understand what kind of g_d would allow his people to be slaughtered. And not just any part of his people, but the cream of the crop, the most pious, the most devoted, the most frum, the ones who loved Him most.

Don't you ever wonder? Did 6 million die because they did not keep g_ds mitzvot well enough? or did they keep them too well?
Ever wonder about the one million Jewish children? Why could God not spare them?

As far as I can see they all died kiddush hashem. So where does that leave us? It is a tall order to be Jewish or to love God after the Holocaust. I do not understand how you think you can be Jewish and a Rabbi yet and shrug the Holocaust off as if it were just some big car accident.

Do you believe that statistically speaking everyone in the universe had an even chance to wind up in the Auschwitz cremetoria?

Let me put it in concrete terms.

My parents who lived through the Holocaust struggled with whether they should circumsise me. Should they keep a covenant with the g_d who allowed their families to be slaughtered, and thereby perhaps mark me for future slaughter. In the end they did, but they told me about their dilemma. I also thought about this when it came time for my sons bris. I was a bit comforted by the fact that most boys are circumcised today so he would not be at a physical disadvantage in a selection.

Yes it is sad, that I thought about these things, before I chose to keep the covenant. But how does one ignore these issues?

I do not understand how you can be a Jew and not struggle with the Holocaust.

Drew Kaplan said...

A Proster Yid,
Where did I joke about kiddush hashem? If it was on my blog, please point it out to me, because I tend to avoid such things.
As far as what you typed about, what it is with which you are dealing is the theodical aspect, which then tips over into theological and philosophical realms. These are approaches which I praised, not dismissed, in my posting.
Apparently either you had missed my point or I hadn't articulated it well enough (it's probably the latter, sorry) that I certainly understand that the Holocaust can (and does) serve as an intellectual jumping-off point. However, it is not that perspective against which I was railing.
You raise good questions, but it is not those that I was trying to dismiss. I am not saying one cannot struggle with theodicy and the like as was most explicitly brought to the fore by the Holocaust.

Lyndsay said...

i really appreciate the point of view you present in this blog. (well at least this entry). i agree that the jewish people focus on this a lot.
i'm going to washington this may with the asper human rights and holocaust trip and visting the holocaust museum. we have meetings every monday as a stipulation of attending. I go to public school and 2 private schools are also coming, but of course the jewish school in town is also attending.
now we kinda had an open night and every time one of the jewish students came up they said they had learned about the holocaust every year in school.
i had never learned about it. i had a general idea but no real details. why is it that the jewish fixate. and the rest of the world tries to forget.
thanks again

Anonymous said...

What a lovely picture of you. You must have had a great photographer take that picture. I hope you paid them well. I am particularly impressed with how your photographer tried to get the sign in the background. That seems to be a difficult feat on such a sunny day.

Anonymous said...

Hah, I thought you'd be there! I'm an on-off reader of your blog and when I got there and saw the Jewishness of the crowd and some YU students which I first got confused and thought was your school, I thought you'd be there. I even thought to myself, if I see Drew Kaplan can I say hi, since I read his blog but he has no idea who I am? Just in case you and I are ever again in the same place and I recognize you, what's your response? Does that ever happen to you where strangers recognize you?

I thought the rally was good in that the speakers were pretty good and mixed and unlike most rallies I've been to on the mall you could hear everyone, but of course I've never been so close to the front of a rally. Thus the negatives to the rally is mostly that I thought the turnout was pretty pathetic. I was also surprised by the lack of celebrities participating. I kept wondering if it was due to a lack of interest or b/c the organizers didn't want more celebs. I'm guessing it was a lack of celeb involvement.

I find what you have to say about the Holocaust really interesting. The Holocaust was a terrible, terrible tragedy, but far too many people think it was only confined to the Jews when it was people of color, Muslims, gay people (thus the pink triangle), the disabled, gypsies and the list goes on and on of undesirables.

I also think that too often I think we (Jews) live in the past and dwell on it to an extent that takes away from the living we're doing now. And we use the Holocaust as an excuse to do some things that I don't think are usually very moral or respectable. Have you ever read the Holocaust Industry? I can't recommend it as I've never read it and I think you'd really disagree with a lot of what he says, but at the same time, I think that it touches on a lot of what you're talking about.

p.s. the beard may be itchy, but you look hella hot with it! It's a keeper if you ask me and for girls that complain, guys should kiss their necks and chest - it tickles and feels really good and I'm sure they'd quickly shut up.

theger said...

I was in the rally too!...The strong presence of the jewsin the rally is not only a kiddush hashem.
Jews EXPERIENCED what people in darfur are experiencing right now:Being killed because of your origins/beliefs..etc.
No one stepped to stop the holocaust until it became the holocaust, it could have been stopped, but no one cared.
The same is happening AGAIN NOW, in Darfur, people are being killed, and no one CARES!
Jews lived the experience,and know that lives could be saved if people who are able to help step up and DO SOMETHING.
Do you get my point?
Anyways, nice blog, keep it up!
PS:lol, this is funny, I found your blog while I was looking for info about an orthodox shul in brooklyn hights (bneiavrohom) since I am going there next fall!

Anonymous said...

A comment about the fact that the Holocaust is always talked about as a Jewish thing, even though 5 million non-Jews were killed as well: The Jews were specifically targeted to be killed, and there is certainly a uniqueness in that. The other 5 million people who were murdered by the Nazis were others considered "undesirables" - but the concentration camps and gas chambers were created *for* the Jews, the others were bonus for the Nazis to kill since whole killing systems had been created. This is not at all meant to in any way take away from the deaths of any of these eleven million people, but instead to point out the fact that there is a uniqueness to the slaughter of Jews that happened in the Holocaust - the premeditation, etc.

I couldn't figure out why you would think Drew was joking when he talked about "kiddush hashem" until I saw your use of the term in your reply. I hope that I can explain his use of the term based on my own general conception of term: I think of a "kiddush hashem" as creating a positive statment about Jews/Judaism (and, in effect, Torah and our G-d by the fact that we subscribe to those beliefs) to others. Like being part of a Jewish organization gutting a non-Jews' house, or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity (working from a local focus here, I'll be out of New Orleans in less than two weeks, so give me a break) would qualify because it can give a positive impression of Jews to others.

Also, you seem to believe that Drew has told you that you have no right to have theological issues with what happened in the Holocaust, and why a G-d of ours could have let this happen - I don't believe that he has said that at all. I believe that he was lamenting the fact that so much of modern Judaism today focuses on the fact of the Holocaust. It's a question of which is the best way to honor one's Judaism: to lament the Holocaust, or celebrate traditions thousands of years old? For someone to feel "Jewish" by taking a college class on the Holocaust, or to be Jewish by lighting Shabbos candles or laying tefillin. It's not that these are mutually exclusive, perhaps the woman lighting Shabbos candles has in mind all of her relatives who weren't able to light candles in the concetration camps and is in the midst of taking a course on the Holocaust.

Also, you and your family were directly effected by the Holocaust and so I don't know if maybe you felt attacked by Drew's idea not to emphasize the Holocaust as the be-all-end-all of Jewish identity today. For us, we didn't have any family there (our family all came to the US in the early 1900's), and so while we have both learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust and listened to Holocaust survivors, I know that that does not define my Jewish identity and it would actually be kind of weird if it did. Instead, I prefer to live my Jewish identity.

Drew Kaplan said...

recent article in the Forward also pushing for the Holocaust not to be a focal point of Jewish identity