Holocaust survivor advocates harshly criticized Natalie Portman on Sunday, after the Israeli-born actress/director stated that the Shoah is no more tragic than other genocides and questioned its prominence in Jewish education.
In an interview with The Independent published on Friday, the American movie star questioned prominence given to Holocaust education at the expense of other mass murders.
“I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education. Which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things,” she was quoted as saying.
She recalled learning about the Rwandan Genocide during a visit to a museum and being shocked that while the Holocaust figured prominently into her education, a contemporary genocide did not.
According to the United Nations, 800,000 people, “perhaps as many as three-quarters of the Tutsi [tribal] population” were killed during the course of the early ’90s genocide.
“I was shocked that that [genocide] was going on while I was in school. We were learning only about the Holocaust and it was never mentioned and it was happening while I was in school. That is exactly the type of problem with the way it’s taught. I think it needs to be taught, and I can’t speak for everyone because this was my personal education,” she told The Independent.
“We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times and reminds us to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also. Not used as a paranoid way of thinking that we are victims. Sometimes it can be subverted to fear-mongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen.’” Holocaust survivor advocates were quick to condemn Portman’s comments.
“While I agree with Natalie Portman that hatred exists in every part of the world, our area included, her understanding of the Holocaust seems limited,” Colette Avital, the chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
“Natalie should understand that the Holocaust which befell us cannot be compared to other tragedies – our empathy notwithstanding. It was not merely hatred, it was a policy whose aim was to systematically wipe out a whole people from the face of the world,” she explained. “I agree that the education we give our children should not encourage a continuous sense of being the eternal victims. The lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust are that life should be sanctified, and that we should be more humane. What should be taught is also the incredible resilience of our people who have risen from the ashes, rebuilt their lives and built a country of their own.”
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, a professional Nazi hunter who heads the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, agreed, telling the Post that “with all due respect for Ms. Portman’s great acting and directing talents, her success in the movie world does not turn her into an expert in history or on genocide. If she wants to express her sympathy with all victims of such tragedies, this is definitely not a smart way to do so.”
Trailer for "A Tale of Love and Darkness"
Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich voiced similar concerns.
“As human beings and especially as Jews, we need to be sensitive to all tragedies, to all genocides. As human beings and especially as Jews, we must ensure that all remember the uniqueness of the Holocaust, in it’s scope and in it’s scale,” he said to the Post.
Portman has been on a press tour to promote her new film A Tale of Love and Darkness, in which she makes her directorial debut.
The film that first appeared at the Cannes Film Festival in France, stars Portman as the mentally-ill mother of celebrated Israeli author Amos Oz – on whose autobiography the movie was based – during the rising tensions that lead up to the War of Independence in Mandatory Palestine.
“I both agree and disagree with Natalie Portman,” said Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, who teaches about genocide law at Columbia and Cornell universities. “Of course all genocides, as well as all similar atrocities, are tragic and must be acknowledged and commemorated as such. And no one should engage in comparative suffering.
I tell my students that from the point of view of the victims or their families, it really makes no difference if they were murdered in a gas chamber or with machetes. And, as World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder has emphasized, Jews must not be silent when Yazidis and Christians are persecuted and murdered by ISIS [Islamic State].”
“At the same time, the Holocaust is unique – not worse and certainly not more tragic – because of its enormous, continent-wide scope, because of the complexity and systematic methodology of the annihilation and the willing participation of such an enormously broad-based part of not just German but other societies,” he said to the Post on Sunday. “In this respect, the Holocaust must be acknowledged as the epitomic manifestation of genocide, as the ultimate consequence of bigotry and hatred as official public policy combined with international indifference and inaction. This, too, must be taught and emphasized.”
“I also agree that in the Jewish context, Holocaust education must be a not disproportionate part of both Jewish education generally and a sensitivity to the plight of others generally,” Rosensaft continued. “World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer is adamant that we must never exploit or trivialize the Shoah as a political weapon or to score points. But we must nonetheless make Holocaust education and remembrance a key element in the development of Jewish identity, just as [the] Srebrenica [massacre] must be a permanent element of Bosnian identity and, for that matter, the Armenian genocide is an intrinsic element of the Armenian national identity.”
Auschwitz survivor David Mermelstein said, "I am shocked. The Nazis tried to erase the Jewish people from the face of this earth – 6 million. Before she talks about the Holocaust, she should go to Auschwitz with a survivor, she would never compare the Holocaust to anything else."
"We survivors know better than anyone what hatred can cause, and we were the first ones to raise alarms about Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. We are the ones who volunteer our time in schools to educate new generations about the horrific results of hatred and prejudice. But to minimize the importance of Holocaust education is dangerous – look at how much anti-Semitism exists today in Europe despite everything that has been documented. And soon, all of us survivors will be gone."
Sam Dubbin, the attorney for the Holocaust Survivors foundation USA, agreed stating that he believed that "today’s problem is not too much Holocaust education, but growing ignorance and indifference to the realities of the Shoah."
"None of us can ever understand what it must have been like to go through the Shoah, or emerge from it when so many loved ones did not. We are obliged to remember the Holocaust, and we are obliged to speak out and take action against the hate and atrocity in our world today," he said.Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.