Center Field: An open letter to my teenager visiting Poland

"Be Jewish not because of Hitler but despite him. Build a thriving Israel not only because Hitler showed us the cost of being defenseless but because we benefit personally from having a state."

September 9, 2014 22:04

A SIGN marks the site of the Sobibor death camp, obliterated by the Nazis to hide their crimes after the prisoners’ revolt in 1943.. (photo credit: FROM THE DEPTHS)

Dear Yoni,

You know I feel ambivalent about your trip to Poland with your class tomorrow. It’s not about safety – Poland is friendly toward Israel. Israeli gallows humor from this past war has someone asking a mother if her soldier son is safe. Knowing he’s on the IDF’s Polish Journey, she replies: “My son’s safe; he’s at Auschwitz.”

My ambivalence is ideological, educational, existential.

I dislike sending 17-year-olds to visit death camps. I don’t want to build a Jewish identity, a Zionist ideology or a humanistic vision on Auschwitz’s embers.

Ignoring Hitler risks repeating the past; obsessing about him risks clouding the present. If we reduce our Jewish, Zionist, Israeli and ethical identities to the 614th commandment – “Don’t Let Hitler Win” – we give Hitler and his Nazis a victory they do not deserve. It can’t be all about them. Remember this horror without being defined by it.

Be Jewish not because of Hitler but despite him. Build a thriving Israel not only because Hitler showed us the cost of being defenseless but because we benefit personally from having a state.

In that spirit, your preparations in Hartman High School emphasized how Jews lived in Poland for centuries, not just how they died in six years. It was great that you learned Hassidic nigunim, tunes, from the different towns you will visit, so you can together breathe new life into the ongoing Polish-Jewish dialogue – which, I happily discovered when I visited Poland myself, has become more mutual, more constructive.

Still, Auschwitz trumps it all. It takes a superhuman effort to visit Auschwitz at any age and not view the world, let alone a trip, through that dark prism. The evil is so intense, the scale so vast, the scar still so fresh, that it becomes too easy to shape our identity as a defiance of the Nazis rather than trying to transcend that trauma.

After this summer, with cries of “Death to the Jews” again reverberating throughout Europe, with today’s anti-Semites masking ancient Jew-hatred behind modern human rights rhetoric, it’s easy to visit Poland and come out a “bunker Jew.” A bunker Jew considers the world our enemy and Nazi anti-Semitism as the norm, not a brutal aberration. A bunker Jew builds Israel as the reaction to anti-Semitism, to wall us off in a garrison state from enemies.

A bunker Jew can justify any Israeli action, no matter how offensive, as required and defensive.

Fortunately, in your life you have learned – including by watching heroic survivors – that people can live through these traumas and, as the Torah mandates, choose life.

Judaism entails believing and belonging and becoming a better person, not just surviving. Zionism combined a strong survivalist instinct with a sweeping, redemptive, idealistic vision inviting you and me to change the world with our Jewish and democratic values. A bunker Jew remains stuck in 1945; a healthy Jew, a true Zionist, moves on – without forgetting.

Fight anti-Semitism as if the world has not changed, while fighting for change as if there were no anti-Semitism.

Have zero tolerance for Jew hatred, understanding that words matter. In 1954, in The Nature of Prejudice, social psychologist Gordon Allport showed how bias accelerates, from talking to snubbing to shunning to wounding to killing. The Nazis first dehumanized Jews through propaganda before slaughtering them. Today, the propaganda campaign dehumanizing Jews and Zionists also seeks to destroy us – read the Hamas charter. That’s why we must fight the delegitimization of Israel, rejecting subtle media bias not just brazen bigotry.

While battling others’ prejudices, we should also exorcise our own. I hope your teachers use this trip to a hell human monsters constructed to force you and your friends to face the monsters in our midst. Totalitarians like the Nazis and the Islamists use anti-Semitism as evil glue to bond their people together. By contrast, liberal democrats try defeating impulses toward demonizing others, bonding through shared values.

Without descending into the Israel-bashers’ false comparisons, some fellow Jews disdain Arabs – including our fellow Israeli citizens who are Arabs. Even while noting Israel’s sweeping condemnation of this summer’s revenge-burning of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, that horrific crime caused fellow Jerusalemites to fear us.

You and your friends should think about how to reach out to Khdeir’s twelfth-grade class in Amal High School, which follows the Israeli curriculum and usually visits Poland but this year is too traumatized to go. You and your friends should think about how to reassure these neighbors that the Jewish monsters who killed their friend were deviants we repudiate. You and your friends should think about how to leverage that horror – and Auschwitz’s horror – to ease Israelis down Allport’s five-point escalator, even as too many in the Middle East rush up Allport’s escalator of ugliness.

Fortunately, you have a powerful ally in Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, who has identified fighting racism as a priority – and whose democratic instincts resonate with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Opposition leader Isaac Herzog. You have a powerful role model in Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator murdered in Treblinka who viewed education as a vehicle for revolution. And, contrary to media reports, you have an Israeli establishment, a Zionist ideology, and a Jewish people committed to making Israel a state that grants equal rights and dignity to all.

You and your friends have a special responsibility. You are traveling with an 87-year-old survivor. You personally know and knew elderly survivors. Yours will be the last generation to have met Shoah survivors. Hear their stories, learn their lessons, and add your own. Rather than being defined by death – choose life. And while fighting bigotry against us, also make sure, in our tikkun, our healing, to fight any bigotry and unreason among us.

Love, Abba

The author is a professor of history at McGill University and will be teaching at the IDC Herzliya this fall. The author of eight books on US history, his latest is Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.

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