Jews must move beyond the role of victims! This headline from the Jerusalem Post raises perhaps the most significant question facing the Jewish people, and particularly we in the Diaspora, face: Are we masters of our victimhood? According to Dieter Graumann, born in Israel and newly elected President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, "The role of the victim is not enough - Judaism is much, much more." What is the logic of equating Jews-as-victim with Jews-as-people, or as members of a religion? Membership in peoplehood, or religion, is a conscious choice. Few among us consciously choose victimhood. We can certainly “move beyond” being Jews; but being targeted as “victim,” I suggest, is up to our victimizers, no?
It would seem that in Dieter Graumann our German Jewish community has found its first pre-, not post-Holocaust leader. Except that when that that community’s earlier generation of leaders promoted not surrendering to the oppressors in the 1930’s, encouraged German Jewry to remain they, at least, did not have the experience of Shoah behind them as a guide to their possible future.
The “Jewish Problem” for Jews
For the Jews the problem is that we live in the present as if yesterday was an anomaly, a unique event in history, a “mystery.” Each generation assumes that our environment is as it appears and will continue so indefinitely. Whatever disasters occurred in the past happened to “them” and “over there,” not “here,” and to “us.” Oh sure it’s possible that a future disaster could occur, plenty of historical precedent; but certainly there is no evidence for that today.
This is Denial, acknowledging the potential, while making life choices as if the threat were not real. It is a state of somnolence reinforced by Holocaust historians who, while acknowledging millennia of anti-Jewish persecution, represent immediate events as causal. And so the impact of the interwar depression, the disaster of hyperinflation led to Germany electing Hitler; that the Fuehrer was an antisemite due to social influence or psychopathology; that the Nazis are to blame for the Holocaust. Which is very reassuring for a Diaspora longing to remain in place.
The “Jewish Problem” for Christians
Christendom’s Jewish Problem is rooted in the very documents that define its identity and theology. The gospels, “the inerrant word of God,” describe “the Jews” as deicides and children of Satan. According to the Gospel of Matthew, (27: 22-25) the Jews demanded Jesus death and even demanded that not only they, but all future generations be responsible for the act! And according to the Gospel of John the Jews and Satan are one in seeking the destruction of Christianity. It takes little imagination to draw a line forward through 2000 years of persecution to the Holocaust.
There are those who argue that we live in a different world today, a secular world in which Christianity as religion holds little or no sway. According to this view religious anti-Judaism went out of style with the Enlightenment transformation of the West, the rise of the nation state. But this beggars the problem of a Jewish presence in a Christian world. Personal and/or social pathology are not “cured” by enlightenment. Today’s world did not arise brand new in the 17th century. The Jewish Problem that Germany set out to finally solve with the Holocaust clearly expresses this fact. Christendom’s Jewish Problem was in the air, had already been around for nearly two millennia.
After the Second World War German war criminals standing before their Nuremberg judges complained that if they are being tried for seeking a final solution to the Jewish Problem then so too should Martin Luther who, in his The Jews and their lies, 1543, instructed the princes to burn down the Jewish “churches,” schools and even the houses of Jews; should burn their holy books; should murder their rabbis.
The real problem for Jews in the Diaspora (and for the state of the Jews) is that the culture stream inspiring the Jewish Problem is Christian theology based on the gospels. If Jews, then and forever, are characterized "deicides," blamed for the death of Jesus; if Jews are described as the "children of the Satan," as we are in a volume considered holy, the “inerrant word of God,” then it stands to reason that Jews will always carry a "tinge," the mark of Cain that, when social and economic conditions turn very bad will target us as the familiar lightening rod to vent rage and frustration, the at-hand and ever-present safety valve.
We Jews place a lot of stock in education as a way to encourage tolerance, to promote our acceptance. And while there may be instances of persuading some individuals or groups, and certainly not all Christians are antisemitic, the likelihood of educating Christianity out of antisemitism borders on zero. Take, for instance, that in 1965 in response to the Holocaust the Vatican adopted Nostre Aetate that, according to the Anti-defamation League, “the Second Vatican Council made historic changes to church policies and theology. Among them was Nostra Aetate, Latin for "In Our Time," a document that revolutionized the Catholic Church''s approach to Jews and Judaism after nearly 2000 years of pain and sorrow.
“Section four of Nostra Aetate repudiates the centuries-old "deicide" charge against all Jews, stresses the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirms the eternal covenant between God and the People of Israel, and dismisses church interest in trying to baptize Jews.
“For the first time in history Nostra Aetate called for Catholics and Jews to engage in friendly dialogue and biblical and theological discussions to better understand each other''s faith. After intense debate and some strong opposition, Nostra Aetate was approved by the world''s Bishops and Cardinals in Rome on October 28, 1965.”
Perhaps Nostre Aetate can be partly attributed to efforts by Jewish organizations to promote tolerance and acceptance. But in the end the net effect was a rise in antisemitism among Catholics in the decades following its acceptance. To paraphrase Rosemary Reuther, noted Catholic theologian, and possibly inspiring Nostre Aetate, it is impossible to remove anti-Judaism from Christianity without destroying the very foundation of the religion. And it is telling that Nostre Aetate never addressed the problem itself, editing anti-Judaism out of the gospels, but instead instructed its adherents to “interpret” those references as applying only to first century Jewry.
So what is the answer, because to define the problem as the permanence of antisemitism in the Christian West as containing the potential for yet another Holocaust describes the problem, not its solution? Unfortunately it is far easier to describe problems than solutions. And in this instance it is anyway a question for each and every one of us to consider, to seek a solution. For myself, one of my children is married and living in Israel; my second considering aliya.
But Israel could not possibly house each and every Jew should we so choose. And the drift of Israel caused by increasing Haredi influence over questions of Jewish identity does not represent Israel in a positive and welcoming light.I will return to these issues in later papers.