What have Jews learned from the Holocaust? Not much

The fact is the most important task for any society is to devise ways to make people good.

A painting of Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
A painting of Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
No Jew in his right mind would have predicted that most Jews – at least, those living outside of Israel – would have learned little or nothing from the Holocaust. But 74 years after the gas chambers stopped functioning, I believe it is true. Most Jews outside of Israel have not only not learned anything, what they think they learned is often wrong.
Unlearned lesson No. 1: People are not basically good
At any time in history, the belief that people are basically good was irrational and naive. To believe it after the Holocaust — and after the communist genocides in China, Korea, Cambodia, and the Soviet Union, the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, and the mass murders in Rwanda, the Congo, Tibet and elsewhere — is beyond irrational and naive. It is stupid, dangerous, and inexcusable.
Yet, most American Jews (I cannot speak for Israeli Jews) believe people are basically good. One of the most repudiated columns I wrote in my nearly 10 years of writing a column for the Jewish Journal was the one in which I wrote people are not basically good.
This has to be explained. Given the universality of slavery, human sacrifice, torture for sport (like the Roman games), meaningless wars with their concomitant cruelty, and nearly universal financial and political corruption – in addition to the 20th-century horrors previously noted – why would anyone believe human nature is basically good?
One answer is the need of secular people to believe in something. If you don’t believe in God, you’d better believe in humanity – or you have nothing to believe in. And that’s just too dispiriting.
A second answer is that as Jews and others abandoned the Bible as the source of their wisdom, most adopted more and more foolish beliefs. While most secular Jews never learned this basic rule of life, religious Jews and Christians know by the age of ten that man is not basically good. They all learned God’s statement about human nature from Genesis 8:21: “The inclination of man’s heart is toward evil from his youth.”
A third reason for Jews’ belief in man’s goodness is the most widely quoted line from The Diary of Anne Frank: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are basically good at heart.” (I have always wondered if she continued to hold this belief when she was in the concentration camp.)
Unlearned lesson No. 2: The only way to prevent evil is to make good people
There are many destructive consequences to the belief that people are basically good.
One is that neither society, nor schools, nor parents are preoccupied with making good people. Why bother? If we’re born good, who needs character education?
Parents are instead preoccupied with loving their children, believing that what children most need to grow into good adults is love. But love alone often produces well-loved barbarians. The majority of children need moral rules, strong moral male models, and character education to become good people. Today, they receive few of these. Parents are more preoccupied with their children’s grades than with their character. Many parents think that if their child has the right social justice position – he or she opposes racism and carbon emissions, for example – this child is a good person. And children without fathers are far more likely to commit crimes.
The fact is – and the Holocaust should have made this obvious – the most important task for any society is to devise ways to make people good. It is therefore worth pondering: With the collapse of America’s Judeo-Christian moral foundations, how will American society make good individuals?
Here’s one example that illustrates this point: I have long observed a fundamental difference between a religious education and a secular education. When I was at yeshiva, I was taught that the biggest problem in Dennis Prager’s life is Dennis Prager – my flawed nature, which I had to spend a lifetime battling. Children in secular American schools, on the other hand, are taught that the biggest problem in life is American society – its alleged inequality, racism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. Which approach is more likely to produce finer human beings – the one that teaches young people to battle their nature or the one that teaches them to battle American society?
Unlearned lesson No. 3: People who think of themselves as victims do evil
One of the most important reasons Germans thought they could wage a second world war and slaughter Jews was that they were told over and over by the Nazis that they were victims – of the unwarranted German surrender to the Allies, of the Versailles Treaty, and of Jewish perfidy. Nothing gives people permission to do evil as much as does walking around considering themselves victims. If American Jews understood this, perhaps they would concern themselves with combatting the constant drumbeat message to minorities that they are victims. This can only lead to evil.
Unlearned lesson No. 4: The collapse of Christianity should frighten Jews
The symbol of Nazism was the swastika, not the cross. Had Nazism been a Christian movement, its symbol would have been, or at least included, the Christian cross. The claim that the Holocaust was a product of Christianity is a charge leveled by Jews bitter over the nearly 2,000 years of Christian antisemitism in Europe. That bitterness is warranted. Moreover, too many Christians supported the Nazis, and too few confronted them. But Nazism was not a Christian movement. In fact, it was anti-Christian.
The complex truth is this:
a) Nearly 2,000 years of European Christian antisemitism — including Martin Luther — rendered the Jew an outcast and thereby laid much of the groundwork for the acceptance of Nazi demonization of the Jews.
b) But no Christian institution or theology ever called for the extermination of the Jews. It took the secular shattering of the Christian conscience to accomplish that. This was prophesied 100 years before Hitler’s rise, in 1834, by the great German poet, Heinrich Heine, a secular Jew who converted to Protestantism (solely, as he put it, to advance in European society):
“Christianity — and that is its greatest merit — has somewhat mitigated that brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman [the cross] is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then... a play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.”
European Christianity has much to atone for (and it has). But the collapse of Christianity should frighten every decent person. In Europe, this collapse was first succeeded by fascism, communism and Nazism, and then by a soulless and morally confused secularism. What will succeed it in America?
America was founded by Bible-based Christians and non-Christians, who, moreover, revered the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish contribution to the world. The founders inscribed one thing on the iconic symbol of the American Revolution, the Liberty Bell: a verse from the Torah. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s design for a Great Seal of the United States depicted the Jews leaving Egypt. So began the special place for Jews in America and the love affair between American Jews and America. With the increasing influence of leftism in Jewish life after World War II supplanting traditional liberalism, Jews adopted the left’s contemptuous view of America, and the left’s commitment to radically secularizing the most religious of the world’s major industrialized democracies. The increasing antisemitism on American campuses and the increasing antisemitism and hostility to Israel in the Democratic Party are all products of the fading of Christianity. Jews should be very worried. But they’re not.
Unlearned lesson No 5: Secular education has proved morally worthless
Arguably the greatest false god in Jewish life is (secular) education. At least among most American Jews, to be able to say one’s son or daughter attends a prestigious college is the greatest single source of pride and personal achievement.
But godless and Bible-less higher education has turned out increasingly foolish and bad people.
The lack of any relationship between higher education and moral decency was already true in Nazi Germany.
A study of the makeup of 24 leaders of Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that murdered nearly two million Jews prior to the use of gas chambers, showed that the great majority were highly educated: “One of the most striking things about the Einsatzgruppen leadership makeup is the prevalence of educated people, professionals, especially lawyers, PhDs.” (Irving Greenberg, in Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? Ktav Press).
And Prof. Peter Merkl of the University of California at Santa Barbara studied 581 Nazis and found that Germans with a high school education “or even university study” were more likely to be antisemitic than those with less education (Political Violence under the Swastika, Princeton University Press).
Unlearned lesson No. 6: Fear the left
Most Jews have made this deduction from the Holocaust: Hitler and Nazism were on the right. Therefore, Jews should fear the right.
Putting aside the question of whether Nazism should be considered right, left, neither, or both – racism is not necessarily a right-wing doctrine and socialism (Nazism stands for “National Socialism”) is a left-wing doctrine – this is akin to arguing that since your grandfather was killed by a hit-and-run driver coming from the right, you will only look to the right when you cross the street.
So deep is American Jews’ desire to believe that threats to Jews come from the right that most of them detest the most pro-Israel, pro-Jewish president since Harry Truman. Because they detest the right more than they detest Jew- and Israel-hatred.
So deep is that desire that left-wing rabbis, writers, and Jewish activist groups compare Donald Trump and his supporters to “Nazis” and “fascists,” and argue that America today is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Aside from being a libel, it only serves to diminish the evil of Nazism and fascism.
Whether it is Jeremy Corbyn, the antisemitic leader of the British Labour Party or Ilhan Omar and the antisemites on college campuses, nearly all antisemitism in the West today comes from the left. But Jews keep looking toward the right.
Unlearned lesson No. 7: Spread the Ten Commandments and the Torah
The rabbis of the Talmud explained Jew-hatred with a play on words. The great sin’ah (hatred), they said, came from Sinai (Sinai). The world has never forgiven the Jews for introducing a universal morally judging God into the world. If this is the case – and numerous non-Jewish theologians and historians concur, the only solution to Jew-hatred is to bring the world to Sinai – to ethical monotheism and the Ten Commandments. Then, and only then, will there be no more Holocausts.