Let it go?

As God, Faith & Identity demonstrates conclusively, the survivors can be reassured that their legacy will be fiercely safeguarded by their children and grandchildren.

The controversial Holocaust memorial in Budapest, Hungary. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The controversial Holocaust memorial in Budapest, Hungary.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I am utterly appalled by glib and deliberately provocative Jewish intellectuals who promote “radical innovation” in Holocaust remembrance by casting aside the “anxiety” of having to deal with the full scope of the Shoah and contemplating non-traumatic, non-morbid ways of transmitting some type of Holocaust awareness forward once the survivors are no longer around to inconveniently remind us of the suffering they endured.
A recent pre-Rosh Hashana lecture at my synagogue by one such talking head from a self-styled Israeli “research and leadership center at the forefront of Jewish thought and education” made my skin crawl. No need to continue obsessing on the depressing tragedy or morbid facts of the Holocaust, he proclaimed. Instead, he advocated a sanitized, user-friendly approach to Holocaust remembrance in which only those elements of Holocaust history and memory that might be appealing or sophistically useful would be retained, thereby casting the event as much as possible in a positive, non-oppressive light so as not to offend the sensitivities of Jews who could be turned off by somber historical truths. “Let’s play with the meaning” of the Shoah, he said, in essence dismissing the importance of any need for historical integrity.
Don’t worry, be happy, as it were.
He also set up a specious analogy between the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the Shoah.
The Temple, he contends, exists in a recreated, glorifying memory that has little to do with how it actually was. We don’t focus on the gruesome animal sacrifices performed by the high priests. Rather, the rabbis of the Talmud retroactively created more convenient depictions that suited their needs. Had modern technology existed at the time, he went on, we would have had pointless museums exhibiting artifacts of the Temple, implying that institutions such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem do not serve a critical or even worthwhile purpose in preserving Holocaust memory as part of the forging of contemporary Jewish identity.
For starters, I would urge him to go to Jerusalem and visit the tunnels adjacent to the Western Wall.
Why bother to undertake incredibly costly and politically provocative archaeological excavations if not to ensure a verifiable historical basis for the Jewish national claim to sovereignty? If our present-day conception of the Temple is nothing more than an anachronistic myth, why sacrifice the lives of Israeli soldiers in the defense of discardable relics? I also wonder whether this particular lecturer, who wears a kippa, is as cavalierly dismissive of Jewish religious laws and traditions generally, or is it just the difficulty of fitting the inexorable realities of the Shoah into facile theological or philosophical theorizing that bothers him? I wonder whether he would, for example, be as ready to discard what many consider to be the anachronistic ritual of circumcision.
It’s certainly not a “fun” experience and it’s increasingly controversial in many parts of the world. So why bother? The same goes for the laws of kashrut. They do tend to complicate life, so does he advocate “letting it go”? Or is his intellectual flexibility manifested solely in an utter disdain for Holocaust memory? The basic problem with this type of approach to Holocaust remembrance and memory is that it is as pernicious as Holocaust denial and, in fact, plays directly into the hands of those who claim that the Shoah never happened, that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz or Treblinka, that six million Jews were not brutally and systematically murdered.
Of course the way we perceive, understand, interpret and memorialize the Holocaust will inevitably change as the event recedes into history. Even today, other genocides that have been perpetrated since – Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur – place it in a different context than was the reality in 1945 when the Nazi death and concentration camps were liberated, or even in 1988 when the United States at long last ratified the Genocide Convention.
But that should not ever mean that the historical facts of the Shoah – all the facts – are irrelevant to future generations and should be discarded or trivialized.
Over the course of the past year, I compiled and edited God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes, Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, a book that will be published this December by Jewish Lights Publishing. In this volume, 88 contributors from 16 countries on six continents explore the significance of the legacy we have received from our parents and grandparents. Among them are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis as well as professed atheists. They also include a US Senator, a former British foreign secretary, a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and a former director of the Israeli Security Agency, the Shin Bet, two members of Knesset and the editor-publisher of the most influential German news weekly.
While the essays in this book cover a broad spectrum of religious beliefs and political views, their authors agree on the critical importance of both preserving the authentic memory of the Shoah and passing it on to future generations as a way of strengthening Jewish identity as well as fighting all forms of bigotry and intolerance.
As God, Faith & Identity demonstrates conclusively, the survivors can be reassured that their legacy will be fiercely safeguarded by their children and grandchildren. And those who would “let it go” should bear this in mind as well before they speak.
The author teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities. The son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, he is the general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and editor of God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes, Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing), available December 2014.