For Europeans, demystify the Jewish narrative

Beyond focusing on anti-Semitism and the Shoah, we should also celebrate Jewish contributions to society.

europe map 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
europe map 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The International Conference of the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism being held today and tomorrow in Jerusalem is an important initiative in the ongoing battle against Jew-hatred. Holocaust education and Holocaust remembrance is used in many countries as a conduit for fighting anti-Semitism. My experiences during a two-year post as the Walter Benjamin Chair of German Jewish Cultural History at Humboldt University in Berlin, and many years studying and living in Europe, inform my conclusion that Jewish organizations need to find ways of expressing the dangers of anti-Semitism that will afford a more erudite view of the Jewish people, its history and distinction. At Humboldt I was surprised to find out from my students that before attending Jewish Studies courses at the university level, their understanding of Jews and Jewish history was completely limited to (1) the victimization of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and (2) what they learned from the media concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For many, the Jews seemed to enter and exit European history with the rise and fall of Nazism. When exposure to the Jewish people comes primarily from an emotionally charged media with often biased reporting concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the systematic murder of the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis, Jews become largely associated with feelings of guilt, shame, and discomfort, which can lead to what some now call "Holocaust fatigue." In turn there is an increase in "anti-Zionism." This serves as a way to displace feelings of guilt, casting the Israelis in the role of zealous nationalists and the Palestinians in the role of the oppressed Jews. BY FOCUSING on anti-Semitism itself, with the Shoah as its most extreme consequence, we are limiting our ability to fight it. This is not to say that current efforts to address Jew-hatred and the Holocaust directly should be deemphasized. However, our aims need to be expanded to include ways of creating positive connections with the Jewish people based on shared history and culture, while at the same time demystifying the Jew by celebrating Jewish contributions to society, Jewish traditions, and even Jewish beliefs. Creating other opportunities for people to learn about the Jews and empathize with them will not only expand the emotional palette associated with the Jewish people and their history - particularly in Europe and Eastern Europe - it will also guard against the Jews being dissociated from their contributions to the development of the societies to which they have belonged. The goal is not just to work against the forces that inspire hate, intolerance and anti-Semitism, but to strive to inspire tolerance, understanding and a collective vision to make the world a better place. If we succeed we will not only be better able to combat anti-Semitism, we will also honor our mandate to be a "light unto the nations." Anti-Semitism and the Shoah are topics capable of moving governments to action, of encouraging supporters of Jewish organizations to donate money, and of making NGOs and educators want, like all of us, to instill a greater humanity in the world so that "never again" really means something. Yet we need to ask for more. We need people to go beyond the Shoah and even anti-Semitism to understand not only the horrors that have been wrought on the Jews, but also the joy and accomplishments the Jews have offered the world, in music and medicine, for example. WHETHER in Western Europe, the FSU, Eastern Europe or beyond, people need to see anti-Semitism as a threat to their own nations, their own cultures, their own societies, their own potential. If the Jews are never seen as part of the nations to which they once belonged and in which they are now again an integral part, the lessons of anti-Semitism and the Shoah will appear to be about the victimization of an outsider. The Jews were not outsiders, and anti-Semitism did not affect them alone. It was, and remains, a scourge on the human potential of every nation. Efforts to fight anti-Semitism and engage in Holocaust remembrance and education should serve as an opportunity to inspire not only through death, but also through life. In many European classrooms, the Jews appear as victims, not as active partners in the development of European culture and civilization. Clearly, our victimization is not the only thing worth remembering. Why should we demand so little when our contributions have been so extraordinary? To learn about the Jews beyond their role as victims affords new ways of identifying with the Jewish people. It is a method that could arouse curiosity and interest, as opposed to guilt and fatigue. Such an approach humanizes the Jews while inspiring new ways of viewing them in the context of history. If we add this to our demands and initiatives, our efforts to combat anti-Semitism and engage people in Holocaust remembrance will be strengthened. The writer is an assistant professor of European Jewish History at Baltimore Hebrew University and a member of the World Jewish Diplomatic Forum under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress.