Lessons of the Holocaust Museum

While it is considered a success in telling a compelling story to motivate people to fight persecution, at its core lies the definition of Jew as prey.

Tour of Yad Vashem 521 (photo credit: Dara Frank)
Tour of Yad Vashem 521
(photo credit: Dara Frank)
Earlier this year, US President Barack Obama said at the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “Just like the Air and Space Museum challenges us to set our sights higher, or the Natural History Museum encourages us to look closer, or the Holocaust Museum calls us to fight persecution wherever we find it, this museum should inspire us as well. It should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily. It should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing.”
It is interesting to note that the museum built to tell the African- American story has “history” and “culture” in its name; that is to say the purpose of that museum is to tell the full story of the African- American experience, and not focus solely on slavery and discrimination.
This is also true when it comes to the National Museum of the American Indian. It tells the totality of the Native American experience, not only the story of massacres and reservations.
This is not true when we, the Jewish people, built our museum, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, on the National Mall. Rather, we chose to focus on, as the president said, persecution.
Yes, the purpose of the museum is to fight persecution, but at the core of the museum is Jew as victim. In all fairness, the museum was a result of the efforts of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust established by president Jimmy Carter. The Commission included religious leaders, academicians, and artists; while not all Jews, the vast majority were Jewish.
An unpopular and minority voice said while the Holocaust Museum was being built that the museum would reinforce both for Jew and non-Jew the notion of Jew as victim. While the Museum, which averages some two million visitors a year, of which some 70 percent are not Jewish, is considered a great success in telling a compelling and moving story to motivate people to fight persecution, at its core lies the definition of Jew as prey.
Why can’t we build a museum like the Native Americans and African Americans that tells the fullness of our history, instead of only being about the deep wound we carry? IN SHORT, we are a still a traumatized people almost 70 years since the smoke stalks of Auschwitz were put out. Add to that the shadow of 2,000 years of persecution and the reemergence of new viral and violent anti-Jewish sentiments and actions. And yet, we are more than victim.
We are a people of a civilization with a proud history of accomplishments and innovations from the Talmud, to influential Jewish novelists and writers, and the reemergence of the Jewish state after 2,000 years; a state that has one of the strongest armies in the world, as well as one of the most innovative technology centers.
Often I hear people say, “How can the Jewish people do to the Palestinians what they do after what they went through in the Holocaust?” First of all, I completely reject the parallel. While Israel has much to answer for when it comes to its treatment of the Palestinians, it is on a completely different plain than what the Holocaust was about. (The disturbing watering down of what the Holocaust means is another challenge that needs to be addressed).
This question is based on an interesting, but false, assumption that if someone, or a people in this case, were treated in a certain way we can expect them to then act in a certain way. This is false. Trauma implies a shock to the system and therefore it produces a spectrum of responses, not only one; and because we are dealing with a traumatic shock we cannot make the false assumption that the influence of that trauma will lead to a more empathetic outlook.
THE JEWISH philosopher Rabbi Emil Fackenheim spoke about the 614th Commandment being that we should deny Hitler a posthumous victory by continuing Jewish life. One of the values of Jewish life is our relationship to those different from us. Thirty-six times the Torah reminds us, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
Recently, Rabbi David Silverberg wrote, borrowing a teaching from Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg’s Yalkut Yehuda, “Zekhirat Amalek requires us to remember a distressful and unfortunate event, where as bikkurim celebrates our triumphant emergence from slavery to sovereignty in our ancient homeland. The juxtaposition between these two mitzvot, the Yalkut Yehuda comments, teaches us that we can and must somberly reflect upon the misfortunes of our past, but only if we also ensure to joyfully reflect upon our triumphs and achievements.
“Many times, it is easier and more natural to bemoan and grieve over misfortunes than it is to celebrate and give thanks for successes.
The Torah here indicates that we must connect to both aspects of our history – the periods of crisis and calamity, and the moments of triumph and glory. If we make a point of remembering Amalek, then we must make a point of remembering the Exodus and our entry into Eretz Yisrael.”
This is the choice before us. Will we, as symbolized by the Holocaust Museum on National Mall in Washington, DC, emphasize catastrophe and adversity as the lens by which we view the world and how the world sees us, or will we embrace a fuller understanding of what it means to be a Jew? If we chose the former, then we allow the shackles of oppression to continue to hold us down; if we chose the latter then we realize the dream of the Jew as a whole person, one of the goals of Zionism.The writer, a rabbi, is the author of Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul.