Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spicing up Our Memories of the Holocaust

In secular America, people usually wait until the end of the calendar year to wish one another a happy “Holiday Season.”  But for Jews and Christians, we are now going through a very different, but perhaps even more beloved, holiday season.   So, before I talk a bit about my own holiday, please allow me to wish all of my Christian readers the most spiritual Easter possible.  May the teachings of Jesus be forever etched in your heart and reflected by your deeds. 
Two years ago, I was blessed to spend this time of year in the Holy Land.  I will never forget the joy of arriving in Jerusalem only hours before the beginning of Passover and then spending the evening at a Seder led by three rabbinical students, one of whom was my daughter.  As the cliché goes, “It doesn’t get any better than that.”   This year, I’ve been blessed to spend the Passover season enjoying a stay-cation.  My activities have included reading the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah and making daily visits to my mother’s Assisted Living Facility, where she has been recuperating beautifully from an illness.  All in all, it has been an excellent Passover – excellent enough that I’m able to take a somewhat charitable position in response to what was surely the political gaffe of the week.  I’m referring to Sean Spicer’s comments on the very first day of Passover regarding Hitler and the use of poison gas.
By now, you have surely heard those comments.  Comparing Hitler to Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, Spicer said that “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War Two. You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” Later, given a chance to clarify his remarks, Spicer added, “I think when you come to sarin gas, he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”  When a reporter pointed out that Hitler had indeed targeted Jews with gas, Spicer replied that: “I appreciate that. There was not in the – he brought them into the Holocaust centers – I understand that. But I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down into the middle of towns.”

In reaction to these statements, the press’ theme was consistent: Holocaust comparisons are never wise, especially when uttered by public figures.   For example, Chris Christie, on Fox News, stated that “There should be a general rule for anybody involved in public life. Whether you’re a governor, a press secretary for the President, or a host of ‘Fox & Friends,’ don’t bring up Hitler. Ever.”  Similarly, an article in offered the headline: “Sean Spicer just forgot the 1st rule of politics: Never compare anything to Hitler.”  The article itself, by Chris Cillizza, referred to Spicer’s statement as “a blatant violation of ‘Godwin’s Law’ – the idea that by invoking Hitler comparisons in any way, shape or form you are immediately putting an end to any discussion. ‘Oh yeah, well this is like when Hitler did. ...’ is a sentence that you should never, ever say. If you, like Spicer, are trying to say something is ‘worse’ than what Hitler did, you really, really just need to stop talking.

Touche.  Spicer’s comments were stupid.  Even he has admitted that what he said was reprehensible and indefensible.   But I can’t help but notice the irony of the criticism.   On the one hand, the critics are correctly pointing out that the Holocaust is a dangerous topic to bring up in public because it was not only horrific but incomparably so.  But on the other hand, Spicer is demonstrating what happens in a world in which people have been trained NOT to talk about the Holocaust for fear that they may say something stupid and offensive.  The less people speak up about the topic, the more we stop focusing on it, remove it from our hearts and minds, and live as if it never happened. 

Sean Spicer is over a decade younger than I am.  When he was born, the Holocaust had been in the history books for more than a quarter century.  Surely, a young Sean Spicer would have learned about the Holocaust in school, but let’s face it – the stuff we “learn” about in school isn’t necessarily etched into our consciousness.   Speaking personally, I was once schooled on such topics as mitochondria and ribonucleic acid, but that doesn’t mean I remember much about them.  If you want an adult to really understand something, it had better become a topic of conversation for adults, and not just something to which we’re only exposed (superficially) as school children.

Sean Spicer is a Long Island boy.  I suspect he’s been far more exposed to the Holocaust than many Americans.  If he is largely ignorant on this topic, I can only imagine how many other millions of Generation Xers and millennials have been going through life with nary a thought about the Holocaust and its implications.   And if our public figures have been taught to stay away from the subject – lest they cause a fire storm by not speaking about it delicately -- then who is going to remind these young men and women about the need to study the Holocaust?  

You certainly can’t count on Hollywood.  The days of “The Sorrow and the Pity” are long gone.  Now, when people learn about the Holocaust through film, they’re likely to hear more about those who survived or helped others survive than those who perished.   These Hollywood narratives can be heartwarming, to be sure, but they don’t exactly expose us to the real story.  In my family, for example, you either escaped Eastern Europe before the War or you died in the camps.  In other words, I don’t come from a family of “survivors” but rather of “non-survivors.”  It doesn’t make for a great film, but it does make for an honest memory. 

For better or for worse, the Holocaust has been one of my greatest influences in life.  It has largely shaped my theology, inspired me to pursue a career in public service, deeply developed my sense of ethnic identity, and limited my trust in humankind generally and in human leaders in particular.  I can’t imagine walking this earth without being steeped in the Holocaust.  Then again, I’ve been learning about it ever since, as a six or seven-year old, I found a book on the topic at my grandparents’ house and started looking at pictures of Jews who were beaten to death or who had swastikas forcibly cut into their hair. You might say I received too MUCH exposure to the Holocaust at too early an age.  But this is one topic about which I’d rather learn too much than too little.  And I get the impression that Americans are increasingly falling into the latter category.  In fact, with each passing generation, you can expect the memories of the Holocaust to recede further and further, as we are encouraged to think about happier memories and avoid mentioning touchy, dangerous topics in public. 

So, if you’re looking for lessons from Spicer’s gaffe, I say that we need to hear our public figures speak MORE about the Holocaust, not less.  Let them make stupid comments about Hitler if those are the only things they can say about him, because then at least others can point out the stupidity and set the record straight.  Mr. Spicer, Hitler did use poison gas during war time.  He used them on “his own people” – as well as millions of others – because, after all, German Jews were no less “German” than their Christian neighbors.  As for the idea of “Holocaust Centers,” every institution of higher learning, every place of worship, and every democratic government must become a “Holocaust Center” – by which I don’t mean a concentration camp, but rather a force for teaching us all to remember, study and contemplate both the facts of the Holocaust and the profound implications that it has to offer. 

So thanks, Mr. Spicer, for putting the Holocaust back into the American consciousness this Passover season.  As we Jews take stock in what it means to have been liberated from Egypt, may we remember that slavery and genocide have continued millennium after millennium and remain with us even today.  If we are to become forces of light instead of darkness in this world, we must be willing to face the horrors of our world every bit as much as the joys.   Indeed, to those who say that Judaism must become a religion of “joy” and not of “oy,” I say that escapism has no place in Judaism.  Ours is a faith for open minds, open hearts, and above all else, open eyes.   

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