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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is Jewry responsible for the Holocaust?

“Jews have experienced anti-Judaism during most of our Diaspora existence, and at great cost in life. One prominent Holocaust research center suggests that, had Jewry not been subject to two millennia of European persecution our numbers today would equal that of the entire British Isles!”

According to one respondent to my recent article, Understanding the Holocaust: Shoah in Historical Perspective, Jewry should, “seek the causes (for antisemitism) in our own acts.” Self-blame is not an uncommon response to tragedy. Rape victims are one group that comes immediately to mind. But what motivates such a comment as we Jews, by our own actions, invite antisemitism, are somehow responsible for the Holocaust?

Several years ago a prominent Israeli rabbi attributed the massacre of a bus load of children by terrorists as G-d’s punishment for the “sins of Israelis.” As if G-d targets children, uses terrorists to carry out His will. In the wake of Shoah, seeking to somehow explain the inexplicable, some orthodox Diaspora leaders suggested that Shoah was G-d’s punishment for the sins of our people in Europe. But as in the Israeli bus massacre, most Jews victim to the European slaughter, during and for centuries before Shoah, were mostly the pious and the poor, those least likely to be Halachic “transgressors.” And was the hand of G-d also present in the elimination of Eastern Europe’s famed Hasidic centers, for the murder of orthodox communities dedicated to a life of learning and Halachic tradition? I, for one, prefer not to seek G-d’s intention in such events.

Jews have experienced anti-Judaism during most of our Diaspora existence, and at great cost in life. As I observed in my earlier submission, one prominent Holocaust research center suggests that, had Jewry not been subject to two millennia of European persecution our numbers today would equal that of the entire British Isles!

Since we had never experienced anything on the scale of Shoah, we could not have anticipated, taken evasive or direct action to the emerging danger. Yes there were those few, Jabotinsky and Abba Kovner, for example, who by intuition born of their Zionist background were more sensitive and alert to the unfolding events. But Martin Buber was more typical of general Jewish understanding and response: antisemitism was a pendulum that was now at its extreme. Germany would, he believed, sooner or later pass through that terrible period and life to return to normal for the Jews. As a result Buber urged German Jewry to remain in place, to wait out the storm.

Sixty years later Shoah is part of our Diaspora experience. We cannot now pretend that such a thing as a government organized effort to murder each and every Jew alive, including non-Jews defined “Jewish” due to a single grandparent convert to Christianity (1930’s German legal definition) is impossible, unthinkable. It is an established fact. We ignore at peril to self and our future generations that the Holocaust is the latest, but not last development in a process begun two thousand years ago. As that prehistory and cultural experience served as precedent for state-organized murder (Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremburg referred to Luther’s writings as inspiration and justification), so does the nearly successful Final Solution of the Jewish problem serve the future. The road to Shoah may have been twisted in detail, but the process was continuous and straight.

So Shoah is neither unique in history, nor a mystery beyond human comprehension. It did and, if history serves, will again befall us, for the solution was not yet final. The Holocaust was not an invention of the twentieth century as so many of our historians would have us believe, an event comparable to other such 20th century genocides. It was only the most recent in a long and continuing process. The only real contribution of the twentieth century was technological: those computers IBM provided Hitler, the software IBM developed to identify and locate each and every Jew for arrest and murder; Henry Ford’s assembly line adapted to the problem of mass production and disposal of human corpses.

While each of us, every Jewish adult alive today, may choose not to study the evolution of antisemitism and Shoah, still we cannot avoid awareness of Shoah as a real and recent event. Our responsibility for another such occurrence is not in somehow acting to encourage its recurrence since that is a permanent characteristic of the fabric of western culture, but in choosing to ignore its precedent. Our guilt lies in Denial, a denial expressed in insisting that our particular chosen homeland is “exceptional,” that such a thing cannot happen here. Denial was the response of our German community, with far more justification. Had not Jews settled the Danube one hundred years before the Common Era? Had not a Jew been prime minister in the Weimar Government in the years before the election of Adolph Hitler? Had not a Jew authored the Weimar constitution which was the very foundation of Weimar German democracy? Where else, or since, had our people resided longer, achieved such prominence, contributed to and been more accepted and assimilated?

For we who lived an ocean away from Europe’s death camps antisemitism was little different in popularity and intensity. Nativism, antisemitism and isolationism kept the United States neutral towards German persecution of their Jews, leaning as much to join Hitler in the crusade against the “godless” Soviet Union as to ally with America’s traditional ally England against the German threat. Even the Nazi program of racial hygiene which inspired the Holocaust was modeled after the American “science” of eugenics, America’s effort to create its own white, Nordic master race.

Had Henry Ford or Charles Lindberg, populist antisemites and isolationists decided to accept the Republican Party nomination and opposed Roosevelt for the presidency and won, a real possibility before Pearl Harbor, then it takes little imagination to appreciate the likely outcome for New World Jewry also. Even under the Roosevelt Administration the US built concentration camps to imprison its Japanese-American citizens.

As our German experience proves, antisemitism does not require a religious base. Western society is anti-Jewish by history and tradition. This is a fact we cannot, by our actions, change. The starting point for eliminating antisemitism would be for Christianity in all its forms to delete those anti-Jewish references from its gospels. But that is unlikely to happen since to do so would be to throw into question the divine inspiration of the texts as the true word of God. And where would that leave Christianity?

And where does this leave the Jewish people?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Christian antisemitism and Jewish Denial II: A response to Rabbi Boteach

In a recent article appearing in Jerusalem Post, Why Jews are always viewed as aggressors, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach offers a compelling explanation from Diaspora history and Christian theology for Judaism’s 2000 year history of discrimination, persecution and murder in the lands of Christendom. As Rabbi Boteach writes, Jew-hatred originated with the earliest documents of Christianity, the epistles of Paul and the four canonical gospels. The gospel of Matthew, quoted at more length by Rabbi Boteach, provides the clearest excuse: Pilate asks the Jewish mob, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” And the Jews respond, “Crucify him! ... Let his blood be upon us and on our children" (Matt: 27: 22-25). One need look no further to find motive and justification. What more heinous crime than the murder of God? But there is another stream feeding the passions of Jew-hatred, either overlooked or intentionally avoided, which sheds light on both the intensity and persistence of Christianity’s Jewish Problem.

Considering the importance and public visibility of the man and his message, there is no mention anywhere in the historical record indicating that Jesus, itinerant preacher hailed by Rome as King of the Jews and crucified, ever existed. Nothing appears in contemporaneous Roman documents, and the Romans, like the Germans, were exacting record keepers. Nor does reference to a Christ Jesus appear in any other documents of the period of occupation, Jewish, Greek, or other. Saul, to become St. Paul, appears in the historical record, as do Pontius Pilate, Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus and various insurrectionists described as “failed messiahs.” But the most prominent of all, the person supposedly condemned by the Jews and crucified by the Romans, the man who inspired and is the focus of the new religion, not a word.

Efforts to explain this absence have resurfaced over the centuries beginning, most notably, in Sts. Paul and Augustine and continuing to the present in the 200 year long Quest for the Historical Jesus. The Quest, involving some of the best minds in theology and history, using the most up-to-date scientific tools available to history and archeology, continues to unearth much valuable information about first century Judaism, life and culture, sects, the difficulty of Jewish life under Roman occupation. But of a historical Jesus, nothing.

I do not raise this as criticism but to point out that this doubt lies in the very heart of Christian belief, adds a dimension to our understanding of the intensity and persistence of Christian anti-Judaism, and of its deadly transformation into racial antisemitism. Rabbi Boteach correctly points out that the deicide charge is the excuse for 2000 years of persecution. But there is also the emotional energy resulting from doubt at the heart of the religion. How explain the absence of any record of Jesus having lived? And what if there never was such a person, that the Jesus described in the gospels as preaching, crucified and resurrected was only a myth, what would that mean for the central promise of Christianity, life-after-death through the salvational powers of the Christian messiah?

Rabbi Boteach correctly points out that Christian theology eventually inspired the Holocaust. I merely add another dimension, that existential doubt regarding the existence of the object of Christian worship should also be considered in our effort to understand that religion’s continuing Jewish Problem. By our very existence Jews are and will ever remain an affront and threat to Christian belief.

The 1965 document, Nostre Aetate, was the response by the church to the acceptance of responsibility to the contribution of Catholic anti-Judaism to the Holocaust. The document attempted to shift responsibility for the death of Jesus from the Jewish people, then and now, to the Jewish authorities of the time. The impact of the document on antisemitism was negligible, and antisemitism actually increased following its appearance. The problem is that Nostre Aetate refused to expunge anti-Judaism from the theological heart of Christianity, the gospels. Nor could they since the gospels are considered inspired by or the literal word of God. Any modification of the texts would indicate that either the gospels are false, or that God was in error. In either case the very foundations of Christianity would be challenged, the religion undermined.

In an effort to correct the failings of its earlier effort, the church has scheduled another conclave to address its theology of hate for 2009. But in advance of the new effort church spokesmen made it clear that, as with Nostre Aetate, the gospels would remain untouched. And so Matthew’s eternal condemnation of the Jewish people, 'Let his blood be on us and on our children,' will remain, a continuing source of theological anti-Judaism and inspiration for future lethal antisemitism.

The Jewish Problem is the invention of Christianity. Its purpose is to deflect attention from existential religious self-doubt to a safer, external target. So why do we Jews cooperate in this fatal dialogue? Certainly we are aware of our terrible history in Diaspora, targeted for extermination barely sixty years ago in the nearly successful Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Yet we convince ourselves that we, who by chance of geography survived the Holocaust, are somehow blessed, secure in our chosen Diaspora homeland. We assure ourselves that the Christian world, having perpetrated the unimaginable, surely learned from the horror they committed, could never allow its recurrence. Against the backdrop of 2000 years of Christian animus this must be recognized as, at the very least, wishful thinking. An objective backward glance should at least give us pause, instill doubt. Instead we blithely deny that the Problem even exists. Denial allows us to remain in Diaspora, rationalizing that our adopted homeland is, as our pre-Shoah German relatives described their fatherland in the years leading up to Shoah, “exceptional.” Denial convinces us that we have finally found acceptance as Jews by our neighbors, that intermarriage and conversion offer us and our children security. Conveniently forgotten is the law enacted by the Third Reich and prototype for a future “solution” that a single Jewish grandparent defines and condemns the grandchild.

History describes the past, indicates the future based on that past. Our history in Diaspora is of unrelenting persecution. In the end today’s refuge will prove no more secure than was Germany, home of Jews for more than two thousand years.