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A truly Jewish view of the Holocaust

Those who insist the Shoah is unique fail their moral duty to study the urgent lessons of other genocides

Woe, woe unto us that the Holocaust, in all its tragedy and as an expression of the ugliest human evil, has become a subject of controversy between intellectuals.

On the one hand, there are the unshakeable views of the Holocaust establishment, such as at Yad Vashem, that the Holocaust is unique, indeed uniquely unique, if not an undefinable, inexplicable act of divinity.

On the other hand, modernist scholars understand the Holocaust to be another of the many genocides that have befallen huge parts of humanity. Unhappily, to say the least, a significant number of the modernist scholars go way too far in omitting understanding of the Holocaust as a cataclysmic and archetypal event that indeed is unique in a number of major features, such as its execution by an advanced society using modern scientific and technological means, the extensive network of torturing and killing concentration camps, the use of gas and huge crematoria, and the ideological intent of the perpetrators to destroy all Jews – everywhere.

A major international conference on Holocaust and genocide is coming to town this week. In Haaretz there have been exchanges of controversial letters between the advocates of the concept that our Holocaust was unique and those who also place it in a broader view of man’s terrible history of genocides past and present.

Each side justifies the worst fears of the other side. The modernist scholars are legitimately horrified that Yad Vashem fails to make respectful and ethical links to the terrible fates of other peoples; the Holocaust establishment is legitimately horrified by so many minimizations of the significance of the Holocaust in the course of attending to other genocides. As in a bad marriage, or the escalation of conflict between warring groups and nations, they trigger each other and end up justifying one another’s extremism.

Upon examination, it turns out that all cases of genocide have their unique as well as comparable features. Thus, in the Cambodian Genocide, one-third of the population of Cambodians were destroyed by their fellow Cambodians, in most cases with hardly any basis (such as ethnicity, religion or even politics) for the differentiation between perpetrator and victim. Unique it is!

In a talk I gave at one museum on the Holocaust in the United States, I read an example of a 50-some-year-old man who had lost his parents, wife, and children in the genocide. The audience, which included many Holocaust survivors, was tearful and reverent. I then asked them how they would feel if the man and his family that I was describing were not Jewish but were in fact Cambodian. The discussion that followed was beautiful and in the finest of our Jewish tradition of caring for all people’s lives.

Thus, too, the Rwandan Genocide is an unbelievable spectacle of people looking directly into the eyes of their victims, who in many cases are literally family relatives, in many others friends or acquaintances, and, with their own hands, hacking them cruelly with machetes before killing them, and then hacking them to their deaths. Moreover, 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in this way in 100 days. Is that ever unique!

Professors Dan Michman and Dina Porat are proud representatives of Yad Vashem (see “All Aspects of the Holocaust Should Be Studied,” Haaretz, May 30, 2016)​. They are entirely right that Yad Vashem does outstanding work in preserving and researching the Holocaust of our people. It deserves the appreciation and respect of all of us. But Michman and Porat are talking out of the sides of their mouths when they argue that Yad Vashem does not neglect the “universal aspects of the Holocaust.” Their concept of universal is that the Nazis had “an aspiration to destroy an entire culture” and not only the people. True – and it is clearly a further statement of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. But Yad Vashem historically has rejected any efforts or proposals to include in its research any comparative study or museum displays of the genocides of other peoples.

Yad Vashem indeed is devoted to our Holocaust, but it would not take much, for example, to create a Situation Room where the news and reports of ongoing genocides in our mad world are available, or brief displays of other genocides such as the Armenian Genocide.

The Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, which I founded together with Elie Wiesel and psychiatrist Shamai Davidson in 1980, was most likely the first in the world to introduce the linkage of “Holocaust and genocide.” A few years later, Yad Vashem inaugurated a new journal – which is still being published today but now by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – using that very name, which was wonderful, but in fact the journal virtually failed to present anything about genocides other than the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was an overwhelming event for our Jewish people and in the history of all humanity. In fact, it is the unique elements of the Holocaust that formed it into an archetypal event in human experience. It is the Holocaust that finally brought to human consciousness the fact that human beings are mass murdering each other – more than 200 million in the last century according to Professor R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii, and inspired the very concept of genocide and the first legal formulation of it as a crime.

Most appropriately, the United Nations has created an “International Holocaust Day” and there are events in memory of the Holocaust and in respect of its lessons that are sponsored by governments and institutions all over the world. But the Holocaust was hardly the only major event of genocide in this world, and hardly the only case of bizarre torture, suffering, and murder of vast numbers of people. If “from Zion there shall shine the light of knowledge,” then it is incumbent upon us, the Jewish people, to participate in various ways — including in our national museum on the Holocaust — in remembering, honoring, and studying the lessons of other genocides.

At the behest of the government of Armenia, a government that, like ours, is exquisitely sensitive to the genocide that befell its people, in 2015 the United Nations declared an “International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime” on the 9th of December each year. ​ Will Israel genuinely participate in this day? As of now it is hardly likely, but one can yet hope for a tikun, a moral correction.

Israel W. Charny is executive director and co-founder of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide.

About the Author
Israel W. Charny is executive director and co-founder of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide.
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