Running for President in 1976, Ronald Reagan famously asked Americans, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” That punctuated a sea change in the approach of many Americans, and not a few Jews, to American and world politics. Reagan was appealing to self-interest over a sense of common good and collective fate.
The millennia of Jewish powerlessness and victimhood boosted our moral claims beyond the original cachet of divine calling from Moses and Sinai. As the unparalleled culmination of these persecutions, the Holocaust has become the overarching paradigm for the consequences of unchecked hate, racism, and crimes against humanity. For Jews, invoking this legacy and its lessons is a sacred burden rather than a political privilege.
The fact that a “civilized” society like Germany was able to carry out the systematic and targeted annihilation of six million Jews carries many lessons; understanding the Nazis’ single-minded focus on Jews is key to applying these lessons universally. While the Jewishness of the victims is essential to understanding the depravity and human dynamics, we must constantly be on guard that the lessons of the Holocaust are not exclusively about Jews.
For Jews and many others, the lessons of the Holocaust can be reduced to the basic slogan, “Never Again”. But what exactly we are committed to preventing?
The lowest, most superficial, self-evident and self-centered lesson of the Holocaust is that it’s wrong to discriminate against and massacre Jews. This means the world bears a perpetual responsibility to protect Jews anywhere, including in Israel, and probably to accord Israel extra consideration regarding its nuclear deterrent and treatment of Palestinians and other minorities.
Based on modern European history and enlightened Christian teachings, protecting Jews is often taken as a solemn obligation. By combating antisemitism, governments can also distract from their persecution and hatemongering against other minorities, and from broader attacks on democratic norms and institutions, particularly when vying for the support of American policymakers and Jewish or philosemitic constituents.
The second, more rhetorical level, posits that Jews must be protected not just because of a moral burden, of collective global guilt, but because Jews are (hold for cliché…) the canary in the coal mine. Wherever Jews are mistreated or attacked, then — as in 1930s Germany — other victims are soon to follow. This has proven to be true in most cases, but as a moral credo, it still falls short.
Alongside the canary lesson is the argument that wherever any other group is being singled out for unfair treatment, eventually Jews will also be targeted or at least caught up. After all, the Nazis began rounding up socialists and communists, and the first people they gassed were Germans with mental and physical disabilities. So, regardless of what Donald Trump might have done to cut taxes or embrace the most hardline Israeli positions, liberal democracies committed to the rule of law have always proven the best guarantee for Jews to survive and ultimately thrive.
By making the case for a less Judaeo-centric understanding of Holocaust lessons, these strategic arguments provide a cost-benefit rationale for humanitarian action. Jewish rights matter because others are also impacted, and we should worry about all democratic and minority rights because eventually, this benefits Jews as well.
Framing the arguments as I have, it may be obvious what they share: The presumed need to prove that moral behavior delivers some tangible benefit of self-preservation, impunity or civic bliss is as counterproductive as it is understandable.
When public figures trivialize or deny the Holocaust and then apologize to their local Jewish community, this reinforces the dangerous fallacy that the legacy of the Holocaust and its lessons belong to and are limited to the Jews. Eight decades on, if preserving the Holocaust is still seen primarily as a Jewish responsibility, then our efforts to educate and sensitize and apply these lessons have fallen painfully short.
This failing could owe to the best of intentions, such as not wanting to risk the loss of control over the optics and the follow-through. It may be because, thank God, we are still blessed to have Jewish Holocaust survivors among us who can step up and bear witness. As the number of survivors diminishes, it is more important than ever that we translate their testimonies into lessons for the world, the same way the Torah and prophetic tradition have informed modern moral codes and teachings.
It’s also important for ambitious politicians to stop using the Holocaust as a political tool. It should be possible to alert the world to the dangers of a nuclear Iran without likening it to a second Holocaust, to defend Israeli actions without falsely blaming Palestinians for the murder of the six million, or to repeatedly court openly racist parties. Rather than enjoying a ‘hall pass’, Israel’s Prime Minister should be held to a higher standard.
The most effective way Israel leverages lessons of the Holocaust is by messaging its commitment to human dignity, individual rights, collective responsibility, and a free and open society. Even if it’s justified by national interests, opposing the International Criminal Court because it could charge Israeli soldiers with war crimes undermines any Israeli or Jewish claim to ownership over lessons of the Holocaust. The same goes for American objections to the Court, a body consciously designed as a corrective to the world’s silence in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Much of the Jewish grievance against the world following the Holocaust was that nations chose national self-interest or political expediency instead of saving Jews. As a sovereign state facing similarly tough choices, Israel need not always be the ethical paragon — which is precisely why it should no longer be in the business of deciding what the Holocaust means or what that standard should be. No one government should.
The highest level of Holocaust lesson is that all individuals and all peoples deserve human dignity and freedom from discrimination and violence — not just because this protects everyone else and preserves stable societies, but because all people deserve these rights. Full stop.
As then-Senator Joe Biden put it during the 1987 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, “My rights are because I exist. They were given to me and each of my fellow citizens by our creator, and they represent the essence of human dignity.”
When we teach our children about the Holocaust, the final moral of our story — after stressing the importance of Jewish identity and physical survival, and yes of Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel — must be the equal value of every human being and the imperative to stand up for these values. And the same goes for any issue. If Jews teach any less than this, then why should we expect anyone else to teach their own children more than, “Don’t let a genocide happen to us.”
It’s because the Holocaust involved the legalized and systematic dehumanizing and mass murder of Jews that “never again” can we limit ourselves to a ‘SWOT’ analysis of whether to oppose tyranny and injustice and genocide. National governments won’t always be able to act or succeed in stopping atrocities and honoring the Responsibility to Protect. But we should never stop calling them and ourselves to account for it.
We should never leave the impression that utilitarian arguments like the canary metaphor are the reason we fight injustice unless we want our children and our leaders to always ask, as Reagan proposed, “What’s in it for me?”
Just as the Holocaust helps to frame Jewish interests, it also informs and reinforces Jewish values, and it’s these values that are scalable and applicable to the global consciousness. They transcend resentment, vengeance, and self-righteousness.
As survivors of the campaign to exterminate us, Jews must never be satisfied with our own safety and inclusion, nor with Holocaust commemorations by themselves. We should always be pushing for more diversity and acceptance of minorities and of political dissent. This is good for the Jews, but more importantly, it’s good for what we value and for what lessons the Holocaust offers to all.
Seeing some Nazi symbolism mixed in with the January 6 insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol was disturbing, but not nearly as disturbing as the open assault on the seat of our democracy. It’s useful to show the links among seditionists and hate groups and antisemites, at least as a wake-up call, but not because anyone was seriously worried a Trump takeover would lead to the rounding up of Jews.
In his four years as President, Trump rounded up asylum-seekers and immigrants, demonized African-Americans, banned Muslims, undermined the equal rights of LGBTQ Americans, extorted foreign governments, commandeered law enforcement for his political aims, and directly challenged the Constitutional foundations of our republic. While this was no Holocaust, perhaps the lessons of the Holocaust were never more relevant to the American story than during Trump’s tenure in office.
If we want the memory of the six million to have a true and lasting impact, then this legacy must be the inheritance of all humanity. Its lessons must apply to all oppressed people everywhere, and not merely to our political adversaries or strategic foes. They must know that it was a particularly Jewish tragedy with an infinitely universal impact.