Though Auschwitz was liberated more than seventy years ago, its legacy, along with the other death camps and horrific crimes that were committed against us during the Shoah, continues to cast a pall over the Jewish community worldwide.
On the one hand, we Jews have “recovered” to the point where not only have we built a magnificent sovereign state in Israel, but we’ve also created and re-created dynamic Jewish communities in countries around the world. Somehow or other, despite having every reason not to, we have managed to once again “take a chance on humanity.” We’ve allowed ourselves to act as if maybe, just maybe, the world has rid itself of its chronic need to abuse us.
But on the other hand, there isn’t really such a thing as “getting over” the Shoah. One doesn’t “get past it.” One struggles to go on despite it. And whether it’s seventy, eighty, or ninety years after Auschwitz, we Jews will always– I hope!– be looking over our shoulders when we hear metaphorical footsteps. The lasting legacy of Auschwitz and the Shoah is that it has made the Jewish community prickly and fearful, and prone to see danger even where they may not be any.
Sometimes, however, there is actually what to be fearful of. Differentiating between the real threats and the perceived ones is one of the great and underappreciated burdens of modern Jewish life. And at no time of the Jewish calendar year is this burden more front and center than it is on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat preceding Purim– this Shabbat.
Shabbat Zachor derives its name from the opening word of the special Torah reading chanted from a second scroll. “Zachor!” Remember what Amalek did to you when you were leaving Egypt, attacking your non-combatant women and children when you were tired and weary. Biblical Amalek, a constant and implacable enemy of the ancient Israelites, ultimately became the paradigm for all those who would harm Jews and the Jewish community. Because Haman, the villainous would-be murderer of the Book of Esther, is understood to have been descended from Amalek, we consciously invoke the memory of Amalek on the Shabbat preceding Purim. It is intended to remind us that threats to Jewish safety and security must never be too far removed from our consciousness.
Warning Jews about anti-Semitism is never a hard sell. As I said earlier, we are, for good and understandable reasons, predisposed to see it even when it’s not there. If anything, Jewish leaders have a responsibility to teach those who look to them for guidance that while vigilance is always in order, we must also be aware to the possibility that we are being “too careful” sometimes, and making accusations that are based mostly in our collective communal neurosis more than in fact.
But then again…
Here we are, on the weekend before Purim, 2016, and so many signs point to dangerous red flags of resurgent anti-Semitism.
The leading candidate for the Republican nomination for President– not a splinter or extremist party, but the party of Lincoln– has tapped into a deep vein of free-floating anger among American voters. Rooted in the sense that they have been the victims of an economy ruthlessly manipulated by the “haves,” convinced that most of America’s problems trace back to unwanted foreigners who have made their way into our country, often illegally, and stolen American jobs, and utterly convinced that America’s God-given status as the world’s leading superpower has been eroded by a President who is reluctant to use it, they have found a candidate who is not only willing but eager to channel their anger. He will “make America great again” by expelling illegal aliens, blocking many others from entering, restoring American pride and dignity via a relentless use of force, and putting all those “others” in their place, even looking away at violence directed at them.
Sound familiar? It should. Think Weimar Republic. Think German resentment in the 1920’s and 30’s at the unfair terms of the Versailles treaty concluding World War I, an economy that struggled mightily because of that perceived unfairness, and a German fascist who convinced Germany that the Jews were the cause of it all, and he alone could fix it.
No, Trump is not Hitler. Of course not. Hitler was, and hopefully will remain, utterly unique in the annals of human history. But Trump attracts the same kinds of angry people that Hitler did, and gives them a focus for their anger. When a Trump supporter screams at protesters at a rally to “go back to f-ing Auschwitz,” it shouldn’t surprise us. But it should– it must– make us sit up straight and take notice, and begin to seriously address the possibility of a Trump presidency, and what that might be like for us if that comes to pass.
As a post-Shoah Jewish community, we will always be challenged to navigate the line between vigilance and over-reaction. That is our lot. But remember… even paranoids have enemies. And we Jews have more than most.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.