Kent Osband

Holocaust Hollowness

I worry about the hollowing out of Holocaust remembrance. Yesterday I received a funds solicitation from the Alabama Holocaust Education Center (AHEC), to which I had donated in the past. Here is its stated rationale:

Why study the Holocaust?  Because it allows us to (1) examine basic moral issues; (2) target prejudice at the root from stereotypes to systems; (3) identify danger signs so we know when to take action; (4) reflect on the dangers of silence; (5) promote a diverse society; (6) roster empathy for minority groups; (7) create genocide and rights awareness; (8) Show the role we all play in building a just and fair society; (9) to center our shared humanity; (9) to never forget.

These points are a mixture of good, vapid, and misdirected. Points (1) and (10) are standard for every religion. Point (2) is a hopeless cause; tell me anything human that’s not infected with prejudice, including campaigns against prejudice. Points (5), (6), and (9) will be ardently embraced by Hamas supporters to fault Israel for not removing its fences, for not embracing all descendants of displaced Arabs as full citizens, and for killing more Gazans than Hamas killed Israelis. Point (8) is exalted by every totalitarian movement that ever existed. Notice too what isn’t there: namely any mention of Jews, of religious persecution, or of human savagery.

I dissent. Holocaust education never centers “our shared humanity”. It centers gross inhumanity, in hopes of driving it out. It targets flagrantly inexcusable behavior, not “prejudice” in general It doesn’t show us where a truly “just and fair society” lies, just where it definitely does not.

What’s good is concentrated in points (3), (4), and (7). There AHEC has laid sound foundations and hosted several good speakers. I don’t doubt its good intentions. But it has never publicly exposed Hamas’s openly genocidal aspirations, never publicly challenged the projection of those aspirations back to Israel, and never publicly questioned the implications of the popular slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free”.

Hoping this was a bug and not a feature, I have repeatedly asked AHEC to speak out. Their only substantive response has been that “these are complicated issues that are not black and white.” I agree on the black and white; the relevant color is bloody red. And questions of appropriate political and military responses are indeed quite complex. But I don’t want AHEC to weigh in on any of that, just on characterizations of genocide that could hardly be simpler.

Which cats have got their tongue? I sense that there are three. The first cat is “what would other progressives think of us”? When life forces us to choose between doing the right thing and doing what our icons perceive as the right thing, the latter usually wins. In this case, most of the world’s glitterati find it far easier to fault Israel for Hamas results than to fault themselves for fueling Hamas causes. How painful to court blame by calling this out. How appealing to signal virtue by wishing for “peace and an end to the conflict”.

The second cat is “what does Jewish history warn us about?” Millennia of persecution have encouraged us (yes, I’m Jewish) to speak bluntly to people we don’t fear and hold our tongues with people we do. We openly revile dead Nazis and tiny white supremacist groups. But when dedicated unapologetic Hitler wannabees livestream their savageries, when they praise Allah for gratifying their bloodthirst, when millions of people march for them and demand their victory, our ancestral instincts for self-preservation can’t help but kick in. In Israel those instincts cry “fight”. In America those same instincts cry “take cover”.  But it’s not fair.  American Jews dwell in more prosperity and peaceful protection than any Jews in history, and AHEC’s and my home state is particularly pro-Zionist state. Our Christian neighbors post more blue-and-white pro-Israel bows than we do.

The third cat is “what does local culture most abhor?” The answer is conflict. In my community, conflict aversion isn’t a mere tactic; it’s a whole way of life. This works until conflict explodes and shames all concerned. Afterwards the shamed resolve to avoid conflict going forward, so the cycle keeps repeating. The best-known historical example concerned the showdown between Bull Connor and Martin Luther King. Our city elites didn’t want either mass public protests or abhorrent crackdowns, but by keeping their heads down they lured in both. I am not wholly ashamed of that. Birmingham’s negative example did more to further civil rights than a host of positive examples elsewhere. Perhaps that’s our karma.

Only this time, we seem to have far more company. The silence of Holocaust museums in the US has been criticized here and here. Hopefully they respect Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Recently its Chairman publicly called for

” an implementable action plan [to]address all forms of antisemitism, not only the traditional, Nazi-like forms of antisemitism but include new expressions and iterations of antisemitism that calls for the annihilation of the Jewish state…. a kind of hymn for the destruction of Israel, to the genocide of the Jewish people, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”…. Buzzwords like ‘genocide by Israel’, ‘apartheid’, ‘decolonization of Palestine’ and ‘settler colonialist state’.”

The Chairman said that for world leaders lacking such a plan, “it is hypocritical to come to Yad Vashem to pledge never again.” Should this judgment not apply to US Holocaust museums too? No matter how much they exalt Holocaust remembrance, that won’t by itself prevent the twisted portrayal of Israeli as modern Nazis. They need to expose modern eliminationist phrases and refute them. I hope Yad Vashem will leverage its moral authority to help US Holocaust museums reclaim theirs.

About the Author
Kent Osband graduated Harvard magna cum laude and received a PhD in economics from UC Berkeley. He worked for major financial institutions including the IMF, the World Bank, and Goldman Sachs, with primary focus on early warnings of major crises and recovery efforts after. He has published three books on financial risk analysis and one book on calculus for kids.
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