Natalie Portman, Loyalty, and the Holocaust

Israeli actress Natalie Portman received harsh criticism for suggesting last week that the Holocaust was not unique and that it should be less emphasized in Jewish education.

Actually, “harsh criticism” puts it mildly. She’s been called an “idiot” and a “complete moron” who married a non-Jewish “baby daddy.” Some of the names she’s been called aren’t printable in a family newspaper like The Times of Israel.

But even when you read comments from her more temperate critics, you notice something odd going on. They insist the Holocaust was unique, but they want to talk, calmly and abstractly, about details: “It was systematic. It was to wipe out an entire people. It was enormous. It was continent-wide.”

Ms. Portman and her critics share the same moral assumptions. They assume that no person’s life is more important than any other’s. They assume that we Jews are just one human group among many, so that’s how we should think of ourselves. They assume that what happens to our people is neither more nor less important than what happens to any other group.

It is the default viewpoint of modern society: Enlightenment-era universalism.

Ms. Portman is of course correct in stating that attempted genocides happen often in human history. But neither she nor her critics seem to grasp the central point:

The Holocaust was a unique tragedy because it was our tragedy.

It happened to us, to our people.

If my wife is killed, it is abstractly no more significant than if a stranger is killed on the other side of the planet. But if my wife’s death isn’t more significant to me, then there is something very seriously wrong with me.

In such a case, I am not a disinterested observer, nor should I act like one.

If my wife suffers, I should suffer with her. If she dies, I should at least figuratively die with her. I should remember her – “never forget” — and I should burn with rage at her killers. If I cannot do that, then I am not much of a man. Then I did not love her as I said I did. Then I was a liar when I vowed loyalty to her. Then I am a disgrace to her, to myself, to my people, and even to the human race in general.

We reason in the abstract, but we live in the particular. Our thoughts apply to all people in all times and places. But our loves and hatreds, our loyalties and passions, apply only to specific people. They bind us far more powerfully than mere logic.

Our people – our people – were herded into cattle cars and shipped like animals to concentration camps. Our people – our people – were deliberately starved, subjected to hard labor, and used in medical experiments too horrific to contemplate without weeping.

And they were killed. No, not merely killed. Murdered. Young and old, men and women, religious and secular, who had committed no offense except being who they were and becoming a scapegoat for that monster Hitler and the demons he unleashed in the European soul. That was the Holocaust. That was our tragedy. And that is what we must remember, hold unique, hold important, above the tragedies of other peoples, to whom we must certainly grant the same right of emphasizing their own suffering.

Words like “important” and “tragic” are not purely abstract, value-neutral terms. They always carry with them the implied questions, “Important to whom?” “Tragic for whom?”

Yes, we should value the lives of all our fellow human beings. But we don’t know most of them, and most of them aren’t our families or our people.

If we fail to show greater loyalty and love for our own families and people than for humanity in general, then we are just the abstract husks of living creatures, without the hearts and souls that give life value.

Ms. Portman is not an idiot. She means well. But her intelligence and education have misled her into a fog of lifeless abstractions that blind her to real, living truth: Our people died in the Holocaust. That is what makes it uniquely tragic.

That is why we keep faith with those who died.

That is why we must never forget.

About the Author
N.S. Palmer is a graduate student in Jewish Studies at Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He has degrees in mathematics, economics, and philosophy. He is currently writing a book about Judaism and the role of religious belief in society.
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