Never Forget, But Forget The Auschwitz Tattoos

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-5-12

Reflecting the modern media’s appetite for ghoulish anomalies, and its particular delight in pathologizing Israel, the New York Times published an article this week about young Israelis tattooing themselves with replicas of their survivor-grandparents’ Auschwitz numbers. Putting aside that other modern media tendency to interview half a dozen renegades and—poof—deem their marginal behavior an instant trend, one generation’s importing the scars of an earlier generation is perverse.

The former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is seen on January 27, 2010. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP /Getty Images)
The former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is seen on January 27, 2010. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP /Getty Images)

As both a Jew and an historian, I believe in keeping memories alive, never forgetting, and learning the lessons of the past. I worry that, as the survivor’s generation dies off, it will be harder to convey the true horrors Jews endured in the Holocaust. I cherish Elie Wiesel’s work, and as I write this my 12-year-son is spending some of his Sukkot holiday vacation reading Wiesel’s classic memoir “Night.” Moreover, as someone who is not “Gen 2” or “Gen 3,” whose four grandparents made it to American safety and freedom from Russia and Poland by the early 1920s, decades before the Nazi evil, I respect the trauma of the survivors and their descendants. I cannot fathom what bearing such a legacy would be like and am loathe to be judgmental.

Still, perpetuating the Auschwitz tattooing offends me as a humanist, a Jew and a Zionist. As a humanist, I celebrate most survivors’ instinct to insulate their children and grandchildren from history’s horrors. The survivors’ ability to go forward, to build new lives, reflects the extraordinary human capacity to heal, to regenerate, to grow—that is the lesson I embrace and echo.

As a Jew, I appreciate the power of ritualizing memory but through words and more benign deeds, turning the bread of affliction into edible matzah, the bitterness of slavery into horseradish, the tears of the oppressed into salt water. As Jews in particular, we don’t tattoo, we don’t self-flagellate, we don’t self-mutilate. We respect our bodies as holy and whole. I agree with my colleague Peter Beinart, who argues in “The Crisis of Zionism” that while remembering is a sacred act, there is something wrong with a Jewish community that has more Holocaust memorials than functioning Jewish day schools. I fear that with too much money invested in remembering how we died, not enriching how we live, with Jewish college students flocking to Holocaust courses but not courses on modern Jewish ritual or philosophy, we risk violating the Torah’s preaching to “choose life”; Judaism is not a death cult.

Finally, as a Zionist, this deification of trauma appalls me. Zionism was not about holding on to the sufferings of Europe—or the Middle East for that matter—but about transcending them. By returning to history’s stage, Jews were supposed to stop being the victims and feeling victimized. Zionism talked about rebuilding the Jewish body, reconstituting the Jewish body politic, regenerating the Jewish soul, affirming humanist values—not holding onto our hurts so much that we desecrate our bodies to remember our inherited pain.

Two years ago, an 89-year-old survivor Adolek Kohn returned to Auschwitz with some of his children and grandchildren at the urging of his daughter Jane Korman. She shot a video of him and his kids dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Some thought that was in poor taste—I thought it was fabulous. Dancing with the next generation, even at humanity’s gates of Hell, affirms life, keeps Judaism alive and lively, while reinforcing the Zionist mission whereby we achieve our own redemption through self-determination, inner strength, constructive visions, and good works.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – and encounter democracy

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-10-12

“Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – and encounter democracy”

A popular YouTube parody at www.collegehumor.com, which my kids love, has a youngGerman named Gunter Granz working in an American office, refusing to shake his Jewish co-workers’ hands, assuming all their fathers are rich bankers, and humiliated by Germany’s World War II misdeeds – because if only Hitler had not made the country so vulnerable with the long supply lines in Russia, he would have won. Meanwhile, in the real world, the German novelist Gunter Grass talks about Israel, the Jewish state, in equally absurd ways, bordering on parody. Grass should be mocked, refuted, confronted. But Israel’s Interior Minister is wrong. Rather than banning the author, Israel should welcome him – showing Grass a real democracy in action rather the bogeyman he targeted.
Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said” throbs with the false bravado and self-righteousness of the laptop warrior against Israel. There is this conceit, among Israel’s critics, that, somehow, by joining the international pile-on against Israel they are being brave, breaking the silence, saying what must be said, when they actually are being conformist, acting in vogue, echoing clichés.Especially in Europe, and most especially in Grass’s leftist circles, attacking Israel – or the US — is as natural, and as imaginative, as grumbling about high gasoline prices or low book advances.
Among Western radicals, prejudice against Israel and the US is the last legitimate bigotry, the only hatred acceptable in polite circles. As Richard Wolin explains in The Seduction of Unreason:  The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, America has long functioned as European thinkers’ Schreckbild, image of horror.  Israel, what those lovely Iranian mullahs call, Little Satan, is now similarly targeted, in a move reeking of anti-Semitism that also feels natural to European elites. Attacking each country’s essential character transcends anger at specific policies, often confusing cause and effect. The French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel notes that the same critics attack America as “unilateralist” and “imperialist” when it intervenes internationally but then call Uncle Sam “isolationist” when it does not.
Similarly, Grass colors within the lines, slavishly following the bash-Israel formula.  His critique is one-sided, exaggerated and hysterical. Iran can threaten to “wipe out” Israel but Grass and his ilk accuse Israel of threatening Iran, of endangering “The already fragile world peace.”  Such “wonderful illogicality” suggests not “rational analysis” to Revel but “obsession.”
I agree with Grass when he writes in his leaden, clumsy poem: “I am tired of the hypocrisy/ Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped/That this will free many from silence,/That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger/ To renounce violence….”  We just differ in our threat assessments and our definitions of hypocrisy.  I am more outraged by charlatans like Grass who cannot criticize Third World dictators and human rights abusers, and whose fight against nuclear proliferation mysteriously lost steam when the oil-rich Iranians decided they desperately needed what, an alternative energy source? And when it comes to trusting one country to act responsibly, I bet on Israel’s democracy over Iran’s mullocracy.
Grass sees the Middle East as a “Region occupied by mania” with Israelis and Palestinians living “cheek by jowl among enemies.” Beyond not wanting to deploy state power against an aging, irrelevant blowhard whose great achievement, The Tin Drum dates to 1959, before I was born, I believe Israel has nothing to hide. Grass should visit Israel now during Passover.
I wish he could have wandered, Seder night, like the spirit of Elijah the Prophet did, from house to house, watching a society stop, gather in groups of friends and relatives, to contemplate questions of justice and injustice, slavery and freedom. I wish he could visit the country’s parks and historic sites, seeing many of the same families now enjoying Israel’s natural beauty and historical grandeur as backdrop. I wish he could frolic in Sakhne, which attracted as many as 1500 people a day this Passover, and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl” splashing in the water, enjoying the mini waterfalls. I wish he could inspect the wards of Hadassah Hospital or work out in the YMCA gym in Jerusalem and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl,” living together, working together, playing together. I wish he could wander through the Old City and speak to those Palestinian-Israelis who have worked so hard to get Israeli citizenship, asking why those papers are so precious to them.
And I wish he could meet the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of refugees from his native Germany, who survived the sadism of the Waffen SS Grass joined and then lied about, to see the lives they have made for themselves. Those monuments to the human spirit are more impressive than any monuments to the dead at Yad Vashem.
And yes, let him get political and visit the territories. Let him visit the Palestinian photographic art exhibits in Jaffa and elsewhere Israelis attend, and seek parallel expressions of sympathy for Israel, artistic or otherwise, in the Palestinian territories.  Let him visit Sderot, or my cousin’s Kibbutz, Nirim, to see how Hamas in Gaza chose rocket-launching over nation-building when given the opportunity to do what it wished after Israel withdrew in 2005 –nearly seven years ago already! –and then the Islamists seized power. And let him meet victims of Palestinian terror, learn about their missing limbs – or missing family members – and unravel why Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership turned from peace talks to suicide bombs.
Israel has nothing to hide – and would botch it if it tried. Democracy begins in conversation. Freedom thrives from exposure. Let Grass come visit Israel and learn. Then, let him make Tehran his next stop, if he dares.

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be Moynihan’s Moment:  The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

‘Yes, I am an Oven Dodger, and a Humanist, a Jew and a Zionist’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, February 16, 2011

When the Egyptian uprising first began, a blog entry I wrote for a New York Times web forum assessing the impact on the Middle East Peace Process landed me a gig on Russia’s English-language TV. The expected duel followed. Two talking heads described the Muslim Brotherhood as benign democrats while maligning Israel as an anti-democratic oppressor. In response, I challenged Egyptians to create a true democracy respecting the rule of law, basic freedoms, and gays, women, Christian Copts – even Jews. The responses denouncing me on the program’s website were scorching, most laced with profanity. One posted an “old Polish proverb”: “The Jew screams in pain as he strikes you.” Another wrote — ungrammatically: “Oven dodgers its only a matter of time. That you will be put in your place.”

I never heard that term “Oven Dodgers” before. But you don’t need a Ph.D. in history to know what it means when an anti-Semite directs it at a Jew after Auschwitz. Having been born in New York to two American-born parents, whose own parents escaped to America from anti-Semitic Russia and Poland a century ago, I never “dodged” any “ovens,” nor did any close blood relative. But despite being born free, I guess I am an Oven Dodger – and proud of it.

I am an Oven Dodger because I am a humanist. Just as I feel the pain of Darfurian blacks, Saudi Arabian women, Palestinian gays, Russian free thinkers, I feel the pain of Jews who were and are threatened, be it by mass murderers or by illiterate idiots on the Internet.

I am an Oven Dodger because I am a Jew, and as members of one interconnected people, who live our history deeply, daily, we all are survivors of Auschwitz, to some extent, especially because the Nazis wanted to kill us all – every Jew living then and all future generations.

And I am an Oven Dodger because I am a Zionist, and the ethos of Jewish nationalism entails remembering our traumatic past, responding proudly to current threats, while working to ensure a better, safer future for us, our children and the world.

Franklin Roosevelt said “Judge me by the enemies I make.”  I am flattered that these forces of darkness recognize me as an adversary. But I am not just an Oven Dodger – and that is the secret to our collective successes as well as to my happiness as a humanist, a Jew and a Zionist. I won’t let my enemies define me. Life is too rich with possibilities. Their worldview is too perverted by hatred to grant them such a victory.

I have learned from my women friends. Just as feminists march to “take back the night,” for a decade now I have been calling for us to Take Back Zionism – which has become the world’s punching bag.

I am happy to report that just a few weeks ago the Birthright Israel alumni organization launched its own campaign to Take Back Zionism – and more than 800 alumni participated at a happening in New York  (Full Disclosure: I chair Birthright’s International Educational Committee and I consulted on the project, but only after they initiated it and named their campaign). This campaign takes the right approach to Israel, to Zionism, to Jewish Identity, to life.  It invites members of the next generation to define Zionism – on “our own terms, as a young generation who loves Israel.”

“You have the power to change the conversation about Zionism,” Rebecca Sugar, Executive Director of the Birthright Israel Alumni Community proclaimed at the opening, defining Zionism as “a proud movement that inspired and ignited the passion and energy of our people for the realization of a better world, a better Israel and a better Jewish community.” Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, defined Zionism “very, very simply,” as “Jews taking responsibility for themselves as Jews.” Then, representing Israel to the young Jews assembled, he added: “The State of Israel is there for you. It belongs to you – it belongs to all of us.

One of Birthright’s founders, Michael Steinhardt, said that “Being a Jew, being a Zionist, takes pride and knowledge and commitment to the Jewish future, and probably a commitment to Israel as a central aspect of that Jewish future.

Since that launch, hundreds of Birthright alumni and dozens of organizations have responded, posting what Zionism means to them on www.takebackzionism.orgAmeinu calls Zionism “an expression of our progressive, liberal values.” Artists 4 Israel says “Zionism is liberationism.” The Green Zionist Alliance says “Zionism is environmentalism.” Jerusalem Online University says “Zionism is connecting yourself to an extraordinary people, a golden homeland, and a timeless tradition.”

More personally, one person wrote that Zionism means “the past, the present and the future of the Jewish people.” Another one called it “What defines us and unites us as Jews.” A third wrote simply, “The right to go home.”

Zionism is Jewish nationalism, understanding that Judaism is not just a religion but that Jews are a people, with a national homeland, Israel. More broadly, Zionism is the Jewish national liberation movement, dedicated toward building Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, in the Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.

Asking “What Zionism means to me” opens the conversation to a rainbow of diverse views while encouraging us to take it personally. It learns from Lester B. Pearson, the Canadian Nobel Prize winner who said “Ideas are explosive.” By redefining this idea, we can revive Zionism, recapturing it from its detractors. And we can show that rather than just playing defense, just being “Oven Dodgers,” we are life affirmers, state builders, truth seekers and do-gooders. That is what inspires me as a humanist, a Jew, and a Zionist, despite our enemies — not to spite our enemies.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.” giltroy@gmail.com

Why did 400 rabbis attack Fox News’ Glenn Beck and defend George Soros?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-1-11

American Jewry faces many crises. Jewish education is increasing in cost while often losing relevance, appeal, and popularity. In the Orthodox world, an obsession with petty, pedantic ritualism often obscures larger compelling ethical concerns while tolerating an untrammeled materialism. Among the non-Orthodox, the lures of leisure blot out a commitment to community, tradition, modesty, Jewish learning and Jewish living. Every year thousands of Jews drift away from Judaism, apathetic, lazy, bored. Beyond the Jewish world’s dwindling synagogues, dying organizations, declining schools, and decaying communities, Israel is enduring a vicious assault so systematic that many Jews internalize it, assuming Israel must be guilty of at least some of the many crimes people attribute to it. But, never fear. Amid this trouble, 400 American rabbis united, and spent $100,000 taking their stand – against Fox News and Glenn Beck, while defending George Soros.

I don’t get it. There are so many pressing issues for 400 rabbis “of diverse political views” to tackle.  There are so many fabulous ways to spend those anonymously donated non-transparent one hundred thousand holy dollars – because every charity dollar is sacred.

Moral leadership requires courage. Yet too many rabbis today seem afraid of their congregants. It is easier to bash Fox News than question congregants’ cushy lifestyles, their lazy worldviews, their phoned-in often phony Judaism. It is safer to target Glenn Beck’s obnoxious references to the Holocaust than to challenge congregants to change their lives, recalibrate their values, redefine and revive their Jewish commitments. Predictably, 400 Rabbis taking out a $100,000 ad in the Wall Street Journal to defend George Soros against Glenn Beck’s ranting fed more rants on MSNBC and elsewhere.

In fairness, many of the signing rabbis were sincere, even if it looked like they sought cheap notoriety hitting an easy target. Seeing that two of my closest rabbinical friends were listed at the top, I asked them why they signed the ad, which the Jewish Funds for Justice addressed to Rupert Murdoch and placed in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is offended by Glenn Beck’s constant, sloppy, histrionic invoking of the Holocaust, to demonize those he dislikes, including the controversial financier George Soros. “It is worth paying attention to the way people use language around the Shoah- that’s a lesson I took from my classes with Professor Elie Wiesel years ago at Boston University,” Rabbi Ehrenkrantz explained.  “The Shoah is already poorly understood. And it’s even more difficult for the Holocaust to have meaning in people’s minds if the language surrounding it is cheapened.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Vice President of the American Jewish University, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, also reacted to Beck’s polarizing demagoguery. “What I intended to sign was a strong statement that abusing the Holocaust to impugn politics with which one disagrees cheapens the memory of the Shoah and makes real conversation across the aisle impossible. It is abused on the left and on the right and it must stop,” Rabbi Artson noted. “Hence, I signed. I would have signed a similar statement against impugning President Bush or any other public servant. Differ with the policies, but references to the Shoah are destructive to the democratic process.”

I share my friends’ distaste for Holocaust-fueled histrionics. But they and their 398 colleagues missed repeated opportunities to denounce the sloppy invoking of the Holocaust when George W. Bush was president. George Soros himself did to George Bush what Glenn Beck does to George Soros. Saying he believed the White House was guided by a “supremacist ideology,” Soros said in late 2003:  “When I hear Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ it reminds me of the Germans… My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me.”  Moreover, too many of Soros’s fellow anti-Zionists frequently deploy the offensive, inaccurate Nazi analogy to bash Israel.

Yet with most American Jews often placing their liberalism before their Judaism, it does not take much courage for their rabbis to take on Fox News. Liberal rabbis attacking Glenn Beck is like stand-up comics mocking the bald guy in the front row. The laughs are cheap, easy, predictable but forgettable.  Moreover – and I say the same thing about Israel’s National Religious camp – theologians should beware confusing the clear lines of faith and morality with the messy compromises of politics and governance.

When drafting a call for civility regarding Israel, defining blue and white lines to affirm and red lines not to cross (www.restoringsanity.info), I learned the Zen of such declarations. If too bland, they lack punch; if too biased, they backfire. In these polarized times, finger-pointing in one direction when championing centrism is like Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol preaching abstinence while pregnant.

Predictably, the ad fueled the flames of partisanship. Rabbi Artson reported that the responses he received to his signing “skewed along political lines… conservatives deplored the signing as hypocrisy and liberals celebrated it as courage.” He asks: “Is there no one left who thinks, across the board, that using Nazi labeling is illegitimate whether it comes from left, center, or right? Is there a way to say that and for people across the spectrum to chastise their own when that line is crossed?”

This is where the rabbis’ collective wisdom failed them. In today’s polarized community, big tent civility must be nurtured, cultivated, taught. An ad with 400 rabbis complaining about loudmouths from both sides of the spectrum sloppily invoking the Holocaust would have worked; this ad, singling out only one manifestation of the broader problem politicizes complaints about the Holocaust. An ad with 400 rabbis calling for a more respectful tone in politics, acknowledging abuses from both sides of the spectrum, would have worked; this one-sided ad risks reducing a call for civility to a partisan battering ram – which we certainly don’t need.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “Ronald Reagan: A Very Short Introduction.”