I rarely speak about or write about the Holocaust. I don't defend my reticence, but I have my reasons. Mainly I don't like the way the Holocaust is never just remembered and mourned, but so often manipulated and used.
I don't like the way the Holocaust is used by some Jews as the paradigm of Christian attitudes toward the Jewish people. They actually believe that Christians go to bed thinking of new ways to kill us, and some of them have told me straight out that my very public friendship with a priest just deludes Jews into thinking that something has changed.
I don't like the way the Holocaust is used to try to strengthen Jewish identity. The Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim once suggested that in addition to the 613 commandments given by God to the Jewish people, a 614th commandment ought to be added: "Do not grant Hitler any posthumous victories." I despise that idea. I am Jewish because my mother is Jewish, and, more importantly, because I believe Judaism is loving, just, joyous, hopeful and true. I am not Jewish, and I did not teach my children or my students to be Jewish, just to spite Hitler.
I do not like the way the Holocaust is used either to defend or to attack Israel's right to exist. Obviously those who want to kill Israel must first kill the memories and the truth of the Holocaust, which produces so much sympathy for Israel. Many do not know that the new prime minister of the Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas, wrote a Holocaust-denying doctoral thesis. The engine of the Holocaust-denial industry is not old fashioned anti-Semitism but modern anti-Zionism. To be forced to defend the truth of the Holocaust less than 70 years after it occurred is spiritually nauseating. It is also degrading and demeaning to all supporters of Israel to be forced to connect the Holocaust in any way to Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. The Jewish people had and have a right to create and defend a Jewish state, not because the world felt sorry for us after the Holocaust. The state of Israel is not a condolence card from a guilt-ridden world. Israel is the free and millennia-old expression of the Jewish people's ties to that land and a manifestation of the national aspirations and self-determination that are the right of every people, including the Palestinian people when and if they finally decide to love Palestine more than they hate Israel.
I don't like the way the word Holocaust has been used to describe every instance of oppression that has ever existed. In this way, this attack on the Jews is universalized to the point that its distinctly and uniquely Jewish elements evaporate. I will not withhold a single tear of compassion for every act of human cruelty. I do not want to deny in any way that in the same concentration camps where 6 million Jews were murdered, 5 million Christians and others were also murdered. However, the camps were not built to exterminate the others, they were built to exterminate Jews. It was only the excess capacity of the killing machine that allowed non-Jews to be caught in its maws. I reject the false choice of either demeaning the suffering of non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust and other genocides or pretending that the Holocaust was about man's inhumanity to man and not man's inhumanity to Jews. I mourn for the murder of each and every innocent person of any faith and of no faith who perished in what Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has called the Kingdom of Night, or in other nights and other kingdoms. However, I will not accept, and I do not believe, that the Holocaust was the same, either in size or intent, as the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, the janjaweed slaughter of the Muslims of Darfur, the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsis of Rwanda, the Serb slaughter of the Bosnian Muslims or, yes, this is suggested, the AIDS pandemic. The Holocaust was a calculated attempt to kill all the Jews in the world, and it very nearly succeeded.
And finally I don't like the way people get impatient or frustrated with what they see as a kind of Jewish obsession with the Holocaust. These people have no idea of the sheer scope of the killing and the depth of the wound. Let me say this simply. One out of every three Jews who was alive in 1933 had been murdered by 1945. One out of three. Imagine if one out of three Americans were murdered. That would be roughly 90 million Americans dead. We were devastated by the death of 3,000 on 9/11; we were torn apart by the death of 50,000 in Vietnam. Imagine if 90 million Americans were murdered, and then imagine if less than 70 years later some foreign diplomat chastised Americans for still being obsessed with their murder. Or imagine if 333 million Chinese were murdered, or 400 million Muslims, or 200 million Hindus were murdered; or if 2 billion people on earth were murdered. Could any other culture or could the world recover from those deaths? In 1933, there were about 18 million Jews in the world. In 1945 there were 12 million Jews in the world, and today, 60 years after the end of World War II, there are still just 12 million Jews in the world. One out of every three people on earth is Christian. One out of every three Jews on earth is dead.
So these are all the reasons I hate writing about the Holocaust. However, on this 60th-anniversary remembrance of the end of Kingdom of Night, here is a story I can write about:
Two fathers met last week in Manhattan at their daughter's Jewish nursery school and discovered that their own fathers had both come from the same village in Ukraine. They then discovered that both their fathers had been loaded onto the same boxcar leading to the same concentration camp on the same day. They then discovered that one of their fathers escaped by ripping out a board over the window and jumping out. He joined up with some partisans, and somehow survived the war. They then discovered that before he jumped, he had lifted up a younger, shorter boy and pushed him out of the boxcar before him. That boy also wandered the forests of Ukraine and also came to America after the war. Both fathers had recently died in New York, and had no idea that their sons were sending their granddaughters to the same nursery school. They did not know that the little girls would have a play date in Manhattan because of what happened in a boxcar in Ukraine some 63 years ago. That little hole in that box car was big enough to have room for a play date and a future. I love that story not because it explains anything or justifies anything or is a compensation for anything. I love the story because there is a Hebrew song I love called "Am Yisrael Hai", "The Jewish People Live." I love the story because it helps me believe that the song is not merely a dream.