Tel Aviv Diary: The Holocaust and the Iran Nuke Deal

A man stands under pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem November 10, 2008. Memories of the 6 million murdered by the Nazis informs the debate about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the author writes. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

It is impossible to fully comprehend the current fight over the P+5 agreement with Iran without understanding the role the Holocaust plays in Israeli and American Jewish psyches. While from time to time the centrality of the Holocaust in Jewish life continues to be questioned, for the most part its dominant psychological impact seems to steadily increase as the horrific events of the 1940s recede further and further into history.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even used the Holocaust to explain his position on the Iranian nuclear program. Recently, when speaking to Jewish leaders via satellite, he said: "It wasn't long ago, certainly not that long ago, that the Jewish people were either incapable or unwilling to speak out in the face of mortal threats, and this had devastating consequences."

An old friend, an American and survivor from World War II Europe wrote an impassioned email to friends asking them to do what they could to stop what he described as "another Munich Agreement." There can be no question that the statements of Iranian leaders certainly invite comparisons to the Holocaust, with their imagery of genocide—so when a former Iranian president calls for our destruction, no one who learned the lessons of the Holocaust can remain indifferent.

Occasionally, the question of what lessons must be learned from the Holocaust arises. Not long ago, this question was raised by an unexpected source. Israeli-born, American actress Natalie Portman recently gave an interview to the Independent newspaper in the U.K., in which she stated, (among other things):

I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education. Which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things.… We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times and it reminds us to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also. Not used as a paranoid way of thinking that we are victims.

Portman's interview highlighted one of the major debates regarding what should be gleaned from the Holocaust—i.e., is the Holocaust a uniquely Jewish event, or should it obligate us to be concerned about all forms of oppression?

The answer to this question clearly impacts how Israel should treat the Africans who have sought refugee status here—and sometimes creeps into discussions on how we treat the Palestinians.

If one thinks the Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish event, then one only needs be concerned with how events affect us. However, If one believe the Holocaust was not a uniquely Jewish event, then we are obligated to take a more universal approach to world events; we should be at the forefront of those fighting against genocide wherever it takes place, and we should treat all refugees like we wish we had been treated. Today, these polar opposite approaches are easily seen in the divide between right-wing and left-wing Israeli political parties.

Of course, the real differences across the political spectrum are not simply explained by bickering over universalism vs. particularism. In a major speech at an education policy forum last week, MK Stav Shafir talked about the great deal of effort she invested in researching which 12th grade trip to Poland would be best suited for her. (A high percentage of Israeli high school students visit Poland.)

Shafir had to choose between attending the tour run by her high school, that focused primarily on the death and the destruction of the Holocaust, and the excursion run by her youth movement, which accentuated the resistance and profound bravery of those darkest times. She chose to participate in the youth movement's program. It is no accident that Shafir is a politician that consistently highlights hope over fear.

Public disagreement about the meaning and lessons of the Holocaust does not end here. Earlier in this piece, I quoted Netanyahu's implying that once the Jews of the United States were silent in the face of tragedy. While my generation was growing up, the book While Six Million Died was published, in 1967. In that book, author Arthur Morse alleged the American Jewish community stood by silently while 6 million of their European brethren perished.

In my youth, I was extremely active in the Soviet Jewry movement (as well as a variety of other Jewish activist activities.) The vision depicted in Morse's seemingly seminal book was—without doubt—part of my motivation. I was not going to stay silent while my brethren suffered.

Imagine my surprise several years later, amid my video research at the National Archives, when I came across archival footage of massive rallies at Madison Square Garden (and other locations) advocating on behalf of the Jews of Germany. Other than their manner of dress, these participants looked exactly like the demonstrators at the protests I helped organize on behalf of Soviet Jews in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza (near the United Nations) several decades later.

I also discovered that a close friend was working on a dissertation examining American Jewish activism during the Holocaust. The dissertation was published as a book: Jews Without Power, (recently revised and reissued to include the latest scholarship, it takes a much more nuanced approach to the questions of the action taken by American Jewry.) Its author, Ariel Hurwitz, concludes that American Jews had not been silent. Rather, they did what they could, working within the constraints of a community that was not nearly as powerful as the Jewish community of today.

For many years I have been concerned about the tremendous impact of the Holocaust in American Jewish education. Here in Israel, the Holocaust must forever be remembered, but it cannot be the prism through which we look at the world.

For decades, the shadow of the Holocaust has been the prism through which too many Israelis have been educated. The 11th grade history curriculum in many Israeli schools is dedicated—nearly entirely—to the study of the Holocaust. A recent Pew survey of the American Jewish community showed that when asked what it means to Jewish the No. 1 response (73 percent) was "remembering the Holocaust."

Therefore, it should come as no surprise to anyone that regarding the Iran agreement—an agreement with a country that has openly and repeatedly stated its wishes to eliminate Israel; more pointedly, an agreement allowing that country to obtain the means to do so—generates so much emotion both in Israel and in the American Jewish community.

Nonetheless, that fearful emotion is not uniform. While almost all Israelis and all American Jews agree that the Holocaust must be remembered, what one believes must be remembered and what one thinks we are obligated to learn deeply informs our worldviews.

For those who see the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish experience, one in which we were helpless and one in which the world stood idly by, every threat to Israel and the Jewish people is a mortal threat. On the other hand, for those whose takeaway from the worst event in Jewish history is more universal, as well as for those who believe that the existence of the state of Israel has fundamentally altered the power relationship between the Jewish people and those who hate us, world events can be viewed differently and our response can be more measured.

It is beginning to look like the Israeli government and much of the organized Jewish community in the United States is about to suffer a major political defeat in Washington—when they, by all accounts, will not be able to stop the Iran P+5 agreement.

In the aftermath of this defeat, it will behoove the Jewish leadership to try to understand what motivation caused them to throw caution to the wind in an utterly quixotic attempt to stop the deal.

I believe that self-understanding may yield a more complete comprehension of the depth and breadth of the shadow the Holocaust has cast on their decisions. It also might yield better decision-making and hope for more nuanced education in the future.

Multimedia historian Marc Schulman blogs at

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