Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

The Holocaust, understanding it, its memory and Yad Vashem


February 5, 2021

Research about the causes and reasons for the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, based on documentation has gone on for dozens of years, and has ascertained a variety of long-range processes that coalesced in certain historical circumstances. Yet Dr. Hanan Shai, in the article that was published this week under the auspices of the BESA center (Jan. 15, “A serious moral failure at Yad Vashem”) instructs us, without a flutter of an eyelid, that there were “two central reasons.”

The first reason: “that in contrast to the scientific revolution, whose founders replaced the narratives and delusions of the Middle Ages with logically and empirically proven truth and strove ceaselessly to disseminate that truth, the liberal revolution denied and continues to deny the existence of any one truth.” No more and no less. But the truth is that fundamental axioms in Nazism were racial principles based on the concepts of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest,” coined by Charles Darwin. Academic research) and pseudo-research( in the entire scope of scientific disciplines (for instance eugenics and demography) was central to Nazi Germany’s practices. These concepts and practices could only have grown out of scientific research that claimed that the truth of nature is equally valid and applicable to human society. Liberalism - which was the product of the Enlightenment that engendered modernity and its belief in “progress” — claimed, counter to what Shai assumes, that moral, ethical and principled truths exist at the level of thought and in the various walks of political and social life. The challenge to the existence of non-relative truth came in fact from the side of post-modernism, which emerged only in the second half of the last century.

The second reason, according to Shai, is “the death of biblical morality. The Hebrew Bible, which Christianity attached to the New Testament, was a shield that—while it did not prevent the persecution and abasement of the Jews—did prevent their destruction for more than 1,000 years.” However, the truth is that Christianity in its various denominations, the Catholics, the Protestants, and other Churches, set the groundwork for Jew-hatred and anti-Judaism in European culture — in language, music, art and the world of images — that became the cornerstone of modern (“scientific”!) anti-Semitism, which in turn was a central element in Nazism. Indeed, modern anti-Semitism lifted the Christian Augustinian barrier “kill them not!” but did not erase the all-embracing anti-Jewish attitude that was embedded in culture: it rather dressed it in a new pseudo-scientific garment. Thus, diametrically opposed to the well-accepted understanding of historical processes, Shai ascribes the birth of Nazism to liberalism and glorifies the Christianity that laid the fundamental groundwork that made the Holocaust possible (which caused some Christian denominations to embark on a soul-searching process after the Holocaust, and which led Catholicism to the declaration “Nostra aetate” in 1965, and led branches of Protestantism to a process of critical introspection). To all of this Shai adds, “Therefore, liberals throughout Western Europe — not only in Germany — were either complicit in the Holocaust industry or stood by and kept silent.” But the truth is that the participation in the Holocaust, which took place across Europe, was most especially grave in Eastern Europe (Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia). There local Christians (from different denominations) took part in the actual murder, and even justified their role with Christian arguments.

On the basis of his distorted presentation, Shai attacks Yad Vashem to which he ascribes “a serious moral failure,” no more and no less! It is not as if he is familiar with Yad Vashem or examined its prodigious educational programs, the research of its renowned International Institute for Holocaust, its publications, its museum complex, owing to which the institution has attained the status of a world authority — no, not at all: his attack is based on “public discourse on the issue of the replacement for the director [mistake, it must be said- it is the Chairman of the Directorate] of Yad Vashem, from which it appears that the Holocaust is no longer presented in the institution as unique and as the terrible realization of anti-Semitism, but rather as a crime against humanity that may happen again in any society with values that are not liberal, including Israel.” The truth is that this refuted claim has not come up in the entire “public discourse,” rather in the words of a series of writers in the press and other platforms, which, really like Shai, did not do their “homework” to investigate and learn about Yad Vashem’s activities, but instead based themselves on rumors and anecdotes. This is unforgiveable for any serious writer, and for sure this is unforgiveable for one who expresses himself under an academic aegis.

At the core of all of Yad Vashem’s activities stands a specific Jewish perspective. Nevertheless, there is no contradiction between emphasizing the particular Jewish significance and pointing to the universal human significance of the Holocaust. This binary, black and white stance is part of the shallowness of such public discourse. Not without reason today there is wide, global engagement with the Holocaust: because the Holocaust was perpetrated by human beings — Nazis and those who were not Nazis — and enabled by human bystanders, Christians and also many liberals. And derived from this are human behavioral and general cultural implications that need to be studied, alongside particular implications for different (non-Jewish) societies in Europe. At its heart is the understanding of the uniqueness of the Jewish fate and the collective conclusions that can be derived from it, and the understanding of universal human aspects that are learned from it — societal weaknesses, political dangers, ability to act — are not contradictory, but are interwoven understandings. Yad Vashem has never held a binary conception, and its way in memory and inheritance of the Holocaust is that of in-depth and uncompromising research. As opposed to certain trends that try to minimize the place of the Holocaust, to narrow its conceptualization, and to contest its unique aspects, Yad Vashem today is internationally recognized as the leading institution known for its work to anchor the awareness of its unprecedentedness and unique nature.

Emeritus Prof. Dan Michman of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar-Ilan University, is Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research and Incumbent of the John Najmann Chair of Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem; his publications deal with Jewish history in Modern Times with a focus on the Holocaust, its background and aftermath.


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