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Jewish World ReviewJan. 11, 2000 /4 Shevat, 5760

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Did Six Million
Die for This? --
THE HOLOCAUST DOMINATED the moral imagination of the 20th century. Before the rise of Hitler, anti-Semitism was a parochial concern of the Jews; after the war it was everyone's concern, and everyone regarded it with horror. The cause of anti-Semitism is a mystery to most Jews and most Gentiles. One school of thought, wrongly, I believe, blames anti-Semitism on Christianity itself.

Certainly many Christians have accused the Jews of denying that they have been superseded--to most the difference in doctrine is not enough to explain the virulence of anti-Semitism. Another kind of anti Semitism is more subtle and only a century or two old.

Rebecca West described it in her travels through pre-World War II Yugoslavia: "Now I understand some other cause for anti-Semitism; many primitive peoples must received their first indication of the toxic quality of thought from Jews. They know only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism." This feeling is shared by those who saw the Jews behind such forces as Bolshevism and "progressive" movements of all kinds: A supposed Jewish "weakness for communism" was observed by such genial anti-Semites as Greggor von Rezzori, villains like Hitler, and, in his interesting new book on the Vietnam War just published, by the well-liked young American liberal Michael Lind.

But a new kind of anti-semitism may emerge in the 21st century, in reaction to the attempt to make "the Holocaust" central to our civilization. The explosion of "the joy of sex in the death camp" movies, the proliferation of Holocaust memorials and museums, the emergence of a new academic discipline detached from history called Holocaust and Genocide Studies --- all these threaten to undermine a proper understanding of the Nazi war against the Jews. More disturblingly, however, it is igniting resentment against what is seen as moral and political posturing on the part of some Jews.

The National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is the perfect example of what happens when the attempt to understand the Holocaust breaks free of the historical discipline and is raised in a hothouse of preening modish concern; when it becomes "Holocaustology."

Now one of the most popular tourist destinations in town, the museum has become a political circus. The sacred mission of memorializing the victims and blaming their killers has been surrounded by an aura of careerism and self-importance. The Museum's "Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies" is staging a conference this week in Washington on the direction of Holocaust studies in the 21st century in which papers on historiagraphy, art looting, and the various national varieties of extermination are joined by a paper on "careers for newly trained holocaust scholars." Its summary roundtable includes such scholars as John Roth, who was denied the chairmanship of the museum only when several op-ed pieces he had published came to light, in which compared Reagan to Hitler and the Israeli military operations in Lebanon to the Nazi death camps.

Another participant is Professor Atina Grossman, of Cooper Union, who gives talks comparing the sufferings of the German civilians in the aftermath of WWII to those of the inmates of the death camps. Before an audience of holocaust survivors she has lamented that while German civilians suffered a high incidence of infant mortality, the Jewish women who had survived the death camps were experiencing an abnormally high birth rate, even though they were unprepared for motherhood and domesticity and often quite neurotic.

The Museum's former Director of Education, Joan Ringelheim, was exposed by Gabriel Schoenfeld, together with other feminist Holocaust scholars, in a brilliant article in Commentary (June 1998). She "has gone so far as to draw a connection between Nazi "sexism" and the, to her, age-old "exploitation" of Jewish women by . . . Jewish men. In this very link, indeed, Ringelheim has located a key to the puzzle of why "malestream" scholarship has allegedly erased the history of women in the Holocaust. After all, she writes, many people today simply find it "too difficult to contemplate the extent to which . . . the sexism of Nazi ideology and the sexism of the Jewish community met in a tragic and involuntary alliance."

In the world of Ms Ringelheim, the Holocaust becomes a means to other ends. It's important for Holocaustology to show, for example, that the Nazis were sexists as well as butchers; that the extermination of the Jews has to be put in historical context with other persecutions; that persons of color and members of the working class lived in Auschwitz-like conditions before and after the historical Holocaust. More recently, another feminist scholar has re-examined Anne Frank's diaries and discovered that had Ms. Frank escaped the crematorium, she might well, with luck, have become a lesbian.

In America, in one "mission statement" after another, universities advertise their "Holocaust and Genocide Studies" programs as specific remedies for Holocaust relapse. The University of Minnesota declares that the basic purpose of Holocaust studies is "to educate people to be sensitive and vigilant toward behavior with potential for a Holocaust." (as if genocides lurked around unlit alleys in downtown St. Paul).

A Minnesota instructor, Lucy Smith, is actively opposed to the role of history in this enterprise. She wonders, I think rather unfairly, whether "teaching about, for example, The Night of St. Bartolomy in France, ever prevented any other genocide? If our purpose in teaching is to prevent such occurrences, then we need to reach the emotions of the students before teaching them historical facts." As a way, perhaps, of reaching emotions before worrying about facts, the Web site of the Minnesota program offers electronic buttons to press for "educational resources", "visual resources", and the like, in the shape of little ovens built into a brick chimney, which light up when you press them. Perhaps this is to sensitize one to the incineration of a cyber-Holocaust-victim.

The success of the Holocaust has terrible consequences. It undermines memory of the Holocaust, it puts irresistible pressure on other groups to demand their time in the Holocaust sun: gays, members of the working class, women, decendents of African slaves. It provokes many traditional anti-Semites smilingly to deny that it happened at all, or that it was part of a wider war against civilians of all kinds (and despite their preening, the dry academicism of the Holocaust boffins can do nothing effective to counter this odd propaganda).

Steadily focusing on the Holocaust without its historical accidental origins produces a whole new set of myths --- quite apart from the myth that the Holocaust did not happen.

But these myths have all become more prevalent not less as Holocaustology has taken root: That Churchill or Roosevelt or Pope Pius XII or the American Jewish community could have done something substantial to rescue the Jews from Hitler, but deliberately declined; that the second world war was undertaken on behalf of the Jews; that Germany was occupied and dismembered in order to punish her for her treatment of the Jews (an idea advanced--horrifyingly-- by Professor Goldhagen of Harvard this spring), that eternal vigilance against something called fascism will prevent future holocausts, when in fact one might argue, that genocide - or massacre of whole classes-only becomes a necessary part of the ideology of class warfare, and has taken place-and will yet take place-wherever radical socialist regimes take sway, as in China, Russia, and Cambodia; that the Nazi holocaust was, far from being the conclusion of an historical inevitability, as accidental a disaster as has ever befallen the Jewish people; that nothing like the Nazi holocaust has ever happened before to the Jews.

Again, it is a sad fact of Jewish history that near-complete extinction of Jewish communities within greater or lesser areas is a commonplace. That "no G-d could have permitted Auschwitz" is falsified by the other horrors the Jews have horribly endured, from almost the beginning of their history, at the hands of greater powers, most of whom have utterly perished.

Finally, there is the awful end-point of Holocaust studies: In an unintended imitation of the Nazi butchers, holocaust historians engage in the intimate examination of the unspeakable lives of Jews in the death camps before they were butchered as if they were scientists observing gnats or flies. If ever there was a way to re-dehumanize the victims of the Nazis, this is it. But such is the logic of the professionalization of "Holocaustology": First perish, then publish-or-perish.

The Talmud vividly warns that the Torah must not be made merely into an instrument for something other than itself: "Do not make the Torah a crown wherewith to magnify thyself, or a spade wherewith to dig." The Holocaust, which should be held sacred, is in danger of becoming used as such an instrument.

An American official in Macedonia crowed when Elie Wiesel visited a refugee camp during the Nato bombing campaign, "You need a person like Wiesel to keep your moral philosophy on track." Well, no, you don't.

Wiesel didn't suffer-and millions of his fellow Jews didn't die--in order merely to keep anyone's moral philosophy from going off the rails. And if the Holocaust is subjected to such a feeble purpose, then its point and its very reality may well in time be forgotten and its victims mocked.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


Reprinted (in slightly different form) with permission and © 2000 by The Spectator (1828) Ltd., London.