Magazine article Tikkun

A Future for Holocaust Commemoration

Magazine article Tikkun

A Future for Holocaust Commemoration

Article excerpt

In the Presence of Survivors

THE FRENCH-LITHUANIAN JEWISH philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes the core of ethical experience as one of confrontation: the face of one in need appears before us and calls us to respond. In his writing on the Holocaust, Lévinas focuses on the ethical failure of perpetrators to recognize the face of the Other. In his essay "The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights," Lévinas tells of the failure of prisoner of war camp guards to recognize him and his fellow prisoners as human beings-something even a stray dog in the camp did not fail to do. In his lecture "Toward the Other," Lévinas attributes this unforgivable moral failure to the late German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Holocaust Remembrance Day rituals consist mainly of responses to a face. Typically, groups gather in the disturbing presence of one who suffered things they hope they will never even be able to imagine. They listen to a Holocaust survivor speak about his or her experiences. They watch the face of the speaker. The speaker's story of suffering moves the listeners to want to respond. Thus they respond with strong emotion rather than with pure intellectual analysis. They may even be awed that the speaker has the courage to remember, and find themselves pledging to honor the speaker by remembering as well.

This method of remembering the Holocaust cannot go on indefinitely. The generations that lived through World War II are beginning to perish. The method can continue, perhaps, for one more generation, as those who were raised by survivors re-tell the stories they heard from their elders and describe their own experiences as children of survivors. But, when this generation passes on, how will Holocaust Remembrance Day evoke a sense of connection to this historical event?

Commemoration and Communities

WHEN I SPEAK OF COMMEMORATION, I have in mind remembering in a community, as a shared project. Commemorating does not require rehearsing historical events in excruciating detail, or the attempt to relive (or to cause others to relive) painful emotions. Instead, it is the practice of advancing certain values through symbolic reenactment of specific events. The aim of advancing these values is to create commitment to shared identities and communal projects.

In his book The Ethics of Memory, Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit distinguishes between an ethical community and a moral community. An ethical community is given life by its ethos. Shared experiences, common memories, and bonds of feeling unite such a community. Families and close-knit ethnic enclaves are examples of ethical communities. The Jewish people - diverse as it is, and contested as its boundaries are - is an example of an ethical community.

A moral community shares mores. United by the fact of being human, members share an understanding of what constitutes decent behavior toward fellow human beings. They affirm a bare minimum of common values that make possible our co-existence on this planet. The entire human race is an example of a moral community.

The ethical community of the Jewish people and the moral community of humanity at large may have different reasons for remembering the series of events we now call the Holocaust. Many voices from the moral community of humanity have committed themselves to the project of standing guard against genocide. If groups cannot live without fear of genocide, then they cannot live in security. Without security, peace cannot exist.

Jews are a part of the moral community of humanity uniting against genocide. In this role, we have engaged in various kinds of remembering: working with international bodies to identify and bring to trial those who led atrocities, writing histories that attempt to understand how a continent could bring itself to mobilize against genocide, and publicizing the deeds of those who resisted being drawn in to the genocidal machine.

As members of an ethical community, however, Jews have very different reasons for remembering the Holocaust. …

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