Is the Memory of Holocaust Being Exploited?

By Berenbaum, Michael | Midstream, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Is the Memory of Holocaust Being Exploited?

Berenbaum, Michael, Midstream

Three books have appeared within the past several years that critique the place of the Holocaust in contemporary culture. Peter Novick's well-researched work, The Holocaust in American Life, confines itself to the American experience. Tim Cole's Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler How History is Bought, Packaged and Sold considers the American, Israeli, and Polish experience yet, ironically, only in a minor way the German experience. Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering builds on the foundation set by Novick but with a decidedly politically left interpretation, one freed from precisely the balance and thoughtfulness that gives Novick's work a sense of authority.

First, permit me a word about memory, how Jews remember and retell

"By the waters of Babylon we sat and we wept as we remembered Zion," the Psalmist said appropriately. The place from which we remember an event shapes the content of that memory. This is perfectly acceptable in Jewish memory; indeed, it is normative. Certainly, the recollection of Zion immediately after the destruction in Jeremiah's chapters of consolation is rather different from the Biblical book of Ezra or the anguished cries of the book of Lamentations. There is a legend told in the Talmud of two rabbis passing by the Temple Mount:

   Once Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with his
   disciple Rabbi Yehoshua near Jerusalem after the destruction
   of the Temple. Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the Temple
   ruins and said: "Alas for us! The place that atoned for
   the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!" Then Rabbi
   Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort:
   "Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally
   meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the
   Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through
   deeds of lovingkindness. For it is written: 'Lovingkindness
   I desire, not sacrifice!'" (Hosea 6:6) (1)

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's response was directly related to the revolution that he was imposing on Jewish history, the movement from a land-centered, sanctuary-centered, Jerusalem-centered religion to one that could survive in exile with remnants of that worship. The synagogue could be constituted anywhere a quorum of Jews gathered. The Torah was portable and could move with Jews from place to place and be transported in the hearts and minds of its people. Place, memory, and agenda are related.

Stories are retold for a reason, and they resonate for a reason. The dialogue between memory and its place of recollection, between an event and the transmission of an event, is appropriate. It is little wonder that time, distance, and agendas for the future shape the content of memory. I believe this is not only appropriate but also inevitable for a community as well as for an individual. It is also very deeply Jewish. Midrash and Chasidic tales, as well as rabbinic commentary, are in essence a retelling of ancient stories with new emphases that speak to the contemporary generation. This process is often masked because of the tradition's reluctance to claim innovation and reveal its essential creativity, and it is denied by some who merely argue with a wink of the eye that it was there from the beginning, revealed to Moses at Sinai.

So perhaps I am less scandalized than Tim Cole regarding the transformation of memory in dialogue with contemporary needs, and having been party to such a deliberate transformation, I believe that the process can be done with integrity and is pure.

Problems of evidence

I was disturbed not by what Cole was aiming to prove, but by his use of evidence. Four illustrations should suffice. Cole, as Finkelstein, begins his work with an opening quote by Arnold Jacob Wolfe taken from a 1980 dialogue between Wolfe and myself that I reprinted in After Tragedy and Triumph: Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience, which was published in 1990. …

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