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â€œGet Over It:â€
Shoah in the Jewish Lexicon
In his keynote address at the First Annual Nashville Conference on
Black and Jewish Relations (April, 1998), Julius Lester remarked that
the contemporary African-American perspective includes the grievance
that Jews are too particularly concentrative on the Holocaust.1 The
complaint, Lester said, took the form of saying that the murder of Jews
was an event which did not affect contemporary American residents.
Genocide happened in Nazi Germany, not the United States, and the
Holocaust was, in comparison with institutional and attitudinal racism,
not an immediate threat.
It should be noted that these remarks were Lester's impression of
trend in the African-American community and do not necessarily reflect
Lesterâ€™s own thoughts on the matter, nor any particular Black person you
may pass on the street. These two qualifications seem important to make
not simply for their truth content, but because when people discuss
issues of racism and genocide, anti-Semitism and hate, emotions are
readily involved, and where emotive enhancement occurs, reason is a
handmaiden to an agenda, whether we agree with the agenda or not.
Lesterâ€™s suggestion that the Holocaust happened â€œover there and
thenâ€ (not Lesterâ€™s words) is a report of a trend in contemporary
thought. Lester himself has written, in my opinion, one of the more
poignant discussions of the Holocaust; astute and pertinent, perhaps,
because he was not concerned with distracting statistical analysis, nor
with comparison of Shoah to any other event.2 Nor is the emotive
refrain that Jews ought to â€œget over itâ€ confined to the
Both my avocation and work with SeedHouse, and in particular my
two weekly internet relay conferences bring me into contact with a wide
variety of people with a tremendous array of thoughts (and
half-thoughts). During a Passover Conference, ostensibly arranged to
discuss both the Jewish ritual and the focal point of the need for
freedom in the modern world, the following notice occurred:
Margaret: I love food. But what's a Seder? Will I love it? I love
good people, and I love tradition. I guess I will have to find me a clan
of Jews the week.
Dave: Margaret, don't say Klan around a Jew. It suggests the
need for freedom and tolerance...
Margaret: Get over it.
Later, in the same conference, the following extended discussion
Margaret: Why does a Jew carry around such a sad heart?
Dave: When the world is perfect, or at least better along the
we will let go.
Margaret: If you always live the past, then you can't be here. If
constantly dwell in the past, you leave no room for now, for God to be
in your life in the present.
Ed: I agree. Jews are the most dismal people I know.
Dave: Ed, in my personal opinion, Jews are the most celebratory
happy people I know!
Ed: Sorry, Dave, no way. You can't put new wine in old bottles.
Dave: Iâ€™m sorry you disagree. We have more celebrations and more
to express joy than any people I know.
Ed: There you go with the superiority stuff.
Dave: Ed, I don't understand. You ask us to be more joyful, and
when we are you criticize us!
Magnolia, who had not been at the conference when Margaret
announced that Jews should â€œget over it,â€ was at a different conference
where we were discussing current political issues. She had the following
Magnolia: The irony here is that contemporary Jews were not
killed in the Holocaust, and modern-day African-Americans were not
are caught in the past.
Dave: But Magnolia, part of the anguish is "They would have
wanted ME dead/enslaved too! The effects of Shoah and slavery live on."
Magnolia: Dave in the vernacular, get over it!
The purpose of the following thoughts are to discuss Shoah in the
Lexicon of Jewish life. Before beginning, however, clarity and reason
without the emotional enamel of defenses or agendas compel me to note
the following. On the very last day of the Nashville conference, after
the very last set of speakers had had their say, a woman from the
audience stood and said she wished â€œJews would get as upset at the death
of a black child as easily as their got upset at a supposed remark about
them from Minister Farrakhan.â€ I agree with her.
I agree that immediate abuse is to be addressed immediately, and I
agree that we too often fail to address abuses whatsoever. While the
conference had very little to do with Farrakhan -- one paper dealing
with the Nation of Islam leader -- and seemed to give a fair hearing to
both slavery and Shoah, anti-Semitism and racism, equally bemoaned and
rejected by all the speakers, a fundamental guiding principle ought to
be, and is, that approximate danger ought to be our primary concern.
The guiding principle suggests two, points. First, had Julius Lester
heard and reported the expression of African-American anguish in terms
similar to the woman in the audience, to wit: that there are more
immediate problems with which we would be more mindful to address, we
may have been closer on the issue than we were, than we are, when
emotional and/or comparative speculations are raised. I do not, again,
think we can compare or contrast either Nazi Germany or the American
government, our memory of the lives and deaths of Jews in Europe with
contemporary lives and deaths, the planned extermination of an entire
people with the contumelious unconcern which is nullified in statistics
or washed in emotions. I agree, in short, that the death of a child in
our cities today are something we should despise.
We can and should commit ourselves to eliminating the causes of
the availability of recreational drugs, the inadequate housing and
unavailability of means of earning a wage commensurate with skills and
abilities, and the inopportune educational system which does not allow
skills to flourish and be applied. The problems which we can address
are many. The anguish we can surmount through effort, reasonable
accommodation, and disciplined insight and application is a healthy and
wise concern of good citizenship, and good stewardship.
But the second implication of the fundamental guiding principle
approximate danger ought to be our primary concern adheres to the manner
in which the distinction between immediate abuse and memorial abuse is
â€œspoken toâ€ or â€œheard byâ€ discussants. When genocide of Jews is
discussed, and to the degree that genocide is discussed, as something
that happened â€œback then and over thereâ€ and is of little or no
relevance or concern of Jews here, now, an approximate danger is
perceived by Jews.
The woman who effective closed the Nashville conference implied
the more immediate issue, the death of a child from drugs, or drive-by
shootings, or gang related events, or malnutrition, or whatever,
included a willful neglect both before and after the death.
Contemporary society is effectively configured to blind citizens from
seeing the abuses. This is done both by encouraging concentration on
ones own problems and by canvassing affected neighborhoods with
prejudicial language. As if drug abuse or drive-by shoots were only an
African-American problem, or internalized concentration on â€œour issuesâ€
were not fit in a matrix of social patterning which affects me and mine
even as it kills you and yours.
Willful ignorance and blindness, and systematic extension of this
ignorance, then, adhered to the womanâ€™s righteous complaint. There is
no comparing a child deprived of a chance at live with anything
whatsoever. Nothing. But when we Jew hears that Shoah happened â€œback
then and over there,â€ he or she experiences a similar regret for willful
ignorance and blindness, and fears that just as systematic extension
once deprived millions of Jews of life, so this new configuration of
unconcern may develop a greater depravity.
If we momentarily limit the discussion to the Jewish and the
African-American communities, the grander point would seem to be how
both communities can alleviate our common problems. Our common problems
include how abuse which affects one segment of our communities affects
all segments, obviously the more immediate affect being those who
experience mistreatment first-hand, as well as the philosophical under
girthing: insensitivity, ignorance, evasiveness, which we share both as
recipients, and providers.
Surely we have better practices, ideas, and emotions to share.
we will be better enabled to share our diverse skills and beneficial
powers when we hear not only what the other is saying, but why they are
saying it. Intentions count for little in the real world. What is at
issue is not our expressed purpose, but clearing the paths which will
allow better access to the ways and means of accomplishing what we
understand. We ought, then, share our understanding, inasmuch as
sharing insight is beneficial to enhancing the paths we walk.
It should be said, then, that even to the extent that it is true
just to say, especially in the face of a dead child, that the Holocaust
happened â€œback then and over there; get over it,â€ a Jew does not hear an
intention or a way, a desire or an agenda, to include him or her in any
effective address to our shared problems. A Jew hears that what
happened was â€œnot that much, not that important.â€
A Jew hears: So what? From history, not only our history but the
history of all peoples, the truth is that as soon as a â€œso what?â€ is
asked, the issue is not solved but perpetuated. Wherever a Jew hears
â€œSo what?,â€ he or she is confident that a â€œWould that Hitler had
murdered you allâ€ is not far behind. Analogously, whenever a black
person hears â€œSo what?â€ with regards to the historic deprivation of
African identities and wisdoms, he or she is confident that deprivation
is regarded as the â€œnorm,â€ and is expected to continue rather than
â€œWhen a groups deeds and contributions are erased then a part of
identity is also erased and to the degree that this occurs, then it
ceases to exist.â€3 In the complex coinage of contemporary life, the
African-American who regrets being ignored and invisible is analogous to
the Jew who identifies with family who were â€œerased.â€ A second
principle upon which Jews, African-Americans and numerous other cultural
or religious groups regard in terms relating to themselves, if not
others as well, is that when items of identity cease to exist, the
person ceases to exist. Before we have allowed the child to die, we
have forced him or her to disappear under code words for â€œunworthy.â€
While this is evident in that perverted would where calling a Jew
â€œparasiteâ€ or â€œusurerâ€ was linguistic preparation for the extermination
of the Jew, and where equally vile speech about black people is
preponderant, no people is particular wont to allow murderous thoughts
to go unchallenged. In personal experience, they do not go undetected
and, if they are not spoken aloud, the result is more likely than not
internalization. Either way, abusive speech leads to physical ruin. We
ought to be attune to the language we use with others. We ought to be
attune, in other words, that language allows us to be with others, and
not annihilate them unintentionally or physically.
The recommendation that any people who perceive a fault â€œget over
is intended to be, and does practice the assertion that the fault-finder
is whining. It may carry the additional implications that the whiner is
ruining our naturally happy, naturally cheerful disposition. If what
was said above is cogent, the issue is not how long we will grieve for a
child, nor for millions of Jews, nor for men and women lost in wars or
through atrocity throughout the aged. This issue is whether or not we
can reconfigure society to prevent future atrocity. On a most immediate
level, the issue is how we act with one another and whether or not our
interrelations enable us to reconfigure routines of selfishness,
neglect, blindness and consequential disparity.
Contrary to popular belief, Jews do not generally mope around
the Holocaust every chance they get. Jews, in American at least, go to
work, or school experience the same impressions and distractions as most
people, and attempt to carve out some significant leisure time
activities for themselves.
This is not to say that Jews never think about Shoah. Obviously
do. It is relevant to not, however, when and where Shoah is an item of
thought. The following remarks do not take into account survivors of
Nazi Germany who, for understandable reasons, may periodically return to
traumatized memory either of their experience or loved ones. The issue
concerns the corporate memory of Jews.
In the first place, then, Yom haShoah is a day which has been
to commemorate the memory of victims of the Holocaust. It is a
religious or, if you will, cultural holiday which honors not simply the
destruction but the survival of Jews. Insofar as any memory is a
spiritual imperative, and in Judaism all memory is, Yom haShoah is a
religious holiday of Jewish peoplehood. It is a one day commemoration
of the Jewish peopleâ€™s religiosity, their survival and, eventually,
Second, and related, Shoah finds recognition and commemoration in
contemporary Yom Kippur (â€˜Day of Atonementâ€™) liturgies. Again, just as
the memory of Jewish martyrs from days past are accounted in the Jewish
service, so the victims of Nazi Germany are called to consciousness on
this day of accounting. Notably, no liturgical formula on
or during Yom Kippur I know about identifies either Hitler, nor Nazi
Germany, nor Germany, nor Western civilization, nor Christian Western
Civilization, nor Popes, Prelates, priests, Imams, nor any named person
during the ceremony. We call upon the memory of our deceased relatives
(during the Yom Kippur Yiskor service), our martyrs, and our victimized
relatives and relations. Nor do we emphasize, as we do on the,
ironically, happy holiday Purim, that there arises someone in every
generation who sets about to destroy the Jews or Judaism. Neither Yom
haShoah nor Yom Kippur are particularly concerned with either the
precarious state of the Jews, nor the interminable condition of the
What seems compacted and expressed in both services is memory of
distance we, as a people, have traveled. That is why I say that we
celebrate not only our dead, our deaths, but our having survived. Yom
haShoah is a marker of progress, in the Jewish imagination, from the
retraction of all promises implied at Auschwitz to the still promissory
note of the State of Israel. Both services and their liturgies pertain
to memory which, as will be argued below, is not recall, and does not
carry blame for past wrongs, but is traditionally constructive in the
Notably, ceremonies which celebrate martyrs do not celebrate
martyrdom. Holidayâ€™s structures to commemorate the victims of Shoah
commemorate the profundity with which we enjoy our Jewishness, not the
profanity of victimization. Yom haShoah â€œremembersâ€ in terms of our
being Jewish in spite of any and all hostility or aggression. Yom
Kippur â€œremembersâ€ that we have committed past mistakes, and yet survive
as a people, and yet will survive as we repent of our mistakes. Hence,
the distinctly Jewish forms of addressing the Holocaust do not speak of
our dishonor or shame, but our integrity.
A third venue in which Shoah is discussed include conferences and
classrooms. Lesterâ€™s remarks, like the ones culled from transcripts
feature Margaret, Magnolia and Ed, occurred at a public assembly
dedicated to the issue. Conferences and classrooms, and by extension,
journals, articles, speeches, are the intellectual ways in which
genocide is discussed by intellectuals or knowledgeable lay-persons. In
this regard, conferences and classrooms are not as distinct as their
public forum would suggest in this regard since virtually every
phenomena of thought or behavior is an item of study.
The two forms of attention to Shoah, then, are commemoration in a
religio-cultural realm of that which is above and beyond the specific
details of genocide, and study precisely of those details and related
ideas or practices. Both ceremony and study are highly structured and
occur along the lines of a specific trajectory derived from their
structure: commemoration of the long history of the Jewish people which
issues into notation of a continuation and elevation of life (especially
in the Yom Kippur service), or research, examination, and deliberation
on the â€œissue.â€ The former is concerned with what (or Who) is above and
beyond Shoah, the latter with what is underneath genocide, either as a
principle of behavior or a resonance of practice.
Both ceremony and study are timed out, so to speak, insofar as
either occur on the Jewish calendar, or are planned for specific dates
and times or syllabi. Shoah, in these forms of Jewish address, is a
highly structured event of memory or study. The fundamental Jewish
response to genocide, then, is ceremonial or studied, placing the event
in a religio-cultural or an intellectual matrix.
Each structure-bound and secure approach to Shoah are concerned,
mentioned above, with two diverse effects. The scholar is concerned
with how Shoah was planned and carried out, and what we might do to
prevent future genocide. Although we have failed miserably to prevent
future genocide, the fundamental concern is not -- as frequent
accusation in the public realm or conferences suggests -- how to prevent
genocide from being perpetuated only on Jews. The religious Jew is
virtually inattentive to Shoah.4 The religious Jew is primarily
attentive to God, to the Jewish people already being beyond the trauma.
When a less than religious Jew participates in Yom haShoah or Yom
Kippur, the very participation occurs in terms of historical, religious,
and social memory which, as noted above, is basically â€œreligiousâ€ in a
Jewish milieu. Together, the religious and the cultural Jew celebrate
There is, however, another venue were the Holocaust is an issue.
derivative forum is neither structured nor private, neither secure nor
directive. It is neither a religio-cultural attention nor a scholarly
pursuit. There are times, too public, too random, when the access
occurs on the basis of raw emotion. There are, in other words, times
when a Jew is provoked, antagonized, when the provocation is perceived
not as a challenge to conversation but a threat. Public challenges seem
to deny not simply that the Holocaust occurred, but deny â€œme,â€ an
individual living, breathing Jew.
It is interesting to note when such intimidations occur. At the
Nashville Conference, for example, a group of people apparently
dedicated to, if not denying then certainly limiting discussion of the
Holocaust entered a timed-out event dedicated to discussing the issue.
In my own experiences through internet relay conferences, people entered
clearly marked Jewish rooms (called â€œJewish Studiesâ€ or â€œPassover Chatâ€)
or with clearly delineated topics (â€œReligion and Persecution,â€ â€œTrauma
and Narrative in the Jewish and African-American Communities,â€ â€œThe
Jewish Exodus as Liberationâ€) with the express purpose of antagonizing.
Their concern was not to learn what Jews thought, nor even to
contribute to the discussion based on a standard set of criteria of what
constitutes evidence and argument. Their concern was to disrupt, because
commotion, and express belligerent opinions aimed at either harassing or
denying an opinion and thought to both Jews and African-Americans.
In a world which judges others by comparing them negatively
ones own best practices or better ideals, non-Jewish criticism of Jews
is largely a series of straw or ad hominum arguments. Nevertheless, one
of the wealthier traditions of Judaism is debate for the sake of
discovering or detailing a truth. It is not a Jewish practice to
campaign that everyone accept any particular truth, much less the truth
of Judaism, but it is a Jewish concern that certain forms of behavior
become more widespread (e.g., justice, compassion, righteousness) and it
is a contemporary conceit that the manner in which you think is an
adequate caricature of who you are and how you behave.
In these terms, it is sometimes difficult for Jews to distinguish
between a good-faith constructive criticism and an anti-Semitic remark.
It is, as suggested above, the death of a child which demands our
attention in terms of justice, requires our promotion of compassion, and
seeks to prod us into righteous behavior.
Are Jews provoked in such a public, unstructured, arena too
Yes, and rightly so. But until better relations are available to
everyone, the sensitivity of human beings is our best means to the
public sensitivity of more immediate issues. Criticism of Jews for
becoming so rapidly offended, so seriously sanctimonious about the
current and present threat that they should have no voice and no opinion
(they are â€œparasitesâ€ and â€œverminâ€) does not fully appreciate the fact
that the current context of Jewish response is not one of mourning and
sadness. Mourning is certainly an aspect of our religious response, a
mourning for our human condition. But neither is the primary Jewish
response one of â€œkvetchingâ€ (â€˜complainingâ€) or expressing â€œdistrust of
The fundamental Jewish response, whether expressed in terms of
religio-cultural or intellectual studies we are here, we shall not die.
This â€œweâ€ is properly available for including both Jew and Gentile,
white people and people of color in an affirmation of life, of memory
forwarded. A just, compassionate, righteous configuration of society
and social concern would certainly find Jews in the forefront of saying
we will never again allow any genocide, any abuse, and any threat to any
people anywhere. Instead, under the menace of danger or the resonance
of threat, the cry â€œnever againâ€ does take on a specific application to
Jewish people. Nor is this specific Jewish cry derived from our
religious or our cultural contexts. It is derived from our accusers.
We will never again be caught by surprise. We will never again
as trivial the raving of a mad man. We will never again allow the most
subtle remark to develop through broken windows and legal manipulations
into extermination. We saw it happen. We will never again allow it to
happen to us. We will ever again we aware. We will never again be
found defenseless, powerless, shame-faced. Never again.
There are, to be sure, Jews who apply this â€œnever againâ€ to non-
well as themselves. Jews do surely understand, beyond the veneer of
emotive reaction, that perpetuation of atrocity anywhere in any form
will, at some point, return to haunt the Jew. Likewise, allowing a
mental frame of reference where Jews, or anyone else for that matter,
are negligible, will rebound on the African-American or other minority.
The fact that dismissal of one people's is an intellectual and emotional
investment into dismissing others. Turning our back on a dead black
child, is training for turning our back on the Latino, the Jew, the
Asian-American. When we have blindness in one of our eyes, all of our
vision is affected.
In the proper discourse, the suitable pursuit of wisdom and the
befitting practice of righteousness, â€œnever againâ€ is a tribute to our
endowment of agency from the Who above and/or the what which we have
discovered. â€œNever againâ€ is a systematic tribute not to the dead but
to the living. It is a sentence fragment which, when extended, says,
â€œWe shall never again allow abuse to happen, to anyone; at no time -
If the remark, â€œWe shall never again allow abuse to happenâ€ is
at the same time as abuses are happening, we need to bolster our â€œwe.â€
We need to investigate and celebrate living. We need to be clear about
what we are saying, and how our voices do or do not impact live.
"During Halloween, my friends and I went
trick or treating. At one of the stops, the
knew all of the children except for me. She asked
me to remove my mask so she could see who I
was. After I removed my mask, she realized I was
an Indian and quite cruelly told me so, refusing
to give me the treats my friends had received"5
Suppose for a moment that Barbara Cameron, the author of the
writing these lines at the same time as a non-Indian child was being
abused next door to her. I do not know Barbara Cameron, but I know that
there are a number of activities a neighbor might engage to prevent the
slapping of a child. She might run next door to begin a diverting
conversation with the abuser. She might run next door to yell at the
abuser. She might stab the abuser. She might call the police. She
might gather her neighbors for a forced confrontation with the abuser.
If Barbara Cameron is as sensitive and alert as her writing portrays,
she will return to her writing table and finish these lines later, but
only if she is aware that the child next door is being abused.
What I am suggesting with this example has little to nothing to
Barbara Cameron. It has to do with any number of stories from Native
Americans, African-Americans, Asia-Americans, Jewish-Americans,
Catholic-Americans, or Protestant Americans in non-Protestant
neighborhoods. A real or perceived slap to the face will be dealt with
before we eat the sherbet ice cream we are offered. We may apply
ointment while the child next door is being abused. We may not hear the
child's cries because we are nursing our face. We may leave our home to
seek our own tormentor, however much that inconveniences us, because our
pain, however momentous or minute will be dealt with first.
There are "exceptions." As mentioned, Ms. Cameron may leave her
writing table to do something about her abusive neighbor. But she, or
anyone else, may also excuse themselves by saying "it's none of my
business." A person may, being "too mired" in their own anguish," hear
the cries of a neighbor child and think that "all children" have it
coming. Abuse is general. The abuser no doubt has excellent reasons
for punishing, lacerating, molesting the child. No doubt, I do not know
why the abuser is behaving that way.
The above example, which risks turning Barbara Cameron into a
character (part of her very complaint in the passage cited) is
complicated even more when the abuse is not personal but social. It is
more difficult to see the hand of the abuser when the issue is not a
slap to the face or a perversion behind closed doors but the
proliferation of drugs, violence, and so on. It is too easy to hear
about reports of a drive by shooting here the child laying on the street
was implicated in a drug sale gone awry. We have been socially
compacted to both blame the victim and refuse to blame the victim. The
result is that we achieve "closure" when we hear there is "one less drug
dealer" in our city. We do not know anything about dead children. We
know we have immediately placed blame, and the execution has occurred.
We have bigger, and better, problems of our own.
The face of our own distress, the agony of others means little to
nothing. Don't bother me. I don't want to hear it.
I argued above that Shoah appears in Jewish discourse as a
commemoration of that which is above and beyond the atrocity or as a
form of study. Both have a long, venerable history. I stated that the
emotional turmoil of Shoah appears only when a Jew is provoked.
The provocation opens a wound which, perhaps, corporate Judaism
sufficiently dealt. Our "official" grieving is limited to one day a
year which anticipates, and is almost immediately followed by Yom
haAtzmaotz, the Independence Day of the State of Israel. Yom haShoah,
then, anticipates and culminates in the founding of the State of
Israel. The atrocity is virtually ignored.
The is even clearer in the inclusions of commemoration during the
Yiskor service. Shoah is one among several tragedies the Jewish people
have suffered, from the execution of sages, the pogroms upon particular
communities, or our own deceased members of the family. When the
notation of Shoah fits well with the Purim theme of remembering
"throughout every generation" (Esther 9:28), it is too often thought, by
Jews as well as non-Jews, that the memory alerts us to the fact that in
every generation someone arises to destroy us. In fact, the
commemoration which resonates with the Book of Esther is of one timbre
with the end of the book: the seek peace.
Intellectual studies, in a sense, continually investigate the
do not address the experiential question. Studies which detail the
procedure, step by step, do not answer the deeply grounded question of
how it happened. Articles and speeches based on sound investigations
may talk about the how in terms of technique and maneuver, but cannot
access the tragedy of meaning. What does it mean when a people is
targeted for extinction? How can a people think about itself in such
terms? Why were this particular people selected? Why did normative
society close its eyes?
When a Jew is told to "get over it," they hear that these
irrelevant. Yet insofar as eventual peace is the issue, and for the
Jewish acceptance of the prophetic mandates in either a religious or a
social manner, the prophetic challenge is precisely the goal, these
questions and others are relevant not only for Jews but for other
besieged, abused, destroyed people as well. The immediate slap to the
face, however, is that the Jew hears the statement "get over it" as
implying that the liquidation of Jews "back then" was not such a big
deal. Insofar as the Jewish communities identifies as a community, and
therefore identifies with the people who were murdered "back then and
over there," the suggestion that we "get over it" sounds to the Jew like
a recommendation that we allow abusers to have their way. The
conditions which made for Shoah are not yet gone. We have not yet
reached the end of the Book of Esther. There are those "here, today,"
who would recommend Jews join their relatives "back then, and there."
Should Jews forget their biblical mandate to pursue justice,
and righteousness. No. Do Jews by definition perform in a righteous
manner. No. But Jews have an adequate self-understanding in spite of
the media hype that we have a definition problem. We know who we are.
And we know that there have been sages and folk, men and women, orthodox
and secular Jews throughout our history who have pursued social justice
and personal compassion through the discipline of righteousness.
Discussion of these individuals and opportunities rarely occur in public
discourse, however, because we are told: "There you go with the
To tell what your community does right does not necessarily tell
other communities do wrong. To speak of the good and profound in your
experience does not negate the good and profound in the experiences of
another. But in the public persona which the Jew is typically masked by
others, where we are not permitted to speak our good and we are
frequently compelled to speak of misery, it truly seems we are being
told we are, in no manner whatsoever, honorable. Jews know, as
African-Americans and Native Americans, and any other community knows of
itself, that this is simply not true. But when a Jew hears another
suggest our ultimate disvalue, the Jew hears we are vermin.
Jews occasionally hear they are vermin on the street. We are
are parasites in certain wretched propaganda even today. We are accused
in this enlightened age of the most vile and malicious stupidities. In
this regard, Jews are not at all different from other communities who
are targeted for ignorance and defamation. Had the world not confirmed
the association of "vermin" and death, the fact that a person ignorance
of the value a Jew places on his or her Jewishness would not be
bothersome. But since vermin are to be extinguished, the experiential
consideration that the person confronting us thinks we are vermin, we
think "never again."
People see what they want to see when the mask is removed.
Cameron's interlocutioner chose not to see a child, chose not to imagine
that the child might be a sensitive human being. Barbara Cameron's
neighbor opted to see a sub-human and the mother had neither the
intelligence or the social decency to think she may have slapped that
child in the face. We would be fools if we thought either that Cameron
ought to stop complaining about an incident that happened "back then,
there" or that her report of continuing human ignorance and
insensitivity affects our own recognition of how very far we are from
peace. How very much work we have yet to do.
Nathan A. reports of seeing a woman who
knelt and kissed the boots of the camp
commander, crying, "I want to live."
"You?" exclaimed the commandant,
who then drew his revolver, and shot her
in the head.6
How far was Barbara Cameron from the preceding scenario? How far
is the black youth who steps in the path of a marked drug dealer?
Discussion of Shoah is always, no matter what form it takes, both an
assessment of what has happened in the world, a rehearsal of what needs
to be done, and a strategy of following logical implications of personal
and social behavior.
The discussion of Shoah is always recognition that love of live
little to those who have targeted you. Begging for live is as
irrelevant as dreaming of unicorns. Being a specific individual with
hopes, plans and dreams is an unnecessary affectation. When others
either put you in masks they want you to wear, or see what they want to
see when the mask is removed, there is a logical sequence between
insensitivity and assignation.
The suggestion that we ought not consider events which
then and over there" is perceived by the person in anguish as
replicating the conditions of back then and there. The speaker is
denied a voice, an opinion, insight. The reaction is regarded as
hostile because insensitive, and all insensitivity is unconcern for
life. The conversation is structured to show how very unimportant that
particular Jew, that particular African-American, Native-American, and
so on, and so on, is regarded.
But more, not only is the Jew (like the Black, or the Indian, and
on) regarded as unimportant, the very configurations of society or
social "norms" which promote their unimportance is recommended. The
recommendation of social forces which "require" the African-American to
be a slave to media images, or the Native American to be a non-entity,
or the Jew to refuse to identify with the Jewish community, refuse to
continue his or her critical edict of how far we yet have to go, is a
most profound form of ignorance with regards to the depth with which
annihilation has affected not only society but the ontological realm as
Aaharon Appelfeld wrote: "In a generation where the solid
have been destroyed, emotions come to the fore."7 Denial of the
emotions of grieving does not show how solid the structures really are,
does not show how foolish grieving Jews are since we live in the best of
all possible worlds, but shows how far the speaker is from reality.
Whatever else reality is, reality includes emotion and political,
spiritual as well as psychological attention. Blaming the victim, or
the person who identifies with the immediate victim does not appreciate
how deeply the wound cuts.
Ultimately, the suggestion "get over it" implies that genocidal
ferocity is the voice of God. The suggestion that "it happened, what
else can we say or do about it" consigns the horrors of some forms of
human behavior to the will of the unsurpassable meaning of the
universe. Especially for people who claim an adherence to God, one
would think the slap in the face to any human being for any "reason"
whatsoever would being some kind of response which objected to the
In the transcripts of conferences from which I have taken the
of Margaret, Magnolia and Ed, Jews are told to forget what happened
"back then, over there" but abide by the biblical fact that God
commanded the annihilation of the residents of the land when the
Israelites entered. No argument that the proposed annihilation was a
chronicle of how the victors perceived their return to the land, nor an
equally factual suggestion that, in fact, residents of the land were
ultimate included generations later into the government of David the
King (and therefore must not have been annihilated) were accepted.
My friend Alyza proposed what, to me and several other
was an insightful suggestion that Saul was censured not for failing to
carrying our God's orders to murder as he was told, but precisely for
murdering men, women and children while sparing the cattle. Those
committed to seeing untimely and brutal death as the will of God would
have none of it. The task of the victim, I suppose, was to lay down and
die like they were told.
It is always a danger to speak about what God does and does not
in the contemporary world. Surely there are well known absolutes, which
include the variety of ways through which we are commended to institute
justice, required to pursue merciful behavior, and challenged to become
righteous. The danger is not speaking and acting "in God's name" for
the clear and difficult absolutes, but rather that every attribute we
use to characterize God risks diminishing the true and profound. I
submit that justice and compassion, and the commitment to behaving now
more righteous than yesterday is incompatible with God desiring the
death of any human being. I would also stipulate that those who
emphasize death perceive a god who is capricious, dishonorable, petty
and by no means worthy of respect.
The point is not to compose theodicyâ€™s which protect and defend
The point is to compose deeds of loving-kindness which make such
theodicyâ€™s irrelevant. And if we are truly committed to practicing the
requirements of God, we may find ourselves at times imitating the
behavior of Abraham and Moses who stood face to face with God to object
to certain actions which seem to have been committed in the name of the
unsurpassable meaning of the universe.
Emphasizing death and destruction, whether doing so recommends
death as the "will of the universe" or emphasizes submission to the fact
of the destruction, depowers the very possibility of righteousness.
Both spiritual and political activity are dismissed. Nullity is
attributed to the interstices of the cosmos. Or, if you prefer, it is
In fact, it seems that the Jew is counseled to "get over it" for
contradictory reasons. The murder of millions of people does not speak
of God's intention so much as points a finger to God. This finger may
be an accusatory one, or one marking transcendence. The religious
non-Jew cannot bare with the critical implications of the former
proposal. The non-religious non-Jew cannot countenance the latter. In
an environment which seems to at least imply a reading of the numerous
Psalms which include the line "My God, why have you forsaken me," the
religious non-Jew cannot abide by the fact that such a horrid question
is occasionally necessary, and the non-religious cannot understand why
Psalms might be read at all.
The alternative is a theology of terror, a theodicy of regarding
and destruction as the best of all possible worlds. The alternative, in
other words, is dressing God in a Nazi uniform.
Jews, it is truly claimed, are more at home in the United States
anywhere else in the world during their long history. Yet this fact
makes anti-Semitic attacks -- not vague verbal threats, nor what is
referred to as "polite anti-Semitism," nor mere debate over legitimate
issues -- but physical violence against the Jew all the more surprising
Demarcation of Jewish synagogues or overturning gravestones,
and murders of Jews because they are Jews is not simply experientially
shocking but immoral. While there is not an easy leap from debate to
insult to random slaps to murder, there is clearly a logic of
progression from a dirty glare to the gas chamber. It is equivalent,
but not equal to, and not comparable to, the projection of
African-American youth on a television news screen while the anchor
tells that 54% of violent crime is committed by white, Anglo-Saxon
protestants between the ages of 18 and 32. Consignment to images is a
prelude to consignment to low-paying jobs, but only because slavery not
as respected as it once was.
The series of steps required to get from one insignificant
activity (the dirty look, the insensitive comment, the verbal abuse) to
the other (the crematorium, the plantation, the reservation or killing
fields) may not be traversed, but the possibility is surely implicit.
History contains the record of how frequently the possibility became, and
yet becomes, a reality. It is not the history of the Jewish people in
Nazified Europe alone; it is the history of the unrepentant, unredeemed,
During this short time after Shoah Jews are, for several reasons,
acutely attune to the knowledge that it happened once. It can happen
again. Will we allow holocausts to happen again? To some extend, the
response to this question depends on how inclusively the word, the
community, "we" is defined and acted.
Not only might it happen again, but genocidal annihilation has
perpetuated since 1945 against Cambodians, Rwandans, Bosnians, and
Christians among others. How inclusive can we define and enact the word
Jews have both historical, anecdotal, psychological and
ideological reasons to explain why they are personally wearied or haunted
by an insensitive choice of words in an oblique journal. A similar story
is told by diverse peoples. The issue of where and how they are enabled
to self-help themselves beyond the morass of the history of contempt and
disrespect is in part the issue of how they themselves will not be
reminded of their particular stake in the history.
The particular memory of the Jew is minimized when it is
consigned by outside observers -- blind guides -- to sadness alone.
Memory in Jewish
life is not simply 'recall' but a prod to action. If it were otherwise,
it would not make sense in the Yom Kippur liturgy to refer to God as
both 'the One who never forgets' and ask God to 'forget' our sins and
'remember' the covenant. Were memory not a challenge for future
activity, is would not make sense for Jews to pursue memory (then) as
survival (now) and advancement (in the future). Indeed, were memory not
futurial, it would not make sense in general to promote any form of
The recommendation to "get over it" is an imperative not to
with family, not to help construct a more accommodating environment in
our cities, in our nation, in our world. There is a reductio ad
absurdum implied. To get over it suggests we not pursue legal means of
redressing wrongs, that we not recognize wrongs have occurred. On the
other hand, recognizing the fact that errors and mistakes as well as
evil and sin have occurred is the first step to getting over them. It
is the error, not the person recognizing the error, which needs be
addressed. Diverting attention from the errors of history,
recommending we ignore evil, is the very worse kind of alienation: loss
of memory which is loss of future improvement.
Jewish identity is too facially dismissed if it is regarded as
who you are. Even when expanded to self-knowledge, knowing who you are
is too limited and limiting. Identity ultimately includes knowing where
you are headed in life, knowing why you are behaving the way you do and,
if necessary, changing your goals or means of acting. Identity speaks
not only of what went into forming me/us, but what I/we contribute to
In these terms, then, there is nothing inherently wrong about
recognition of atrocity. There is nothing inherently fallacious about
the slogan "Never again." The lessons of victimization at all times and
in all places teach, it seems, two fundamental lessons with regard to
the fundamental principle that approximate danger ought to be our
primary concern. First, every community should protect itself; that
there is nothing inherently wicked about each community defending itself
or asserting what it regards as its own best image, best activity. The
evil, in this regard, occurs when those outside the community tell a
people or an individual who they are or what they should do.
Second, and more difficult for any community to act upon at the
they experience even the most negligible slap on the face, is that there
are no natural allies, that affiliations need strenuous work of
building, and that alliances are beneficial before, not after, attack.
When we, a very large "we" than most individuals may recognize at
particular instance, protect and defend against possible abuses to our
community, we must at the same time be committed to protecting and
defending against any and all social abuse. This means that,
ultimately, the best defense of the Jewish community is defense against
exploitation of any human being. Drug abuse, gang wars, drive by
shooting are not a black problem. They are a social problem. If we are
committed to letting bygones be bygones, or committed to allowing what
happens "to them" happen, then we are formally committed to inviting the
same, or similar, things to happen to us.
We have committed to allowing child molesters to regard not simply
"their children" as possible victims, but children. We have committed
to allowing not simply Jewish tombstones to be overturned, but
tombstones in general. We have committed to allowing a social framework
where what happens to anyone might as well happen to everyone.
If the first step beyond wrongs is to recognize the wrongs have
occurred, the second step must be a commitment to address, to end, all
social offenses from the minimization of anguish or identity accepted by
another, the dirty look, the insensitive remark, the causal distrust,
the intentionally spite remark up to and including institutionalized
Will we limit our effectiveness by saying "We cannot do it all?"
have problems of our own?" If so, we have verified and validated
genocides, massacres, slavery, ethnic cleansing. We have lost the right
to say "Never again." We have disposed ourselves of any justification
for saying the death of any child is cause for sadness.
1. Lester, Julius, Keynote address at the First Annual Nashville
Conference on Black and Jewish Relations, April 2 - 4, 1998.
2. Lester, Julius, "Falling Pieces of a Broken Sky," New York: Arcade
Publishing [Little, Brown, and Co.], 1990).
3. Personal communication from Rev. Jacquelyn E. Winston.
4. Eliot A. Cohen, in William F. Buckley's In Search of Anti-Semitism
(New York: Continuum, 1992) says: "The greater one's belief in the
wealth and richness of Judaism, the less tragedy defines ones
Jewishness" (cited, p. 141).
5. Cameron, Barbara, "Gee, You Don't Seem Like An Indian From the
Reservation," in Cherie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (editors), This
Bridge Across My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color ( New York:
Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981), p. 47.
6. Langer, Lawrence L. Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory
(New York, Yale University Press, 1991), p. 135.
7. Appelfeld, Aahron, Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a
Conversation with Philip Roth, translated by Jeffrey M. Green (New York:
Fromm International Publishing Corp., 1994), p. 3.
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Received on Sat Oct 04 2008 - 16:58:13 EDT