Op-Ed: The Universalist Holocaust
Daniel GreenfieldThe writer is a popular New York City based freelance commentator and a...
There are two basic human responses to an assault. I will protect myself or I will make the world a better place. The first deals with the risk of an attack. The second with your feelings about the world. The first leaves you better able to cope with an attack. The second makes you feel better about the world that you live in.
The Jewish response to the Holocaust fell into these two categories. Never Again and Teach Tolerance. And the two responses were segmented by population.
Never Again became the credo of Israel and Teach Tolerance became the credo of the Western Diaspora.
There were many Israelis who believed in teaching tolerance and many Western Jews who believed in self-defense, but for the most part the responses were structural, because the divide between Nationalists and Universalists predated the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was a transformative event, but only to a degree, the responses to it came out of earlier debates that had been going on for several generations. Before the Holocaust, the pogroms had led to the same fork in the road between a collective struggle for a better world and national self-defense. The current debates about Israel revisit that old argument.
To the Nationalists, the Holocaust was not an unexpected event. Nationalist leaders like Jabotinsky had warned that it was coming. To the Universalists however, it was an inexplicable event because it challenged the entire progressive understanding of history as a march to enlightenment. Violent bigotry was a symptom of reactionary backward thinking, not something that modern countries would engage in. There might be anti-semitism in Berlin, but there wouldn't be mass murder. That was for places like Czarist Russia, but not for the enlightened Soviet Russia or Weimar Germany.
The Holocaust dissolved that mirage of a better world. It was a mugging in broad daylight on the biggest street of the biggest city in the world. Its message was that the world had not changed and that human beings had not magically become better people because Berlin had a subway and phone calls could be made across the Atlantic.
There are nice Jewish boys and girls who have read Anne Frank's diary, visited Auschwitz and come away anti-Semites... They call themselves human rights activists, they board flotillas, they boycott Israeli products, smash Jewish store windows, hug terrorists and rationalize suicide bombers.
The Holocaust did not heal the divide between the Universalists and the Nationalists; it deepened it. The Universalists still insisted that a better world was coming and that the Holocaust made it more urgent for us to work toward it, while the Nationalists saw the world as a cycle of civilizations that had to be survived, with no respite, except for the religious who awaited a final transformation of the world and everything in it.
Israel was the issue, but the real issue was what a Jewish State symbolized; a turning away from the great dream of the Brotherhood of Man for another reactionary ethno-religious state. To many liberals, Israel's existence is coded with the dangerous message that Jews are no longer committed to the great humanitarian revolution and the dream of a better world. That they would rather cling to a narrow identity and a narrow territory than melt into a borderless brotherhood of man.
Zionism led to a schism on the left, a raw angry split slowly being won by the Anti-Zionist camp which has been plugging away at the same bad universalist ideas that Jewish liberals occasionally drag out of the trash can and display like some new discovery. The Zionist left tried to bridge the gap through bad economics and wishful thinking. The Peace Process was its last gasp.
Western Jewish liberals have always been vaguely ashamed of Israel. They used to understand the need for it and the desire for it in their gut, even as their ideological minds struggled against it. As time passed and the dust and ashes settled, that unspoken gut feeling faded, because things you do not say and cannot rationally defend are hard to pass down to future generations.
The Holocaust museums were built, the books were written and tours conducted into Anne Frank's attic, but the understanding of what these things meant was not passed down. The only lesson was to make the world a better place by teaching everyone to be tolerant so that history would not repeat itself. As if any amount of courses and slides on tolerance could stop history from repeating itself.
There are nice Jewish boys and girls who have read Anne Frank's diary, visited Auschwitz and come away anti-Semities. Of course they don't call themselves that. They call themselves human rights activists, they board flotillas, they boycott Israeli products, smash Jewish store windows, hug terrorists and rationalize suicide bombers. And it's not entirely their fault. The lessons that they drew from their education is that the underdog is always right, that people in uniforms are bad and that you always have to stand up for minorities.
That is the Holocaust in its universalized form. Never Again made the Holocaust a teachable moment for Jews. Teach Tolerance made it a teachable moment for all mankind. The Nationalist and the Universalist draw two opposite lessons from the Holocaust. The Nationalists focus on resistance while the Universalists focus on persecution. The Nationalist aspires to be a ghetto fighter while the Universalist aspires to be a good German.
The Universalist version of the Holocaust is a lesson on how we must all aspire to be good Germans. Its natural lesson is that our governments, at least the non-progressive ones, are embryonic Third Reichs which are only one flag-waving leader away from opening concentration camps. The only way to stop another Holocaust is to destroy nationalism, patriotism and the modern state.
And so there are plenty of young Jewish and non-Jewish boys and girls who smash Jewish store windows and throw stones at Jewish soldiers out of a desire to be good Germans. If they manage to destroy Israel and all its Jews, then they'll be the best Germans of them all.
This Universalist doctrine does not mention the English boys, who were being good Germans before the time when those words meant anything, by gathering at anti-war rallies. It does not mention the leftist intellectuals who insisted that the Allies were no better than the Nazis. People might draw sordid conclusions about their modern peers who insist that America is no better than Al-Qaeda or that Israel is no better than Hamas.
The Holocaust did not divert most Jewish Universalists from their course, no more than prior events did. For every Herzl who realized that the Universalist vision was bunk there were many others who went on preaching the same tired mantras of a new dawn for the human race. And they are still holding on to the podium and denouncing Zionism as an obstacle to the progress of mankind.
The debate over Israel is only one of many such fights between Universalists and Nationalists of every creed and from every nation. It is a struggle between those who believe that nations, religions and cultures have innate worth, and those who believe that they are obstacles to the great jello bowl of togetherness.
Even the good Universalists don't really understand the Holocaust because they don't believe that they are living within history, but at some tail end of history before a new era of global awareness. They call left-wing anti-semitism the "New Anti-Semitism". The Holocaust was also a new event to them, rather than part of the continuity of Jewish history which had seen massacres in every age.
To them there is no Pharaoh, Haman, Chmelnitsky, no sack of Jerusalem, poisoned wells and bodies burning in the public square. Everything is new to them and they are always being surprised by all the old things that keep showing up.They are forever being surprised by events because they have no context. They are certain each time that the world has become a better place, and there is no need for a Jewish State. History to them is always ending, and yet it never seems to end.
Israel did not emerge out of the Holocaust, it emerged out of a history in which the Holocaust was only another link in a chain of events. To say otherwise is to reject history, which is a thing the Universalists habitually do. The only way for them to continue repeating their folly is to kill history, so that everything is always new and so that no one learns anything from the past except to repeat their homilies.
Jewish Nationalists understood what was coming last time. They understand what is coming this time.
The Nazi Holocaust failed, but the Universalist Holocaust is still ongoing. Every time a leftist gets up to denounce Israel and to look forward to the day when it disappears, the Universalist Holocaust grinds on. And they have no shortage of Jewish assistants who are eager to complete the task, believing that a humanitarian utopia waits on the other side of the gas chamber door.
The Jewish Universalists lost faith in G-d, but they did not lose faith in humanity. They still believe with all their hearts that if they strum the guitar loud enough and sing, "Imagine", that a better world will appear behind that door. Disbelieving in history, they have forgotten that the last time that door was opened in Russia, there was barbed wire and bitter cold on the other side.
Jewish Nationalists understood what was coming last time. They understand what is coming this time. Yet no matter how many times they are proven right, the beautiful dreamers refuse to listen to the history which proves them wrong. They're still waiting for the European Union, the United Nations, for the dead hand of history to let go and the better world to be born out of the ashes of the old.
We all die, sooner or later. It is what we leave behind that ventures into the uncertain future that gives us life. History is the road map that charts where the past lives that made ours possible have gone and shows us where the lives that we make possible may go. The Universalist Holocaust would burn those maps and kill our future for their better world.