I've felt for a long time that one of the reasons that the Holocaust gets such constant play in the non-religious Jewish community is because it's easy to handle. Not that dealing with the fact of six million innocents being butchered is easy but rather because of the morality of it all. The moral angle of the Holocaust is easy.
How so? There is a simple black and white approach to the Holocaust - "they" - the Nazis, y"sh - were evil. "We" - their Jewish victims - were innocent. We did nothing to deserve what they did to us. They attacked us without reason and without pity. We were good, they were bad. See? Easy.
That's why the Holocaust shows up so often, in education, in community programs, in writing. It's easy to talk about how terrible the Nazis were, how horrible the suffering was. Anyone who disputes such a position is automatically a nutcase and beyond reproach. Even the Germans have, for over seventy years, been beating their chests with guilt over what they did. Easy.
However, when it comes to other important Jewish issues the situation changes. If you want to raise money for a Holocaust memorial, the donations come freely. If you show up asking for money for the local day school, the flow slows. If you come looking for support for the State of Israel, good ol' fashioned unabased support for our position vis a vis our enemies, the flow turns into a trickle. Most of the people who happily opened their wallets and hearts to memorializing the dead aren't quite as enthusiastic as the living.
I believe this is because the State of Israel is morally far more difficult than the Holocaust. Without meaning to trivialize the suffering of the martyrs of the Shoah I would posit that it is harder to stand up and say "I stand with Israel because it is Jewishly moral to do so" than to say "I remember the victims of the Holocaust because it is Jewishly moral to do so". After all, as I already noted, no one credible can counter the "they were all bad, we were all good" narrative. When it comes to Israel, however, the situation changes.
Consider the two recent Jewish films from Steven Spielberg: Schindler's List and Munich. The former, as expected, paints a black and white picture of what happened to our fathers and mothers in the Holocaust. My father, a survivor, told me that Spielberg had gone as far as he could when it came to showing the horrors of the Nazi persection. Anything closer to what actually happened would have made the movie unwatchable. The latter film, however, shows Jews in a far different light. As various reviewers noted, in Munich the Israeli soliders commisioned with killing the Jew-killers of the 1972 Olympics are shown in an almost morally neutral light when compared to their targets. We are not any better than them, the movie almost seems to tell us. They kill but so do we. Spielberg even went as far as to put a line into Golda Meir's mouth that she would never have said, one that implied that the Munich revenge mission was against Judaism and a compromise out of necessity.
Why was Spielberg so comfortable with Schindler's List in villifying the Nazis while in Munich he had to somehow drag Jews down to the level of their enemies? Again I will suggest that it is the moral ease of the former situation and the moral difficulty of the later.
Put simply, it's easy to be the good guy when all you do is show up to be killed helplessly. No one can side against you. No one can support your enemy. There is no moral conflict. On the other hand, being a survivor in war can often be far trickier. Wars aren't always won following Marquis of Queenbury rules. There are times when deception, lies, spying, destruction of innocent lives and questionable tactics that break the "rules of war" are utilized in pursuit of the only goal that matters at that moment: victory. It is far harder to stand up and say "I support my country" when you know that country has done things that others, maybe even you too, consider odious. It is morally difficult and it is the position that the State of Israel finds itself in today.
Consider what Israel must do to survive and you can see why many folks in the Jewish community have trouble giving their unreserved love and support to the State. In order to survive, the hostile enemy population in Yehuda and Shomron has to be limited in many ways, lest they unleash terrorist attacks and suicide bombers onto the Jewish population. 'Aza has to be surrounded and barricaded for many of the same reasons, because the alternative is death to our people. This is not a great situation and can certainly be characterized as a "lesser of two evils" situation. For many a realistic outlook reminds is that if our State is to survive, distasteful methods have to be used. We would like it otherwise, we wish it were otherwise but if the choice is between aggresively defending ourselves and allowing ourselves to be slaughtered we'll take the former, thank you.
For others, however, the outlook is far less realistic. For those people, there is an ideal Jewish people that is always moral. Anything Jews do that does not fit this subjective view of morality is disdained. For them a Jewish people that does not conform to this fictional moral image does not deserve to exist. If the State of Israel must maintain its existence through force of arms against another so-called people, then that is too high a price to pay. Give us the Holocaust, they say, because it's morally easy to be the perpetual victim. The challenge of being the victor is not one we're up to.
As Daniel Gordis notes in this article from Commentary, this warped thinking is penetrating ever further into the liberal Jewish denominations. Many North American rabbinical students and young clergy, having been born into a world in which the State of Israel is not a victim of powerful enemies surrounding it but is itself seen as the occupying and powerful enemy of world peace itself no longer identify with the State because it does not allow them to make easy moral choices. Far easier to side with the victims, the enemies who would kill these same liberals without a second thought if given half a chance. Far easier to ignore that reality and dissociate from the true challenge of supporting our people.
The heartbreaking point was this: in the case of these rabbinical students, there is not an instinct that should be innate—the instinct to protect their own people first, or to mourn our losses first. Their instinct, instead, is to “engage.” But “engagement” is a value-free endeavor. It means setting instinctive dispositions utterly aside. And that is precisely what this emerging generation of American Jewish leaders believes it ought to do.
Why, after all, would a genuine supporter of Israel ask students to think about Yom Ha-Zikaron in such a fashion? Probably because without such an accommodation, the dean might have had to deal with a small but vocal minority of students who would be incensed at the overly particularist, Zionist, nationalist nature of Yom Ha-Zikaron, at the narrowness of a day devoted to mourning our own dead and not the dead of our enemies.
This kavanah to rabbinical students was not my first brush with this worrisome phenomenon among those training to be the religious leadership of American Jews. In April, before I learned about this Yom Ha-Zikaron incident, I wrote a column in the Jerusalem Post pointing to the problem of rabbinical students who are increasingly distanced from Israel. I noted an example of an American rabbinical student who had elected to celebrate his birthday in Ramallah, and another who was looking to buy a new prayer shawl and sent out an e-mail asking for advice about where to buy one—with the proviso that the tallith could not have been made in Israel. I said nothing about how widespread the phenomenon is, because we do not know. But it was time to acknowledge the situation, I argued, so that we might begin to address it.
Reaction was swift, and most of it consisted of variations on the theme that such troubling ideas “didn’t come from my part” of the Jewish world. Many people quickly wrote to say that the phenomenon I was describing must be limited to the Reform movement. But the truth was that not one of those particular examples had come from Hebrew Union College, the institution that ordains most Reform rabbis. Deans of various rabbinical schools from all walks of non-Orthodox Jewish life quickly circled their wagons in response to my column. Two sent an emissary to meet with me in Jerusalem, suggesting that I had exaggerated the problem and accusing me of making their fundraising challenges all the more difficult.
Another dean, who disagreed with my suggestion that the Jewish community provide financial and other support to rabbinical students who are publicly supportive of Israel, wrote, “I want to acknowledge that I am intimately acquainted with—and concerned by—the trend you are describing. But I have to take issue with some of the ways in which you’ve characterized the problem (and therefore the solution).” Still another wrote to students saying: “I am indignant about Gordis’s article, because I know you. I believe, with every fiber of my being, that each of you is capable of expressing your relationship to the state of Israel, however complicated and challenging it may be, in a thoughtful, nuanced and professional way”—as if the problem lay with a lack of articulate expression among the students and not with their positions. This last note essentially reassured students that as long as they expressed themselves articulately, what they actually said made no difference whatsoever.
But there was another reaction, too, and it came not from the deans, but from students at these schools, as well as from communal professionals and even rabbis out in the field. “I deeply appreciate this article,” one student wrote to me. “I know that in various e-mails and conversations [my school] is trying to deny the validity of your words as representative of them, but I wanted to express how wonderful it felt after…years of pain and struggle over this to read someone else capture the Israel environment on [my] campus.” A communal Jewish professional in the South wrote, “Just yesterday I had a conversation with a synagogue that is interviewing recent graduates of [two rabbinical schools from different movements]. Students from both these schools have expressed opinions that are nothing short of hostile to Israel.”
Then, a rabbi in the field wrote me:
Interesting column. Unfortunately, not an entirely new phenomenon. [Some years] ago, one of the rabbis of [a major New York synagogue] refused to shake my hand when I was introduced as a major in the IDF. And a few years back, [an] avowed Zionist [dean of one of the schools in question] told a group of rabbinical students that if he were around at the time, and had a say, he would have voted against the establishment of the State of Israel.
Students in Jerusalem and in the States asked to meet with me, and on almost every occasion, they spoke about how lonely it can be for an unapologetically pro-Israel student at some of today’s rabbinical schools. (This phenomenon is, not surprisingly, almost entirely absent on Orthodox campuses, although, alarmingly, it is becoming an issue on the left end of Orthodoxy, too.)
This is a bewildering phenomenon. Is Israel a victim of its own success? Do these clergy really think that an end to the State is preferable than survival as much as possible? What does it say of their Judaism that they do not feel a strong link to Jewish history, Jewish endurance and the Jewish people of Israel?
If there is one thing we must do it is to stand up and announce that supporting Israel, warts and all, is the moral choice for a Jew to make. Whether it's the open embrace of the land expounded by the Dati Leumi, the biosterous pro-Zionist boosting of the Modern Orthodox or even the quiet support of Israel (please don't mention it out load) from many in the Chareidi community, we as a community must make support of Israel, even as times grow darker around us, into a priority. It is through Israel we can find some common ground as a people and this is the achdus that will carry us into our future.