As a second generation "survivor", writing about the Holocaust is something I always approach with trepidation. On one hand it is the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish nation since the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt). On the other hand, because of the scope of the destruction it has come to dominate Jewish thought and practice three generations later with some very negative effects.
I would suggest that one reason the Holocaust retains its "popularity" as a factor in Jewish identity is the nature of non-religious Jewish culture in North America. As I've written before, most non-Orthodox Jews believe that Judaism is essentially secular liberalism with an all-approving deity and latkes. As a result, anything that is politically correct becomes Jewish to them, usually under the misused rubric of tikun olam.
This is why the Holocaust penetrates and endures in non-religious Jewish culture. It was morally easy. We were the good guys and the Germans were the bad guys. There was no "let's see it from their point of view" or "maybe we contributed to what happened". A non-religious type can be proudly Jewish because of the Holocaust because it requires no moral effort, contradicts no secular liberal values. As Charles Krauthammer has recently written, this leads to a serious distortion of their understanding of Judaism:
For example, it’s become a growing emphasis in Jewish pedagogy from the Sunday schools to Holocaust studies programs in the various universities. Additionally, Jewish organizations organize visits for young people to the concentration camps of Europe.
The memories created are indelible. And deeply valuable. Indeed, though my own family was largely spared, the Holocaust forms an ineradicable element of my own Jewish consciousness. But I worry about the balance. As Jewish practice, learning and knowledge diminish over time, my concern is that Holocaust memory is emerging as the dominant feature of Jewishness in America.
I worry that a people with a 3,000-year history of creative genius, enriched by intimate relations with every culture from Paris to Patagonia, should be placing such weight on martyrdom — and indeed, for this generation, martyrdom once removed.
When Sanders identifies as a Jew he does it through the Holocaust. This should not be a shock to people. The vast majority of non-religious Jews do the same thing. Why show Jewish pride? The Holocaust. Why support Israel? The Holocaust. When marry Jewish? To deny Hitler, y"sh, a posthumous victory. (Thank you Emil Fackenheim)
It goes further. Why does Sanders identify with the Holocaust? Because he can relate to it. Not the Torah or Talmud. Not Rabbi Akiva or the Rambam. In the intellectually stunted worldview of socialism there are two kinds of people - the successful who are evil by virtue of their success and the unsuccessful who were exploited by the former group and are entitled to fruit of all their efforts. Germans = successful. Jews = unsuccessful. With Jews who were innocent sheep led to the slaughter Sanders can relate. With Jews who guard their borders, build their homes and thrive in the most violent place on Earth? Not so much.
The big problem with using the Holocaust as the basis of Jewish identity is that it's time limited. Just like 99% or so of non-religious Jews either don't know about the importance of our Holy Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) or don't care, just like 99% of Jews observant or not don't think much about the Chielmnicki pogroms, so too the national uniting trauma of the Holocaust will fade in a generation after the last survivor is gone. With social media destroying our attention spans and ancient history being redefined as only 10 years ago how can it not? What will the average Jew, without the Holocaust, hold on to as a lodestone?
The Holocaust is morally easy, the State of Israel and the tough task of survival in the viper pit that is the Middle East is a different story. The same Jews who take pride in their forebears having gone through the black and white Holocaust suddenly become more reticent when faced with grey Israeli reality. No wonder there's money for Holocaust memorials but when it comes time to fighting BDS on campus things get tighter.
We have to emphasize to people that Jewish history did not begin or end with the Holocaust. We have seen our share of tragedy but we have also enriched the world through our Torah and our contributions to civilization. What we're done must be emphasized, not what we've lost if we are to encourage people to see Judaism, especially Torah Judaism, as something to cleave to.