Apologies and Explanations: The Holocaust Article Follow-Up

My article, as almost anyone reading this will know, has met many responses. And they’re mixed. Some are good, some are bad. Some people agree with my points, some people don’t. Some think it was good writing, some think poor. Some think I have a right to express my opinion, some don’t. About the only thing that’s even close to unanimous is that the title was in very poor taste.

For that, I do apologize. The title was mine, and I confess that I thought it was a good one. It seemed catchy, and yes, provocative. My thought was that a title should be somewhat provocative, so as to grab the attention of prospective readers. Unfortunately, it seems that my title was so provocative that it made many readers jump to conclusions and formulate their responses to my article without actually reading it. For others, who did read the full article, the title had cast it in such a light as to make my points seem harder-edged and more extreme than they really were. This was my fault for not getting a second opinion on my writing. When we read our own writing, we interpret our words as we meant them to be interpreted, but not necessarily how others will interpret them. That’s why good proofreading is a crucial aspect of good writing. In failing to make sure that I got it, I failed as a writer.

In particular, I want to clarify my use of the phrase “get over.” This is what really upset people, and upon reflection (and having it pointed out to me by very many people), I understand why. I meant “get over” to be taken as if used in the context of grieving, where to “get over it” would mean to come to terms with feelings of loss in such a way as to allow for the progression of normal life without constant or undue preoccupation. I did not mean for “get over it” to be taken as a call to let the Holocaust slip out of the Jewish mind completely, or as an assertion that the Holocaust was no more important than a lost sports game, or a bad break-up. I did not realize that the phrase had taken on a connotation of such lightness. Had I realized how people would respond to the words “get over,” I would have chosen a different title.

There were other poor word choices as well, such as “too big to trivialize,” “how much of a loss will it be,” etc. All of these I acknowledge as poor writing and the result of inadequate proofreading, which it was my responsibility to seek. For that, I apologize. But I’ve seen my views dreadfully mischaracterized in the last few days, and I feel that it’s necessary to make explicit what I do and do not think about the Holocaust:

  • I do not deny the existence of the Holocaust.
  • I do not deny the importance of the Holocaust.
  • I do not deny the importance of teaching the Holocaust.

These are all views that I’ve been accused of having, and I want to make it very clear that I do not. From my article itself, it is clear that I acknowledge the importance of remembering and teaching the Holocaust, despite my reservations as to how it is often done in the Jewish world.

Another one of the more common criticisms of my article was that I implied that Holocaust denial and Flat Earthism are of equal relevance. This is not an implication I was trying to make, and if I didn’t make clear enough the point I was trying to make with that line, that is my fault. So let me say it very explicitly here: I did not mean to imply that effects of Holocaust denialism and Flat Earthism are the same. I meant to say that I felt that the irrational, biased mindsets that refuse to acknowledge empirical data, the mindset that I think is the cause of both stances, is the same. Both Holocaust denial and Flat Earthism are viewpoints that people hold because they do not take an objective look at the facts and then form their opinions, but take a twisted view of facts in order to bolster their opinion. And I think that such bias and disdain for the truth should be combated wherever they manifest themselves.

I’ve also been taken to task for arguing that the Jewish nation should feel no personal connection to the Holocaust, again something which I never meant to imply. The point that I was trying to make was that Jews should not think that the Holocaust is the only genocide worth discussing. I’m afraid that such solipsistic self-concern could lead to a lack of sensitivity to the plights of others. Many people told me that they thought it was crucial to remember the Holocaust because its lessons could be used to educate against the horrible abuses in Darfur and the like. I agree with this sentiment completely. This the sort of use to which I would like to see the memory of the Holocaust put. Not to perpetuate ethnocentric paranoia, but to motivate us to prevent other people from suffering like we did.

Arguably the most insensitive thing I wrote in the entire article, title included, was “when the survivors are gone… how much of a loss will that be?” There is no excuse for allowing such a line to be published. While other accusations leveled at me were based on misreadings (or non-readings) of my article, this one was rooted in poor communication on my part. I never did address what I thought of Holocaust commemoration in regard to the survivors themselves in the actual article, an egregious omission, and one I hope to correct here. I do not look forward to the death of Holocaust survivors, among whom are counted two of my grandparents, may they live long and be well. But while I don’t think the survivors’ dying is good, I think it’s an inevitability that needs to be dealt with. We won’t have their firsthand testimony to rely on, and I fear that our current Holocaust education program, which I see as relying heavily on firsthand testimony, will be substantially undermined without it, and thus need serious reexamination.

Although I said “What more is there? We’ve recorded all we can,” I acknowledge this as hyperbole. There can never feasibly be an end to the recording of any historical event, and certainly not one as major and as content-filled as the Holocaust. I do not want Yad Vashem defunded or anything of the sort. I think that it and similar institutions do wonderful, necessary work, and that historians should definitely continue to heavily research the Holocaust, because it has much to teach humanity about itself, and humanity still has much to learn. But I don’t think that Holocaust preservation should be the number one priority of the Jewish community. Not now, not when we’ve done so very much in the last 30-40 years. At this point, I think it’s safe to leave the data collection and analysis to the experts. The larger Jewish community needs to focus its attention on issues that face the Jewish community’s future, not its past. We should honor the memory of the Holocaust not just by focusing on the event itself, but by focusing on the lessons it has for us now. Teaching one without the other is incomplete.

Many have made the case that such changes as viewing the Holocaust in a larger context, the adaptation of Holocaust education curricula for a world without survivors, and a lessening of the raw emotional impact of the event were going to happen inevitably, as part of the natural historical process. I can see the logic of that argument, but I felt that the Jewish community’s response to the Holocaust was too important to be left to something as unpredictable as “the natural historical process.” The way I saw it, things could go in one of two directions. They could either continue on the problematic track I felt they were on without any change coming, or something could happen to make people change their approach to a more positive direction. By broaching discussion of the Holocaust’s treatment in modern Judaism, I hoped to do what I could to effect that change. I did not write the article to gain attention for myself, or for the Beacon. I wrote it to get my ideas into the public sphere, and to start a discussion about how Jews should relate to the Holocaust. On this count, at least, it has succeeded.

And finally, I’d like to address the claims that publishing my article showed insensitivity to the intense emotions people feel toward the Holocaust, even 70 years later. I understood when writing the article that people did have such feelings, and that my publicizing my views would offend them. But I felt it needed to be done, because the point I was trying to convey needed to be put into the public sphere for discussion. There were definitely many things written in my article that could have benefitted from being rewritten to better take into account how people’s emotions would react upon reading them. I did realize that I was bringing up a highly charged emotional issue, and I thought the best way to defend from emotional responses was to discuss the issue as intellectually as possible, without bringing emotions into it. I see that was a misjudgment. Personally, I try to always check my emotions with reason, as a general principle. I tried to train myself not to act on initial feelings, but to calmly and reasonably consider my feelings and responses and do what seemed most logical. Perhaps the world would be a better place if we all tried to do so. But that is not the world you or I live in, and it is irresponsible and insensitive of me not to recognize that. For that, I apologize.

But I do think that no matter how I said what I wanted to say, people were going to be upset. Some ideas incense people, no matter how they’re presented. And I am unwilling to remain completely silent about an issue I feel is important because some people may be offended by my views. While more tactful wording might have lessened the amount of hate mail I got, I doubt it would have lessened the number of impassioned, yet well-written and critical responses to my article. I’ve heard from many people that they were not sure of what point I was trying to make. The article obviously failed in communicating my views adequately, at least to some people, so I’ll try to spell it out plainly here. I think the attitude that certain segments of the Jewish world have toward the Holocaust is unhealthy and potentially dangerous. I think this attitude manifests itself in how Jews think about, teach about, and use the Holocaust and its legacy. One could argue that the “obsession” and “fetishization” that I described in the article do not exist outside of my own mind, or do exist but are not problematic. I can’t remember everything I’ve ever been exposed to that gave me my impression of how Jews view the Holocaust. It may be that others have received a very different impression, for whatever reason. That is fine. Others are entitled to their own opinions. I ask only for similar respect to be given to mine.

Footnote: I was invited onto the WYUR show, Prolaffs, for an interview about the article, the audio from which can be found here: http://vimeo.com/37286473