Holocaust engulfs the Jews' story

The Journal of Holocaust Education
April 20, 2001

From the first appearance of this journal in 1992, it has sailed under three flags. To quote its first editor, John Fox, "it is the purpose of this journal... to provide a platform within the United Kingdom which will serve not only the interests of the specialist and the educator but a wider readership whose common purpose is to gain an increased awareness, knowledge and, above all, understanding about all facets of this most difficult of subjects, the Holocaust". In keeping with these aims, established historians, teachers and research students have all been among the contributors. The journal's history under Fox and his successors shows that at no time has it been easy to combine the educational mission with that of conveying historical understanding to specialists and the general public alike. Weighty studies of major topics accompany articles of practical instruction by teachers on, for example, the use of "movement and mime to create images of victims, perpetrators and bystanders".

It would be a work of supererogation to praise the "straight" historical articles. They cover a wide range of topics: the French ideologists of the Holocaust; the wartime work of the Jewish Labor Committee in the United States; the Home Office and British immigration policy; the role of Daimler-Benz in the German rearmament programme; Jews and Christians in Vichy France. Of intense personal value and interest are the occasional chapters of reminiscence.

The teaching of the Holocaust is now part of the national curriculum. How will the journal contribute to this end? What it seeks to impart is not abstract knowledge; it has a programme designed to inculcate certain values and rules of conduct. It understands the process of education in a wide sense: not only conventional classroom teaching but also such activities as visits to museums and exposure to the narratives of Holocaust survivors, who are sometimes invited to appear in person to talk of their experiences.

It is a commonplace of the journal, and a very large component of its raison d'être , that from the Holocaust lessons of value to the contemporary world can be learned. If you ask what these lessons are, however diligently you search the journal, no answer reveals itself beyond a reference to the danger of prejudice and discrimination and the horrors to which they can lead (one teacher refers to "a spiral of discrimination, beginning with stereotyping and ending with mass murder") or a statement that the Holocaust will demonstrate to an unthinking majority the exposed position of the minority "other". The Holocaust's supposed lessons, insofar as it has any, disclose themselves to be no more than cliché. In any case, to use the Holocaust as an object lesson in the dangers of prejudice is to expose so enormous a gap between the expression of prejudice and the perpetration of mass murder that prejudice comes to seem comparatively innocuous and even irrelevant.

In recent years, writers such as Peter Novick, Michael Goldberg and Norman Finkelstein have from various viewpoints stressed the dangers inherent in obsession with the Holocaust: its negative role in the formation of Jewish identity, its exploitation to justify some aspects of Israeli foreign policy, its non-Jewish fetishisation of relics and scenes of martyrdom. This latter phenomenon is exemplified in the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Nottinghamshire in the form of the jacket once worn by a prisoner at Auschwitz. It is said to have an importance that transcends its materiality and endows it with "a central pedagogic place in terms of an aid to meditation and an intermediary between the individual and the Holocaust victim". The erstwhile wearer of the jacket will surely relish his contribution to pedagogy.

Commendably, this journal does not shrink from giving publicity to arguments that question its own justification, to the point where that very justification is rendered highly suspect or even subverted. Sometimes it condemns itself out of its own mouth. I have in mind the representation of the Jew as victim, almost as predestined victim. One teacher points to this danger: "If Jewish life before the Holocaust and Jewish resistance to the Holocaust is neglected, for example, there is a danger that teaching will perpetuate the negative stereotype of the Jew as a victim." This stereotyping is precisely what is happening - in a 1999 survey of seven textbooks used for Key Stage 3 of the national curriculum, the reviewer finds "the focus is exclusively on persecution".

The danger does not end there. James Young, author of an important work on Holocaust memorials ( The Texture of Memory , 1993), is here quoted as follows: "Many Jews and non-Jews in America learn the whole of Jewish history through the lens of the Holocaust." Not only in the United States is this the case, and the consequence is that over wide areas of the western world Jewish history is engulfed in the Holocaust.

The result is to exemplify the familiar "Whig interpretation of history" - in this case that all Jewish history has been leading up to, and is a preparation for, the Holocaust. The present has overwhelmed the past so that, in the words of one US/Israeli teacher, "a lachrymose sense of history" is engendered. This procedure was eloquently demonstrated in a recent Oxford seminar programme devoted to modern Jewish history and held under the auspices of an institution devoted to Jewish studies: of the eight themes, seven dealt with the Holocaust.

"Lachrymosity" was the term used by the late doyen of Jewish historians, Salo Wittmayer Baron. He was in his 60s when he wrote in 1964: "All my life I have been struggling against the hitherto dominant 'lachrymose conception of Jewish history'I because I have felt that an over-emphasis on Jewish suffering distorted the whole picture of the Jewish historic evolution and, at the same time, badly served a generation which had become impatient with the nightmare of endless persecutions and massacres."

Baron struggled in vain. "Lachrymosity" has triumphed and has continued to proliferate through every conceivable medium. One result is that the generation that had become "impatient" with the recital of suffering has begun to cut itself adrift from its Judaism. If Anglo-Jewry is dwindling, as all the statistics suggest, it is not unwarranted to find part of the reason in the pervasive cult of the Holocaust, its teaching and its ever-increasing "memorialisation" of suffering, as furthered by this journal. Who would care to belong to a people for whom the commemoration of death and tragedy is its main mark of identity and all of whose previous history bears the same stigma? "Unintentionally," writes the young Dutch rabbi David Soetendorp, "we were brought up to regard Judaism as dangerous, soaked with pain and bereavement." It is hard to think of a more effective deterrent to adherence.

In another example of the way in which this journal works to erode its raison d'être , reference is made to remarks by the late emeritus chief rabbi Lord Jakobowitz at a Holocaust symposium in 1997. He deplored "the serious derailment" of Jewish life that was already well advanced. By this he meant that it had been projected not forwards but backwards. "Remembrance" was better directed to the living and to the future than to the past, Jakobowitz told the symposium.

Despite all the good things in this journal and all the goodwill of its editors and contributors, it is difficult to see in it anything other than a medium that is reinforcing "derailment" and inculcating a dangerous obsession with death and suffering.

Lionel Kochan is an honorary research fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

The Journal of Holocaust Education: (three times a year)

Editor - Jo Reilly, David Cesarani and Colin Richmond
ISBN - ISSN 1359 1371
Publisher - Cass
Price - £28.00 (individuals)£95.00 (institutions)
Pages - -

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