Learning the “Lessons” of the Holocaust

By David Shasha

Source: Reuters/Peter Andrews

Source: Reuters/Peter Andrews

There has been a spate of articles about the Holocaust over the past few weeks as Israel’s “High Holiday” season goes into full swing:


As Rabbi Donniel Hartman notes, Israel has restructured the Jewish liturgical calendar in order to promote a Zionist-centric vision of our tradition which would bring together Passover, Israel’s Independence Day, the anniversary of the re-capturing of Jerusalem in 1967, Israeli Veterans’ Memorial Day, and the tragedy of the Holocaust.

The standard Zionist position on the “lessons” of the Holocaust is presented clearly in this post from the United with Israel group led by The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol:


It is not morality and justice that is central here, strictly muscle and violence.

Germany lost World War I and sought to revert to an insular nationalism that eventually, under the murderous psychopath Hitler, acted out a genocidal violence against all non-Aryans.  Preying on the paranoia and fears of the beleaguered German people, National Socialism found its ultimate meaning in the demonization of the Jews and of other non-Aryan and non-Christian minorities deemed to be enemies of the nation.  Technological advances allowed the Nazis to deploy their toxic biological racism in the “efficient” laboratories of the Concentration Camps.

I have addressed the theme of war and violence as agents for social cohesion in my essay on Frank Borzage’s classic anti-war films “No Greater Glory” and “The Mortal Storm”:


In these bold productions from the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio system we see the dangerous ways in which tribalism and genetic biology can lead to wanton violence and destruction.

The “lessons” of the Holocaust must speak clearly and directly to the manner in which Germany sought to use its nationalist racism to destroy other human beings in order to “safeguard” the nation.  The world watched in silence as Hitler and his criminal henchmen murdered millions.

The German racist ideology was rooted in the 19th century philosophy which has permeated our academic historicism ever since:


In my essay “How German is it?” I looked at the dangerous ways in which this philosophy, with its clear Christian Anti-Semitic overtones, has infected Judaic Studies.  Beyond this, what we have seen in Zionist thought has been a co-optation of a racial and genetic idea of Jewish identity that is also rooted in the 19th century philosophical system.

I have also spoken of these problems in another essay “From Rabbenu Tam to Shabbetai Sebi: The Road from Jewish Pathology to Jewish Degeneracy”:


In this essay on Ashkenazi history I sought to explicate the tragedies of the Medieval European Jewish past from the Crusades to the Enlightenment in the context of a Shtetl pathology that elevated martyrdom and closed itself off from the larger world.  The legacy of Christian violence has had a profound impact on contemporary Jewish thinking as manifested in Zionism.

Evidence of the rift between the Ashkenazi tradition of martyrdom with its embrace of the mystical-occult and Sephardic Religious Humanism as embodied in the teaching of Maimonides can be found in the work of prominent, and politically influential, Israeli historians such as Ben-Zion Dinur and Yitzhak Baer.

I have presented their militant Ashkenazi ideas in my review essay on Yoram Hazony’s deeply anti-Liberal book The Jewish State:


But even more determinedly anti-Sephardic is the scholarly work of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, father of the current Israeli Prime Minister:


This reification of Ashkenazi anti-rationalism exemplifies the vast difference between Sephardic cosmopolitan adaptation and the authoritarian nature of the European Judaism:



The Maimonidean Controversy presents us with a perfect exemplification of the dilemma and the divergent ways that Ashkenazim and Sephardim approached the issue of civilization and religious culture.  In many ways the Ashkenazi religious authoritarianism reminds us of the famous first scene in the movie “El Cid” where the Muslim extremist Ben Yousef angrily dismisses the Andalusian Arabs as not being Muslim enough, because they studied science, embraced rational philosophy, and wrote sophisticated secular literature:


So too did the Ashkenazi fatalists see Sephardim as “less Jewish” than they were.

There is thus a vast difference between Sephardic Jewish Humanism and Ashkenazi Shtetl Judaism.

It is vital for us to understand Zionism in the context of the Ashkenazi-Sephardi schism and the influence exerted on European Jews by their native cultural environment.

But we must not conflate Zionist ideology and its practices with the genocidal mentality of the Nazis.  What we should see are certain points of contact with racial thinking that has forced Jewish identity into a place far removed from the values of classical rabbinic civilization and the development of Jewish Humanism under the aegis of the Sephardic rabbis.  The fusion of Biblical atavism and Zionist primitivism has led to a radical reinterpretation of Jewish being that seeks the eschatological visions of the messianic tradition and a separation of Jews from the larger world community.

Rather than rejecting racist national values rooted in the Hegelian system, what we see today is an ongoing acceptance of these Gentile values and acquiescence to the principle that Jews must adopt such values if they are to survive in this world.  Fear and paranoia continue to plague Jews as we move forward in history.

Such fanatical atavism has also been rekindled in the Arab-Muslim world, leading to clashing parochialisms embodied in mindless violence and hatred.

The Holocaust teaches us that we must indeed be our brothers’ keeper, regardless of the religion or ethnicity of our brother.  It means that we cannot be silent when violence is perpetrated against the innocent.  The idea that the world can be broken down into “us” and “them” in a desperate attempt to validate national values is something that should make us take serious pause.

Rather than embrace cruelty and intimidation in the Jewish community, we should adopt the values of Liberal Pluralism and tolerance as a means to honor the many millions of innocent people murdered by the Nazis.  We must reject the depredations of the authoritarian Hegelianism that has sought to separate nations from one another.  Our survival depends not on our sword, but on the moral values that stand in opposition to the genocidal racism of Hitlerism.

From Sephardic Heritage Update

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