The Holocaust Still Haunts the World

Reading Marc H. Ellis’ remarkable book Encountering the Jewish Future, I was repeatedly struck by the way the Holocaust destroyed not just an entire European culture but a unique way of understanding and experiencing God. The Nazi Holocaust convinced surviving Jews that they needed a country of their own, armed and supported by the West. The historic mission of the state of Israel was to create a safe place for the world’s Jews, but clearly that objective has failed—the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, and their continued oppression in Israel/Palestine, makes conflict in the Middle East inevitable.

The Holocaust changed everything within Judaism, as witness the fact that each of the Jewish thinkers Professor Ellis studies—Richard Rubenstein, Elie Wiesel, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas—struggled in different ways with the same problem. Among Jews there was a lacerating but recurring sense that God should have stopped the Holocaust, but didn’t. How can Jews worship a God who was absent at the hour of the Jewish people’s greatest need?

For Elie Wiesel, God’s failure to rescue the Jews is a kind of incomprehensible moral failure. (In a play written by Wiesel, for example, God is put on trial.) Yet the absence of God in the gas chambers is balanced off by the founding of the state of Israel, which Wiesel sees as a transcendent miracle. To say that a country is a miracle created by God is very close to saying it is God, or at the very least an extension of God. If so, how can the God that created Israel be the same God that previously abandoned Jews to Hitler? Never mind, Wiesel’s need to identity with Israeli military power is overwhelming; and it clearly serves his purposes to believe that Israel is in some sense divine, or at the very least beyond human criticism.

I believe a great many American Jews fall into that category, however unconsciously. Having lost their connection to God—where was God in the gas chambers?—they have unconsciously replaced God with the worship of the Israeli state, which means internalizing Israel’s increasing racism, apartheid and religious nationalism. If Israel is God, everything it does must be good, even though it may not appear so to the non-believer. For many Jews, the identification with the state of Israel may arise from an unconscious sense that God has vanished, or is mad or morally deranged.

But God did not commit the evils of the Holocaust. Those evils were committed by European Christians, who have a long history of committing just such outrages against European Jews. Indeed, the only reason it had not been done by Christians long before was probably because in previous centuries they lacked the technology to carry it out. The Holocaust was the culmination of sixteen centuries of horrific persecution of Jews by Christians in Europe—Christendom’s leaders were only too willing to look the other way when the mobs were incited to commit pogroms against Jews. Furthermore, it often happened that those same Christian sovereigns, Popes and Protestant Christians alike, themselves often incited the anti-Semitic fervor, hoping to distract attention from their own sins and depredations against the common people.

So why cannot Elie Wiesel articulate this simple truth? Because he became the pet and celebrity of the primarily Christian political Establishment, which rewarded him well for his role, actually passing a resolution in Congress demanding that he receive a Nobel Prize. In a celebrity culture such as ours, Wiesel seemed well cast to play the role of an elder statesman of human rights: a gaunt but tragic face, a serious demeanor, and a certain overly-praised but still impressive literary skill. Furthermore Wiesel could be counted on to play a reliable ideological role on behalf of the American powers-that-be, by deflecting any real discussion of human rights: he would never criticize the many brutalities associated with American imperialism, for example, and he would reliably denounce reports of Israel’s human rights violations as lies motivated by antisemitism.

Most importantly of all, he could be depended on to never very seriously criticize Christian beliefs and behavior, and would never point out that the Holocaust was carried out entirely by Christians, and that the Holocaust was furthermore the horrifying outcome of sixteen centuries of Christian antisemitism.

That is too bad, because Christianity needs such a candid analysis. The Protestants of Germany made a beginning with their “Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt” of October 19, 1945, beginning with these somber words: “Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and cultures…” But this promising beginning was not followed up, because it quickly became obvious that the long history of antisemitism in European Christianity was connected to a key aspect of Christian theology. The concept of substitutionary atonement—the idea that Jesus’ violent crucifixion redeemed the world’s sins—is a central Christian belief, and is also deeply connected to Christian antisemitism. If publicly torturing a man to death could redeem the world, then there is clearly something good and redemptive and transcendent about violence in general—which is why there were so often outbursts of anti-Semitic violence around Easter Week, when references and images of Jesus’ crucifixion were widely disseminated.

If Christians took responsibility for the Holocaust, however retroactively, it would become clearer that it was not God’s malevolence or deliberate absence that caused the Holocaust, but the misuse of religion by European Christians. To come clean about this would be good for Christians, and also for Judaism. Christians could at last re-evaluate the idea of redemptive violence, to which successive generations of Christians have been addicted. Then perhaps Christians could see Jesus as he really was—a prophetic Jew in the great Abrahamic tradition, a prophet who is important because of his teachings, not because the world’s sin was redeemed by a form of human sacrifice. As a heretical/progressive Christian, I believe that Christianity must face and defeat the idea of atonement through violence—just as Christians should also take responsibility for their long history of antisemitism, culminating in the Holocaust. (Christians also need to confront today’s rampant Christian Zionism, whose adherents often appear to believe that any conflict that kills Muslims must be the will of God, and likewise redemptive.)

Considering what has happened to Jews in Europe, there is nothing wrong with Jews getting and maintaining power. But in Israel/Palestine, power is not based on justice, but on race and religion. No amount of Jewish suffering justifies making Palestinians suffer—indeed, the Israeli state is not an alternative to the Holocaust, but replicates the same negative behaviors that originally caused it. Many Jewish progressives now understand that the existence of a Jewish state is an historic opportunity to stand up for universal human rights in Israel/Palestine—but that means opposing the current behavior and beliefs of the Israeli political class, because uncritically worshiping a state is a deeply perverse and damaging form of idolatry. Perhaps such perceptions will be the beginning of reform within American Judaism, and Christianity as well. What the entire Abrahamic family needs now is a covenant between God and believers to deconstruct and defeat the misuse of religion, especially when it is used to justify exploitation and violence by the state.

Lawrence Swaim

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