If “remembering the Holocaust” is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish, then it follows that a substantial core of Jewish identity is primarily defined by heinous acts committed by Nazis upon Jews. In a tragic twist of history, it is the enemy who now writes the story of Jewish identity and who determines its emphases.
Perhaps even more regrettably, this “essential” feature of being Jewish is characterized by gaping loss, appalling destruction, and unremitting sadness. Hence, according to the popular view, the most pivotal component of Jewishness actually emerged post-1933 in the form of a horrendous cataclysm that was fashioned by others; and Jewishness is devoted to recalling this nightmare so that nobody should forget what happened.
Let there be no doubt: it is vitally important to remember the Holocaust and its lessons. But it is also vitally important to acknowledge that remembering the Holocaust is no more essential to being Jewish than remembering 9-11 is essential to being American. Both memories are of great consequence, but neither shapes the “essential meaning” of the nation.
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Schiff, “Remembering Our Identity”, eJewish Philanthropy (2 January 2014).
I am actually not interested in simply furthering that we represent the Jewish people. I understand that it was a blip, a modern blip, exacerbated by the Holocaust, the Jewish peoplehood and “more than the Jews kept the Shabbas, the Shabbas kept the Jews” – that’s just a lie. It’s okay, I appreciate it, but for Jews who stopped keeping the Shabbas, it’s wonderful rhetoric, but it has nothing to do with how people function. People will observe the Shabbas if it actually works for them in their life to help them flourish. They’re not going to keep it because it keep them. I love the rhetoric and so I’m interested in shifting the balance – and I think this is great for rabbis – from Jewish peoplehood to actually Torah, to the wisdom and practice.
There are seven days between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. It is as if the entire country sits shiva, mourning the tragedy of the Holocaust, then rises to be comforted by the existence of the State of Israel. While the pairing of the Holocaust and Israeli independence has its historical problems, for me it remains a powerful narrative, one that has imprinted itself in my own family history.
Rabbi Mishael Zion, “Israel at 65: Celebrating is Not Enough”, The Jewish Week (12 April 2013), 23.