We are a people of memory, and so it seems right and reasonable that we use our past as the means to interpret our present. But drawing historical metaphors is tricky work, and done incorrectly, the memory-maker risks both violence to our history and our identities that hinge so directly on how we think about the lessons of our past.
Such was the case in the recent case of the conservative punditry’s irresponsible analogies between the Geneva nuclear negotiations on Iran and the capitulation of the Allied powers to Hitler as part of the “Munich Agreement.” It is not at all surprising to hear radically different assessments about the merits of the process and the provisional outcomes, like disagreeing over whether or not we perceive Iran as a rational actor. And it is reasonable for even optimists and doves to be terrified of these negotiations, in light of Iran’s troublesome rhetoric — its genocidal language that evokes Jewish trauma not so far in our past.
But political pluralism aside: it is horrifying to see so many pundits not only decry the proceedings but also invest this declamation with the incendiary rhetoric of Jewish victimhood. In one fell swoop the threat of aggression gives way to making Jews the implicit victims in whatever drama is about to unfold.
This approach — this Jewish insistence on an obsession with our own current or future victimhood — is strategically and morally deficient: It is dishonest; it is anti-Zionist; and it risks becoming self-fulfilling.
It is dishonest because the Jewish people in Israel and America rose up in the 20th century, rather heroically and unexpectedly, from a place of utter powerlessness in the world to now being able to hold in a much healthier tension both our power and powerlessness. If our experience as a stateless people throughout most of our history allowed us to think about our national identity as more morally pristine, our challenge today is to continue to aspire to that moral sensibility while undertaking the dirtier work of nation-building and in the conditions of normalcy. To insist via this analogy that we remain the victim of both history and of our contemporary aggressors as the defining feature of our identity misreads — willfully, and even maliciously — the gains we have made as a people and the new responsibility we have in the world to behave in accordance with the best of our moral aspirations.
Zionism reflects, among other ideas, an effort by the Jewish people to seize its destiny in history and change its approach to self-reliance. When the State of Israel is viewed in perpetual crisis by diaspora Jewry, requiring our paternalistic intervention, or when it is painted as the site of Jewish victimhood rather than a political response thereto, Zionism gives way to a protective and ultimately debasing Jewish ideology of fear and weakness. There are a host of political, diplomatic, economic and military approaches that the State of Israel might take in response to what it perceives — rightly or wrongly — as the failed policy of the West towards Iran. Cultivating the right of the State of Israel to pursue the correct policy choices from this matrix — that is Zionism. Decrying the actions of the West as an echo of the historical failures of the Allies seven decades ago makes a mockery of the Jewish state, its accomplishments, and its role in shaping its own destiny. Jews are not pawns in history, and we do not live today in a historical timeline of the 1930s as though nothing can be done to combat a genocidal swell that is about to overtake us. Rhetoric has meaning: it tells a story about ourselves. These messy metaphors strip Holocaust survivors of their reality and strip us of our agency.
This attitude, this fixation with victimhood, is then also perilously and terrifyingly self-fulfilling. The Talmud in Tractate Moed Katan 27b teaches that if one mourns too much for even the most painful loss, s/he will come to mourn for another. This is a brutally honest truth, especially as we extend the metaphor from mourning for individuals to mourning for the collective: even a people, like our own, that is defined by a history of victimization must not build its identity on victimhood.
Further, the constant insistence on sounding the alarm about the next Holocaust inures us to ignore the depth of our history and its interpretation. Making meaning of Auschwitz is dangerous and requires caution, and our failure thus far as a people to do this work with consistency and integrity risks debasing the memory of the Holocaust. Jews today vacillate between experiencing the memory of the Holocaust as sometimes overwhelming in shaping who we are as Jews, and sometimes as completely banal. The neoconservative talking points that repeatedly juxtapose Geneva and Munich do favors neither to our sensibility of when to take real threats seriously, nor to our responsibility to take seriously our instructive historical memory.
The morally complicated and responsible legacy of the Holocaust, if such a thing exists, is to take seriously both the dignity of Jewish self-preservation and the moral responsibility of survival — and at the same time to be constantly vigilant as a people towards the survival and thriving of others over whom we exercise power. The Torah deploys the Jewish experience of slavery in Egypt — the reminder that you once were a stranger — as having both universal and particular implications, for how you see yourself and how you see others. To casually toss about the memory of the Holocaust to fortify a political position is callous and ignorant.
The Jewish people have suffered enough. We need not massacre European Jewry anew by drawing sloppy historical metaphors that mock the suffering of the victims and survivors. Jews do not tolerate the abuse and misuse of the Holocaust when it comes to the claims of every people in the world looking for antecedent to their own suffering, and we ought not tolerate its abuse in political arguments avoiding a serious grappling with the issues in favor of emotional manipulation. Nuclear Iran is a threat to humanity, to the world and to the Jewish people: in all our possible responses, let us not fall into the trap of also doing violence to our history and to our integrity in the process.
Yehuda Kurtzer is president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the author of “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past.”