I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that if we don’t stand by Israel, the victims of the Nazi Judeocide will have died in vain. I knew something was wrong with that claim, but for the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now I think I can.
The claim is peculiar right off the bat. How would backing an Israeli regime that systematically and indiscriminately oppresses an entire non-European population in the 21st century possibly honor the victims of the Nazis, who were in power in Germany from 1933 to 1945? It makes no sense.
But that’s not all. To die in vain means to die in the futile pursuit of a cause that remains unfulfilled even posthumously. This can include suicide as well as death at the hands of murderers. But someone who is killed while simply living dies neither in vain nor (perhaps eventually) triumphantly. A “passive” murder victim just dies, no matter what the killer intended. (No disrespect whatever is intended by the word passive here. I mean the death was not in a cause pursued by the victim.) It’s a tragedy, but nothing more — as though that were not enough.
The victims of the Holocaust did not see themselves as dying for a cause and were not expecting their deaths to accomplish anything on their part. They certainly did not think of themselves as dying for the future establishment of a chauvinist Jewish state in Palestine, although a small number might have been Zionists.
They died merely because their Nazi killers viewed them in a particular way. Indeed, most German Jews were surprised at being regarded as Jews rather than as Germans. In Nazi Germany one did not have to be a believing and practicing Jew to be targeted because the anti-Semites subscribed to the once-a-Jew-forever-a-Jew philosophy; having a Jewish mother was enough. (The philosopher Spinoza, who was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656, would have been branded a Jew, although he rejected religion and changed his first name from the Hebrew Baruch to the Latin Benedictus.)
I note that today’s Jewish nationalists, that is, Zionists, take the same essentialist position. In their eyes (and unfortunately in the eyes of many non-Jews), one can never stop being a Jew. For them, Judaism is not a matter of religion but of blood. (They too regard Spinoza as a Jew.)
This is utter rubbish: there is no Jewish gene, despite the shameful Israeli search. Moreover, Jews do not constitute a single distinct ethnic group: Jews are found among many ethnic, racial, and national groups. There is no universal Jewish language, food, theater, music, etc. — that is, no worldwide secular Jewish culture. The dominant culture in Israel is not Jewish; it’s Israeli. Judaism represents a worldwide religious community with common beliefs and rites. Why isn’t that enough? (See Shlomo Sand’s How I Stopped Being a Jew, which eloquently defends a position I wish to associate myself with.)
So here we are: no matter what I and others do, the victims of the Holocaust cannot have died in vain or not died in vain. People who talk in such terms commit a category mistake.
I could leave the matter there, but I can take this a step further. While nothing we can do will determine whether the Jewish victims of the Nazis died or did not die in vain, all of us — Jew and non-Jew — can work to guarantee that the Nazis killed in vain. That’s what we should want for any homicidal and tyrannical regime. The best thing to be said about a despot is that he lived in vain.
Now the question is: how can we best guarantee that the Nazis killed in vain? Jewish nationalists (including the ill-defined secularists among them) would give the same answer to other Jews as before: embrace Jewish identity, with Israel, the self-described “nation-state of the Jewish People [everywhere],” at the center of that identity.
I say that’s not a good answer. For one thing, as Shlomo Sand writes, to the extent that Jews and non-Jews embrace an ethnic/racial/genetic notion of “the Jewish People,” the Nazis achieve ex post a major ideological goal — and that would mean their killing was not entirely in vain. I want no part of it.
For another, a Jewish national identity necessarily comes at the expense of millions of Palestinian Arab Muslims, Christians, and secularists, who are thrown a few crumbs but have no real rights in Israel itself and have even less than that in the apartheid occupied West Bank and the concentration camp — some Israelis use that term — known as the Gaza Strip.
A far more promising way to make sure the Nazis killed in vain is to work overtime for individual freedom and toleration in all spheres, which means minimal — zero would be better — political power. That is: embrace radical liberalism, otherwise known as the libertarian philosophy, to combat oppression and bigotry. How many Jews could Hitler have killed had he remained a failed artist and paperhanger in Austria because no state was available? None, I’d guess: the creep probably would have had the crap kicked out of him on his first try. Power is poison, and we must work to eliminate it — and the myth-based nationalism that it fuels — in favor of voluntary peaceful social cooperation.
Once we see things that way, we will be equally appalled by all genocides and lesser forms of oppression. (One, of course, is especially horrified by the sheer scale and methodical nature of the Nazi killing machine, but that should be true no matter the victimized group.) No special consideration can be accorded to Jewish tragedies — no “hierarchies of suffering,” to use Haaretz writer Amira Hess’s phrase, can be accepted — without preventing the Nazis from having killed in vain.
With all its splendid ethnic, cultural, and individual variations, the human race is one people with one proper code of justice for all. Invidious divisions undermine justice, liberty, peace, and cooperation by fragmenting and weakening the oppressed before their oppressors.
TGIF — The Goal Is Freedom — appears occasionally on Fridays.