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Former Director of US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Chatterley Helps Correct Growing Effort To Universalize Holocaust

by Walter Reich, March 27, 2012

Catherine Chatterley’s essay in the Winnipeg Jewish Review of March 24th, “The Holocaust was not an Interfaith Experience,” is a succinct and brilliant summary of what the Holocaust actually was.

 http://www.winnipegjewishreview.com/article_detail.cfm?id=2283&sec=1&title=DR._CATHERINE_CHATTERLEY:_THE_HOLOCAUST_WAS_NOT_AN_INTERFAITH_EXPERIENCE

It’s important because it presents history accurately.  But it’s even more important because, by presenting that history accurately, it helps correct the growing effort to universalize it—to make it into a lesson about “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Needless to say, many experiences provide such a lesson.  But the Holocaust was unique in its methods and in its ferocious focus on Jews—a focus the sentiment behind which is some two thousand years old and has resulted in numerous spasms of murder in the places where Jews have lived.

Nor did the Holocaust end this sentiment.  Rather, its massive ferocity left antisemitism temporarily exhausted; after the Holocaust, antisemites couldn’t express their bigotry quite as easily in polite company, at least for a few decades.  It was almost as if antisemitism in its active form had taken a kind of vacation.

But active antisemitism is back and, with increasing speed it’s racing around the world.  It’s being expressed increasingly in Europe, and with blood-curdling intent and language in the Arab/Muslim world.  Nor is it absent in Canada or the United States.

Dr. Chatterley’s essay trenchantly demonstrates the historical truth of antisemitism’s lethal consequences during the Holocaust—the truth that the Holocaust—the Shoah--was, indeed, not an interfaith experience but the most intense example of a specifically antisemitic experience.  And it provides an important corrective to the increasing tendency to universalize the Holocaust, which is done not only by well-meaning non-Jews but also by well-meaning Jews.  Both of these groups fail to undertand how the distortion of historical memory corrupts its power to teach.  Both of these groups recognize that if, in the effort to teach universal values, a particular historical experience is expanded to teach universal lessons, then the particular lesson that it can teach so clearly—the murderous consequences of antisemitism—is lost.

In writing her important essay, and in founding the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Dr. Chatterley has done a great service not only to the memory of the Holocaust dead but also to humanity itself.  And her essay—and the Winnipeg Jewish Review—have done a great service to the Jews of the present and the future.  It’s the kind of accurate Holocaust memory that she teaches that has a chance of reducing the likelihood that yet another Holocaust—this time carried out not by Germans but by others, not in Europe but in the Middle East, and not by gas chambers but by nuclear weapons—will follow.

Walter Reich is theYitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at The George Washington University and a former Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

 
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