Winnipeg Jewish Review  
Site Search:
Home  |  Archives  |  Contact Us
Features Local Israel Next Generation Arts/Op-Eds Editorial/Letters Links Obituary/In Memoriam

Lionel Steiman

The Holocaust, Antisemitism, and Jewish Identity: Challenges and Changing Perceptions

by Lionel Steiman, April 12, 2013

                                     Presented at the annual UJPO Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, April 8, 2013.


The present essay will consider the academic challenge to the prevailing idea of the Holocaust as a unique event, caused primarily by antisemitism; the next much longer section will consider how the older popular view of the Holocaust had become central to Jewish awareness and identity; I will conclude with a brief consideration of what impact academic debates might have on Jewish identities and self-understanding.

The Holocaust is perhaps the single most written about event in history and certainly the best documented. Books, articles, films, and other programs continue to be produced in record numbers. Most academic scholars no longer regard the Holocaust as being the singular event that Jews believe it was; academic research no longer places the Holocaust outside or above the course of history and therefore so unique that it cannot be compared to any other event. 

The term ‘Holocaust’ itself did not become the accepted word for the destruction of European Jewry until well into the 1960s, but it quickly became the centre of Jewish awareness. With high rates of intermarriage, the decline of Jewish religious observance and cultural usage, Holocaust awareness, Israel, and concern about the enduring threat of anti-Semitism came to define for many Jews what it meant to be Jewish. 

At the same time, academic research had rejected both the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust and the idea that anti-Semitism was its most important cause. The Holocaust has been merged with genocide studies in general, which sees the murder of the Jews as one of many other instances of genocide that occurred at various times in history and in our own day. The list of its causes continues to grow, with some scholars arguing that some of the most important causes had little to do with hating Jews. 

Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief “architects” of the Holocaust, was a “bureaucrat”, an “administrator” with no particular antipathy toward Jews, motivated primarily by the desire to do be the best he could at his job.   Such “bureaucrats” led researchers to focus on “bureaucracy” as a cause of the Holocaust.   And because “bureaucracy” and its culture of efficiency without ethics had become an intrinsic part of modern civilization, sociologists advanced the notion that “modernity” itself was the Holocaust. Other researchers assigned a similar role to science, technology, medicine and other aspects of “modernity”. These disciplines had become divorced from ethical constraints. Their practitioners were driven solely by careerism and the logic of their science that felt no compunction in using the “opportunities” made available by Nazis Germany’s conquests. They weren’t necessarily anti-Semites or even Nazi.  

Recent scholars have also focussed on the geographic and political environment of German Occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where most of Europe’s Jews lived and where the Holocaust happened. What they saw was a complex configuration of often overlapping and competing offices, agencies, and departments tasked with carrying out Germany’s conquest and colonization of lands with diverse populations and resources. A “Master Plan for the East” was drawn up. Its implementation required the removal, resettlement or killing of populations, and the re-allocation of their food and other resources to maintain the German military and security forces. Economists, demographers, agricultural experts, industrialists, contractors, and the trades were all involved. The various offices and agencies overlapped and competed, making it difficult to determine from their archives exactly which office or personnel did what and why as the populations were shifted around, ghettos established, Jews and others deported and resettled or killed en masse. This apparent confusion led some scholars to argue that, far from being centrally planned and ideologically driven by Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was improvised haphazardly and piece meal, driven by the “structural” and “functional” dynamics generated by competition and rivalry inside the vast administrative apparatus that Nazi Germany had imposed on its conquered territories. 

These so-called “structuralist” or “functionalist” interpretations of the Holocaust threatened to eclipse the established “intentionalist” version, according to which the Holocaust was the implementation of a preconceived plan driven by Hitler’s hatred of Jews. But no clear evidence of such a plan has been found, and neither has any written or other order for the extermination of the Jews been discovered. This might appear to reinforce the credibility of the “structuralist” interpretations, but the problem with them is that they attribute agency to abstractions: it’s one thing to say that a particular bureaucrat did something, but you cannot show that “bureaucracy” made him do it. By the same token, you cannot say that it was “technology” that caused the Nazis to advance from killing by bullets and mobile gas vans to stationery gas chambers with built-in crematoria. And you can’t say—although some have said-- that it was “medicine” that caused the Holocaust because Auschwitz was run by doctors who prescribed mass killing as a “bio-medical” cure for the world’s ills.

The most can say is that the culture of bureaucracy—or medicine, other sciences or technology-- provided the context in which or the tools with which the Holocaust could evolve. But ‘modernity’ only provided the context; it did not generate the event itself. What needs to be asked is what triggered the process, what generated the sustained program of mass killing that was the Holocaust? For some historians, the most convincing answer is still Jew hatred: antisemitism was the trigger. Of course anti-Semitism was far from being an independent variable. But the fact that every bureaucrat, technician, medical doctor, or other operative was well aware that making the disposition of Jews a priority was a sure way to advance his own interests suggests that anti-Semitism was indeed a central cause of the Holocaust.


       In recent years the Holocaust has been examined from a global perspective, and this has resulted in a more serious challenge to the view that anti-Semitism was the cause of the Holocaust. Programs in many universities have integrated the Holocaust with the study of genocide, the comparative study of which has become widespread. This “global turn” reflects a transformation of history as a discipline. Long Eurocentric in perspective and focussed primarily on the politics of nation-states, historians turned to focus more on everyday life and on global developments, in particular the emergence of the indigenous peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Americas from the colonial rule imposed by Europeans.

        It was striking that in some places both the initial colonization that began centuries ago and even subsequent decolonization had involved genocide. In fact, some scholars argued that the murderous assault on European Jewry by the Nazis bore parallels to and was even inspired by the earlier projects of European colonization in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The point of this research was not to “diminish” the significance of the Holocaust but to deepen our understanding of it by placing it in a broader context. All the major European powers had a history of colonizing non-European peoples, whom they regarded as “savages” without any culture worth preserving; all Europeans subscribed to theories of race that ranked the earth’s peoples in descending order from white black. The fact that a tiny number of British soldiers and administrators could conquer and rule a country of hundreds of millions was an example and inspiration to Hitler and other Germans in their colonial aspirations for the continent of Europe. Earlier, between 1884 and 1915, the German colonial rulers of southwest Africa imposed race laws that foreshadowed those against Jews in Nazi Germany and against blacks in South Africa under apartheid. Some historians have argued that later events such as the Jewish Holocaust were “not aberrations, but rather a logical outcome and continuation of colonialism”—and this despite the acknowledged differences between them. 239.

The connection between colonialism and the Holocaust not only challenges the popular view that anti-Semitism was the most important cause of the Holocaust, but also has important implications today, where Israel is regarded as a colonial state, a settler society forcibly established by the declining great powers Britain and France.. In this view, opposition to Israel and its Zionist ideology is not anti-Semitism but justifiable opposition to colonial oppression, from which most of the world’s indigenous populations have been freed and for which they have received apologies—except for the Palestinians. To what extent anti-Zionism is driven by or becomes anti-Semitism is difficult to assess. The only point here is that their relationship is complex, and this complexity has made the usefulness of the term ‘antisemitism’ doubtful. Primarily though not wholly because of the Middle East, Jew hatred is no longer rooted only in the theology and legends of Christian Europe, where the word ‘antisemitism’ was invented in the 1870s to distinguish modern opposition to Jews from that based on medieval religion and superstition. The phenomenon itself however is global; but just as with ‘Holocaust’, there is no consensus on its meaning or appropriate application. This should be borne in mind as we come to consider how “the Holocaust” came to be, for many Jewish North Americans, a defining element in their identity.

Some years ago, the late University of Chicago historian Peter Novick wrote that “the Holocaust and Israel are the twin pillars of American Jewish “civic religion”: they are what bind American Jews together irrespective of differences regarding religion or politics.” That remains largely true today, with the exception that as issues around Israel have become more complicated and more divisive, only the Holocaust retains the uncontested loyalty of Americans. The expression “there’s no business like Shoah business” is a tribute to the Holocaust’s unfailing fundraising potential. Does this mean, as some would have it, that the Holocaust has become a central element, perhaps the central element, in the identity of many American Jews?   With the decline of religious observance and the rise of cultural illiteracy, there indeed seemed little left beyond the Holocaust-- and the state of Israel to guard against its repetition by the “new” anti-Semitism.

It was not always like this. For two decades after WWII the mass murder of European Jewry did not have a name. The voiceovers in the grisly atrocity footage rarely mentioned Jews, who were simply merged with the other victims of Nazi barbarism. Only nationalities were mentioned; like Poles, Czechs, Spaniards, and so on. The “scourge of the Swastika”, title of a famous English account, was not directed against Jews in particular. The Nazi defendants at Nuremberg were charged with war crimes and “crimes against humanity”, not with crimes against Jews. Jewish survivors in the DP camps were just called DPs. When they got to Palestine/Israel they were disdained—instead of building the Jewish homeland, they had “gone like sheep to the slaughter”; survivors of Auschwitz wore long sleeves to hide their tattoos, or had them surgically removed: they were badges of shame, not honour. Although it is often said that survivors were too traumatized to speak, the truth is that few wanted to listen. So in Israel, America, or Canada they kept quiet and kept to themselves. Only much later would they be drawn out and accorded the title “survivor” and elevated to “secular sainthood.”   It is no disrespect to point out that the most respected accounts of Auschwitz tell us that survival was due not to character but to cleverness, physical strength, and luck. Morality was irrelevant.

Prior to the trial Eichmann trial there had been no international pressure to accord any recognition of specifically Jewish suffering. The Cold War was on: the Soviet Union was now the enemy; Communism eclipsed any serious concern with Nazism, its victims, or its vestiges. All effort went into building a new Germany, America’s “democratic” ally.” The Jewish issue had to be side-tracked.   Only with the capture of Eichmann, and his trial in Jerusalem, was the word ‘Holocaust’ attached to the murder of European Jewry as an entity distinct from Nazi barbarism in general, and “survivors” gained their status as its indispensable witnesses. Soon “the Holocaust” “came to be regularly invoked in American Jewry’s struggles on behalf of the embattled, still fledgling state of Israel. Israel’s success in the 1967 war solidified the closeness American Jews felt with their ancient homeland. Many replaced time honoured Yiddish expressions with Hebrew equivalents: the Yarmulke became the Kippa, Shabbos became Shabbat, and bas mitzvah became bat mitzvah. 

Jews as military heroes offered a more attractive focus for Jewish identity than did the inhabitants of the shtetl, of whom Americans remained ignorant or, worse, informed only by the sentimentalities of Fiddler on the Roof. After the Yom Kippur war in 1973 shattered the myth of Israeli invincibility, and launched the spectre a renewed Holocaust, in America there was talk of a growing “new anti-Semitism”. This despite the fact that polls and other measures showed that anti-Semitism had declined to near insignificance and that Jews had gained acceptance at the highest levels of American society. Nevertheless, the remarks of a few black leaders and the sensationalism generated by the likes of Louis Farrakhan caused serious concern. Meir Kahane founded his Jewish Defence League, and his party gained increasing numbers. In Israel, the pop song at the top of the charts was “The Whole World is Against Us”; in the US, novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote, “All the World Wants the Jews Dead.”. The plight of Jews in the Soviet Union, where anti-Semitism was thriving, and the heroism of prominent “refuseniks” like Sharansky broadcast the message that Israel was still the only safe haven for the world’s Jews. Jewish leaders issued repeated warnings that the “golden age” for Jews in America was over. 

What may have been giving them greater cause for anxiety than the “new anti-Semitism”, however, was the rate of intermarriage— well over 50% of Jews were marrying out; less than a quarter of those remained even nominally Jewish, and fewer still were giving their children any kind of Jewish education. Leaders worried about the non-involvement of the young in Jewish affairs. This “thinning of Jewish identity”, as they called it, was a consequence of insufficient awareness of the Holocaust, which should have been “seared into their memory”. 

The solution was education. Holocaust Courses and programs were mounted in colleges and universities and drew unexpectedly large enrolments; Holocaust memorials and museums were planned, with the greatest of them all to be situated on the Washington Mall. This was all a far cry from the time when survivors’ attempts to place a monument to Europe’s murdered Jews in New York City were blocked by Jewish leaders opposed to publicizing Jewish weakness and humiliation.But things had changed since then: in the latter part of the 20th century America entered the age of “identity politics”, in politics came to be determined by an individual’s identification with interest groups based on ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, physical disability, or other post colonial disadvantage .

Group identity replaced political ideology. Some groups defined themselves as historical victims and based their communal identity on their remembered victimhood. The elevation of “victim” as a social category drove various groups to demand that their suffering be publicly acknowledged. The phenomenal public recognition accorded the Holocaust encouraged other groups to seek similar recognition. This generated what some have called a “culture of victimhood,” with competing victims claiming “moral superiority”. Whether they do so is debatable, but it is precisely this claim that some have accused Jews of making.

What members of many older ethnic groups have in common is their loss of touch with their ancestral languages, religious beliefs, customs, stories and histories. These fade further away with each generation, leaving only a vague feeling of “identity” but nothing concrete with which members can identify.   While some rediscover the religion of their ancestors, or adapt it to a secular age, others might find the appeal of a shared victimhood more appealing emotionally and certainly less demanding. For many Jews, the heritage of the Holocaust may be a way for them to express a connection to Jewish heritage in general. What other basis was there for a distinctive shared identity? Neither religion nor culture suffices. Support of Israel still has great attraction for many, but this depends on accepting Zionist claims about the founding of the state of Israel and its connection to the Holocaust. And as these claims came under increasing scrutiny even by Israeli historians, the Holocaust as a unique event beyond history offered a symbol of infinitely greater moral clarity. 

        More important than “moral clarity” was perhaps marketability. Perhaps the major reason for the Holocaust becoming the focus of identity particularly for young Jews was its sheer marketability. Like so much else that made American culture globally attractive, the Holocaust is glaringly sensational, it appeals to our most basic (if not base) emotions and contrary impulses, and it immerses us painlessly in-- unimaginable horror. Schindler’s List has been called “the ultimate feel food film.” No other event or aspect of Jewish history has occasioned as much “interfaith dialogue” as the Holocaust; its museums and memorials are advertized as “the natural site for interfaith services.” The Holocaust Museum in Washington has been called “the official address of American Jewry.” At its official opening President Clinton stated that in dedicating this museum “we bind one of the darkest lessons of history to the hopeful soul of America.” Jewish Americans could now blend their Holocaust-identity with their American souls. The president added what he knew many of his listeners already believed, namely that the Holocaust “made certain the long overdue creation of the state of Israel.”

Keeping the Holocaust centred in American Jewish awareness hinges on maintaining its connection with the Zionist narrative of the creation of the state of Israel. In that narrative of the thirties and forties, the Jews killed by the Nazis had been in the middle of their journey to Palestine. The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem reinforces this by concluding its main exhibit with a huge picture of a boat carrying illegal immigrants to Palestine. The state of Israel thus presents itself as the culmination of an unfinished journey, its foundations laid by the millions who were murdered. But we know that many of the doomed Jews did not see their lives as a journey, nor did they think of the Diaspora as a temporary state. They wanted to be accepted and allowed to live where they were—or go to America.
From the launching of plans to build the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, until well after its opening fifteen years later in 1993, controversy over content threatened to derail the project. . Scholars challenged the long assumed “uniqueness” of the Holocaust. Board members resigned. Proponents of uniqueness insisted that they were not claiming that Jewish suffering was worse than that of any other persecuted people. When some of them charged that others—Armenians, Ukrainians-- were “stealing their Holocaust”, they denied that their complaint was about losing some presumed moral or other pre-eminence. 
Then what were they worried about?   What they felt slipping away was their Jewish identity: according to the pre-eminent scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, all the talk about uniqueness “comes down to why the... [Holocaust] was “worse” than what the Armenians went through.” He found it “intellectually vulgar” and even “grotesque” to be arguing with other ethnic groups that our Holocaust was worse than theirs. “If you know who you are”, Neusner wrote, “you don’t have to make statements like that.” Is it possible that many Jews don’t know who they are except insofar as they have a unique victim identity? One can tour the sites of the death camps and learn the details of their operation, and come away knowing nothing about life of Polish Jewry. Critics have charged the “March of the Living” for not exposing its participants to the richness of the Jewish world that the Nazis extinguished. A Jewish identity based on catastrophe is a Jewish identity owed to anti-Semitism, which is a pretty a slim identity. But Jews were not committed to their continuity merely because there were those who wanted to annihilate them. They had created something that was, on its own terms, worth continuing and creating.  
In the last decades of the 20th century the Holocaust moved from the margins to the center of how American Jews understand themselves as Jews, and how they represent themselves to others. Has this Holocaust-centred identity been destabilized by the absorption of the Holocaust into Genocide Studies, and by the downgrading of anti-Semitism as a cause? That’s hard to say. There is always a lag between academic discourse on any topic and what prevails in the general culture. The continued merging of the Holocaust with Genocide Studies is bound to have some effect, even though it continues to be resisted by some prominent academics and by large segments of the Jewish public. It should also be noted that a number of Jewish scholars as well as lay folk promote the merger with Genocide Studies because such “universalizing” of the Holocaust, as they see it, really elevates its significance. In any case, there’s no way of telling how many Jews ground their identity in the Holocaust and to what extent they do. Whatever the number, there remains an over-riding factor: times have changed since identity was an inherited, non-negotiable fact of life. In multi-cultural North America we are free to self-identify as we wish: our self-identification can be variable, multiple, and malleable. And in principle—bigots to the contrary-- it is a matter of choice.
<<Previous Article       Next Article >>
Subscribe to the Winnipeg Jewish Review
  • RBC
  • Titi Tijani
  • Jewish Federation of Winnipeg
  • PC Party
  • Jewish Federation of Winnipeg
  • Orthodox Union
  • Karyn and Mel Lazareck
  • Booke + Partners
  • Accurate Lawn & Garden
  • Coughlin Insurance Brokers
  • Munroe Pharmacy
  • Jim Muir
  • Daniel Friedman and Rob Dalgleish
  • Artista Homes
  • Fetching Style
  • Munroe Dental Centre
  • Cavalier Candies
  • Ronald B. Zimmerman
  • Viscont Gort
  • Safeway Tuxedo
  • Karyn & Mel Lazareck
  • MCW Consultants Ltd.
  • Red River Coop
  • Winnipeg Beach Home Building Centre
  • John Wishnowski
  • John Bucklaschuk
  • Tyler Bucklaschuk
  • Ingrid Bennett
  • Gulay Plumbing
  • Nick's Inn
  • Taverna Rodos
  • Holiday Inn Polo Park
  • Bob and Shirley Freedman
  • Elaine and Ian Goldstine
  • Josef Ryan
  • Western Scrap Metals Inc.
  • CdnVISA Immigration Consultants
  • Simmonds and Associates
  • Doheny Securities Limited
  • Canada Awakening Ministries
  • Fair Service
  • Dr. Marshall Stitz
  • Shindico
  • Astroid Management Limited
  • Piston Ring
  • Commercial Pool
  • Robin Shapiro Photography
  • Broadway Law Group
  • Sorrento's
  • Roseman Corp
  • Laufman Reprographics
  • Equitable Solutions
  • CVA Systems
  • Chochy's
  • Amalgamated Drywall
  • Ambassador Mechanical
  • Renew Mobility
  • Abe and Toni Berenhaut
  • Grant Kurian Trucking
  • Shoppers Drug Mart
  • kristinas-greek
  • The Center for Near East Policy Research Ltd.
  • Sarel Canada
  • Santa Lucia Pizza
  • Roofco Winnipeg Roofing
  • Center for Near East Policy Research
  • Nachum Bedein
Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.