The Holocaust as Pervasive (and Unhelpful) Metaphor for Contemporary Jewish Communal Challenges

By Dave Matkowsky

The recent uproar over Israeli education minister Rafi Peretz’s remarks comparing assimilation to the Holocaust in its effect on Jewish continuity struck me as odd. Not because I think the comparison is apt; to the contrary it is unfortunate and unhelpful. But rather because it is not new. As others have noted, it was not uncommon over the past 30 years or more, among those who are deeply invested in preserving Jewish text and tradition as a living culture within a thriving society, to reference the Holocaust as ironic metaphor for the willful abandonment of tradition by Jews in open societies. The Nazis’ incompletely realized goal of eradicating the Jewish people, pursued through inhuman and dehumanizing brutality, was alarmingly being advanced, it seemed, by the welcoming embrace of liberal secularism. For those generations yet traumatized by the Holocaust as something that happened during their lifetimes, that they either experienced directly or knew people who did, the wholesale reduction in Jewish numbers by measure of voluntary affiliation and practice undoubtedly felt like a continuation of Hitler’s devastating impact on Jewish civilization by other means.

Never mind that Jewish assimilation into surrounding cultures in the modern era began long before the Holocaust with Napolean’s decision to emancipate Jews from the ghetto. Or that in America specifically, where the lure of the “melting pot” induced many Jewish immigrants to shed as much of their Jewish particularity as they could get away with, the process significantly predated the horrors of WWII Europe, let alone their aftermath. The fact that the trend was continuing, even accelerating, in the wake of the Holocaust took on a different tenor. The expected galvanizing and unifying effect of external threats was short-lived, even after the most monstrous expression of anti-Semitism one could imagine. How was a Jew who cared about Judaism to respond? How was the Jewish “establishment” to respond? If the Holocaust left its indelible imprint on Jews’ fear of existential vulnerability after years of survival against long odds, post-Holocaust religious and cultural attrition took on a qualitatively different sense of urgency and imminent danger compared to the same phenomenon just years earlier. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish survival was implicated not only in the persistence of external threats, but also in the cumulative lifestyle decisions of individual Jews, and the responses of community leadership in attempting to influence those decisions towards greater affiliation.

One of the earliest, most succinct and most influential formulations of such a response was Rabbi Dr. Emil Fackenheim’s “614th commandment.” Speaking in 1967 at a symposium on “Jewish Values in the Post-Holocaust Future,” Fackenheim sought to articulate a constructive and theologically meaningful Jewish reaction to the Holocaust. The symposium took place during the lead up to the Six Day War, a time of grave fear among global Jewry that the fledgling Jewish state was on the verge of experiencing its own Holocaust-like mass slaughter at the hands of the Soviet-supplied allied Arab armies advancing towards its borders. With this backdrop, just twenty-two years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Fackenheim delivered his most often cited concept, that the experience of Auschwitz confers an additional commandment on top of the standard 613 mitzvot of the Torah, which can be summed up in the following excerpt: “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. They are commanded to survive as Jews lest the Jewish people perish.”

In its context, this was a statement of courageous defiance against those who seek to destroy the Jewish people. Following millennia of powerlessness culminating in the Holocaust, and on the brink of a possible war of Jewish annihilation in the Middle East, Fackenheim’s 614th commandment sought to give Jews agency in each doing their part to preserve the Jewish people as a civilizational imperative. The problem, even then, was that by connecting the agency of individual Jews with not continuing the work of the Holocaust by “handing Hitler posthumous victories,” Fackenheim opened the door to conflating two very different kinds of threats to collective Jewish wellbeing, with differing characteristics and a diverse array of potentially effective communal interventions. In channeling thinking about assimilation as a Holocaust by other means, one elides obvious differences that can lead, among other unfortunate consequences, to causing offense to fellow Jews, to a lack of appreciation for the freedoms Jews enjoy in modern liberal societies, and to ill-considered or ineffectual communal policy frameworks.

The villains in the actual Holocaust were Hitler, his Nazi followers, and their enablers in conquered lands. Who are the villains of the “silent Holocaust” of assimilation? Are they the same as the purported victims who are assimilating by their own free choice, or by generational distancing from Jewish experiences? Are they the free societies in which assimilation without prejudice is possible to an extent that conversion in previous eras never fully conferred? Is the United States somehow more villainous than Medieval Spain precisely in its unconditional welcoming? Or is it the very institutions concerned about Jewish attrition – synagogues, schools, Federations – that are to blame for failing to make a sufficiently compelling claim on the imaginations of unaffiliated or decreasingly affiliated Jews? Each of these plausible answers is flawed because the question does not apply; because, indeed, the Holocaust analogy is inapt. Stemming the tide of assimilation is not about survival in the way that avoiding extermination is about survival; the threat is fundamentally different, meaning that the way we discuss it and the tools we devise to address it must be fundamentally different as well.

Yet, the central obsession of the American Jewish establishment for decades seems to have been forged in the flames of Auschwitz, as compellingly articulated by Fackenheim. We “are commanded to survive as Jews lest the Jewish people perish”. We must survive – specifically “as Jews,” with a distinctive Jewish identity. We must continue; we must not let the “Jewish people perish.” And here we have the bedrock organizing principles and rallying cries of the American Jewish agenda as far back as anyone can remember: Survival, Continuity, Identity, Peoplehood. All cast in the shadows of the crematoria, fearfully focused on avoiding a “silent Holocaust” of assimilation, seeking to negate the unthinkable negative of Jewish disappearance. This is not to say that there are no exceptions to this approach, or that there haven’t been successful and meaningful programmatic initiatives addressing various aspects of Jewish life even within the dominant paradigm. Of course there have. But the predominant conceptual context in which new initiatives emerge, are shaped and implemented has largely remained an artifact of vestigial fears, which has not allowed even the most successful programs to flourish to their full potential.

The Holocaust is simply the wrong metaphor for most of the challenges and opportunities facing the Jewish community today. To the extent that anti-Semitism remains, and is even on the rise, we will always need to concern ourselves with our physical survival, security and rights. Talk of “survival” should be limited to this sphere of concern. But when it comes to what we hope to “continue” as Jews, what constitutes Jewish “identity,” and what it means to be a “people” of increasingly diverse and divergent beliefs, practices and core values, we need to move away from thinking about these in terms of survival and such vacuous terms as “continuity” and “identity” that grew out of a survivalist consciousness. We need instead more appropriate concepts to support the development of a robust communal agenda for the 21st century. I plan to explore such a taxonomy of Jewish communal and philanthropic priorities in an upcoming article.

Dave Matkowsky is a Jewish communal professional and consultant who brings a strategic, analytical and creative approach to every organization and project. Previous roles have included UJA-Federation of New York, 92nd Street Y, The Shmitah Fund and JCC Chicago.