By Alexander Volfson
I wasn’t sure visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, would leave an impression on me; after all, I had heard it all before. Not only that I had absorbed the notion that all of humanity’s reckless violent ways were behind us. Genocide, alas, is so common that it has its own major in college, which, unfortunately, does not fall under archaeology. Remarkably, this practice continues to this day.
The typical story arc of the Holocaust goes like this: those awful Germans wanted to murder all the Jews and almost got away with it. That’s why it’s so important that Israel be the Jewish homeland. Truth is, that’s not how it happened. Our Yad Vashem tour guide emphasized two central principles that shaped post-Great-War Germany. The first was “it was a process.” From ideas to curfews to ghettos and pogroms to work camps to death camps, these activities started small but gradually intensified. The second was “groupthink” or peer-pressure, as I like to call it. This also intensified over time where, at first, one might simply be given a funny look for non-conformity; quickly, the consequence was being sent to the same work camps as the other “undesirables.”
What struck me was that both of these principles are surprisingly universal. Society’s norms tend to have inertia and thus, it takes time for them to change (i.e. it’s a process). Similarly, conformity (the result of peer-pressure) is a feature, sometimes more prevalent than others, but one which nonetheless appears consistently across societies throughout time. In light of this, the images around me began to take on a different meaning. Where once the people behind the barbed wire were innocent and those in front of it evil it became clear that the Germans were not born to be cruel just as much as the Jews, Gypsies and handicap were not born to be victims. Contrary to Nazi doctrine it was not genetics that determined the outcome but circumstance and societal forces that steered the paths of oppressed and oppressor. Where innocent Germans once stood, in hindsight they look pretty guilty. Not all of them, and certainly not equally, but the responsibility lies across societal echelons. Atrocities do not commit themselves.
Where the Holocaust is used to justify a Jewish state where Jews can be safe, the lesson I got was that what Jews (and frankly all ethnicities) need is a country where simply every ethnicity is safe. If we, today, can see the pure humanity of the people that stood in the Warshaw ghetto and ask ourselves, “Why didn’t they just let them live like everyone else?” then we must ask the same question of today’s ghettos. We may have no relationship to them, and yet, the way to treat them is clear: just the same as all other humans.
The quote that titles this essay does not refer to murdering Jews and comes from neither a 1939 German nor a 1945 German. It comes from my relative and was made, with a shrug, in reference to the inhabitants of Gaza. Euphemistically known as “mowing the lawn”, let’s just call it what it is: genocide. This teshuva, let us take a good look in the mirror. How are we supporting genocide? More importantly, how will we stop it?
Can an honest resident of the USA look in the mirror and not find genocide? Not find ecocide? Not find harm to future generations by how we treat each other and the Earth that nourishes us all?
I think it’s worth reflecting on.
Alexander Volfson, a humanist and Earth-ist, loves finding ways to bring folks together to work toward sustainable lifestyles. Alexander is a co-founder of Transition Framingham. When he’s not fixing things (from appliances to bicycles to computers) or planting them (for a permaculture designed garden), he’s biking somewhere or learning something new.