Should the Holocaust Be a Spur to Activism?

“For me the Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy, but also a human tragedy. After the war, when I saw that the Jews were talking only about the tragedy of six million Jews, I sent letters to Jewish organizations asking them to also talk about the millions of others who were persecuted together with us – many of them only because they helped Jews” – Simon Wiesenthal (1)

Every year around Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, my Orthodox synagogue had a memorial commemoration. It was a well-planned event, featuring a talk by a Holocaust scholar or survivor, appropriate songs by local yeshiva choirs, and the lighting of candles by descendants of Holocaust victims or survivors. Similar events are held at many other synagogues, Jewish community centers, and other communal venues on or around that day. This is very appropriate, since it is essential that the horrors of the Holocaust never be forgotten and that younger generations be educated about why and how this cataclysm happened.

But there is seldom an attempt to use the Holocaust as a spur to action against other injustices. Of course, there should not be any attempt to equate events, but there should be recognition that some of the mindsets behind the Holocaust are still causing much harm to people, and it is important not to repeat the apathy that was so prevalent during the Holocaust.

In his book The Dignity of Difference, Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, argues that there can only be reconciliation and an end of war and violence through forgiveness. But his awareness of Jewish history involving centuries of exiles and expulsions, pogroms, and persecutions – starting with the first crusade and culminating with the murder of two-thirds of European Jews during the Holocaust – makes him wonder how he can let go of the pain that is written into his very soul.

“And yet I must. For the sake of my children and theirs, not yet born. I cannot build the future on the hatreds of the past, nor can I teach them to love God more by loving people less.… The duty I owe my ancestors who died because of their faith is to build a world in which people no longer die because of their faith. I honour the past not by repeating it but by learning from it – by refusing to add pain to pain, grief to grief. That is why we must answer hatred with love, violence with peace, resentment with generosity of spirit and conflict with reconciliation. (2)

What a sharp contrast with the attitude of so many people who generally think in terms of revenge, and often revert to hateful attitudes and violent reactions in response to actual or perceived harms. Instead of learning universal lessons from the Holocaust and making sure that all injustices are actively responded to, many Jews have adopted the view that the whole world is against us, or, at best, does not care about us. Therefore, they believe they need only be concerned about their own welfare and that of other Jews, while ignoring problems that do not specifically affect Jews.

The Holocaust was an unprecedented catastrophe in which six million Jews were slaughtered simply because of their ethnic identity, and at least five million others were also killed because of who they were. It is important that there be annual commemorations of the Holocaust and that people continue visiting Holocaust museums, so that the unspeakable horrors are not forgotten. It is also important to avoid simplistic comparisons with the Holocaust, lest its meaning be diluted and the suffering of those who perished or were tortured in the Holocaust be minimized.

However, we should not try to build a wall around the Holocaust, and turn it into a sacred shrine that is isolated from the rest of history and the rest of the world. We should not use the Holocaust to silence thought about how the mentalities and methods analogous to those that produced the Holocaust continue to promote other injustices and atrocities. We should not let the Holocaust and our respect for the memory of its victims and survivors inhibit us from confronting the issue of how the Holocaust came about, especially since the attitudes that led to it are still prevalent in the world today. We should not keep the lessons of the Holocaust in a narrow straitjacket in the name of remembering the victims.  I believe that the best way to honor the memories of Holocaust victims is to work against the ideologies and techniques that helped produce it and still continue, although to a lesser degree, to inflict tremendous damage on people, animals, and the entire planet. We honor the lives and deaths of Holocaust victims by working to combat all injustice and oppression. We owe it to them to make the world a better place.

The greatest tribute we can give to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust is to confront the fascist, might-makes-right mentality that produced the Holocaust, wherever such attitudes and behavior appear, so that nothing remotely like the Holocaust ever happens again to Jews or to anybody else. Doing this will be a kiddush HaShem (a sanctification of God’s name) that will greatly benefit the world. We should learn from the Holocaust and be impelled by it to work for a more just, non-violent world. Apathy to current oppressions of people and animals does not honor the memory of Holocaust victims. Letting the Holocaust be a spur to action to try to make positive changes is a much better way to honor the martyrs of the Holocaust.

And, of course, the Holocaust should not be used to justify acts of oppression against others, or to keep Jews from responding swiftly and effectively to the oppression of others. If we look at modern studies about the cycles of bullying and abuse, the sad fact is that the abused often grow up to become abusers unless there is conscious intervention to break the cycle.

While it is true that the Holocaust was an unprecedented catastrophe, it is also true that there have been other genocides in recent years, such as the calculated mass murder of two million Cambodians in the 1970s, the “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and the Balkans in the 1990s, the murder of over 800,000 Tutsi tribes-people by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, and the killings recently taking place in Darfur. The world sees these events as reminiscent to the Holocaust because they are genocides, even though the numbers of dead are not as great and the victims are not Jews. As Jews, we are obligated not to stand idly by and let these murders unfold. We should be among the first to protest and get involved in efforts to stop them. We should not feel that the suffering during the Holocaust was so great that any current suffering is minor by comparison, and therefore we do not need to be concerned about it.

We should not feel that because the world was silent when Jews were being massacred, we have a legitimate excuse for inaction today. We should instead make sure that the stirring motto “Never again!” is applied not only to Jews, but to all people everywhere.

Looking at the Holocaust as an impetus to activism can help revitalize Judaism by showing how Jewish eternal values can be addressed to current threats to humanity, such as hunger, environmental degradation, racial profiling and other prejudices, terrorism, war, and genocide.

Elie Wiesel had pointed out that there can be no analogies to the Holocaust, but that it can be used as a reference point. In that context, we can consider the millions of people, many of whom are infants, who die each year due to malnutrition. Of course, victims of hunger are not singled out because of their religion, race, or nationality, but, like Holocaust victims, they die while the world goes about its business, grumbling about personal inconveniences, indifferent to the plight of the starving people.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, himself a refugee from Europe just before the Holocaust, applied this reasoning to the Civil Rights Movement. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King to help end segregation in the United States. He saw the parallels between making Jews wear a “badge of shame” (Star of David identifying them as Jews) and singling out African Americans because of their skin color.

The Mishna teaches that if one saves a single human life, it is as if one has saved the entire world (Sanhedrin 4:5) What then if one fails to save a single life? Or fails to help save millions of lives? Although Elie Wiesel argued that the Holocaust cannot be compared to any other event, he did believe in caring about and being involved in working to end other genocides, oppressions, and other tragedies.

In deciding if we should help others who are being oppressed or slaughtered, we should consider the famous statement by Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the inactivity of Germans after the Nazis rose to power and purged one group after another.

“They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Social Democrats, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Social Democrat. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” (3)

An excellent example of using the Holocaust as a spur to action is the life of Alex Hershaft, PhD. He visited Israel from May 2 to May 13 in 2015 to explain how his experience in the Warsaw Ghetto was a major factor in his becoming a leading animal rights activist. With the theme, “From surviving the Warsaw Ghetto to co-founding the U.S. animal rights movement,” he gave several talks and met with Israeli Jewish and Arab animal rights activists.

In his lectures, Hershaft discussed how dealing with the trauma and grief over the loss of his family during the Holocaust shaped his values and outlook on life, and increased his sense of compassion. When his life was no longer in danger, he felt guilty that he survived when so many others had perished. He felt that in response to his miraculous survival, he should devote himself to repaying a debt to society by devoting his life to helping the helpless, and to working to reduce the oppression in the world. After visiting a slaughterhouse where he saw piles of hooves, hearts, livers, and skulls that he felt bore silent witness to evil, he became a vegetarian (and later a vegan). He felt that the challenging mandate, ‘never again,’ should apply to us not oppressing others as well as us not being oppressed.

With a PhD in chemistry, Hershaft could have had a career that would have provided him with a comfortable life. But he gave that up to devote his life to ending the mistreatment of farmed animals. He founded the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM), which later became the Farm Animal Rights Movement. The group has many activities, including an annual animal rights national conference that now attracts almost 1,500 attendees to hear leading animal rights activists, and to visit booths that provide much information about other animal rights and vegan groups as well as information about the latest vegan products, books, and videos. Since their beginning in 1976, and official formation in 1981, FARM has launched a variety of grassroots campaigns in pursuit of their mission: World Day for Farmed Animals, Great American Meatout, Gentle Thanksgiving, 10 Billion Lives Tour, Letters from FARM, Sabina Fund, Meatout Mondays, and Live Vegan. I am proud to have been a member of the Board of this wonderful organisation for several years before moving to Israel.

In an interview with the Israeli publication Ynet magazine during his visit, (4) 81 year-old Hershaft stated: “As a Holocaust survivor, I have found a way to repay my debt to the world. There’s a reason why I survived. The way (to pay my debt) is to fight for the animals.

“The Jewish Holocaust was a unique event in history – a unique event for the Jewish people and for me personally. Apart from the Holocaust, there’s never been another act of systematic and industrial inhumanity on the part of one nation towards another. The holocaust of the animals is also unique and systematic – yet it continues unabated. Hundreds of millions of animals are brutally slaughtered around the world every day.

“The best way to honor the Holocaust is to learn from it and to fight all forms of oppression. We may have been victorious in World War II, but the struggle against oppression and injustice is far from over. For me, the Holocaust isn’t a tool in the struggle, but an experience that shaped my personality and my values, made me who I am today, and drove me to fight all forms of oppression, including the oppression of the weakest creatures, the animals.

“It’s important for us to think about the oppression that exists everywhere, to emphasize the silent cooperation of the masses. The Holocaust, too, would not have taken place without the silent consent, the lack of opposition, the disregard of the nations of the world that simply stood by and allowed it to happen.

“And the same goes for eating meat and other animal products. We support it without seeing the abuse with our own eyes. The masses that stand on the sidelines and remain silent facilitate this abuse and oppression. The emphasis shouldn’t be on the victims, but on us. We have to ensure that we never repeat the horrors that the Nazis perpetrated against us.

The following statement by Rabbi Philip Bentley, former Chair and now Honorary President of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, in his essay “Fixing the World” from the book Roots of Jewish Nonviolence, is a good summary of the arguments in this chapter:

“There are two ways to respond to the lessons taught [to] us by the Holocaust. We can say, “No one is our true ally, therefore we must concern ourselves only with ourselves.” Or we can say “The Nazis were able to demonize the Jews and then murder millions of us because we were unable to bring others to our cause. We must therefore fight every kind of bigotry and tyranny from the outset, lest we also become victims.” A national trauma like the Holocaust brings out the best and the worst in people. The hard lesson of the Holocaust is that we must be quick to respond to every threat to ourselves, but also to every kind of racism and bigotry, no matter who its victims are.”The world is threatened today as perhaps never before. The potential catastrophes threaten not only Jews, but all of humanity as well. Therefore, it is essential that the Holocaust not be used as a reason to avoid involvement, but just the opposite – as a spur to consistent activism, to create a more just, humane, peaceful, and environmentally sustainable world.

  2. Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London/New York: Continuum, revised edition 2003), 190.
  4. Moshe Ronen, “Holocaust survivor in defense of the animals,” Ynet magazine, May 10, 2015.

This is chapter 4 of the 2nd edition of my recently published book, “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalising Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.”

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