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Divergent Lessons of the Holocaust Widen the Gap Between Israel and American Jews

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A man touches a gravestone commemorating the Jewish villages and towns whose communities were wiped out by the Nazis, inside "The Chamber of the Holocaust", a little-known memorial site for Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust, in Jerusalem's Mount Zion, January 23, 2019.
A man touches a gravestone ommemorating the Jewish villages and towns whose communities were wiped out by the Nazis inside the 'Chamber of the Holocaust' memorial in Jerusalem, January 23, 2019.Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Historians tend to divide the differing approaches to the Holocaust into two main categories. The particularistic view sees the destruction of European Jewry as a singular historical event, the main lesson from which is the need to maintain a strong Israel that will defend Jews at any cost and in any way possible. The universalistic view regards the Holocaust as the most extreme outgrowth of racism and hate, and its lessons as applicable to the world as a whole. Particularists emphasize the victims of the crime; the universalists its perpetrators, including those who failed to raise their voices in protest.

Israel embraced the particularistic view of the Holocaust from the outset. Under the guidance of successive right-wing governments, from Menachem Begin to Benjamin Netanyahu, it entrenched itself in the Jewish-centered approach. Although survivors' testimonies during the Eichmann trial sparked a dramatic change in attitudes towards them, hitherto viewed as remnants of Jews who went to their destruction like “sheep to the slaughter,” the focus on the Holocaust’s nationalist and Zionist legacy remained intact. The universalistic approach, condemned as “dangerous” by President Reuven Rivlin two years ago in a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech, has virtually disappeared from Israeli public discourse.

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Things developed differently for American Jews, especially during the years preceding the Six Day War. While Israel fretted over being trapped in a Middle Eastern ghetto, surrounded by enemies seeking to finish the job started by the Nazis, America was swept by the storms of the struggle for equal rights. Jewish soldiers returning from the war with seared memories of genocide and concentration camps, along with younger Jews appalled at what they perceived as their parents’ silence, viewed the racial segregation in the South and the discrimination against blacks in the North as analogous with Nazi policies towards Jews in the 1930s. Many of them volunteered to serve as the vanguard of the civil rights movement. They identified with it – and were thus identified by others.

The anxious days before the 1967 war evoked fears in both Israel and the U.S. of a new Holocaust; the Israeli army’s quick and decisive victory was viewed as the Jews’ miraculous response, if not retribution. The phrase “never again,” first promoted by New York Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, was adopted by the American Jewish community as a whole, in both its particularistic and universalistic connotations. American Jews embraced Israel and became its strategic ally, but the legacy of their fight alongside African-Americans, despite their mutual falling out, remained seared in their collective consciousness, along with their primal fear of governments that nurture racism and foment hatred against minorities.

File photo: Two girls draped in Israeli flags sit in front of a barbed wire fence in the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in , Poland, May 5, 2016. Credit: Alik Keplicz / AP

The era of Donald Trump has accentuated the gaps in the two differing approaches and brought them to center stage. In Israel, the Jewish majority has grown increasingly suspicious – and, some say in the wake of the nation-state law, increasingly tormenting as well – toward minorities, while American Jews suddenly see themselves as a minority threatened by the white majority that elected Trump. Israeli Jews view Trump as their friend in need and indeed, while their Jewish cousins in the U.S. see the president as an inciter, dangerous to America in general and to their own well-being in particular.

Israelis view the recent attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego as aberrations that draw attention away from the main threat of radical Islam; Jews were slaughtered in their houses of worship, according to the prevailing view, for no other reason than being Jews. Most American Jews believe that Trump released the white supremacist genie from its bottle, including hatred for the Jews’ universalistic Weltanschauung and an urge to exact historical revenge for their solidarity with blacks.

The particularistic part of their worldview means that only a few extremists on the fringes of American Jewry dare associate the Trump administration – or the Netanyahu government – with the Nazi regime. The adherents to the universalistic approach, on the other hand, hold both to deserving targets of protest and resistance, before it’s too late. Eighty years after the start of the war that facilitated the Holocaust, it now seems, its divergent lessons is one of the main building blocks of the wall that increasingly separates its survivors.

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