Ask the Expert: Relating to the Holocaust

How can I impress the importance of the Holocaust on a non-Jew?

Question: What can I say to a non-Jew when asked “How does the Holocaust relate to me today?”
–Robertson, Texas

expertAnswer: That’s a tough question, Robertson.  Thanks for bringing it to the Expert. But before getting to my answer, I’d like to address one aspect of the question itself.

I happen to think the Holocaust can and does relate to our lives, but its importance is not dependant on this being so. The Holocaust is meaningful and important for thousands of reasons, not least the millions of lives that were savagely ended by the Nazis. Whether or not it relates to the person who approached you is somewhat beside the point when considering its place in the history of humanity. So I guess the first response I would suggest is asking the person who approached you to examine why he feels it needs to relate to him.

Perhaps the question that person was trying to ask you was really why he or she should still spend so much time and energy studying and thinking about the Holocaust today.

To help answer that question I spoke with Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. (The Museum of Tolerance, by the way, is a great resource for answering questions about relatability. Their mission is to challenge visitors to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts and confront all forms of prejudice and discrimination in the world today.) Mr. Breitbart gave me three big reasons that he thinks Holocaust education is important.

First, he said, we must study and think about the Holocaust, “Because the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learned. That is evidenced by the gross human rights violations that have taken place in the world since. Some of them are still ongoing, like in Darfur.” For a long time Jews have responded to the Holocaust by saying “Never again,” but the sad truth is that we have not succeeded in eliminating genocide from the world. Until the human race is able to transcend racism, bigotry, and hatred, we really won’t have moved ourselves much beyond the horrors of the Holocaust.

Second, Mr. Breitbart reminded me that there are lots of people who deny the Holocaust. There are obviously serious moral and ethical problems with such behavior, but beyond that, there’s a risk that if these people are taken seriously then similar events can recur without people realizing that they’re repeating the mistakes and even atrocities of the past. This may seem implausible, but so does the Holocaust, with its immense historic and political scope. Mr. Breitbart said, “By studying the Holocaust we realize that it can happen because it did happen in modern times in one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries.”

Finally, understanding the legacy of the Holocaust is a key to understanding much of what is going on in the Middle East today. The conflict between Israelis and Arabs is deeply rooted in the Holocaust, and the fear of extermination that many Jews, and especially Israelis, feel is what fuels Israel’s obsession with security and strength. This fear of annihilation is both implicit and explicit in Israeli politics. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September of last year he held up documentary evidence of the Holocaust, and linked Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust to the concerns Israel has about Iran’s nuclear capabilities. You cannot fully understand what’s going on in the Middle East without understanding how the events of the Holocaust inform the actions of the Israeli government.

I don’t think you (or anyone) needs to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how the Holocaust relates to you. But exploring the many ways it’s relevant today is a meaningful and worthwhile pursuit.

Good luck.

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