There’s not a whole lot that’s special about us Jews. Yes, we do celebrate Easter by drinking the blood of a Christian baby, preferably one still wet from the baptismal fount. But other than that we’re pretty much like everyone else. As Shylock asked rhetorically, “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
What’s a little bit different about us, however, is that most of us have far fewer relatives than most of our Gentile friends and acquaintances. And this oddity has provoked some of us, myself included, to wonder why. It’s not that I miss the relatives I don’t have, or just wish I had more. Given the relatives I do have the ones I don’t would probably be very much like them, which I realize doesn’t say much, except that, well … Nor do I feel sad on their behalf for their not being, since not being they can hardly feel anything at all, let alone sad about it.
Still, there’s something that niggles. Other than had they otherwise been destined to be childless from either infertility or choice, for every person who isn’t there’s a whole string of people who won’t be as well. What of it? But there’s something different about the whole string of people who won’t be notwithstanding there was someone who was. I suppose this is why we feel sorry for people who want but can’t have children, or disapprove, if only mildly, of people who choose not to. And so – no, I won’t say what’s special, so I’ll just say – what’s different about the string of people who aren’t but would have been my relatives if they were, is that they aren’t notwithstanding there were people who were, and so would have been their ancestors and mine, were it not for …
Well now, that’s the wondrous part. They were, but then of a sudden they weren’t. Of a sudden, not in the trivial sense that everyone who’s ever been or ever will be has gone or will go from being to not being, pretty much of a sudden. Rather of a sudden in the sense that the lion’s share of the ancestors of the relatives most of us Jews don’t have, all ceased to be within an unnaturally short period of time, namely from September of 1939 to April of 1945.
The Hebrew word for this mass ceasing to be within an unnaturally short period of time is ‘shoah’, which roughly translates to disaster or catastrophe. And the word for the particular shoah that happened during those five and half years is the same word but capitalized.
I’ve already confessed that their having ceased to be within this unnaturally short period of time is not much of a catastrophe for me. After all, I managed to squeak through. And I can’t see why I should be a whole lot different from any other Jew of my generation. So the capital-S Shoah must refer to its having been a catastrophe for those who ceased to be during those years, and for those who knew and loved them. And since – give it another decade or so – all of those people will be dead, any disastrousness will shortly be entirely over. That it was a disaster will perdure, but that it is one will not.
But surely this can’t be right. Surely as a Jew I have as much right to appropriate to myself the disastrousness of the Shoah as did any of those handful of orphaned children who walked out of those camps.
Or do I? Let’s see.
I say “as a Jew” for two reasons. First, no one has an automatic right to grieve. It has to be, if not earned, then at least inherited. So no, a Gentile is not entitled to share in our grief. This is why most Jews are not comforted by gestures of solidarity over the Shoah, and only pretend to be so as not to offend their well-meaning Gentile friends.
I realize this is a bit off-putting. “Why can’t I feel your pain?” you might ask. For the same reason I can’t feel yours. You need it said more philosophically? Okay then, pain is theory-laden. The difference between a muscle spasm and an orgasm is in the head. It’s in what it means to you. You’ve lost a child. So have I. Do you really want to say what you’re feeling and what I’m feeling are indistinguishable?
And second, though there’s no Gentile who hasn’t suffered some shoah of her own – be it a tsunami, a car crash, a plane crash followed by the collapse of a building – these people didn’t die because they were Gentiles.
In fact there’s a sense in which, even if a sick one, because the Shoah was racial it wasn’t personal. That’s no consolation, of course. For any one of us his death is his death, and we all die alone.
Of course in that sense neither was 9/11 personal. But it wasn’t collective either. That is, they weren’t sought out as Gentiles. They were people who both just happened to be Gentiles – or at least most of them were – and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their dying, as distinct from three thousand other people dying in an office tower in LA rather than New York, has no more significance than the three thousand people who died on American highways the weekend before 9/11 and the three thousand who’ve died on its highways every weekend since. And the fact that it was done deliberately rather than accidentally makes it no more significant than the number who die every week in gun violence in America. So no, those kinds of shoahs are one thing, the Shoah was something else.
Why? Because of the numbers? In part yes. Since we emerged from the cave, if not before, people have been slaughtered because of their race, or their religion, or their whatever, by the dozens, the hundreds, the thousands … I don’t know. How many Amalekites were there when God told the Israelites to leave not so much as an anencephalic alive? Met any Amalekites lately? Well now you know why. And if the Final Solution had proven truly final, and the entire history of the Jews expunged as was the history of the Amalekites – tried any Amalekite recipes lately? – in a couple hundred years we’d shrug off the Shoah with the alacrity with which we shrug off the ethnic cleansing of Canaan. “Oh well,” we’d say, “nature red in tooth and claw. So, moving on …”
So the numbers yes, in the sense that we don’t place the Maori extermination of the Moriori anywhere near the category of the Shoah. But also, I suspect, it matters that, unlike the former, the latter was unfinished business. The Sephardic population was left pretty much intact. We Ashkenazis were cut to about a third, so combined our numbers were pretty close to halved, from about 13 million in ’39 to about 7 in ’45. And since ’45 we’ve almost, but not quite, kept up with the rest of the world, current estimates running somewhere between 16 and 18, depending on who counts and who’s doing the counting.
And so that, unlike the Amalekites, we weren’t wiped out – though certainly until Stalingrad it looked like we’d soon be on the endangered species list – is important in two ways. First, that we’re here to play our Jew cards, and second that, well, let’s face it, we’ve got great PR! So, it would seem, for a genocide to claim the status of anything approaching the Shoah, it needs numbers, check, incompleteness, check, and probably – but maybe now I’m reaching – at least a modicum of systematicity.
By which I don’t mean that it has to be done efficiently. By most accounts neither the Armenian nor the Rwandan genocides were. In fact that lack of efficiency has been used by both the Turks and the Hutu to show that the violence, such as it was, was entirely spontaneous, and only appeared systematic and so government-sponsored, from the outside. And at that only because of the unusually high body count.
In fact the same argument is used by Holocaust [sic] deniers. Yes, they concede, conditions in the camps were less than ideal, and became especially desperate towards the end of the war. And had there been gas chambers, that would be a sure sign of the intention to exterminate rather than intern and harness these internees for the war effort. But there weren’t, and so there wasn’t. And they have the forensics to prove it!
But I’m not sure that the significance of systematicity ends with the establishment of intention. I suspect we focus on it because it betokens a kind of Nietzschean transcendence of morality that runs a shiver up our spines. Hannah Arendt saw it as a rendering ho-hum the whole genocidal enterprise, in her words “the banality of evil”.
But whether rightly or not, we sense that the same cannot be said of the Turks or the Hutu. There’s probably no small measure of racism in this judgment. These people, we tell ourselves, are in (what John Stuart Mill called) their nonage. Their passions of the moment overtake them. Whereas not so the Germans. They’re white. White violence, though certainly violent, seems less passionate, and hence all the more frightening, precisely because it’s measured, under strict rational control.
I’m not the first to try, however fumblingly, to capture what makes the Shoah unique, or at least what makes us think it is. Nor will I be the last. But very soon now – I give it another fifty years tops – I would be the last, because this navel-gazing will be lost on high school history students a couple generations hence. In fact it’s already beginning to fade.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. This idea of Santayana’s that “those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it,” stirring pith though it be, is just patter. As the treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza clearly demonstrates, the lesson learned from the Warsaw Ghetto was not “Never again!”, but rather “Never again us!”
But in saying that the ethos of the Shoah will gradually fade, I’m clearly adding yet a fourth consideratum, namely that the Shoah stands out because it’s still relatively recent.
But so is Rwanda.
Yes, but Rwandans are black.
So as I say, if what makes the Shoah special was that it was genocide, then it really wasn’t. It wasn’t special, that is, not that it wasn’t genocide. It was genocide, but that didn’t make it special. The Armenians can file a similar grievance, as can the Tutsi. For that matter, so can the Hutu. The reason why we don’t make much of the Hutu genocide as such is because we think they had it coming. But of course some think the same about the Jews. And I know of at least nineteen young men who thought the same about 9/11.
So sympathy turns out to be more than a little partisan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fair game, but Auschwitz and Treblinka were not. If the Manhattan Project had succeeded a few months earlier than it did, would Berlin have been fair game? Or would Germans have been given a pass because they’re white? If the Israelis don’t stop treating Gaza the way the Nazis treated the Warsaw Ghetto, would a second Shoah – supposing, however implausible, the Palestinians had the wherewithal – inherit the injustice of the first? Or would it have to be assessed on its own merits?
But back to my right to play my Jew card, which, to my credit, I do only very sparingly. What’s at issue, I suspect, is this business of collective inherited entitlement, and its inverse, collective inherited liability.
Philosophers of law warn that this way there be dragons, because our intuitions are all over the map on this. On the one hand, why should I be liable for acts of malfeasance committed before I was born? On the other, how else could a treaty between two peoples ever end a war?
On the one hand, one’s Confirmation is needed to confirm what was done in her name by others. On the other, in the absence of our foundation myth – according to which Abraham made covenant with God on behalf of his seed – we wouldn’t be Jews.
So we want to be able to claim some entitlements for ourselves – the summer cottage, the Land of Israel – and at the same time deny others – aboriginal land claims, that the invasion of Iraq, a.k.a. the Tigris-Euphrates valley, was really just a homecoming.
We want to be able to impose some liabilities on others – war reparations, Christian guilt over the Shoah – and yet shirk those that others would impose on us – compensation for the internment of Japanese-Canadians, or for the failure to provide proper consular services to Maher Arar and Omar Khadr.
What masquerades as principle, in these cases, is really just expense. We’re not going to just get on our boats and go back to wherever our ancestors came from, so we tell ourselves that the cannons trained on those Blackfoot villages couldn’t have had anything to do with the signing of Treaty 7. Ultimately Arar, and then more recently Khadr, did get a payout, but it was much less than what it would have cost Canada diplomatically, and therefore economically, to have protected them from American malfeasance back when that malfeasance took place. So yes, justice is a bean counter. Entitlements and liabilities are always just a function of cost. And the same holds for entitlements and liabilities claimed and imposed past the lifetimes of the original actors.
But all this establishes is that I could claim the Shoah as my personal tragedy, not that that claim should be honored. I play my Jew card and you might answer with, “Sorry, that came out of your sleeve, not the deck.”
And it’s here, I suspect, that we’ve hit pulp. Whether I can play my Jew card is just a matter of whether you’ll let me. And you might let me even if I’m not Jewish. After all, what are you going to do? Ask to see my circumcision? I know someone who regularly plays his I’ve-had-a-child-die card. What am I going to do? Ask for the death certificate? So since I can play either card to the same effect whether real or counterfeit, it’s really just a question of your giving or declining to give uptake to its domain-specific trump. If you’re a Palestinian I’m guessing you won’t. And not because you’re a Shoah-denier or because for you, because Moslems also circumcise, my circumcision doesn’t establish my Jewishness.
A card laid is a card played. Fair enough. I’ve lost a child too, a daughter as it happens, though that’s a card I’ve never played nor ever will. But an ace is high in only some games. It would be churlish for you to call me on my child-of-the-Shoah card, just as it would be churlish of me to call you on your I’ve-had-a-child-die card. So to trump in whatever games they’re being played, both cards, it seems, must be accompanied by the don’t-be-churlish card, which can only be trumped in turn by the don’t-play-your-don’t-be-churlish-card card. And so on.
This is the problem with identity politics. Identities are cards. Cards are constituents of games. We pick the card we think will be treated as trump. When it’s not we feel cheated. I probably have as many alleles in common with Nelson Mandela as I do with Moses. But you’re not allowed to point this out. Those drummers performing down in the Atrium for Native Awareness Week have no more awareness of what they’re drumming than I do. But I’m not allowed to say that either.
So the bottom line seems to be this. The Law of the Return [sic] covers me, notwithstanding it’s possible, indeed quite likely, that not a single ancestor of mine has ever laid foot on Palestinian soil. But it doesn’t cover my Palestinian neighbor whose birth certificate proves he was born there. Why? Because a) I self-identify with the fiction that some ancestor of mine had laid foot on Palestinian soil, and did so as an Israelite, and because b) those administering the Law of the Return have accepted that identification. And because my neighbor, notwithstanding he was born there, in the judgment of these administrators, he was born there as a Palestinian rather than an Israelite.
And what this shows is that self-identification is neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition of identity. Plenty are the Gentiles who were gassed having had no idea they were Jewish. In a very real sense, then – and for many if not most intents and purposes – you’re Jewish just in case other people regard you as Jewish. And this raises the question of whether it makes sense to ask whether they could be mistaken. If self-identification is analytic and so infallible, why should other-identification be any different? And this just leads to what logicians call ‘detonation’. That’s where absurdities multiply exponentially ad infinitum.
We can prevent these absurdities by doing away with identity politics altogether. No borders, no citizenship, no treaties, neither collective entitlements nor collective liabilities … But we can’t function without these. So we’re stuck.
We can’t prevent detonation, but unlike with logic, we can limit it. We limit it by saying, Yes, such and such is a logical implication of how we’ve identified who’s entitled to what, but that particular implication is unacceptable to us, and so we’ve just decided not to recognize it.
That might not get us a pass on a logic test, but we’re not trying to pass a test, we’re trying to pass muster. Political identity, not unlike the status of the fetus, is just one of those things that can’t be jammed into one our either-it’s-a-this-or-it’s-a-that categories, and when we try to force it we just get jam on our hands. No, Virginia, the fetus is neither a person nor someone’s property. It’s a possible someone’s premains. No, Virginia, Jews aren’t a race or a religion or an ethnicity. They’re a collection of damned-if-I-know’s. There are plenty of other damned-if-I-know’s in the world. Learning to live with them is sometimes a bitch. We’re very sorry about that.