Michael Berenbaum Q&A: ‘I thought we would have done better’


On March 16, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C., will honor Michael Berenbaum with the museum’s National Leadership Award at a dinner in Los Angeles themed “What You Do Matters.”  Berenbaum, currently director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University (AJU) and a frequent contributor to the Journal, oversaw the creation of the USHMM from 1988 to 1993, serving as its project director and as director of the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute. In advance of the honor, Berenbaum reflected upon his own work as well as his challenges in continuing the fight against anti-Semitism in the world today.

Jewish Journal: You’re being honored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at a time when talk of anti-Semitism seems more heated than ever. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress sounded the alarm, as if the next Holocaust is around the corner. Do you feel that kind of talk is warranted?

Michael Berenbaum: About a dozen years ago, I convened a conference at the AJU and published its proceedings in a book titled “Not Your Father’s Antisemitism” because I was disturbed by all the ill-informed talk of 2003 being 1933, 1939 or even 1942. I feel that those who refight the last battle lose sight of the current battle and do not understand our contemporary situation.

To say it is not 1933 or 1939 is not to say that the situation is not serious, concerning or disturbing; it is merely to reiterate the obvious — we are different, and the world is different.

How are we different? There is a dramatic imbalance between the way Jews perceive themselves and the ways we are perceived by others. We have become an empowered people. Israel is a regional military superpower and a significant economic power in a world of knowledge-based economies. And Jews in the United States are dramatically more powerful than we were a generation or two generations ago. We are perceived as Goliath, yet we perceive ourselves as David. We are perceived in Israel as the oppressor and not the oppressed. And yet we see ourselves as oppressed. Goliath does not generate much sympathy, but it is hard to view the Jews today as David with a slingshot.

To illustrate the change, there is much talk of an Iranian attack on Israel, for such an attack has been threatened. And yet, if one had to bet on a scenario of which is more likely — will Iran attack Israel, or Israel attack Iranian nuclear installations? — which way would one bet? The very fact that this issue can be raised shows how dramatically the Jewish condition has changed.

And the world is different: Hitler ruled 22 countries. Anti-Semitism was the province of those with the power to impose their will on the Jews. Today, anti-Semitism is opposed by Europe’s governments, and their leadership is speaking out — witness the behavior of the president and prime minister of France and the prime minister of Denmark. The anti-Semitism expressed in these countries is the product of alienated radical Islamic minorities, joined by some on the left who are anti-Israel. Yet they cannot strike an alliance with the right, because the right is anti-immigrant. Thus we do not face wall-to-wall, state-sponsored or state-endorsed, state-condoned anti-Semitism.

Arab and radical Islamic anti-Semitism is another matter, but there, too, it is rather different than what drove the Holocaust because these anti-Semites lack the capacity to achieve their goal, and the politics of rage has generated more Muslim-on-Muslim violence than anti-Jewish violence.

JJ: Do you feel your ongoing work of explaining the Holocaust has helped in ensuring “Never Again”? 

MB: Frankly, I am ashamed to live in the world that we are bequeathing to our children. I thought we would have done better. My generation has known many triumphs. I was part of the civil rights movement. We defeated segregation and apartheid in our society. We achieved a modicum of voters’ rights and civil rights for African-Americans — indeed for all Americans.

I was a volunteer in the Six-Day War and experienced what was a joyous victory, seemingly a transformation of Jewish destiny “from Auschwitz to Jerusalem” in one generation. I participated in the anti-Vietnam War movement that forced President Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election and that helped end an awful war. I traveled to the Soviet Union and, along with many activists and committed Jews of my generation, helped Soviet Jews free themselves and one another. I repeatedly traveled behind the Iron Curtain and witnessed the peaceful revolution that destroyed communism from within. I was in Europe when the Berlin Wall came down. And I witnessed, albeit from afar, the second miracle of the late 20th century — the demise of apartheid and the transformation of a white racist regime in South Africa without violence.

And yet genocide persists — in Cambodia, Biafra, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur, genocide has taken new forms. Violence is pervasive, and the politics of rage endures.

It is also not clear in hindsight whether Israel ever won the Six-Day War or whether that battle continues to this day. It is not clear whether the great victory and the great unity that we experienced then, that that victory may actually have divided the Jewish people and threated the future of the Jewish democratic state and the essence of Jewish values.

JJ: Do you find yourself discouraged?

MB: I find myself repeating the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, these days: “I am an optimist against my better judgment.” And the words that Adlai Stevenson used to eulogize Eleanor Roosevelt: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” If we become discouraged, if we despair, we will turn the world over to the forces that hate and rage.

JJ: We’ve seen the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement gain momentum on college campuses, including at UCLA — most recently, an outstanding Jewish student almost didn’t get appointed to a student judicial post, apparently because being Jewish seemed a conflict of interest until a school official intervened. Was that anti-Semitism, and what do you make of the situation on college campuses today?

MB: BDS is an effort to delegitimize Israel, and some of its proponents cannot contain their anger from morphing into overt, direct anti-Semitism. It is also, in part, a fraud. Because if its proponents were serious about BDS, they would give up their cell phones and iPads; they would cease using Intel chips and Microsoft Windows; they would cease using drip irrigation and water desalinization; they would avoid vaccinating their children against diseases or performing hypersensitive medical procedures that save lives. I understand opposition to Israeli policies in the West Bank, but Israel is hardly the most offending of countries in the world today, and BDS singles out Israel for special condemnation, ignoring fully the many magnificent contributions that it makes to the world today and to the very quality of our lives.  

JJ: When you started this work, did you envision a more peaceful world today?

MB: I have a dream that the study of the Holocaust will become irrelevant; that one will look back at the museum in Washington and say, “Look how absurd it is that 20th-century humanity treated one another with racism and lethal anti-Semitism. Imagine that they thought that state-sponsored annihilation of a people merely because they were of a different religion was a reasonable policy, that human rights could be so violated and human dignity so trampled upon, that cultural achievement, technological acumen and scientific knowledge could be divorced from respect for human right and reverence for human decency.” 

Would that we lived in such a world, but we do not.

JJ: So, what role does the USHMM play in this conversation, and how effective can any museum — even a really good one — be in combating entrenched ideas?

MB: I am enormously proud of the museum, now visited by more than 40 million people and teaching people from all walks of life — judges and policemen, Army cadets and Naval midshipmen, governmental leaders of so many nations, to ordinary — extraordinary — school children, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and of so many other faiths — teaching them the basic history of the Holocaust and its implications. I am proud of its work to sensitize people to ongoing and impending genocides. I am honored to have played a role in its conception and its creation and in the launching of its archives and academic endeavors. It cannot be blamed for the crises of our world today, and yet it must continue its efforts. 

Washington and the United States would be less without those efforts. Yet, we still can neither be satisfied nor complacent.

JJ: Have anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism merged?

MB: How do we distinguish between legitimate criticism of the policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism? Natan Sharansky has suggested three ways: delegitimation, double standards, demonization.

If we move from criticism of Israeli policies to the notion that Israel has no right to exist, we move over the line to anti-Semitism.

If we judge Israel by one standard and the rest of the world by another, then we are perilously close to, if not already, anti-Semitic.

If we move from the notion that Jews or Israelis do bad to the notion that Jews or Israelis are the source of all or most evil, or are inherently evil, then we have crossed the line into anti-Semitism.

For many, anti-Zionism is an easy way to proclaim, “I am not an anti-Semite, even though I fundamentally oppose the way that many Jews have chosen to live their future and to lay stake in the future of the State of Israel.”

I am currently teaching a course on the history of Zionism and the tension in the various schools of Zionist thought and about the thinking of its major thinkers and actors. I oppose some schools of Zionism. I think they are disastrous to the Jewish future or anathema to Jewish historical values, yet I remain a Zionist, though not uncritical of Israel’s achievements and not without an understanding of its failures.

On a deep level, we Jews face a paradox that is at the core of the Zionist experience. We learned from the Holocaust that powerlessness invites victimization; therefore we have sought power, and yet however much power we have achieved, it has not ended our sense of vulnerability.

Zionism promised that the Jews would become independent, and yet Jews became independent precisely as the world became interdependent, so however much we imagine that we can act alone, we live in a dramatically interdependent world. 

Zionism also imagined that the Jews could become a normal people, a nation like other nations — dull, boring, tranquil, marginal, ignored and ignorable. We are not that people and perhaps can never be. 

JJ: So, where do you find hope for a brighter future?

MB: We have to find it in ourselves and in one another, in the resources of our tradition and the best aspirations of our people. 

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