October 20, 2018

A Different Take

A Different Take

on History

Many modern forms of anti-Semitism, not least the Dreyfus Affair, can be seen as a reaction to the emancipation of the Jews in Western and Central Europe following the French Revolution, according to Dr. Michael Berenbaum.

Berenbaum, a prominent figure in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and now president and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, proposes a “slightly simplistic” but radical interpretation of Jewish history from the late 19th century to the present.

“From 1881 on, the Jewish people in Europe faced enemies bent on, and capable of, their complete destruction,” says Berenbaum.

“The French, during the Dreyfus Affair, gave an intimation of this, the Russian pogroms represented a minor eruption, and the Holocaust was the final, complete expression. So the main Jewish question during this period was, how do we assure our physical survival?”

The question became moot after World War II, thanks to two major developments — the establishment of Israel and the empowerment of American Jewry.

“There is no longer an enemy capable of destroying us, yet we can’t shake our sense of vulnerability,” says Berenbaum.

“Israel is now a regional superpower, but men as diverse as Abba Eban and Binyamin Netanyahu can refer to the 1967 boundaries of Israel as the ‘borders of Auschwitz’ — as if the Jews in Auschwitz had tanks and planes. It’s not logical, but psychological.”

Currently, Jewry faces two new questions, Berenbaum believes. One was posed when Jean-Paul Sartre asked whether it requires an external enemy, anti-Semitism, to keep the Jews together.

The second question is by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who defined Judaism as the religion of the powerless and asked whether an empowered Jewry would retain its old values.

The answer to the first question is still outstanding, but Berenbaum feels certain about the second one. “I am fairly confident that we have a tremendous continuity of Jewish values,” he says. “Despite the empowerment of American Jews, which owes much to the African-American example, we remain the only group that doesn’t vote its economic interest.”

Berenbaum also sees some cheer for American Jewry’s future, despite the somber conclusions drawn by many from the 1990 Jewish Population Survey.

That survey, with its gloomy statistics on intermarriage and the growing secularization of Jewish life, “sent us into a collective depression,” says Berenbaum.

However, we have misread the survey, he maintains. “What it actually says is that Jewish life in the future will be either intense, serious, creative and meaningful, and, therefore, reproduce, or it will be marginalized and not reproduce,” he says.

“That means that we will have a very strong and intense center while losing the peripheries.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor