August 20, 2019

The Tribe, the Individual, the ‘Second Holocaust’

Israel’s Education Minister Rafi Peretz. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reeuters

I usually don’t print in this space what has been published in Hebrew for Israeli readers. But this week, I am making an exception. This column is a slightly altered version of one I wrote for Maariv Daily after Israeli Minister of Education Rabbi Rafi Peretz called Jewish “assimilation” abroad a “second Holocaust.”

Israeli Minister of Education Rabbi Rafi Peretz hasn’t adapted to his new role. When a person becomes a minister, things change. He wears a suit and tie; he has a car and responsibilities. He should adapt to this role not only in his garb but also in his speech. Because he’s new to the job, maybe we could cut him some slack and not criticize everything he says. In return, we should expect him to refrain from bold statements until he learns how to speak like a minister. 

Peretz said at a cabinet meeting that the assimilation of Jews, especially in the United States, is like a “second Holocaust.” This is a fairly common saying in certain Israeli circles. Of course, its connection to reality is slim. During World War II, European Jews were forcibly taken to gas chambers and killed. In today’s America, Jews do as they please. They aren’t detained by anyone; they are not forced to do anything; they are alive.

True, some of them choose to abandon their Jewishness. In fact, in many cases, it’s not even an active choice, just something that happens. Peretz may say that the outcome, as far as the Jewish people are concerned, is the same. During the Holocaust, one-third of the Jewish people perished, and now one-third could leave the faith. But even if he is right (and it’s not at all clear that he is), his statement is problematic.

“The minister of education wasn’t appointed to grade American Jewish behavior.”

His statement is problematic not because assimilation isn’t happening or isn’t worthy of debate. It certainly is. 

His statement is problematic because it helps no one and solves nothing. His was a statement empty of practical meaning, except for increasing alienation and fomenting an unconstructive public discourse. Oh, and as a bonus, it cheapens the memory of the Holocaust. If Peretz says “Holocaust” 10 times, this won’t stop any American Jew from marrying a gentile or quitting a synagogue. The minister of education should deal with the problems of Israel’s education. They are many. The minister of education wasn’t appointed to grade American Jewish behavior. He was not trained — and clearly isn’t trained — to analyze the American Jewish situation.

But Peretz’s statement was problematic not only because it’s detrimental on the practical level but also because it is outrageous in principle. This is a statement that ignores the fate of the Jewish individual and attaches meaning only to the role of a Jew in preserving the nation. In other words, as far as Peretz is concerned (that is, according to what he said). To be fair, he later admitted that the choice of words wasn’t ideal; the question of whether a Jew is murdered or merely chooses to detach herself from the Jewish people is of little importance. In both cases, she is erased from the books of the nation. 

If you ask almost any Jew, he probably will tell you that he feels differently about this issue. If you ask almost any Jew, there is a great difference between him losing his life in a gas chamber and him deciding to marry a nice Catholic friend and form a non-Jewish family.

Now I have to say a harsh thing, and I’m going to say it although I have no doubt that Peretz wants the best for every Jew and for the Jewish people. Here it is: Peretz (surely, without intending to do this) adopted in one critical matter the perspective of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, not the perspective of those who were its victims. The perpetrators of the Holocaust, the killers, saw the Jews as a group. They ignored the value, the qualities, the wishes of the individual. Thus, they attempted to send all Jews to their death. As a group.

As I think about the education minister, I must remind him and all those who care deeply about the Jewish people, that we must not dismiss the value of the Jewish individual. We must remember (as I’m sure Peretz does) and must respect (in this case, he didn’t) the Jewish individual. In the U.S. and Israel, Jews aren’t just members of a tribe, people who serve a nation. They are also just men and women, human beings. From time to time, a patriotic, driven, idealistic, Jew-loving person must be reminded of that.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.