The Message of the Holocaust is not the avoidance of Cyber-Bullying

I sit here amidst announcement of ever new studies on the Holocaust that go beyond the death camp iconography. Books that deal with the Holocaust in different countries and forgotten aspects of the inhumanity. There is much to still grapple with now that the original shock has culturally been digested. However, much of the American presentation is so trivial as to be offensive to the victims. So, I was glad to see the recent article in the NYT decrying the connection of the Holocaust with bullying or thinking that holding hands and singing tolerance songs would defeat a foreign nation or stop slavery. I come late to this article written almost a month ago since I was out of the country. I assume it was already discussed on many websites. Nevertheless, it is a great piece to give out to classrooms.

In addition, the very people who are busy trivializing the message of the Holocaust by associating it with everything are the same ones complaining “the Holocaust is unique” when other groups mention their loss. They also dont see that their trivialization has led to the infotainment news stations to call almost everything a Holocaust.

April 29, 2011 NYT
Making the Holocaust the Lesson on All Evils By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN

As proof, below a streaming news ticker (“Gay Basher Gets 12 Years”) are panels about “Confronting Hate in America”: Two Latinos are beaten on Long Island; a white supremacist shoots Jews in Los Angeles; a Sikh is murdered in a post-9/11 “hate crime”; a homosexual student is brutally murdered in Wyoming. On one panel is a description of the Oklahoma City bombing; on another, the attacks of 9/11.

A case of cyber-bullying also solicits our careful assessments. “Think,” we are urged by the signs: “Assume responsibility,” “Ask questions,” “Speak up.”

The museum’s central exhibition about the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews is preceded by this “Tolerancenter,” as it is called, which strains to tie together slavery, genocides, prejudice, discrimination and hate crimes, while showing even elementary school students (as the museum literature says) “the connection between these large-scale events and the epidemic of bullying in today’s schools.”

In the recently opened Holocaust museum in Skokie, Ill., bullying also plays a cautionary role.

Though Yad Vashem in Israel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington have remained relatively immune to such sweeping moralizing, in most institutions and curriculums, the Holocaust’s lessons are clear: We should all get along, become politically active and be very considerate of our neighbors. If not, well, the differences between hate crimes and the Holocaust — between bullying and Buchenwald — are just a matter of degree.

Perhaps, though, we should take the lesson even further. What if this were the approach of every historical museum? The Imperial War Museum in London might look at World War I as a result of intolerance and hold out the promise of ending all wars if only its lessons were properly learned; after all, didn’t the French and Germans enjoy a sociable Christmas holiday cease-fire in the trenches of the Western Front?

The history of American slavery might explore the many ways people have enslaved others or forced them to do things against their will. An examination of the Soviet Gulag might emphasize the need to permit greater diversity of opinion in society, or more adventurously, it might attack the notion of imprisonment itself for being so Gulag-like.

As history, this is laughable. Yet we seem willing to accept that in the case of the Holocaust, an exhibition must allude to all forms of genocide, and must offer broad lessons about tolerance.

The impulse to tell the Holocaust story only in the context of elaborate generalizations has also helped justify its inclusion in school curriculums and helped obtain public financing for museums: The goal was not particular but general, not Judeocentric but humanitarian.

And the deeper one looks at the Holocaust itself, the more unusual its historical circumstances become. The cause of these mass killings was not “intolerance,” but something else, still scarcely understood.

Intolerance is almost too easy an explanation, implying a comforting moral message. Instead, why not look at how Hitler’s powers might have been undercut before he began to wage the war in Europe and the war against the Jews? Wouldn’t an examination of those possibilities offer a more profound lesson about how to prevent genocide?

And how central is intolerance to genocide anyway? Many intolerant societies don’t set up bureaucratic offices to supervise efficient mass murder.

There are even intolerant people who would still find genocide unthinkable
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6 responses to “The Message of the Holocaust is not the avoidance of Cyber-Bullying

  1. But wait. Wasn’t the pluralism of Tri-Faith America and the National Conference of Christians and Jews an explicit rebuke of Fascism, even before the Holocaust?

    • Part of the tri-faith rhetoric was that they were all democratic and needed to fight communism and fascism by engaging in war. War was religiously mandated a necessary evil to fight greater evil. They did not think pop-sociology was going to defeat fascism.
      And even Woody Guthrie only made sense by actual combat not symbolic singing of songs.

      following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and the Japanese assault of Pearl Harbor, Woody’s guitar became adorned with the hand-painted epitaph, THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS, a slogan which held great metaphoric power. In the face of World War Two, the group separated as most members were drafted or anxiously enlisted. The fight against fascism took on massive proporations, especially for those on the Left. Woody joined the Merchant Marine, offering two tours of duty, and then was briefly drafted into the Army as well.

  2. I am really upset by the language of a message to the holocaust. Its more Hegelian magical thinking where the wounds of spirit heal without leaving a trace. If there was a message to the Holocaust it would assume that the people there were somehow spiritually incorporated into our self consciousness and now we are learning from their peregrinations. The problem of agency strikes me as central here viz. If you were given the choice between teaching even the loftiest ideal to help prevent future genocides, or not suffering genocide in the here and now and maybe putting off the lesson, a sane rational person would choose the latter. Now maybe there is something here that happens despite the lack of agency. Like “Hey, maybe despite all this we can recuperate something from this mess.” Nice impulse, since you are the one still alive. But aren’t you then instrumentalizing the death of the other for your own therapeutic needs? As Doctor Melfi said to Tony Soprano: how many people have to die for your personal growth? Assumedly, furthermore, fictional scenarios or thought experiments could carry the same or even roughly similar argumentative or persuasive weight to Holocaust stories in teaching you how to not bully, be a better Jew or not commit genocide. Maybe they do not pack the same punch, but there must be some ratio of persuasiveness to justifying genocide post facto (and I would assume the number would be set pretty low by most people).

    I think that these problems of agency and viable alternatives render the narrative where we recuperate from the holocaust either morally dubious or at least unnecessary. We can still of course ask what Holocaust rhetoric says about those who invoke it. Why raise the stakes as such and drag dead children into your argument? Maybe it cannot stand and fall on its own merits.

    • Should the holocaust never be used to expand the bounds of the moral imagination? Without it would we think that society could turn on itself so quickly? I think that “lessons” we learn are from the perpetrators, not the victims. There is no lofty ideal , only the notion that a society that does not fight certain tendencies is probably more likely to succumb to them.

  3. While I might personally prefer a nihilistic lesson from the Shoah, the reality is that people need to find meaning in events. The evils of cyberbullying may be a cloying lesson, but it offers certain ethical advantages over the competing narrative of victimhood granting license to victimize others.

    The role of the ADL as both promoting and embodying these two responses to the Shoah should not be underestimated. They are invested both in “Teaching Tolerance” and embracing a morality-free Israeli survivalism.

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