Friday, January 8, 2010


At a seder a number of years ago, when the discussion turned to Pharaoh bathing in the blood of Jewish babies, the more grandmotherly types at the table—ones who were American-born and raised—said “Oy; this sounds like the Holocaust.” My father responded: “That’s exactly the point of the haggada. This was the first Holocaust.”

To be sure, the Pharaonic policy toward the Israelites was what we would term eliminationist anti-semitic, at least at first glance: killing all the male children, preserving all the females [a classic outgrowth of enslavement and genocidal policy: the conquering population’s males use the subjugated females to further propagate the victorious nation and diminish the conquered nation], and of course, the “avoda befarech” and the use of Jews as building materials.

In a superficial sense, there are only two differences between the Pharaonic and Hitlerite genocides. The first is that Pharaoh seemed to be in less of hurry, even if, like Hitler, he considered himself at war with the Jews [“ki sikrena milchama”]; he was willing to use the Jews and keep half the population alive to further his own ends; contrast this with the Nazis diverting badly needed resources from the front in the last years of WWII to keep the killing machine operating.

The second regards the nature of the Jews that both genocidal regimes put to work for them. In this weeks parsha [5:14] that the “kapos” of the time refused to enforce the Pharaonic production quotas and were punished accordingly—and, because of their sacrifices, became the first Sanhedrin [see Bamidbar 11:25]. However, the Netziv, in his haggadah, mentions that there were Jews during the Pharaonic slavery who actually enjoyed actual positions of power throughout [akin to what Alan Dershowitz terms “house Jews”], and were actually redeemed with the “zeroa netuya”—they didn’t want to leave. [This, aside from the myriads of Jews who perished during the 3 days of the plague of darkness.] There were not likely any Nazi house Jews.

In any case, it often comes up that whenever genocides are committed around the world, it is the Jews’ responsibility to proclaim “Never Again” regarding those affected groups. The first time I saw this was in 1991 during the Shiite and Kurd uprisings against Saddam Hussein in Iraq following the first Gulf War, in the New York Times Op-Ed pages [to the best of my recollection, it was Abe Rosenthal and Flora Lewis doing the exhorting]. I don’t remember any such other exhortation in the other genocides or attempted genocides that followed [Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Darfur] towards us, but I’m certain that there was plenty of “mussar” regarding our “mitzvah” to speak out. [Most likely, it came from other Jews. As one wag put it, if the Jews didn’t care about the Palestinians, no one else would.]

To be sure, our attitudes towards genocides, genocidaires and their regimes should not necessarily echo our esteemed State Department’s policy toward them, which, as documented in Samantha Power’s excellent “A Problem From Hell”, is always neutrality and inaction. [I’m aware that there are unconfirmed rumors that she referred to Israeli actions in Gaza as “genocidal”; after having read the book, however, I doubt it. There is no reference—even tangential—to anything of the sort in the book, Arab or "Palestinian", and nothing vis-Ă -vis the Palestinians would fit her thesis. I recommend the book highly.] However, I am inclined to be extremely chauvinistic in the use of “Never Again” as a slogan for anyone but us.

If we learn anything from our Holocaust, it is two things:

One, we NEED [and, thank G-d now, we have] our national polity, state, and army, and most of [if not all] the political tools to fight for, if not completely insure, our survival as a people and a nation. Any other nation/ethnicity in danger should try to emulate us [except, of course, for the Palestinians, who have tried to do so in a completely illegitimate manner, and will not succeed--if we don’t let them].

Two, it is emphatically NOT our responsibility to agitate for these unfortunate ethnicities’ self-determination, particularly where they are inimical to our survival. [This is an issue that I discussed last year: see my Miketz/Chanuka: Ethnic Tension. This is one reason why I believe it was legitimate for the Israelis not to take sides against the Serbs during the Balkan tensions; of the parties, they were the least anti-semitic. The Bosnians and Croatians contributed mightily to the SS during WWII, and independent Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, was a well-known Holocaust denier.]

In conclusion, even regarding how we see our own history, we may actually do ourselves a disservice to a point by focusing on our enemies’ success in destroying us. The actual experience of slavery takes up 5 of the 187 chapters of the Torah [and one parsha of 54]; G-d already declares in 6:1 that the geula has essentially begun. Even Amalek’s genocidal intent and attacks were notably unsuccessful.

It is true that it is not always the case that “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat”. We didn’t always win. Nowadays, however, we have the wherewithal to win and survive. That should be our focus. On us--before anyone else.

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