Thursday, September 24, 2015

My sermon for Yom Kippur Day: Natalie Portman: Is she right about Jews exploiting ourselves as victims?

Natalie Portman, the acclaimed Hollywood actress, gave an interview recently and spoke about  the meaning of the  Holocaust today. I have never been a fan of hers, but, I realize that she is an icon for many young people including young Jews in America and around the world. She was interviewed in the context of a movie she directed about the parents of the famous Israeli writer Amos Oz which was shown at the Cannes film festival. In the interview with the London newspaper the Independent she was reported to have said, “I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things.” She also was quoted as saying”….We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times and reminds us to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also. Not used as a paranoid way of thinking that we are victims.”

I truly felt compelled to respond to her, not because she graduated from Harvard or even because she lost her great grandparents in Auschwitz or that she worked as an intern for Alan Dershowitz. Not even because she was born in Jerusalem to Israeli parents. It is, rather, because what she says impacts lots of people, especially the youth of our people around the world.

On Yom Kippur, in the afternoon service, we focus on Jewish martyrdom and readings from Jewish history that remind us of our suffering, particularly the [H]olocaust. She challenges us, nevertheless, to think about whether we have gone too far with our focus on Holocaust remembrance events, commemorations or museums around the country and even the world.
Implicit in her critique is that the Jewish community has gone overboard, and to an extent, I think she is saying  she believes we have exploited our being victims to the point where we have ignored other people’s sufferings who have experienced genocide.

Is she right? Furthermore, do lots of Jewish people in the younger generations hold to her viewpoint? If so, what are the ramifications when young Jewish celebrities and Jewish communal leaders believe as she does? Finally, should her comments make us examine what it means to be a Jew in light of how we react to massive human suffering? Isn’t part of what the Torah portion for this afternoon is telling us which is  to remember our suffering for our sake as well as for the benefit of humanity? Our sages tell us, “In a place where people are not acting as good human beings then we must strive to be a mentsch.” The Torah portion tell us that we are witnesses. For our mission is to
“choose life” so that “we may live,” and by remembering our past we choose life. We are witnesses  to  all human suffering. That is the role of the Jew.

I spoke with a mentor of mine who is a retired Professor of Jewish studies living in Chicago. He once told me that he felt it was not in the best interest of the American Jewish community to build so many Holocaust museums because it gives the false impression to Americans that all we are exclusively about is the Holocaust and, according to him, that Judaism is much more than the Holocaust.  Over the years I have heard young people echo these beliefs, as well as those who choose to turn their hearts away from the lessons of the Holocaust, because it is a difficult subject. The point is that maybe Ms. Portman is not alone in her perspective.

Is she right? The answer is that she may be half right. There is an argument to be made that American Jews who find little meaning in conventional theology and religious practice in Judaism found deep meaning in preserving the meaning of the Holocaust. We have built major Jewish institutions, memorials and produced tomes of literature, art, movies, plays, chairs in Holocaust studies, and mandated state requirements to teach the Holocaust. In the public life of our nation we have excelled in reminding America about what the Nazis did to us and others. We have reminded America and the world that memory matters if we want to protect it from another Holocaust in the future.

On the other hand, she senses that we Jews focused so much on our own suffering that we lost sight of the suffering of others. In our attempt to preserve our own story, we [have] lost sight of other tragedies that annihilated other peoples, such as genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and so on? Is she implying that we forgot that hatred is the same whenever it strikes a people? This is where I question Portman and others like her who imply that Jews in America, world Jewry and Israel are exclusive rather than being inclusive of other people’s suffering at the hands of genocidal maniacs in a Post Holocaust world. The fact that young people like our own Portman believe we have hoarded our own suffering contending that no one else’s suffering matches ours is troubling to say the least. It reflects a generation gap that is growing in America.

We should, in fact, be careful about how we present the Holocaust. If all we talk about is the number six million and cannot connect the lessons of the Holocaust with other tragedies or disqualify them because they did not [lose] as many people as we did then we do, in fact, have a problem. If we as a community only think about Jewish identity in terms of what it means to suffer persecution, then we do have a problem. If we cannot see our own historic trauma in a broader context of how we can make a difference in the lives of suffering people, then we do have a problem. Finally, if we close our conscience to our moral responsibility to alleviate the suffering of others who are persecuted or threatened with annihilation, then we do have a problem. If there is any truth to these situations then we do have a responsibility to atone.For the Torah says; “ you shall not stand idly while your neighbor bleeds.”

We at Congregation Beth Yam have done our part by securing a Holocaust Torah from Czechoslovakia and displaying it in a specially built enclave for all to see. Each year we conduct what I believe to be a special Yom Hashoah commemoration. We try to teach our young people by having them interact with survivors and children of survivors.Many of us who grew up in larger metropolitan areas have had plenty of education and exposure to Holocaust history. Yet, just think about our youth living here in the low country. How much do they know? Is it at all a relevant part of their Jewish identity? 

Elie Wiesel tells the story about his trip with other Jewish leaders to Cambodia to commemorate the genocide there. “I saw what the Cambodia refugees looked like when they arrived in
Thailand-walking skeletons with somber eyes and crazy with fear…..”How could a Jew like myself stay at home and not go to the help of an entire people?” Some will say to me.” Yes, when you needed help nobody came forward. True it is because  nobody came forward to help  me that I felt it my duty to  help these victims.”
 This is what Judaism is all about. We know what it means to be a stranger from Biblical times to today.[Surely] it is our right to say that the Cambodian suffering [does not] “equal”
 Auschwitz. Auschwitz, according to Wiesel, “should serve as frame of reference but that is all.” Yet that distinction does not exempt us from responding to assist peoples who are victims of genocide. This is why the current crisis in the Middle East the result of a refugee crisis in Europe approaching a million searching for safety is a test for Europe’s moral compass. I suppose the same can be said of us in America in dealing with 11 million illegal migrants across our own border.

What I suspect Portman and her generation do not understand is that through our own experience as Jews facing anti-Semitism we can better empathize with the universality of suffering around the world. Our job is to teach our young and the community about the Holocaust not just to promote our own status as victims but to teach the world that we all have a duty to help and to not turn a blind eye to others who call out for help. As the Torah says, “You shall remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We have lived by that ethos.

One of our congregants has recently donated these artifacts from the concentration camps. I am showing you a suitcase belonging to a twenty-four year old man who died in Dachau. This next artifact I hold before everyone is a shirt from the camps with a Jewish star and others items. My hope is that we can display them for our young and for the community at large so that in the low country we too can do our fair share to educate our entire community about the Holocaust for years to come. This is not exploiting ourselves as victims but performing a mitzvah.

My prayer is that Ms. Portman will rethink her statement and that those of her generation who may identify with her thoughts will see more clearly that our way of teaching the world to reject hatred and to reject genocide and to reject apathy is part of our duty as Jews to perform Tikkun Olam  [and] repair the world.

1 comment:

Bob Bush said...

Rabbi, she does have a point that has some validity. You know how some people who are trying to impress others might say "my thing is greater or better than yours," such as "my car is newer, better or more expensive than yours," or that "my son has a better job, career, etc. than yours." So, with the Holocaust, it may appear that some Jews might say "my suffering was greater than yours" to the extent of denying any other people's suffering.
On the other hand, our young, today, even the decendants of survivors, really have no idea about what these European Jews went through and how much suffering there really was. Today, to our kids, it is just "another movie." "Can this be real?"
Therefore, we do need the education and museums and monuments, "lest we forget." They are already forgetting, in spite of all of the reminders. We do have a history of suffering. We also have a fabulous history of achievement, charity, and contributions to society. The world needs to hear that, also.