A Hollywood star’s history lesson

A Hollywood star’s history lesson

Match the following quote with the person who said it:

1/ “Israel — its victories, its spirit — emboldened American Jews to embark on this introspective process, but for some of them, the Holocaust began replacing Israel as the centerpiece of Jewish identity.”

2/ “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…. 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.”

3/ “The teaching of the Holocaust to toddlers is not only inappropriate pedagogically, but it’s part of a cynical policy by Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments that instills fear and entitlement through indoctrination, to raise a generation ready for endless war.” 

A/ Yossi Sarid, former Israeli education minister and an ex-leader of the Meretz party
B/ Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.
C/ Natalie Portman, Hollywood actress and director

The aim of Holocaust education tends to be an insider Jewish debate. Should we teach it as a unique event or as part of a continuum of atrocity? Does “never again” apply only to the Jews, or is it a universal maxim? What is the relationship between the Shoa and the establishment of the State of Israel?

That we’re talking about it at this moment is a credit to an unusual Hollywood star — unusual in the sense that Natalie Portman is not only Israeli-born, but thinks deeply enough about her Judaism to utter the second quote above. It came in an interview with the UK magazine The Independent about her forthcoming adaptation of Amos Oz’s magisterial memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, about growing up amid Israel’s fight for independence.

Her comments seem to have flowed from a discussion of Israeli politics, and especially her criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The great-granddaughter of Holocaust victims, and a product of Jewish day schools in the United States, the Jerusalem-born Portman ventured that Jewish schools teach a version of the Holocaust that distorts the reality of Jewish life today. “Sometimes [Holocaust education] can be subverted to fear-mongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” said Portman. 

And she worries that teaching the Holocaust as a unique event leaves Jewish students unprepared to acknowledge other atrocities. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, anti-Semitism exists against all sorts of people,” she said. “I don’t mean to make false equivalences; we need [Holocaust education] to serve as something that makes us empathetic to people rather than paranoid.”

Critics pounced. B’nai B’rith issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” with Portman for “questioning the prominence of Holocaust education within a Jewish education.” Colette Avital, the chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, agreed that “the education we give our children should not encourage a continuous sense of being the eternal victims.” However, she lectured, “Natalie should understand that the Holocaust which befell us cannot be compared to other tragedies — our empathy notwithstanding.”

And Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, sniffed that Portman’s “success in the movie world does not turn her into an expert in history or on genocide.” 

Portman wasn’t presenting herself as an expert in history, but as a witness to her own Jewish education. While it is essential to defend the uniqueness of the Shoa, it is folly to ignore the voice and experience of someone who attended our Jewish schools. 

I know how hard schools strive to teach the horrors of Jewish history without squashing their students’ sense of Jewish joy and possibility, and how they try to instill hope without insulting the survivors who are still with us today.

And yet, it is not uncommon for supplementary and day school students to complain about “too much Holocaust.” I’ve heard from students — hell, my own kids — who’ve grown numb to the Shoa through sheer repetition.

They don’t disparage its victims or discount its importance, but bristle at an education that stakes the Jewish future on the sufferings of the past. 

Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, reminds Portman that the Shoa is the “ultimate consequence of bigotry and hatred as official public policy combined with international indifference and inaction.” But, in the same Jerusalem Post interview, he agrees that the Holocaust must be a proportionate part of Jewish education, as should “the plight of others generally.” 

Portman isn’t the first to ask about the Holocaust and communal priorities. Michael Oren, the author of the first quote above, frets in his memoir that the emphasis on Holocaust commemoration comes at the expense of Zionist passion.Yossi Sarid is among those in Israel, especially on the Left, who charge that the Right exploits the Holocaust in service of a hawkish political agenda.

That doesn’t make Oren, Sarid, or Portman right, but it does suggest that we should be able to talk about the Shoa and Jewish identity without being patronized or dismissed.

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