Natalie Portman has opened up a very important discussion concerning remembering the Holocaust. While her specific observations are sadly true and troubling, she missed the opportunity to expand this discussion at the same time. In fact, it is critical that her point concerning the Holocaust be addressed, and not merely be given lip-service. At the same time there is a need to take the conversation to another level.
Portman argued in her interview in the British newspaper, The Independent, that Jews and Jewish education is too fixated on the Holocaust with little or no attention being placed on other current and contemporary genocides. She cited her own educational experience concerning the absence of any discussion in her school of the atrocities occurring in Rwanda. While it is a generalization to say all Jewish schools focus only on the Holocaust, there is an emphasis in those schools which, though understandable, is educationally too parochial.
At the same time there is a different problem happening in many universities where there is a movement to universalize the study of genocides placing consideration of the Holocaust as merely another example of humanity’s continuing brutality towards others. In other words the study of the Holocaust is losing its uniqueness and being homogenized together with all other genocides that the world has experienced. Similarly, many universities have begun to create institutes and programs for the study of human rights. It is customary to then fold them into the study of genocide as well—including the Holocaust; once more reducing the exception of the Holocaust. To answer Portman at least in part, therefore, although not rejecting her claim, it is the uniqueness of the Holocaust which in large part drives Jewish schools to place such emphasis on its study.
Unfortunately the nature of these initiatives in Jewish educations has produced a very different and equally troubling counter effect as well. Institutions, political and civic leaders, clergy, and media–non-Jewish as well as Jewish–are continuing to use and abuse the notion of the holocaust. It is bandied about publically with a casualness which degrades the horror of the unique tragedy. It occurs in Israel and the United States as a red flag to draw attention to horror. The result again is to degrade the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
Portman is not another ridiculous celebrity trying to ride on his/her personal public fame for a cause. Her level of association and commitment to Israel and Jewish issues as well as her intelligence suggest that perhaps she should be pushed into taking the issue she has now opened up to another level.