Saturday, April 01, 2006

A Short Manifesto by Andrew E. Mathis

This semester I've been teaching a Holocaust course at Villanova University, my alma mater where I've taught on and off since 2000. By no small coincidence, the last day of the class will be Yom ha-Shoah, Israel's day of remembrance for victims and heroes of the Holocaust.

On a seemingly unrelated note, there a minor fast day in Judaism, 10 Tevet, which originally commemorated the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The city walls were breached in early summer and the Temple was destroyed in late summer, on 9 Av. For today's non-Zionist Jews, such as myself, this is also the day where we commemorate the Holocaust, not just by fasting, but by saying the Mourner's Kaddish for the six million Jews who were killed, 10 Tevet having been designated as the yahrzeit (death anniverary) for any Jew whose date of death is unknown.

One of the books on my course syllabus is Is the Holocaust Unique?, a volume of essays on comparative genocide edited by Alan S. Rosenbaum. The foreword was written by Israeli psychologist Israel Charny, who is a strong proponent of the idea that the Holocaust was not a unique event in history, and Rosenbaum quotes Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer in stating that the Holocaust is not unique in so far as it happened (and thus was possible), and anything that happened can happen again (to anyone), and so rather than it being revered for its uniqueness, the Holocaust is perhaps most importantly regarded as a warning against future genocides against any nation.

This is a touchy point for many people, Jews and non-Jews alike. And, agreeing to a large extent with Charny and Bauer on this point, I do expect to raise some hackles on this point when we address it in two weeks or so. After all, you don't find many non-Zionists or anti-Zionists (particularly religious non- or anti-Zionists) in Holocaust Studies, but we are here, and we intend to be vocal, even if this makes us bêtes noirs among our colleagues, because despite the desire to make the Holocaust a central feature of our faith, we resist that idea and would prefer not to make twelve horrific years the central event in 3,000 years of recorded Jewish history. Commemoration is one thing; the creation of a Holocaust cult is quite another.

For more on this topic, check out this debate between scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the crème de la crème of institutions of Jewish learning outside of Israel.


  1. I stand by the side which says that Holocaust was not unique. Nations were wiped off the Earth *totally* many times before.

  2. Well, my only comment on whether or not the Holocaust is "unique" is this:

    To each person, his or her own death -- or that of a friend, loved one, or family member, is, clearly, unique.

    I think the thing that most upsets me about the Holocaust...and all such acts of genocide, is how it brutally cuts off lives and denies them the opportunity to achieve anything from a Nobel Prize to just having a child.

  3. The holocaust was unique in that it never happened.


Please read our Comments Policy