Recent Publications by Michael Berenbaum

This week, we have finally reached Holocaust overload.

It began September 23, 2009, when the General Assembly of the United Nations featured a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust. In a speech widely cheered in Jewish circles, both in Israel and the Diaspra, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rose to the bait the next day; standing with German documentation of the gas chambers, he went toe to toe, rhetorical flourish to rhetorical flourish, with the self elected leader of the Iranian people. “It didn’t happen,” the President said.

“Oh, yes it did.” The Prime Minister retorted.

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Published February 17, 2010, issue of February 26, 2010.

Richard L. Rubenstein, my doctoral advisor, first rose to prominence with his path-breaking 1966 book, “After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism.” Improperly regarded as the Jewish contribution to the then fashionable “death of God debate,” it argued that no theology could speak to the Jewish condition unless it grappled with the twin realities of contemporary Jewish life: the Holocaust and the State of Israel. Rubenstein’s points were so valid that they forced a significant redirection of Jewish thought and set the theological agenda for most of the next three decades.

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I always begin reading survivors’ memoirs with trepidation. Surely I am about to begin a journey into a world of darkness but I don’t quite know how all enveloping the darkness and how skilled the guide who will bring me on that journey. I also understand that the story I am about to read is not about abstract history, but about one survivor; not about Six Million but about one of those Six Million and the world she inhabited. I am also hesitant because to if I am disappointed in the work, it may seem as if I am dismissive of the life that is embodied in that work.

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Entrapment, Surrender and Silence

The Jewish Journal, 2005

 

If recent press reports regarding the government case against two former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) employees are to be believed, then I am increasingly outraged at the government’s case, AIPAC’s response and the silence of the American Jewish community.

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I am not presently a New Yorker — though as one who was raised in New York it pains me to say so — but I am a student of history, so I must address two issues that have come up in the debate over the proposed Park51 Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero.

One, a cultural center with a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero will have little to no impact on visitors to Ground Zero.

Two, the idea that a precedent for moving the center was set by contemporary Auschwitz — “a Catholic convent was going to be built nearby, and it was moved in consideration of Jewish feelings” — is contorted at best.

On the first point, let me explain. An elaborate memorial museum is currently under construction at Ground Zero that will shape visitors’ experience at the site. Filled with enormously powerful artifacts from Ground Zero, its planning team is highly competent (I worked with many of them in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and exhibitions elsewhere) and its design will be visually moving and emotionally compelling.

It will tell what happened, what was lost, who was lost, who perpetrated the deed and why, who came to the rescue of the victims and the price that they paid for that rescue.

It will have to deal with the paradox of the site: the presence of absence and the absence of presence.

It will have to deal with the anomaly of the site where new buildings will arise from the ashes, new workers will enter the buildings and an extensive office and retail complex will take form on the site of the twin towers.

The museum will only be able to pose, but it will not be able to answer, the most important question: What is the legacy of 9/11? The reason is simple. Nine years later, we still do not know. There are two ongoing wars whose outcome is uncertain, and a larger war against Islamic extremism and Islamic extremists whose outcome is also unknown.

The meaning of an event of this magnitude is not found in the event itself, but in its aftermath, in what is done with the memory of the event.

Most who enter the rebuilt Ground Zero will be coming on business, entering its buildings day by day. All too soon, they will pay little attention to what was there before and much more attention to the tasks of the day. Only the visitors coming to the memorial and the museum will be paying specific attention to the events of September 11, 2001, and their attention will be shaped by the memorial and museum and not at all by what is happening two blocks away.

On the second point, a number of people, including my respected friend Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, have offered an analogy to Auschwitz in opposing the mosque. This analogy is inappropriate.

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Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was the fighter who stayed behind.

Unlike his fellow surviving uprising leaders, Edelman did not leave Poland after the war. A Bundist, he was not attracted to Palestine; a socialist, perhaps he was not quite ready to become a capitalist in the United States. Or maybe he simply could not leave the dead behind.

Edelman, whose father died when he was young, was left an orphan when his mother died during his early teens.

As a young Bundist in the Warsaw Ghetto, Edelman joined forces with the Zionists and other leftist groups to form the Jewish Fighting Organization. Their dreams for the future differed radically, but their dread for the present was identical.

When the mass deportations from the ghetto commenced on July 23, 1942, the Jewish population did not initially engage in armed resistance. Over the next 60 days, more than 265,000 Jews were deported to the newly opened Treblinka, where almost all were gassed upon arrival.

Read more: http://www.forward.com/articles/116259/

Judith M. Gerson and Diane L. Wolf, editors, Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007) pp. 407.

It has been nearly three decades since Helen Fein wrote her important work Accounting for Genocide, which demonstrated the contributions that sociology could make to our understanding of the Holocaust. By its nature and scope, understanding the Holocaust is a mutli-disciplinary task requiring the skills, knowledge and methodology, among others, of historians and psychologists, theologians and political scientists, literary scholars, writers and dramatists as well as sociologists. So any work that brings the insight of this discipline to bear on the Holocaust is most welcome and this collection, which consists of some twenty essays and responses to them does just that. The editors offer an important assessment of the state of sociological research; their bibliography is useful, their insights intelligent and their review of the literature significant especially for those of us who read in the Holocaust but do not read sociological journals routinely.

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Your Holiness

Permit me to begin with a few words about my background that informs the content of this letter.

I am a graduate of Jewish parochial schools and was raised in the Orthodox tradition and ordained a rabbi by the time I was 23. My world was infused with Judaism without much exposure to other religious traditions. Then I went to graduate school where my closest friend and deepest intellectual colleague was a Roman Catholic nun, a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy.

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