Taking Nazis Personally (and Collectively)

My oldest son has two Hebrew names. He is named for two of his great-grandfathers, Nathan Kurtzer and Clement Seroussi, both of blessed memory, and carries with him the legacy of two great, charismatic patriarchs of their families. They are also both veterans of World War II, with sensationally divergent stories that tell a piece of the story, in their eventual genetic unification, of the Jewish people in the 20th century, one that we would be remiss to ignore as the political consequences of the searing memory of the Holocaust begin to once again roil our contemporary political conversation.

My grandfather, Nathan Kurtzer, enlisted in the United States military in the early spring of 1942 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Corporal in October of 1945 after a service that included active duty on the battlefields of France. He was awarded a Purple Heart following a bullet wound in his shoulder — the scar of which he proudly showed his awed grandchildren for many years following — as well as two bronze service stars, a good conduct awards, and a handful of other medals. As far as we can tell from his service records, he was shot near Metz in Eastern France, possibly as part of the lead up to the bloody Battle of Metz under the command of General Patton. The wound ended his active service, and he returned stateside shortly afterwards for the duration of the war. By then my aunt, his first child, had been born at a military base in Florida — my grandparents were married at Spartanburg while he was in basic training — and after the war ended, Nathan built a family, a business, and a Jewish life in this country where he had been born and raised, and for whom he had served so nobly. I didn’t talk about the war that much with my grandfather (which I regret) though I remember a few great stories; but I think that the Nazis, in his story, were as much enemies of America to whom he would devote several of his formative years defeating in battle, as they were specifically persecutors of the Jewish people.

Closer to the battlefields of the war itself, Stephanie’s grandfather, Clement Seroussi, also fought on the battlefield of France, but in his case with the French Army until the fall of France and the rise of Vichy, after which he travelled with de Gaulle’s forces to Algiers before leaving to help free his parents who had been interned in Libya. He and his family ultimately fled Tunis after the war in the middle of the night to Paris with his wife and young daughter due to his political associations, well before the collapse of the community and the mass immigration to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. We have no service records for him equivalent to the comprehensive, if poorly photostatted, files that we have for my grandfather from the US government; but Stephanie grew up with the same keen sense of, and deep reverence for, her grandfather’s important role in resisting the Nazis and their spread to the theaters of the war that were no less dangerous or ominous beyond Europe and the Pacific.

My American Jewish immediate family, with its exclusively Ashkenazi Jewish roots, is somewhat unusual in not having any ancestors who are survivors of the Shoah. Stephanie’s family too, as Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, has a peripheral relationship to the Holocaust. All four of my grandparents were born in America; half of Stephanie’s family, on her father’s side, arrived in the United States from Iraq in the 1930s. For our kids, our combined Ashkenazi and Mizrahi heritage intensifies the cultural complexity of how we remember the Holocaust which routes itself not through the immediate memory of survivor relatives but through the frameworks of “peoplehood,” and via the memories of ancestors who fought the Nazis in war on behalf of other countries.

Sometimes this make me feel like we inhabit an “authenticity gap.” It is not lost on me that I wrote a book on Jewish memory, with significant emphasis on the Holocaust, while not having relatives who actually remember it. I argued, perhaps authenticating my own experience estranged from a familial relationship to survivors, that Jewish memory does not hinge on the specific memories of individuals, but on the canonical, narrated, and interpretive memory generated by a community as a means of absorbing the lessons of the past into its politics, life, and liturgy. But it is a little unusual and strange to believe so strongly in a connection to a memory that is second-hand in relationship to an event in the recent past. Though Stephanie and I both still had Holocaust nightmares as children, it was not because of epigenetic memories carried forth by our actual ancestors but thanks rather to our Jewish educations which succeeded, if one can say such a thing, at terrifying us with the truth of Jewish history and experience —namely, that Haman & Pharoah were not imaginary villains of an ancient mythic past but prophetic archetypes for the transcendentally villainous antisemites of Nazi Europe who succeeded at genociding the Jews far more efficiently than any of our phantasmagoric fears could have ever imagined.

Still, our son carries in his DNA on both sides, and in his heavy names, an extraordinary legacy: an inborn sense of responsibility to fight Nazis as an expression of patriotism and loyalty both to his people the Jews, and to his people the Americans — or Tunisians, or French, or humans — in whatever society we have lived and have been made to feel as citizens as neighbors.

I am struck then, and so very alarmed, by how often “The Jews” are thought of as direct objects of Nazism and in some ways lateral to the American response, that we are in need of ‘protection’ by other Americans from the inevitability of our impending persecution. This may be one Holocaust memory lesson — a lesson to the nations of the world to not once again leave the Jews vulnerable in the hands of their enemies — but it is not the only obligating Jewish story that comes out of the war. My grandfather’s service records testify to me that Jews are not a faux Other to the ‘real’ Americans. We Jews are Americans, we have fought this scourge before on behalf of America, and when we fight the Nazis in our midst — and they are there, and we will fight them — it will be on the heels of a profound legacy, and with learned experience, and it will be again the most patriotic thing we do.

This all stems from a larger problem at play with American Jews and how we remember the Holocaust. The story of the Holocaust for American Jews is too often reductively homogenized to a particular experience — whether that of victim, martyr, resistor, or survivor — which in turn produces specific and instructive canonical legacies for what the Holocaust means to us and how it defines our relationship to power and powerlessness.

Diverse historical experiences obligate us differently, and one of the hardest challenges for modern Jews is holding these obligations together and not reducing any of them alone to flimsy moral platitudes. The memories of survivors, for instance, often obligate us towards a kind of vigilance about threats to the Jewish people, to trying to maintain an interpretive consistency between the history of Jewish persecution and the recent past and present, and to keep connected to the story itself and what was lost — what is often characterized as “never forgetting,” or in active terms reminding us that the grotesque metaphors of the Passover story that would seem implausible had they not been so recently experienced. The story of American and European and North African and other Jews fighting Nazis as soldiers on behalf of other countries, meanwhile, leaves a legacy for as citizens of our societies, a different kind of vigilance to resist bystander-hood through active belonging. The stories that Stephanie and I have of our grandfathers remind us that Jewish victimhood travels together with the risk of the decline of these societies where we are at home that are anti-Nazi in every fabric of their being, and in our responsibility to prevent their decay towards the moral and political perversion embodied in Nazi rule. Some Jews saw Charlottesville and felt Kristallnacht; I saw Charlottesville and felt a great transgression against America that neither I, nor my grandfather, could ever countenance.

And if that’s not enough, we as modern Jews bear a third interpretive legacy authentically sourced from the experience of the Holocaust, and that is the lesson of the need for the Jewish people to have a politics that would reject our collective powerlessness against the Nazis, and prevent their resurgence. Jewish politics, in the modern world, means both a comfort with power — hard and soft — and the rejection of the cheap myth that we as a people are purer outside politics, as has been brutally disavowed by the costs of having to perform this noble death so often in our history. Hannah Arendt wrote the following in 1942 (!) in her unpublished essay “Jewish Politics:”

If the horrible catastrophe of European Jewry and the difficult, sad struggle to form a Jewish army and to gain recognition of the Jews as an ally of the United Nations result in our finally realizing that despite our millionaires and philanthropists we Jews are among the oppressed peoples of this earth, and that our Rothschilds have a better chance of becoming beggars or peddlers than our beggars and peddlers of becoming Rothschilds — if in other words this war politicizes us and pounds it into our heads that the struggle for freedom is tantamount to the struggle for existence, then and only then will our grandchildren be able to remember and mourn the dead and to live without shame.
Those peoples who do not make history, but simply suffer it, tend to see themselves as the victims of meaningless, overpowering, inhuman events, tend to lay their hands in their laps and wait for miracles that never happen. If in the course of this war we do not awaken from this apathy, there will be no place for us in tomorrow’s world-perhaps our enemies will not have succeeded in annihilating us totally, but those of us who are left will be little more than living corpses.

For Arendt, the awakening brought about by the Shoah created two demands: that Jews take more seriously their control over their political destiny and exercise a greater sense of responsibility for their future; and at the same time, that Jews produce a politics defined not just by the amassing of power, but in the pursuit of a moral values system. Politics is not always to be reduced to realpolitik, which it becomes — as Arendt goes on to say — when it abandons its beacons of freedom and justice, and its commitment to democracy as its operating system. This third legacy of the Shoah then is that a powerless people must become political, committed to creating a culture of activism and responsibility that enables our lasting survival, but within the framework of a lofty, visionary system of ideals that reminds us why we survive even as it makes survival possible.

My second concern about what we are now witnessing is that in our contemporary discourse there are two forms of Jewish politics that see themselves resisting Nazism today, and they are at best diverging and at worst warring with one another, and this is perilous: not just because our divisions weaken us, but because by allowing these two forms of Jewish politics, both sourced authentically from the lessons of the Holocaust, to turn against one another, they are mutually delegitimizing each other and the memory of the Holocaust itself is desecrated.

There is, on one hand, the resistance to Nazism of the “resistance,” common in the progressive American Jewish scene, which juxtaposes resistance to antisemitism to a broader set of obscene hatreds (racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc.) — sometimes foregrounding antisemitism, sometimes backgrounding it, sometimes erasing it, but almost always linking the opposition to Nazism with the agenda of progressive politics. And then, on the other hand, there is the resistance to Nazism as embodied in some of the core ideas of Zionism, one of whose primary concerns and commitments — born well before the war — was to provide a homeland for the Jewish people in its ancestral land due to the general unwillingness of the family of nations to make space for us as equal partners anywhere else.

Truthfully, I spend more of my Zionist energies on thinking about Israel as an aspirational and moral society than I do agitating for its safety and security; I admit I spend more of my time as a critic of Israeli security policy than an advocate for its self-defense, so much so that my friends and colleagues make fun of my chronic resistance to the “crisis narrative” as a motivator for pro-Israelism. But make no mistake: one of the reasons I am a Zionist, and why I do not take the State of Israel for granted, is that our people has earned the right to the instruments of our own collective self-defense and the pride and dignity that come with the moral imperative of survival.

And so it kills me that these two translations of the legacy of the Holocaust for contemporary Jewish politics go to battle with each other, as though are not actually co-dependent. When progressives fighting fascism tell Jews that the power that we have acquired through sovereignty and statecraft somehow compromises us as fellow seekers of democracy and justice for all, forgetting that we haven’t forgotten how recently we suffered for lack of these tools, and forgetting that most other dispossessed and downtrodden groups actually want such power — well, this diminishes an authentic legacy of Jewish memory, and compromises the moral force of trying to derive political lessons for the present. When non-Jews express empathy for Jews who are encountering antisemitism or who are being traumatized by the marching of Nazis in our midst, but at the same time dismiss the fundamental legitimacy of Zionism as a system that fundamentally responds to and means to protect Jews from such threats, it is its own form of cultural appropriation: seizing the complex legacy of how we remember the Holocaust and turning our memories, and thus our politics, into something more convenient for them.

And of course the reverse is true as well. If the only Jewish politics learned from the Holocaust is the crude politics of survivalism; if Jews see Nazis marching and think only of ourselves and not the broader context of white nationalism and supremacy that defines equally, if not more so, the troubled American historical context in which these new Nazis appear; or, worse, if Jews give these Nazis a pass because they “only” constitute an existential threat to others and not (at least in the short run) to us — then these Jewish politics borne of the Holocaust betray their sourcing in falling well short of the moral character that is meant to define them. Jewish politics and power may be a legitimately-earned corrective for modern Jews as the result of our historical experience, but these assets must also be a tool for us to aid and to ally with other marginalized populations whose experience mirrors the downtrodden-ness and otherness that characterized us in the past. Our obligation to a Jewish politics that fights Nazis transcends the self-interest of self-defense, and we are compelled by our past to be at the front lines of fighting Nazism and white supremacy even when — as in this present moment — we are not the exclusive or even primary object of its hate.

Simply put, the exercise of Jewish power in the advancement of progressive causes in America and in the work of Jewish self-preservation in Zionism seem so totally and intuitively intertwined to me, and it is downright tragic to see the ways in which they are being wrenched apart. The main cost of this unnecessary and tragic distinction comes in undercutting the multivalent memory of our fight against Nazis and its instructing aftermath, and in limiting our capacity to sustain the momentum to keep it up.

Honestly, I am not that scared of 500 dysfunctional, vaguely sociopathic and friendless white men marching in Charlottesville. There has always been antisemitism in America. It was far worse over here back when American Jewish GIs like my grandfather were enlisting to go to Europe to fight Jew-killers over there. I do fear the possibility of the rise of state-sponsored or otherwise structural antisemitism, even if for now it manifests only in the form of rhetoric (see: the coded, and sometimes explicit, nods to the white supremacists from the White House and its Twitter account.) This has been part of the American past and there is no reason to believe it cannot be part of the American future. And for this reason, I am adamant that the totality of the Jewish experience of Nazism — and the diversity of our political responses — be taken seriously by our community as well as by those who seek to be our allies in this moment.

The most effective way we can withstand this moment is by fighting against efforts to reduce the Jewish experience of victimhood to single instructive narratives; to educate our allies that Zionism and Jewish power are essential features of how we have learned to defeat those who have tried to keep us powerless, at our peril; to educate towards the complexity of what we have learned through our victimhood, through our historical experience of fighting back, and through our politics; and to build a more robust, elastic approach to collective memory that tries to incorporate as many divergent stories — even with divergent political consequences — as possible.

Just over 80 years ago, the Jews began experiencing the first embers in Europe of systematic Jew-hatred that would turn into the flames of mass extermination, rendering us victims and survivors of the worst persecution in our already-spotty history. Just over 70 years ago, Allied troops ending the war and liberated the camps, among them many Jews whose military service reflected the depths of their patriotism to the countries to which they already belonged in spite of pervasive antisemitism in their societies. Just under 70 years ago, the State of Israel was born, and with it the first framework for Jewish self-defense that not only had the instruments of statehood at its disposal, but also the imprimatur of legitimacy from the international community. As victims, as survivors, as resisters, as enlisters, and as Zionists, we Jews today always have Nazis in the back of our minds, and are perhaps better equipped today than ever before to anticipate their return and to fight them at every turn.

But it must be made clear: Jewish memory of Nazis — and what it means for us to stand up against them, then and now — is not monochromatic, and is not captured by recourse to the simplicity of real (then) or imagined (now) victimhood. Jewish memory is not to be subdivided by our enemies or those hoping to be our friends into political legacies or consequences that sever us from the complex web of responses that we have woven to ensure that we are — never again — as vulnerable as we once were. For the sake of the Jewish future, the Jewish past must be allowed to be multivocal.