Debate rages over future of the Holocaust’s legacy

Some say politicizing event will trivialize it

By Douglas Belkin

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

In the past 14 months, the director of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., was fired when he objected to the museum being used for political purposes.

The editor of an influential magazine on Jewish affairs was called “brainless when it comes to the Holocaust” for criticizing the growing field of Holocaust studies.

And scores of museum directors, curators and academics have been accused of commercializing the memory of 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust to further political agendas and boost ticket sales for an increasing number of Holocaust exhibits and museums.

More than half a century after the Holocaust, defining, owning and placing it in context have become more complex and more contentious issues than ever. As the last generation of survivors enters their 70s and 80s, a debate within the Jewish community is intensifying: Who will speak for the victims after the last witnesses are gone? And what will they say?

The questions are not new, but as American colleges and universities study the Holocaust through a continually broader variety of lenses, the debate surrounding it is intensifying.

There are those who say the Holocaust should be treated as a sacred and distinctly Jewish event. Comparing the horror to anything else is demeaning to the legacy, the argument goes.

But others say for the Holocaust to be fully understood, it must be put into political context and interpreted through as many perspectives as possible. One result of that argument: Dozens of academic conventions pop up every year and hundreds of papers deconstructing the Holocaust through feminist, environmental and current geopolitical viewpoints are presented.

Last year, conservative columnist George Will slammed the growing industry of Holocaust studies in a column: “As the Holocaust becomes academicized, it becomes trivialized, reduced to just another instance of injustice.”

And in an opinion piece that ran in newspapers across the country last month, Gabriel Schoenfeld, the senior editor of Commentary Magazine, accused many Holocaust museum and exhibit curators and academics of “treating the most shattering event in modern history as a banality, or worse, as entertainment.”

Trivializing tragedy

“As the generation of survivors passes from the scene, this tragedy is up for grabs,” Schoenfeld said last week from New York. “There is a wide-scale trivialization being committed by people who purport to be the custodians of their memory. In a way, the Holocaust is being pigeonholed into the general trend of victimization.”

Stephen Feinstein, the acting director of the Center of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, and the man who called Schoenfeld “brainless,” said that deconstructing the Holocaust through secular or feminist or even environmentalist lenses is inevitable. The Holocaust did not just happen to Jews, Feinstein said, it happened to the world.

“There are some people out there who want to make (the Holocaust) a sacramental, pseudo-religious event to remember the victims,” Feinstein said.

“But whether we like it or not … the words `Holocaust’ and `genocide’ have come to intersect.”

As far as the academic debate on the Holocaust, Feinstein sees no basis for criticism: “Anything that gives rise to a rational discourse is good,” he said.

But it also can lead to charges that the memory of the 6 million is being exploited. That’s what Walter Reich accused state department officials of doing when they invited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to visit Washington’s United States Holocaust Museum last year during stalled Middle East peace talks. Arafat would have been the first Arab leader to acknowledge the Holocaust, but Reich did not want the museum to be used as a political tool to jump-start the negotiations. Reich ultimately lost his job as the museum’s director.