Peter Beinart’s Holocaust Problem

Last night I watched a long video of Peter Beinart’s November 4, 2015 appearance at Beth Chayim Chadashim with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR.  Beinart is correct that he did not attempt to justify terrorism against Israel when he said that he believed that some of Israel’s policies have contributed to the terrorism problem (“Israel is reaping what it has sowed.“)  But he did say something at the very end of his talk that I found disturbing.

At the end of the program (at 1:21:30), in answering the final question, Beinart went on a riff about what he perceives as the misplaced priorities of the American Jewish community:

The American Jewish community has spent . . . and this may be a controversial thing to say, but I think we have spent too much money on Holocaust memorials and not enough on Jewish education.  I think it says something very troubling about a community where you can go into city after city and they have built these Holocaust memorials which are gleaming and very impressive. And then you go to the Jewish day school and it is crumbling. I mean there’s no gym, there’s no science lab.  What does it say about a community that’s more interested in memorializing its dead than providing for its future?

So, two things.  First, Beinart is factually wrong.  If you look at Los Angeles, for example, it is true that in the past 25 years we have built both the Museum of Tolerance and the new building for Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.  At the same time, our community has also built a number of new Jewish day schools, including Milken Community SchoolsdeToledo High School, Brawerman Elementary School, and greatly expanded others, such as Sinai Akiba Academy, Shalhevet, and Yavneh Hebrew Academy.  You’ll find state of the art science labs and excellent gyms at all of these schools, and many others in and around Los Angeles.  These Jewish schools have also been building up their endowments, thanks to a program sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) and the Avi Chai Foundation.  So Jewish education is not “crumbling” in Los Angeles.  And I doubt it is crumbling in any other Jewish community that has invested in a Holocaust museum.

But second, Beinart is setting up a false dichotomy.  Indeed, when you look at the major donor lists, you find that the same families are supporting both Jewish schools and Holocaust museums.  Why?  Because our Jewish schools and our Holocaust museums serve different functions that are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, they complement each other.  Jewish schools naturally serve just the Jewish community, and in particular a subset that wants its children to learn Hebrew and religious observance. Our museums serve a much larger community, and one that is largely non-Jewish. Certainly, one great aspect of our Holocaust museums is that they are places where Jews can memorialize the victims, and teach our young the terrible history of our recent past.  But these museums also, indeed primarily, serve to teach non-Jews about our history.  Those of us who contribute to both Jewish education and Holocaust museums know that while it is important to continue Jewish traditions, it is equally important to educate non-Jews about our history and the terrible consequences of anti-Semitism.

What would it say of our community if we only built Jewish schools, teaching, as Bienart suggests, the holidays of Purim and Simchat Torah, but neglected our role as interpreters of the Holocaust?  One of the things that makes us human is our sense of history. Our schools are designed to transmit the history of our species, and so we learn about the great civilizations, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, etc.  We learn about great conflicts, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Battle of Hastings, the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution and Civil War.  And, from now on and for the next thousands of years, we will teach our children about World War II, the distinguishing feature of which will be the Holocaust, the greatest mass-murder in the history of mankind.

We have the privilege of living with the last generation of survivors, who are first-hand witnesses to the history that will be taught for millennia.  Our Holocaust museums are designed to collect and marshall the evidence while we still can, to package and deliver it to people in an effective manner.  Our Holocaust museum serve also as places for the inter-generational transmission of history.  There are few other places where you will regularly find a 90-year-old teaching a class of 8th graders, as happens every day in our Holocaust museums.Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 4.27.56 PM

So why does someone like Peter Beinart make such a grave error when speaking about Holocaust museums?  My theory is that it comes down to his genealogy. Beinart’s parents were from South Africa, so his heritage is a mixture of early Russian and Lithuanian immigrants from the pogroms as well as one grandmother from Egypt. He probably doesn’t feel that his family was very affected by the Holocaust.  I’ve seen this very often also in the United States.  There are many American Jews for whom it comes as a shock to learn that the defining moments of Jewish history over the past 100 or even 1,000 years were the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel — and they missed them both!  (They thought that it was growing up in Brooklyn, listening to Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand, and rooting for the Dodgers.) These folks like to build different types of museums, like the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which was completely empty when I visited last March. (Really, I did not see one other person inside, although the nearby Barnes Foundation museum had been full of people when I visited there an hour earlier.)  But their story just doesn’t resonate — not with Jews and not with non-Jews.  Meanwhile our Holocaust museums are booming.  (For example, LAMOTH‘s attendance increased 25% each of the past two years and is set to increase another 7% this year.)

The good news is that views like Beinart’s will die out as the generations move forward.  Before too long, every Jewish family will be descended or connected to a Holocaust survivor family.  That’s just how genealogy works.  But in the meantime, those of who really understand the importance of the Holocaust to Jewish continuity will continue to pour our support into our museums as well as our Jewish schools.

1 thought on “Peter Beinart’s Holocaust Problem

  1. I think you’re BOTH kind of right, although I don’t think analyzing Beinart’s personal background as a way of understanding his views is especially useful. I was born in Germany, had a sister who was murdered in Auschwitz, and lost many relatives in the Shoah. But I also worry about the BALANCE between general Jewish education (in and out of day schools) and the monies spent on Holocaust museums/memorials. The examples to check out are not L.A. and NYC and other huge Jewish communities, but rather the smaller struggling ones.

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