“What if the Holocaust has become just another excuse for Israeli bad behavior?” Tony Judt, Israel without Cliches, The New York Times.
I winced when I read it.
I wince whenever the Holocaust is called into play for political gain, or tossed around to symbolize current perceived tragedy. But mostly, I wince for Zaidy Leo.
He was the grandfather I knew, who hugged with bone-snapping force. I wince for the man who suffered and grieved in silence. I wince for the father who longed to present a safe world to his children, who yearned to protect his wife, to shelter his family from hidden fears.
I wince for Zaidy Leo because he never mounted a Holocaust defense. He had flaws and bad behavior. He was scarred and scared, haunted and hopeful. He loved abundantly and relished the success of his children. He whispered names of lost relatives and teased his wife in tongues of Yiddish, Polish, Hebrew, and English. He toiled in soil, planting dreams among the orange trees. He was fluent with hammers and handy with the concrete, finding safety in the daily boundaries and leaving the ambiguous nightmares of yesterday stowed away. He placed his wife on a pedestal and defended her crown with unabashed praise. He looked to his children for the promise of tomorrow. He wasn’t perfect; he induced pain and smiles. He was human.
I never heard him delete his failures with the Holocaust button.
But never did I hear him delete his failures with the Holocaust button. Never did I hear him excuse his flaws by pointing the finger at Hitler. Never did I hear him claim the right to hurt others because of past torture. He didn’t showcase his wounds nor garner sympathy for his losses. He rejected pity and stood tall, priding himself on the homegrown achievements of this family born from the ashes.
He didn’t share the memories that cast the shadows under his eyes. He didn’t speak about the backbreaking labor camps, except for the single infamous comment over the din of a cocktail party crowd: “Cold? I’ll tell you cold!” in reference to coatless winters in Siberia. He never shared the gaping hole of 11 murdered siblings or the ache of simultaneously being orphaned and imprisoned. He didn’t detail the ravaging hunger of starvation, the fear of starring in horror, or the hopelessness of evil.
He didn’t excuse or point fingers. He carved his morals in stone and held exacting standards for his children. But he didn’t use the Holocaust as an excuse for bad behavior.
If anything, the Holocaust was his excuse for faith.
He stood up and gave credit to G0d, blessing the joys and sanctifying the tears.
He pointed at past scars as justification for daily prayer. He sought God as balm for his wounds, religion as containment for his fears. He leaned on holiness and found routine in tradition. Rather than use the Holocaust as an excuse for evil, he used it as a pillar of conviction. He stood up and gave credit to God, blessing the joys and sanctifying the tears. He prayed every morning, wrapping the tefillin around his forearm tightly, leaving imprints of holy reliance woven between numerical tattoos. He found spirituality nestled in trauma and wove religion into his survival coat.
I wish I knew his stories of courage, tales of solo immigration, the history of his confidence. I wish I knew where he stored his passion for life, how he kept it hidden from Nazi thieves, and how he remembered the code to begin from scratch. I wish I knew the language of his strength, not only to better understand my Zaidy, but also to scream it out for my own life. I wish I knew which seeds to nurture his steady faith, which tree to water for perseverance. I wish I knew more stories and details. I wish I had more time; more time to sit close, more time to listen to his heart.
But Zaidy Leo is gone and his queen is trapped in the childhood of Alzheimer’s.
So I wince at the suggestion that the Holocaust has become an excuse. I wince with anger, recounting the bad behavior that produced the Holocaust and seared its grief into Jewish futures. I wince at the implication that recent actions constitute ‘bad behavior’ at all.
If the Holocaust has been ‘used as an excuse,’ it has been to unify a religion, to propel growth, to motivate statehood. Perhaps the Holocaust has been an excuse to bond and motivate, to justify generosity and spur action. Perhaps the Holocaust has been used in order to teach genocide prevention or the perils of standing quietly on the sidelines ignoring pleas for help. Perhaps the Holocaust was our excuse for opening the borders of Israel and welcoming immigrants. Perhaps the Holocaust was our excuse for building museums of Tolerance or gently caring for our elderly survivors.
But don’t hide behind the Holocaust in order the criticize Israel. Don’t point fingers at Israel and simultaneously minimize the Holocaust. Don’t discredit a nation and dishonor a collective history. Don’t claim to be an educator while spreading fiction. Disagree with Israel if you want. State your opinion and pose your truth.
But, on behalf of Zaidy Leo, I beg you: leave the Holocaust out of it.