Why Call It The Shoah?

Image: Barbed wire fence at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. Photo by Barak Broitman via pixabay.com. Public domain.

The murder of six million Jews and many others (Roma, homosexuals, disabled persons, and others) in the 1930’s and 40’s in Europe are often referred to in English as “the Holocaust.” Some Jews, myself included, prefer the Hebrew word “Shoah.” Here’s why:

The word “holocaust” is the Anglicization of a Greek word, ολοκαύτωμα [complete combustion.] It appears in some English Bibles (for instance, the Douai – Rheims Catholic translation) as the translation for עֹלָה [oh-LAH, meaning offering that will be completely burnt.] An example:

Isaac said to his father: My father. And he answered: What wilt thou, son? Behold, saith he, fire and wood: where is the victim for the holocaust? – Genesis 22:7, Douay-Rheims translation)

Here is the same verse, in the Jewish Publication Society translation:

Isaac then said to Abraham his father, “Father!” He answered: “Here I am, my son.” And Isaac said, “Here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?” – Genesis 22:7, JPS translation

Later, the word “holocaust” was adopted by English writers to mean “complete destruction by fire.” It first appeared in reference to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis in a British newspaper, the News Chronicle of December 5, 1942. From there the use spread until today, when that has become the primary definition of the word.

So why use “Shoah” instead?

“Holocaust” entered the English language as a term for a sacrifice, specifically for the sacrifices asked of the Jews by God. For anyone who grew up using a Douai-Rheims Bible, that still is a primary meaning of the word. It therefore implies a particular understanding of the events in Europe: that the murder of the Jews was a sacrifice acceptable to God. For many of us, this is a blasphemous implication.

That’s why I always use “Shoah” unless I am talking or writing to someone who is likely not to know the word. Even though “Holocaust” is generally in use as a term for the Nazi “Final Solution,” it still has the power to suggest that there was something acceptable to God in those events.

My own understanding of the Shoah is that it was the culmination of centuries of antisemitism in Europe, purely the actions and intentions of human beings, not anything wanted by the Holy One. That’s why I and many others prefer the term “Shoah.”

Anti-Zionism / Anti-Semitism

 

Rabbi John Rosove is a distinguished rabbi in Southern California. While I do not have the pleasure of knowing him personally, I am a longtime reader of his blog and I regard him as a senior rabbi from whom I learn, all the time. This week he posted this piece about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is so well-written, so clear that I know I cannot possibly explain the issues any better, so I’d like to share it with you.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Ruth Adar

This past week I heard a young UCLA alumna say on a radio talk-show (KPFK FM) that it is not anti-Semitism when she said that the State of Israel has no right to exist. The program was addressing the run-up to the upcoming decision of the UC Board of Regents related to the debate on […]

via An Open Letter to a UCLA Alumna who confused anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism — Rabbi John Rosove’s Blog

The Wind Report: Jews & Politics

Would you like to read some solid Jewish analysis of politics in this election year? I recommend The Wind Report, a blog by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

WindmuellerOne of the many interesting and valuable classes I took in rabbinical school had to do with Jewish community organizations and life. Dr. Windmueller was one of the teachers for that course. He has since retired from the faculty of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and now his expertise is available to readers with wifi and a smartphone or computer.

Dr. Windmueller’s expertise is not purely academic. From 1973-1985 he served as Executive Director of the Jewish Federation in Albany, NY, and for the following ten years he was the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation‘s Community Relations Committee. His tenure at the LA Federation took place during a particularly tumultuous period for the city. In short, Dr. Windmueller knows politics, and he knows Jews and politics.

I also recommend his book, The Quest for Power: A Study in Jewish Political Behavior and Practice. In it, he puts the situation of 21st century American Jews into a historical and sociological context.

Don’t rely on random social media messages from who-knows-who for information about “the Jewish vote” in this election – check out The Wind Report for good information.

 

Religion in the United States

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. – First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Many of the refugees and immigrants who have built the United States of America were fleeing religious conflict, and our Founding Fathers wanted no part of established religion. Ironically, in the 227 years since that amendment was made to the Constitution, we have become one of the most religious nations on earth. The critical difference is that there is no established religion, no religion legislated to take official precedence and to benefit from tax revenues.

The majority of Americans are some variety of Christian. According to the Pew Forum, here’s the breakdown:

  • 25.4% of households identify as Evangelical Christians
  • 22.8% are Unafflilated (includes Atheists, Agnostics, and “nothing”)
  • 20.8% of households identify as Catholic
  • 14.7% identify as Mainline Protestant
  • 6.5% identify as Historically Black Protestant
  • 1.9% identify as Jewish
  • 1.6% identify as Mormon
  • 1.0% identify as Unitarians or other liberal faiths
  • 0.9% identify as Muslim
  • 0.8% identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • 0.7% identify as Buddhist
  • 0.7% identify as Hindu
  • 0.6%, when asked, respond that they “don’t know.”
  • 0.5% identify as Orthodox Christians
  • 0.4% identify as “Other Christian”
  • 0.4% identify as “New Age” including Pagan or Wiccan
  • 0.3% identify as “Other World Religions”
  • 0.3% identify as following Native American religions

 

I confess that I find demographic information fascinating. I got all this information from a graphic on the Pew Forum website, but instead of arranging it by belief group, I’ve listed the groups by size. Some items that interest me:

  • Jews are definitely a minority. However, there are many religious groups even smaller than ours.
  • If we sometimes feel vulnerable, how must the people in even smaller groups feel?
  • Does the Jewish community have a responsibility to make sure that those “more minor” voices are heard in national discussions?
  • Do we have a responsibility to make sure that smaller groups are protected from persecution?
  • If we took an intersectional look at this list in terms of power and audible voices in the national discussion, how would it change? How do race, class, and similar factors intersect with religion?

What do you think? What does this list say to you?

 

Searches That Worry Me

Image: Person questioning – hatena, by ijmaki.

From time to time, I use this blog to talk a little about some of the unfriendly things people say about Jews. I do it to educate, so that someone searching for information will learn something about “Talmud” or the Blood Libel that isn’t from a hate group. When I do a search for certain topics, it’s frightening how much sewage that comes up. I’m trying to fight that with better information.

The titles I put on those topics are perhaps a little alarming to some readers (e.g. Is the Talmud Full of Lies?) but I word them that way for a reason: I want the person asking the question to find my answer at least as soon as they find an antisemitic take on the subject.

The frequency with which searchers seek those topics on my blog saddens and worries me. One of the most popular queries on Google that brings people here has to do with Jews and money, usually phrased as “Why are Jews rich?” They find Why do Some People Think All Jews are Rich? and I hope it is helpful to them. I periodically refine that post when I have better information, because I want it to be as forthright as possible.

But I have to admit, it chills me that that post gets so many hits. It got 961 hits in January, and at this writing, 11 hours into the day, it already has 20 hits today. That’s almost two hits per hour!

Gentle readers, if you have an idea for similar topics that might be helpful to someone who’s trying to sort out what to believe about Jews, I welcome your suggestions.

What is a Semite?

Image: Tee shirt with the words “Yo Semite.” Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History Museum Store.

Actually, there’s no such thing. “Semitic” is a designation for a language group that includes Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew.

The term was coined in the late 18th century by August Ludwig von Schlözer, a historian, and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, a German Protestant theologian. They derived it from Shem, the name of one of the three sons of Noah in Genesis 10, via the Greek pronunciation Σημ (“seem.”)  As critics at the time pointed out, this was problematic because in that passage, the Canaanites (who also spoke a language from this group) were descended from another brother, Ham.

Academics began to refer to Jews as “Semites” in the 19th century. Pseudoscientific theories about race abounded in the West and were used to justify hatred towards Jews and other people deemed undesirable by those in power. Targeted groups included people of African descent, Irish descent, Asian descent, and those with brown skin. So-called scientists strove to identify physical characteristics which “proved” that those groups of individuals were inferior to whites. Jews were also one of the targeted groups and were referred to as “Hebrews” or “Semites” to underline the notion of a Jewish race (a concept that completely ignores Judaism’s long history of accepting converts.)

German journalist Wilhelm Marr used the term “antisemitismus” [antisemitism] as a more scientific-sounding, more elegant alternative to “Jew hatred.” in 1880 he published a pamphlet, Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of the Germanic Spirit over the Jewish Spirit, which outlined his theory that Jews were infiltrating and damaging German culture. In the same year he founded the Antisemiten-Liga [Antisemitism League] in Germany and the term antisemitism moved into popular use.

It is probably more useful to use the term “Jew hatred” for the fear and hatred of Jews, rather than to get embroiled in arguments about whether or not Arabs are also “Semites” and therefore subject to “antisemitism.” However, courtesy of some 19th century Germans, we seem to be stuck with this misnomer.

Jewish tradition as well as Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore equal:

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. – Genesis 1:27

Islam also asserts the equality of human beings, as established in the Quran. God makes distinctions among people only according to their individual righteousness:

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). – Quran 49:13

Therefore the hatred of any group of people merely because of their designation as a member of that group is wrong according to all three Abrahamic religions. Nor does science perceive any difference among homo sapiens: despite differences in coloration or belief, we are all one humanity.

A Visit to the Anne Frank House

Whenever Linda or I told anyone we were going to Amsterdam, the first question was usually, “Are you going to get stoned?” (No.) The second question was, “Are you going to the Anne Frank House?”

The Anne Frank Huis (its Dutch name) is the third largest tourist attraction in the city, after the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. It is the building where eight Jews hid from the Nazis for two years during WWII, only to be ratted out by an unknown person near the end of the war. Only one of the eight survived, Otto Frank. After the Nazi raid on the house, a friend found a collection of books and papers that she recognized to be the diary of Anne Frank, Otto’s teenaged daughter. The Diary of a Young Girl became a bestseller, a play, and has been made into a movie as well.

To get a sense of the popularity of this museum, look at the photo above. This is the line of people waiting to buy a ticket early on a weekday morning. We’d been told it was best to get tickets online before we even left home, but there were already no tickets available for the dates when we’d be there. At our hotel, we were assured that the best thing to do was get over there and wait in line before the doors opened.

I had visited the “Secret Annexe” in the summer of 1973, and I knew that it was not accessible for a person on wheels. A quick check of the website told me that that was still the case. So that day we split up: Linda went to visit the Anne Frank House and I had other adventures. She arrived at 8 a.m. to find the line in the photograph above. I don’t know how long those people had been waiting, but it was a long line even so early.

Linda tells me that the museum and the hiding place itself were very educational and very moving. Certainly the hiding place had made a huge impression on me when I visited there at age 18. Anne’s diary comes to life there, when the reader can feel how cramped the rooms are, and how careful one must be to be utterly quiet when anyone else in on the premises. As an American kid used to moving about at will, I remember marveling that the eight people hiding there for over two years managed to hang onto their sanity. It is unbearably sad to know that they went to the camps, after all they’d been through, so near to the liberation of Holland.

If you wish to get a sense of the Anne Frank House, the museum website has an excellent online exhibit complete with a virtual tour.  I know that Linda’s glad she went; I’m glad I saw it when I could climb all those stairs.