Monday, March 10, 2003

When Will It End?

PETA, the nasty organization that promotes the unethical treatment of humans, has sunk to a new low. Not long after its already notorious letter to Yasir Arafat protesting the use of a donkey in a suicide bombing while saying nothing about the murder of civilians, the group has launched a “Holocaust on Your Plate” exhibit that in pictures and words equates the murder of millions with the treatment of animals. I expect that the sociopathic mentality that drives these misfits will conjure up new violations of human dignity.

Fifty-eight years – two full generations – have passed since the Nazi death machine was crushed. Fifty-eight years after the destruction of most of European Jewry, the Holocaust is more alive than ever in our minds and actions and more alive in the minds and actions of many others. It exists as metaphor and ideological slogan, as an opportunity for litigation and publicity, as a spur for fundraising. As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, activities exploiting the Holocaust continue to increase. If only a fraction of what is now being done would have been done while Jews were being murdered by the tens of thousands!

The situation is certain to get worse. A reader has sent me a tape of a “comedy” routine performed recently on HBO by Sara Silverman, a young woman of little talent and much vulgarity who apparently has discovered the old idea that being outrageous and obscene is regarded in some quarters as being funny. Since Silverman is Jewish and has no sense of boundaries, it’s not surprising that the Holocaust serves as a verbal prop for her outrageousness.

It’s also not surprising that popular culture has exploited the Holocaust. What happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere is in the public domain, both as historical fact and as a contemporary issue. Inevitably, there will be movies and television shows and all the rest that we have become accustomed to. While often the intentions are good, the inevitable result is to trivialize, if not also to cheapen and coarsen. In Hollywood and on Broadway, Springtime for Hitler is year-round.

Interestingly, as a subject, slavery has been treated with greater reverence, at least since the Black Revolution of forty years ago. Why the contrast? Could it be that through our own promotion and exploitation of the Holocaust we have created a Frankenstein that we can no longer control?

There are Jews who have desecrated the Holocaust. Mel Brooks is no Sara Silverman but there is a common denominator. Last year, the Jewish Museum, one of our major cultural institutions, made a distinctive contribution to the desecration of the great genocide. Even PETA’s “Holocaust on Your Plate” has Jewish roots. We are told in its press release that “the project is being funded by a Jewish philanthropist who has also worked with Jewish organizations that highlight the atrocities of the Holocaust. The project is under the direction of Matt Prescott, who is Jewish, and members of whose family perished at the hands of the Nazis.”

The Holocaust is being vulgarized by popular culture and by those with an ideological agenda. In a way, it has also become the victim of the abandonment of Judaism by the vast majority of American Jews for whom very little is sacred. If our past does not occupy their hearts and souls with feelings of awe, why should they regard the slaughter of Jews as a transcendent experience that must not be cheapened?

Sadly, we have promoted the image that commemorating the Holocaust is about money, with abundant helpings of public relations and small measures of solemnity added to complete the picture. We are awash in litigation and restitution and whatever else our obese organizational infrastructure can attach a dollar sign to. For all of our advocacy and smug celebrations of puny triumphs, Holocaust survivors have, with few exceptions, come away with a pittance and this isn’t going to change because most of them are now dead and those who aren’t serve primarily as useful foils for the noise-makers and money-seekers.

Those whose families have bank accounts and insurance policies that were not honored or art that was stolen should be encouraged to seek justice. The rest of us should butt out of the money game. The more we attempt to extract money, the more will others regard our restitution efforts as opportunistic.

Let’s face it, while they have had some uncomfortable moments, the Swiss have pulled off one of the great bank thefts in world history and nothing we now do will alter this. Major European insurance companies have succeeded in the steal business and that too isn’t going to change. We need to tell class action lawyers to chase other ambulances and the Big ____ (fill in the dwindling number) accounting firms to focus on other rip-offs. The conference-hopping corps of Holocaust professionals should be exiled to retirement in Miami where they may run into survivors who have been duped into believing that they will be taken care of. Most importantly, let us remove the $ sign from Holocaust activities. We must remember, of course, the great tragedy of our people but we must remember in ways that are solemn and appropriate. As I wrote some time ago, the murdered Jews died in sanctification of G-D’s name, not in sanctification of money.

The chance of any of this happening is about zero. Too many in organized Jewish life now have a stake in exploiting the Holocaust. They no longer know how to act otherwise. It’s fifty-eight years since the Nazis were crushed. The number of survivors decreases each day, yet we expand our alleged advocacy on their behalf. I imagine that when 2045 arrives and, at most, there will be a tiny number of Holocaust survivors, these activities will still be expanding.