The Dual Jewish Responsibility in the Wake of the Shoa
Rabbi Prof. Yehoyada Amir
The Shoa obliges Jews to confront its memory from a dual perspective: that of the Jewish Shoa survivor and that of a member of the human race that perpetrated and allowed the murder to happen. The particular Jewish dimension of the Shoa is a fundamental component of contemporary Jewish existence. Still, individual Jews belong not only to the people that was the major victim of the Shoa, but also to the human race that executed and enabled the Shoa and that must grapple with the fact that, from this point onward, the “Shoa” is part of the reserve of possible human behavior.
The Shoa instigated a major transformation in human consciousness. Despite the atrocities that abound in human history, human experience had never encompassed such systematic extermination, and human beings could not and should not have been able to conceive of such an occurrence. The Shoa turned systematic extermination into a viable option. From now on, every individual should know that human beings are liable to act in this way, that racial hatred can descend into such chasms, and that murderous totalitarianism is capable of paralyzing virtually all resistance. The series of genocides perpetrated in the second half of the twentieth century have proven this further. Just as the nuclear-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki rendered nuclear destruction an existing option and a genuine threat, so did the Nazi extermination make a repeat of the Shoa—in a Jewish or other context, by Germans or by people of other nationalities—a genuine possibility. We must assume that should we prove unable to stifle the tendency toward extermination, it is conceivable that it will indeed recur in the future.
Jews are obliged to ask themselves all the trenchant questions that all human beings must ask after the Shoa. They must recognize that all the universal warning signs that the Shoa posts for us apply to them as well. They do not have the right to posit that xenophobia cannot become murderous and total nor are they absolved of the imperative to question how democracy can deteriorate and fall into dictatorial hands and how it should defend itself. They, too, must examine what religion and culture can contribute to restraining the beast within humans and whether they may, in certain circumstances, arouse this animal and inflame its instincts.
The Shoa compels us to respond in the affirmative to the question, “If this is a man,” posed by Primo Levi, the Shoa survivor, who, many years thereafter, could no longer find the strength to continue to live. The murderers, the murdered, the survivors, and those who live in the wake of the Shoa and face the danger that something similar may occur once again—all these are human beings. The memory of the Shoa must enable us, as Jews and as human beings, to respond with equal determination in the affirmative to the moral and human plea inherent to Levi’s cry. It behooves us, it is possible, and it is essential that we mold our society and our culture, before God and with our fellow humans, by waging a constant struggle to fulfill the imperative to choose life—so that we may live.