Are Jews obligated to do something special when they visit Berlin? I was recently there for a friend’s wedding. Even though it wasn’t my first time in the German capital, I made it a point to again pop into the Neue Synagoge and stroll around the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (whose name is almost as jarring as the physical environment itself). It seemed like “enough” – that was until I was on-board my flight back to the U.S. I suddenly felt guilty, that my brooding-to-beer ratio had skewed far too heavily toward the latter part. In a pitiful, last-ditch effort to at least redress the quotient, I flicked on The Pianist (2002), offered through Delta’s in-flight entertainment system.
I hadn’t seen the award-winning film before. Based on a memoir of the same name, The Pianist depicts the true story of Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who, against astounding odds, survived the German occupation of his hometown, Warsaw, during the Second World War. There are so many arresting scenes in the film, but I was particularly stirred by its portrayal of the Ghetto Uprising, which began on 19 April 1943 and lasted for nearly a month. The event was seminal in so far as it dramatically altered perceptions. The Nazis discovered that the Jews were human, that they possessed agency, the capacity to act. And as the Nazis bled out from bullet wounds, the Jews discovered that their oppressors were indeed mortal, that they weren’t invincible. (The Jews too were most likely surprised by the extent of their own courage. They as well as their non-Jewish neighbors in the resistance were unquestionably inspired by it.)
This sparked rumination about one of the oft-overlooked, irrational – and hypocritical – facets of Jewish-American political behavior. I persistently argue that – in the face of claims usually emanating from the right – Jewish Americans are not actually voting against their “interests” by backing higher taxes and elected officials whose records on Israel are less-than-stellar. Why? Because most Jewish Americans – who are barely distinguishable from most other secular, educated, middle- to upper-middle-class members of the left – have deliberately reordered their priorities, placing the pursuit of “social justice” far above all else. However, American Jewry’s hostility toward guns – or put differently, American Jewry’s enthusiasm for gun control – is certainly irrational and hypocritical, given the community’s own worries and its own emphasis upon the importance of history.
Have you ever seen a cross between an anaphylactic reaction and a two-year-old’s tantrum (i.e., sweating, shortness of breath, slurred speech)? If not, and if it sounds intriguing, simply tell a Jewish American (who is probably liberal, if not markedly progressive) that you support traditional marriage, right to life, or the Second Amendment. (Be careful though, admitting that you support all three might actually necessitate medical attention!) Ardent Jewish-American sponsorship of abortion and gay marriage (we’re obviously talking about the 90 percent of Jewish Americans who are non-Orthodox) can readily be attributed to secularism. But vehement support for gun control? Not so much.
The Pew Research Center’s landmark study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” asked, “What does being Jewish mean in America today?” The leading answer was “remembering the Holocaust” (73 percent). That this answer along with “having a good sense of humor” (42 percent) trumped “being part of a Jewish community” (28 percent) is tragic. But that’s a different discussion. I can attest to this result. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, rabbis and Jewish educators constantly stressed “remembering” the firing squads, the gas chambers, the crematoria, the mass graves – the six million.
Yet what about understanding? It was only years later – once I had become “politically conscious” – I realized that American Jewry purposefully stops just shy of taking that extra step: understanding. Why? Because to actually understand the Holocaust – or even to attempt to understand the Holocaust – would inevitably shatter the progressive beliefs that most Jewish Americans hold dear.
What are those beliefs? They’re the same fallacious ones that informed and still inform liberalism and, to varying extents, all left-wing ideologies. The biggest is that human nature is essentially good and all that’s needed to perfect it and, therefore, society, is time, money, and “reason.” Yes, those on the left – whether they recognize it or not – trust that the accumulation and embrace of secular, “rational” knowledge – attained by means of “objective,” “scientific” investigation – will allow man (i.e., government) to create heaven on earth. You’re not allowed to point out that both the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and Soviet Communism, two of the most spectacular human tragedies in history, were fulfillments of this progressive delusion.
In turn, most Jewish Americans – and liberals – are convinced that previous generations consisted of little other than racists, blockheads, and warmongers.
They also fail to appreciate – or willfully choose to ignore – the inherent danger of the state. 72 percent of Jewish Democrats disclosed in the Pew survey that they “prefer a bigger government that offers more services.” The state, they don’t appear to grasp, isn’t just something. It’s the accumulation of real human beings, and it’s the intense magnification of their intractable, all-too-human flaws. This is precisely why bureaucracy is a universal phenomenon, and this is precisely why the Founding Fathers chose federalism, a system with an internal system of checks and balances to counteract the monopolization of power – in all of its forms.
Despite the fact that Jews have suffered enormously at the hands of the state in the modern era – perhaps more so than any other people – and despite the fact that many Jewish Americans continue to claim that “it” (i.e., genocide) could happen “here” (i.e., America), Jewish Americans are still overwhelmingly and zealously committed to advancing the policy that has led to totalitarianism: the disarmament of the citizenry. And remarkably, if you ask Jewish Americans to list what they feel are the most inspiring Jewish moments of the 20th century, they’ll almost surely name the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Israeli War of Independence, and the Six-Day War – three events in which self-armament played an essential role.
In March, I was honored to spend nearly three days with the brilliant Ruth R. Wisse in New York City as part of the Tikvah Fund’s workshop series. (The workshop in which I participated examined American Jewish literature through the lens of Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet.) Virtually all of the long-time Harvard professor’s comments pounded my mind with the force of a sledgehammer, but one particular statement has continued rattling my thoughts. At one point, Wisse avowed that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC involves the “single greatest mistake ever committed by American Jewry.”
Her objection was not to the museum’s documentation effort, but rather to the nature of its exhibition. Wisse explained that it serves as little more than a shrine to slaughter. It leaves its visitors with the distinct sense that Jews lacked – and continue to lack – agency, that the Holocaust was merely the furtherance of a Jewish history replete with nothing other than suffering, persecution, and demise. She then argued that the museum ideally should have been chronologically divided into three parts: 1) the Holocaust; 2) Zionism and the Israeli War of Independence, and; 3) the triumph of the modern Jewish state.
She’s right. The museum has the lamentable effect of entrenching, at least for a majority of Jewish Americans, the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” which is ingrained in them throughout and beyond their Hebrew school educations. At the entrance to the permanent exhibit, visitors receive ID cards chronicling the experiences of people who lived in Europe during the Holocaust. “These cards are designed to help personalize the historical events of the time,” states the museum’s website. The final of four sections on the cards reveals the fate of the individual. But how is a visitor who “died,” say a thirteen-year-old, supposed to feel? Exactly what is that notice intended to elicit in terms of action? Maybe a better question: Is it even intended to elicit action? Perhaps not if action would require most Jewish Americans to squarely address – and probably upend – their progressive views concerning human nature and the state.
If Jewish Americans do in fact value life, the past, and individual responsibility, then here’s a clear-cut pursuit: seize upon the right to bear arms, an elemental liberty afforded by the Constitution. I’m not suggesting that Jewish Americans need to stock arsenals in their basements. I’m simply recommending that, at a minimum, they familiarize themselves with firearms. And fine, if Jewish Americans don’t wish to possess firearms because they’re entitled to as participatory citizens, then they ought to for another reason: to prevent the recurrence of the extraordinary, which they themselves confess haunts the conscience.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did not fundamentally transform the power dynamics of the Second World War, but it certainly reminded all sides that self-armament facilitates and preserves agency. That’s a history lesson Jewish Americans should take seriously not only for the sake of moral consistency, but also for the sake of self-preservation.
Jonathan Bronitsky is a historian and political strategist. You can follow him on Twitter @jbronitsky and read his writings at jbronitsky.com.