Sean Spicer’s bumbling, incoherent attempt today to present recent gas attacks in Syria as worse than the crimes of Nazi Germany (with its “Holocaust centers”) has been rightly denounced for its inaccuracy, imprecision, and general historical befuddlement.
But Spicer’s broken Holocaust clock was (surely inadvertently) right about one thing. His statement that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people,” suggesting that German Jews weren’t really German, was quickly and widely denounced. It was shocking, outrageous, combative – and correct.
A deep credo of American Jewish life is that American Jews are fully American. Whether that’s true – and I understand the case that it is – supposing full integration as a uniform phenomenon in Jewish history is ahistorical and ethnocentric.
For example, the idea that Polish Jews were Poles is laughable. Polish identity grew out of a specific manifestation of nineteenth-century nationalism with the Polish language, landscape, and religion (Catholicism) all playing important roles. That movement rejected, and was rejected by, the three million Jews living in Poland on the eve of the Holocaust. Their Jewish identities intertwined with isms like socialism, Yiddishism, Zionism, and religious traditionalism. Only a tiny number tried to identify as Poles. The story for Jews in Russia and Ukraine is much the same.
Germany, though, was supposed to be different. Dating back to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) of the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries and the subsequent political emancipation, German Jews believed – or wanted to believe – they were fully German. There’s a stereotype, but a truthy one, of the Jewish veteran of World War One who wore his German Army bravery medals, clutched his Goethe, and whistled Schumann as the Nazis tore him away from the Volkswagen he hoped to escape on.
The Holocaust pretty much disproves the already-shaky claim that German Jews – who lost their citizenship seven years before the gas chambers were operational – were Germans. I’m not excusing Hitler gassing them Heaven forbid, but Spicer was right that they weren’t Hitler’s own people. In fact, few of those gassed had any connection to Germany at all. The carnage was largely suffered by Polish and other Eastern European Jews; even counting Austria fewer than three percent (180,000) of the six million victims were from the Reich.
The oh-so-American idea that Jews are an integral part of their host country shows up in places like New York Times articles, which sometimes refer to a “daughter of a Russian immigrant” or a “son of a Ukrainian stonemason” with no reference to their Jewish status. Russians and Ukrainians of that era – and certainly the Jews in question – would find the descriptions delusional.
Unfortunately, whether German Jews were German is far from academic. In many discussions of one-state and two-state solutions to the Palestine-Israel conflict, the idea of Jews sharing sovereignty with Palestinians is sometimes seen as feasible.
The takeaway message of the Holocaust, more than anything, is that the Jews must have a standing army in a homeland where Jews who feel unsafe for any reason have an immediate and permanent refuge.
America has been a wonderful host country for the Jewish people, but we’re still guests. I pray the current embrace will last forever, but the only place American Jews are guaranteed security is in our own home, Israel.
The future of the American Jewish welcome is shakier than it’s been since the 1930s, at least. To be clear, I vigorously reject all suggestions President Trump fosters anti-Semitism, and strangely we’ve discovered some of the recent “wave” of anti-Semitism was perpetrated by liberals and even Jews. But recent aggressive cases of vandalism are scary, including the toppled gravestones in St. Louis in a cemetery where four Benkofs are buried. Also, online Anti-Semitism has surged, and I’ve personally been the victim of some ugly examples on the Daily Caller comments sections and on Twitter
It would be easy to reject these phenomena as outliers, but as we’ve seen of late, rules we thought governed American history have become defunct. To be fair, the troubling signs are balanced by good news, such as a president with Jewish grandchildren, identity-building Birthright trips, and Chabad centers from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters.
But there are no guarantees, as Spicer accidentally affirmed. Five months ago, I relocated permanently to Israel, still a proud American Jew (and proud American), but compelled to help construct the communal network of the only place Jews can definitely go whenever they find they need to go.
Am I being over-dramatic? I hope we never find out.
But today’s adamant retorts to Spicer that German Jews were Germans show how little Americans have thought this through.
David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. He has a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford, which he also studied as a graduate student at Hebrew University and NYU. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.