Sunday, April 15

Teaching the Holocaust

How should we teach about the Holocaust? Is it educationally helpful or problematic to compare our suffering with that of other peoples? What is the attitude of the Jewish tradition to the suffering of gentiles?

In a 1992 Ten Da'at essay, Rabbi Shalom Carmy responds to an educator who argued that an assignment asking students to compare the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust with that of African Americans in the slave trade is “obscene” and a “subversion of yeshiva values.” (Download essay as PDF: click here.)

Rabbi Carmy argues that there exists nothing problematic about the comparison per se, as the slave trade did cause horrendous suffering to millions. If such an assignment increased student desire to alleviate the pains of Jews and gentiles, it would be fine. However, the assignment deserves criticism precisely because it fails to achieve that goal for the following reasons:
1. Cataloguing the evils done to many peoples may lead students to the politically correct conclusion that everybody suffers, but dull their sensitivity to individual cases of inhumanity.
2. Emphasizing the suffering of others sometimes stems from a shallow universalism in which no sympathy remains for one’s own brethren.
3. Why should comparing two instances of immense suffering in a competitive manner increase student sensitivity regarding the atrocities committed (on either side of the comparison)?
4. A focus on who has suffered more may engender the cult of victimhood in which our community adopts a spiritually debilitating attitude that employs our suffering as perpetual grounds for entitlement.

In sum, Rabbi Carmy does not reject the assignment because it shows too much concern for the suffering of others. Rather, he rejects it because it reflects attitudes that inhibit our concern for the suffering of both Jews and gentiles.

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