Natalie Portman lately has developed a penchant for creating headlines about the Jews. This past week, she went on record saying, “The Shoah is no more tragic than other genocides, and that she questioned its prominence in Jewish education.”
When I first read her comment, I had to dig deeper into the story. In a country where over a third of the people no longer know about the Holocaust, I think it is important that Jews especially never forget what happened to our people.
She recalls that in her education in Israel, she was shocked to learn about the Rwandan Genocide.
- “I was shocked that that [genocide] was going on while I was in school. We were learning only about the Holocaust and it was never mentioned and it was happening while I was in school. That is exactly the type of problem with the way it’s taught. I think it needs to be taught, and I can’t speak for everyone because this was my personal education,” she told The Independent.
In a way, I cannot blame Ms. Portman for expressing herself the way she did. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, and being from a large family of Holocaust we often heard growing up hearing about international tragedies, “What’s in it for the Jews?” Or, “What does it mean for the Jews?” As Jews, we tend to see the outside world only as it relates to the Jewish people. Some of my Orthodox and Hassidic friends acted at times that they could care less if something bad happens to someone else—only if it doesn’t happen to the Jews.
But is this behavior really unique to Jews? Do we see Armenians complaining about the Holocaust of the Jews? Or American Indians complain about the deaths of black African slaves? Do we hear any protest from certain Democratic black leaders about the black slave practice that is taking place in over 22 Arab and African countries today?
Nada. Zip. Not a whimper.
Perhaps it is natural for ethnic groups who have experienced great suffering to stay focused on their own experiences, rather than speak out about other people’s experiences. This, of course, does not make it right, but perhaps the Jews are no different from the other peoples of our world.
Or are we really the same? Not all wars of genocide are necessarily the same.
WHY IS THE HOLOCAUST DIFFERENT?
Actually, in many ways, the Holocaust of the Jews was different because Germany was not some backward third-world country we see in the world today. Germany was one of the leading technologically advanced nations in the world—yet their technology yielded to an animus that was savage—even atavistic. Germany was also the leader in culture, the arts, the sciences, philosophy—even in biblical studies! Rudolph Kittel’s brilliant NT Greek lexicon of the New Testament remains one of my favorite reference texts, but Kittel was an avowed supporter of Hitler. Even Carl Jung, one of the most brilliant psychologists who had numerous Jewish disciples endorsed the Hitlerian view that the Jew is a parasite that subsists upon European culture to survive.
The systematic and bureaucratic management of the Holocaust, employing the newly minted IBM computer technology to quickly but efficiently identify and round up Jews and other minorities, used them as slave laborers and ultimately exterminating them. Therefore, Ms. Portman, the Holocaust is different from that perspective.
Nazi Germany proves that technological evolution and moral evolution are not conjoined, as we would wish it to be. This is a valuable lesson—especially today.
ISRAEL IS NOT PERFECT
Now, as far as Israel goes, Israel has always tried to live by this ethical principle; it has gone out of its way to help any people who have suffered catastrophic loses, whether through natural disasters or disasters that are man-made. We could expect no less from a people who suffered from the Holocaust.
Is Israel perfect? Of course not. No country is.
But I suspect Natalie Portman believes that as Jews, we ought to act better. Moreover, on this point, I think she is correct. Israeli education has not always lived up to its potential—and it ought to teach its citizens about the history of genocide in high school history classes.
THE MATTER OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
Natalie Portman might have made a much stronger point, was she more familiar with 21st-century history. In fact, most of Israel would have applauded her had she made the following point.
For decades, the State of Israel has refused to recognize the Armenian genocide in 1915-1917—at least officially. Although over 85 % of Israelis recognize this historical reality as having taken place, Israel—because of its tepid relationship with Turkey—rejected a bill sponsored by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid to have Israel recognize the Armenian Genocide, in a preliminary vote on February 14th, 2018. Lapid said, “There is no reason that the Knesset, which represents a nation that went through the Holocaust, shouldn’t recognize the Armenian Genocide and have a remembrance day for it.” For the record, neither did US President Barack Obama ever use the word “genocide” in connection with what happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
My father Leo Israel Samuel, who lost five brothers, sisters, and parents, worked in several concentration camps as a tailor. Some of you may recall the movie about Oscar Schindler, where he said, “Where can I find a good tailor?” Well, my father’s tailoring skills saved his life. For a short time toward the end of the war, my father worked for Amon Leopold Göth was an Austrian SS commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in Płaszów, (better known to you as the villain of Schindler’s List) located in German-occupied Poland. Göth was once boasting, “We Germans showed the Turks how to kill the Armenians.” My father sheepishly asked, “Who were the Armenians?” He snarled, “they were a type of Jew.”
All genocides are interrelated. Had Hitler seen a true war crime tribunal carry out justice, perhaps he might have reconsidered his plans to destroy the Jews. Then again, maybe not.
Regarding the Armenian genocide, the world refused to do anything to the Ottoman Turks responsible for committing the genocide; nor did they stand trial. Political pressure stymied all Allied forces to establish an international tribunal in Malta from 1919-1920, where Ottoman war criminals held in detention. No justice was ever given to the poor Armenian people. I am convinced Israel will eventually do the right thing and acknowledge this terrible genocide; but to do so, it must risk deteriorating its relationship with Turkey.
On a personal note, I have often co-written Yom HaShoah programs with my rabbinic and non-Jewish ministers at Yom Hashoah events in Iowa and Illinois, which sometimes drew about 700 people! We dedicated an entire week to exploring the different historical, ethical, and theological aspects of the Shoah. Every year, we crafted a mission statement for the program that addressed the various genocides taking place along with the traditional enemies of the Jewish people who still dream of destroying our people in a second Holocaust.
In all the years I attended the Yom HaShoah events here in San Diego, I do not recall ever hearing local Jews address the kind of moral issues Natalie Portman brought up. That needs to change.
The real question we must ask ourselves is, are we willing to act as our “brothers’ and sisters’” keepers? Perhaps the most profound Christian interpretation of this question comes from the early 19th-century Baptist preacher, C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), where he writes about Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
- I put it to the consciences of many silent Christians, who have never yet made known to others what God has made known to them—How can you be clear from guilt in this matter? Do not say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” for I shall have to give you a horrible answer if you do. I shall have to say, “No, Cain, you are not your brother’s keeper, but you are your brother’s killer.” If, by your effort, you have not sought his good, by your neglect you have destroyed him.”
I would just like to give Natalie Portman one reason why Jews today should never forget the Holocaust. As recently as April 21, 2018, some Gazans sent large swastika kite bombs over Israel, some of which caused considerable damage, in honor of Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Practically on the day of Yom HaShoah itself, the Iranian general Seyyed Abdolrahim Mousavi, who is currently acting as the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army, issued a threatening statement against Israel. He said, “We will destroy the Zionist entity at lightning speed, and thus shorten the 25 years it still has left . . .”
Hitler’s ghost lives on—whether American Jews want to admit it or not.
Once again, I want to extend kudos to Natalie Portman for bringing up a topic that Jews ought to discuss. Because each of us is our brother’s and sister’s keeper, we must remember the wise aphorism of George Santayana who taught, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
 Turkey’s EU Minister, Judge Giovanni Bonello And the Armenian Genocide – ‘Claim about Malta Trials is nonsense’. The Malta Independent. 19 April 2012. Retrieved 10 August 2013
 C.H. Spurgeon and T. Carter, 2,200 Quotations: From the writings of Charles H. Spurgeon: Arranged topically or textually and indexed by subject, Scripture, and people (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 228. Vol. 33. 672.