Why the author of ‘People Love Dead Jews’ is sorry her book is a huge hit
This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission.
Dara Horn may be enjoying the success of her book “People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present,” but she confesses that its popularity is also a bit disturbing. A part of her “wishes people liked it a little bit less, because that would make its depressing points less true,” she says.
After decades as an award-winning novelist and literary scholar, Horn emerged this year as a leading public intellectual – particularly in Jewish circles – with her collection of essays exploring Jews’ role in the non-Jewish imagination. Specifically, “how people use stories of dead Jews to feel better about themselves,” she says.
Whether Jews have been demonized as malevolent conspiracists, or sanctified and universalized as hapless victims, the various narratives have almost nothing to do with the actual human beings in question, Horn argues.
She contends that this process across history has resulted in dehumanization and erasure, both figurative and literal.
Her latest book, her first nonfiction work, featured on a raft of best-of-2021 lists and recently won a National Jewish Book award.
Speaking to Haaretz from her home in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and four kids, she says it has been “scary how much people appreciate this book. I was prepared for much more pushback, and there’s been almost none. From the broadest possible spectrum of Jewish readers – from super religious to secular people from around the world – I hear: ‘I felt uncomfortable my whole life and I never understood why. This book articulated this for me. Thank you.’”
It seems as if the headlines have been in league with her publicity team. From the anti-vaccination movement’s appropriation of Jewish victimhood to the conspiracy-fueled hostage crisis at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, current events have been proving her points.
Just as the Texas attack was playing out and International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 neared, the story broke that after years of investigation, researchers believed they had discovered how Anne Frank’s family was betrayed. (Horn devotes a chapter to Frank in “People Love Dead Jews” as an example of the erasure of Jewishness in the quest for a universal message in the Holocaust.)
Following a six-year investigation by 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists, it was announced that notary Arnold van den Bergh was “very likely” the man who betrayed the location of the “secret annex” where the Frank family was hiding. Van Bergh did it to save his own family, and the big news: He was Jewish.
When asked what she thought of the revelation, Horn exclaims: “Finally the dream has been achieved! We’ve cracked the case! We figured out how to make the Holocaust the Jews’ fault!” She uses the New Jersey-twanged sarcasm that she deploys with effect in the companion podcast to her book, “Adventures With Dead Jews.”
She adopts the same humorous tack when asked about the FBI statement that the Texas hostage crisis was “not specifically related” to the Jewish community. “Well, what could it possibly be? You know, it’s not like he tried to hold up a pet store but, you know, the security was just too good at the pet store and they wouldn’t let him in. And so he went to the synagogue.”
More seriously, she says that while the statement was “idiotic” and deserved the outcry it provoked – FBI chief Christopher Wray later contradicted the statement and called the attack “an act of terrorism targeting the Jewish community” – Horn believes that the original remark actually contained a grain of truth.
The Colleyville gunman asked the rabbi he was holding hostage with three congregants to call Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, believing she would be able to arrange the release of a Pakistani prisoner in the United States serving a life sentence for the attempted murder of American soldiers.
“The FBI was totally correct in a way when they said this attack was not about the Jews, because the Looney Tunes conspiracy theories are not about actual Jews – it never is,” Horn says. “It’s about the role Jews play in this non-Jewish imagination. This guy really thought some rabbi in New York was going to be able to pull strings and get a terrorist out of prison.”
Already in 2018 and 2019, the synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, put real-life Jews in the crosshairs of white nationalist conspiracy theorists who believed that fictional Jews were concocting nefarious schemes to eliminate European civilization. And now the Texas hostage taker used the rabbi and congregants of Temple Beth Israel as tools in his antisemitic narrative.
Giving the trolls some credit
After these dramas play out, Horn says, Jews, Judaism and antisemitism often take a back seat in the conversation. “There’s mental jujitsu that people do to make it about anything other than what it is. Like: ‘This is about violent extremism.’ Or it’s about being right-wing or left-wing,” she says.
“It becomes a political football thing in which the real problem becomes people who don’t vote like us. You see that happening every time – there’s never any place in this conversation where it’s about Jews as actual people or agents of their own choices.”
It’s not hard to agree with Horn when she argues that these conversations are useless when it comes to stemming the rising tide of antisemitic violence. But she also pokes holes in more conventional wisdom when it comes to educating about the Holocaust and against bigotry in general.
First, she questions the belief that the more people learn the horrific details of the Nazi Final Solution, the less likely they are to be antisemitic.
Horn acknowledges that the massive efforts by Holocaust museums and archives to compile documentation may have been a “worthwhile effort” 30 years ago when combating Holocaust denial was the main challenge. But she questions the assumption by many Holocaust educators, and the philanthropists who helped build the museums, that learning more about the Final Solution in a classroom, at a museum or on social media serves the optimistic goal of “inoculating people against antisemitism.”
As she wrote in a 2019 essay that became part of the book: “The idea was that people would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.”
But, sadly, she’s trenchant when discussing the belief that “never forgetting” the Holocaust means extinguishing the sentiments that inspired it. While “not ridiculous,” she says, this notion seems to have been proved wrong.
“When people are trolling you on social media by photoshopping you into a gas chamber, it seems to me that the problem isn’t that this person doesn’t know about gas chambers,” she says. “I mean, let’s give the trolls some credit: they’ve heard of Auschwitz.”
She also recalls her visit to “Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” the immersive Holocaust touring exhibition created by the for-profit company behind the popular “Human Bodies” exhibit featuring cadavers. There is a fine line between in-depth Holocaust education and disaster porn, she says.
She described that visit in a 2019 Atlantic essay that was incorporated into “Dead Jews.” “As I read the endless wall texts describing the specific quantities of poison used to murder 90 percent of Europe’s Jewish children, something else occurred to me. Perhaps presenting all these facts has the opposite effect from what we think. Perhaps we are giving people ideas,” she hypothesized.
In her essay, book and podcast, Horn critiques other core assumptions in today’s Holocaust education, particularly as it’s shaped in various museum experiences – beginning with the fact that the Holocaust is so central to educating against antisemitism.
“I write that people tell stories about dead Jews that make them feel better about themselves. And the Holocaust is one of those stories that make people feel better about themselves,” she says. “Because you go to a Holocaust museum, which will presumably make you feel sad about what happened, but you feel good about yourself because you’re like: ‘I would never do this.’ Okay, true, yeah: You probably wouldn’t mastermind the murder of millions of people in industrialized circumstances. Go you! I mean, the bar is set pretty low.”
Taking part in the erasure
Her other major objection to the way the Holocaust is framed – part of a larger critique – are the efforts to universalize Hitler’s victims, which she sees as a form of eliminating Jewish and Yiddish religion culture from the narrative.
This ranges from Anne Frank to “Daniel,” the fictional hero of “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story,” the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s children’s exhibition about a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany.
Horn takes issue with the need to portray Jews who suffered and died in the Holocaust as being similar to the people viewing the exhibition. Avoided is the fact that so many of them lived visibly Jewish lives.
Why, she asks, did the experts who put the exhibit together choose soccer trophies and Daniel’s father’s war medals to display on his bedroom wall instead of his Jewish study books or Zionist scout uniform?
“Because the people who died in the Holocaust weren’t all just like you and me. Actually, a lot of people who died were [ultra-Orthodox] Hasidim. So is the message that it would be okay to murder them because they weren’t like you and me? If they have different clothes and different hairstyles, is it then totally fine to murder them? … Why do we care about how these people died if we really aren’t interested in how they lived?” she asks.
“The project of the Holocaust was to erase a civilization,” she continues. ”So why are we participating in that by also doing that? We’re not valuing the civilization that was destroyed – and maybe part of the problem was that nobody at the time valued the civilization that was destroyed either.”
Instead of educating against bigotry by pushing a line of “everybody is really the same,” she believes “the goal should be to encourage curiosity about, you know, different ways of being in the world.”
Another irritant for Horn is the argument that antisemitism must be confronted because Jews are canaries in the coal mine, and a society plagued by Jew hatred is clearly heading toward intolerance, hate and Nazi-style fascism. It irks her most when it’s Jews who are making that case.
“How degrading it is to yourself to make that argument, the whole ‘first they came for the Jews’ idea,’” she says. “You’re forced to erase and denigrate yourself in order to gain some kind of public empathy. Because then what you’re saying is that we should all care when Jews are murdered and maimed because, you know, it might be an ominous sign that real people might later get attacked.”
Horn says she wrote the book as an “intellectual exploration” of ideas she developed in her work, and less as a result of her personal experiences as an observant Jew. So she has been somewhat surprised at the readers’ deeply emotional reactions to her work. Many Jewish readers, after telling her how much they agree with her ideas, will continue with personal accounts of experiencing overt and covert antisemitism.
“They’ll say ‘I never told anyone this, but…’ and hit me with a long degrading story about something that happened to them. What I discovered is that for a whole lot of my readers, this is something that they’ve experienced in their personal life and in really profound and disturbing ways.”
But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. There have also been heartening responses from “engaged and enthusiastic” non-Jewish readers, including members of other minority groups who relate to the experiences of Jews – “so that’s been encouraging,” she says.
Originally, she planned for Israel to play a larger role in the book, but had to cancel a trip to gather material in early 2020 due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, a family trip she planned to Israel for last summer was postponed to February, but now it’s on hold because of the omicron variant.
Publishing during COVID, she says, hasn’t been as bad as she feared. As much as she misses meeting her readers in person on conventional book tours, “In the past I would consider a book event amazing when 200 people showed up. And now I do a Zoom and there are 900 people – and it’s not because I suddenly became that much more awesome.
“This book has been so successful, in part, because everything’s become so accessible as a result of the ways in which we’ve had to adapt. So I guess that’s a silver lining.”
This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission.