What makes you feel Jewish? For most Jews, Holocaust remembrance is at the top of the list.
The vast majority of American Jews view remembering the Holocaust as essential to their Jewish identities — more than religious activities like observing Jewish law or cultural ones like eating Jewish food, according to “American Jews in 2020,” released today by the Pew Research Center.
More than 75% of survey respondents said that remembering the Holocaust was essential to their Jewish identities, the same as in Pew’s 2013 survey of American Jews. A more universal value — leading a moral and ethical life — came next in the rankings (72%).
Valuing Holocaust remembrance emerged as one of the key commonalities among Jewish American in a report that highlighted the many divisions among them, particularly between the Orthodox and other Jews.
Traditional ideas about what it means to be Jewish no longer resonate for many Jews, according to Pew researchers. But Holocaust remembrance is important across the Jewish spectrum.
“The kind of classical theological formulation was that the Jews were people of God, the Torah and Israel,” said Pamela Nadell, the director of the Jewish Studies program at American University. “There are huge arguments about God, Torah and Israel, so in that sense, remembering the Holocaust has become the new theology.”
The emergence over the decades of Holocaust education programs and memorials even in places like Newport News, Virginia, which lack a significant number of Jews, have created a culture of Holocaust memorial in the United States that is obviously present in the Jewish community as well, said Nadell.
The Holocaust is exceptionally well-documented, with testimonies from survivors and eyewitnesses preserved in perpetuity online, and records emerging from dusty attics and government filing cabinets every year. But remembrance is also threatened by doubters and detractors who question the number of Jews killed, dispute the role different countries played in the Holocaust, and even deny that it ever happened.
Holocaust denial confronts a large majority of American Jews, according to the report: 71% of Jews have heard or read about someone claiming in the past year that “the Holocaust did not happen or its severity has been exaggerated.”
Robust Holocaust remembrance programs are a phenomenon of the relatively recent past.
Holocaust survivors were not always booked solid for speaking engagements, said Nadell. It took years after the liberation of the camps and the end of the war for them to appear on television and it wasn’t until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the Holocaust entered the popular culture, with books such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and films such as “Judgment at Neuremberg.”
Since then, the number of commemorations and memorials has grown. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust to create a national memorial. A senator from Missouri, John Danforth, brought forth a resolution in 1979 to create Holocaust remembrance days in the United States. In 1980, a United States Holocaust Memorial Council was established to oversee the creation of a national museum and help states and localities organize their own civic ceremonies. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993 on the National Mall. The United Nations General Assembly voted in 2005 to create an international day of remembrance.
Jews have their own ways of remembering, said Arielle Levites, who leads the Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education at The George Washington University. Some might light a candle, participate in a commemoration ceremony, donate to organizations that support survivors or teach others about the Holocaust. Memorial events often include references to other genocides and atrocities, with the reminder that “never again,” should the world tolerate mass slaughter.
“I wouldn’t assume that everyone draws the same lessons in remembering the Holocaust,” Levites said. For example, “many American Jews see their spiritual lives and spiritual practices as in some ways a response to inherited Jewish trauma, and the act of spiritual practice and healing as a way of remembering and responding to the Holocaust.”
The essential nature of Holocaust remembrance to Jewish identity might also have something to do with the fact that it’s accessible to Jews who are not religious, said Ilana Weltman, who teaches the class “Holocaust Education & Contemporary Antisemitism” at The George Washington University.
Memorials and ceremonies, while sometimes incorporating religious elements, are often designed to appeal to people of many faiths. Remembrances led by the government are also sometimes intentionally secular, as are, of course, Holocaust education units in public schools.
“History is its own discipline,” Weltman said. “It draws people in who may be uncomfortable with other organized forms of Jewish practice.”
She and another expert, Jack Kliger, who leads the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, noted that remembering the Holocaust is important to Jews of all levels of observance, something that can’t be said for other practices, such as following dietary and other Jewish laws.
He added that Jews of different denominations don’t express different levels of interest in the museum’s exhibits, because the Nazis did not parse Jews based on their religiosity.
Kliger and Weltman also agreed that Holocaust remembrance ranking so highly for Jews reflected other parts of Jewish identity respondents considered important: emotional sensitivity and intellectual curiosity.
After Holocaust remembrance, leading a moral and ethical life, working for justice and equality in society, being intellectually curious and continuing family traditions were all essential for more than half of the Jews surveyed.
“To really understand Jewish values, you must understand our history and where we came from and how we have emerged as a people,” said Kliger, “and the Holocaust is an essential part of that experience.”