The Hamas attack wasn’t the Holocaust

But it must be understood in terms of Jewish trauma

By Yehuda Kurtzer

(JTA) — When unspeakable tragedy hits the Jewish people, we turn to memory — we ask not just, “What happened?” We also ask: “What does this remind us of?”

Maybe refusing to heal from the tragedies of the past is pathological; maybe we are holding on too tight. Maybe it is epigenetic. Mostly, however, I see it as a coping mechanism developed over time, an interpretive strategy we use both to preserve our past and to create continuity. It makes it possible for a persecuted people to promise themselves they will survive whatever they face in the moment. “Never forget” is not merely a slogan to preserve the past; it is also a means of trying to ensure a future.

And, sometimes, I think that our insistence on seeing the past reawakened in the present is a right that we have earned in blood. We are entitled to use our suffering however we would like and if we find it helpful to keep it close, to use it as a means of understanding and thus surviving the present, we can and should do so.

Throughout the last week, Jews have responded to the violent atrocities in Israel by analogizing Hamas’ horrific attacks to stories seared in our memories. I am sure you heard at least one version of the statistic that on Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas carried out the deadliest one-day attack on Jews since the Holocaust. The more liturgically oriented are reading from the biblical books of Lamentations and Job. Some have described the burned bodies strewn across southern Israel with the single word “pogrom,” evoking the sorrows of the Eastern European Jewish experience.

Throughout the week, I felt — and I continue to feel — that it is our right to see this story through the prism of our particularistic collective experience. Gideon Hausner, the prosecutor at Adolf Eichmann’s trial, called this “a historical principle stretching from Pharaoh to Haman.”

Jewish tradition reserves the name “Amalek” for the worst of our enemies, suggesting that they share a lineage back to the biblical Amalekites whose unforgivable sin was to attack the Israelites from the rear, picking off the most vulnerable, refusing to spare the weakest and most weary. I do not need Hamas to be Amalek; our post-biblical sages tell us not to draw straight lines when it comes to connecting the dots between the historical Amalekites and contemporary villains. But the callous murder of infants, the snatching of Holocaust survivors, the vicious murder of young people dancing — all of this is Amalekite behavior. This theological vocabulary allows us to name and understand the depths of the depravity that are facing and then to marshal our resolve to face it for what it is. Our Jewish souls demand it.

I know that this sort of rhetoric is loaded and risky. I am writing this now precisely because I am seeing pushback online against it — suggestions that comparing this week’s events to the Holocaust distort the political realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or create permission for Israel to attack Gaza without constraint. My colleague, historian James Loeffler, cautions that constant analogies of present politics to history can become “willful weaponizations” to be used towards political ends. I’ve also written about these risks, which I worry about in particular when memory is marshaled for the sake of partisan politics. The greatest risk may be the temptation to weaponize our trauma by acting violently toward others. After all, after many of the tragedies of the Jewish past, the Jewish people had little of the power and military resources that Israel has today to respond in kind to our oppressors.

The vocabulary of the Jewish past is rich and evocative and there is always risk that it will be misused, that it will be mapped inappropriately in light of the agency we now wield.

But sometimes, we need to take these risks. Sometimes, being a Jew in the world requires sustaining a relationship between our past, our present and our future. We are bidden to live in the present and feel burdened by the past. I want us right now to forgive our imperfect analogies, to lean into the instinct. I refuse to let anyone deprive us of the few interpretive tools we must use to make sense of what has befallen us. The fact that there was more talk on X about the prospect of Israel committing “genocide” in a military campaign that hadn’t started, than about the actual atrocities committed by Hamas which started this war, is an example of antisemitic gaslighting. The bodies lie before us and we are bereft; will our memory be taken from us, too?

And I also feel that it is entirely possible to turn to these stories and to assert our own humanity without also dehumanizing the other. There are safeguards in place to help us. The State of Israel holds itself to the moral standards of modern warfare and its rule of law, and it knows it must — as in the stunted career of Gen. Ofer Winter, passed over for promotion because he cast the fight against Hamas as a “holy war” — constrain the application of theological paradigms to the practice of warcraft. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) knows the difference between error and intent in the killing of civilians in wartime and it abides by the principles of proportionality. We can trust ourselves to do this, more than we think.

More importantly, however, our victimhood has also been and can be a catalyst for our own self-reflection and growth. A small number of Jews have and always will turn outward and turn their rage into fantasies for revenge. These people need to be stopped. Most of us know, however, that the lachrymosity of our history has been material for the refinement of our moral sensibilities. The traumatic memories of our ancestors that we carry in our stories fuels our prayers and shapes our moral imagination.

As we mourn this week — a Jewish people missing their children and forced to send others into battle, a Jewish people whose clothes are rent and whose faces are wet with tears, a nation that cannot sleep — we must allow ourselves the right to comfort ourselves with the bitter salve that our people has seen pieces of this story before.

Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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