Why We Study the Holocaust

All high school seniors in the program I work for have to go to the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

I dread visiting Holocaust Museums. I’ve been to the Breman Museum in Atlanta, Yad Vashem in Israel, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe in Berlin. It has gotten easier, but I’ve never gone as a chaperone before and felt the need to constrict my emotions. This tour is for the students, after all, not for me to process my own heritage and the stories within my family which are lost.

In Holocaust Museums my policy is silence. I do not speak and I do not wish others to speak around me. But our docent tour guide today asked a series of questions at the start of the tour I wanted desperately to answer.

She asked, “What is the Holocaust? What is a Holocaust? What is genocide?” She asked us to name genocides occurring right now. She asked the most important question: “Why do we study the Holocaust?”index.jpg

The docent explained how it is the enormity of the Holocaust that makes it so noteworthy. 11 million people were murdered. She explained how this was industrialized and mechanized slaughter, so different than even the war the Holocaust is engulfed in.

Genocide is not a unique violence against Jews, yet we talk about the Holocaust as if it is the only genocide that deserves attention.

My answer to why we study the Holocaust is different. The Nazis were Europeans. The Nazis were cultured Western Europeans. The murderers and the men who planned these horrors were white. And even though Hitler and the Nazis classified Jews as a separate race, the Jews of Europe who were murdered (for the most part) looked like white people.

To some degree, the western world cares and funds Holocaust education projects and Holocaust museums because the victims look like white people and the perpetrators were white people. The Holocaust is a stain on white supremacy. It dismantles the idea that such violence and atrocities only happen in the darker places of the world–Africa or the Middle East. And so if Holocaust education is funded with slogans of Never Again,  Never Again and mean Never Again will white people perpetrate these crimes.

Think about the way the west reacts to terrorism. Terrorism hits Paris in November 2015 and people change their Facebook picture to the French flag. Terrorism strikes Brussels in March 2016 and the news coverage was endless. It’s not to say these attacks were not devastating. Innocent people died. But, just as the Holocaust is not the only genocide, terrorist attacks in Europe are not the only terrorist attacks that matter. As Nadine Ajaka describes in The Atlantic, when terror strikes the Middle East for instance, we are left to our own devices for media coverage and world support.

Terrorism across Syria, bombings in Beirut, in Ankara, in Istanbul, Boko Haram’s killings in Nigeria, and other attacks, even those not motivated by religion. Where is the funding for museums to educate against all forms of hatred and murder?

We study the Holocaust so the West can say “Never again” with a clear conscience. But we can, and should and must, study the Holocaust as one example out of many of human cruelty, human compassion, and human resistance. We must study the Holocaust until Never Again is true for all.



Experiencing White Privilege

As a Jewish person, I do not always feel White. I’ve talked about this before because I see White culture as Christian culture. And yet, I look White, I grew up thinking I was White, and I have White privilege.

I went to the bank a few nights ago to deposit a check and one of the tellers told me the bank was closed. “Please go to the drive up.”

“I just need to endorse a check.” I told her. “Can I come in for a moment to use a pen?”

She told me no, that it was against policy for her to let me in. For a moment, I was upset. I felt I deserved to be able to use a pen at least. Then I realized, I was operating from a position of White privilege. The teller didn’t owe me entry. The teller didn’t owe me anything.

I was about to walk away when the manager got involved. The manager (a White male) told the teller (a Black female) to let me in. “It’s okay,” I told him. “I can use the drive up. It’s not a problem.”

He insisted I come inside and as I was endorsing the check, he quietly chastised the teller. I took the check and headed out so I could use the drive up window, but the manager continued to insist I remain in the branch and speak to a different teller behind the desk to deposit my check.

White privilege was happening to me and around me and I didn’t know what to do to stop it.

I would never feel comfortable saying I’m a person of color because I’m not! I walk through the world as a White person, where people like the White bank manager open doors for me (both literal and figurative) because they view me as one of them. Even though I am female, I am, at least a White female and therefore given certain rights as if they are my due.

Yet, I told the high school students I work with that I am Jewish, female and White and saying I’m White somehow still doesn’t feel right. Maybe, I am speaking from a desire to not be White and to not take responsibility for racism and the oppression I am a part of.

Paul Kivel, writes of a similar issue in his essay I’M NOT WHITE, I’M JEWISH. BUT I’M WHITE: Standing as Jews in the Fight for Racial Justice” for Dayton University. Kivel says that at an Academic Conference on Whiteness (can we talk about privilege to hold such a conference?) none of the White people said they were White. From gender to sexual orientation to class, everyone had a reason to say they were not White.

I do not want to be that person. I am open to thoughts and insights into what it means to claim Whiteness, not just White privilege.


It’s not Mental Illness. It’s not Gun Control. It’s White Supremacy.

A 21 year-old white man shoots up The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing 9 innocent people and the country’s response falls into 3 categories.

  1. We say Dylann Roof is crazy and we need to place him and those like him in mental institutions.
  2. We argue about had better gun laws.
  3. We pick apart Roof’s background to uncover what could have ever brought this normal sweet kid to commit such an act.

Rarely do we see people attribute this domestic terrorist attack to racism. Dylann Roof is a white supremacist. He ran a website called lastrhodesian.com, a reference to the white-minority ruled African country of Rhodesia in the 1960s and 1970s (now Zimbabwe). His license plate is the Confederate flag. According to Kara Bolonik, in her article Dylann Roof Is a Racist and a Terrorist. That’s All You Need to Know About Him  for Dame Magazine, before firing his gun, Roof said:

“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.”

It’s easy and ableist to say Roof is mentally ill. To do so is to say he is not like us. We would never do something like that. He is unstable, if he were neurotypical he would never have committed such an act. In one fell swoop we discount the evidence above and place Roof into a neat package that is easily digestable and separate from ourselves. By this logic, nine black people are dead because Roof is mentally ill.

No. Nine black people are dead because Roof is a white supremacist. Tell it like it is.

CNN’s coverage in the online article Shooting Suspect in Custody After Charleston Church Massacre makes references to a past arrest warrant in February and a possibility that Roof was addicted to opium or other drugs. This is another derailment tactic to keep us away from the issue at hand. Whether or not Roof was on drugs, had done drugs, or never touched drugs in his life is irrelevant. He purposefully shot 9 black people, with the express wish to cause terror.

The same CNN article diverts word space to whether Roof’s father bought him a gun for his 21st birthday, or whether Roof bought the gun himself with birthday money. Although our country needs stronger gun control laws, this is not a case about gun violence. Gun laws are not the issue.

We should be asking what culture he lives in and we contribute to where a young man can have a Confederate flag on his license plate and where the streets in his state are named after Confederate generals and where black men and women die every day at the hands of police brutality. We need to ask how we contribute to a world which supports white supremacy and masks our racism under ableism and issues of gun control.

And as we spend hours and days analyzing Roof, we cannot forget that he murdered 9 people and these people have have names and lives. Join me in mourning:

Cynthia Hurd, 54 years old
Suzy Jackson, 87 years old
Ethel Lee Lance, 70 years old
Rev. De’Payne Middleton-Doctor, 49 years old
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41 years old
Tywanza Sanders, 26 years old
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, 74 years old
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45 years old
Myra Thompson, 59 years old

What we can do now is mourn the dead and change our behavior to create a country that is not dominated by white supremacy.

Honor the Dead Don’t Honor the War

Every year for Memorial Day my family would march down our street set up lawn chairs along the main road and watch the Memorial Day Parade. Everyone from the boy scouts, to the girl scouts, to the high school marching band, to the fire department would get to march in the parade.

I didn’t think about it until this year but Memorial Day is a poorly disguised day to honor the glorious tradition of America.   I have family who are veterans and I’m not writing as an excuse to dishonor those who gave their lives. However, it is in terrible taste to create a holiday where everyone is taught to blindly love the wars America has fought.

My whole life, I’ve been told that we’re honoring the dead’s sacrifice for the living so we can have freedom today. But in reality, we’re honoring war. We’re honoring a tradition of white men who fight for some abstract idea of America. What does this even mean? We may have a democracy in theory but how many people actually feel they have a voice and can make change? Although America was founded under the banner of representation, we were never an egalitarian country: the founding fathers wrote up the Constitution to protect the interests of the rich white male. And that is the same interest of most of the wars we’ve fought in since.

I understand that’s a big generalization, but from my experience being taught to be patriotic and uphold the values of American freedom and democracy I’ve found that as we get older we’re never really told the truth. Sure we find out that our founding fathers owned slaves and that the Civil War wasn’t actually fought over slavery, but we turn the wars America has fought in, into an impossible good vs evil struggle. And America is always the good guys.

I once argued with a friend’s boyfriend about America’s involvement in WWII. He told me that if America hadn’t gotten involved the world would have been lost. First, how can you prove this? Second, this is giving America a hero complex. This is completely ignoring the terrible racism America had against Japanese Americans even before the internment camps, ignoring that Pearl Harbor happened because America cut of Japan’s oil supply, and ignoring that America didn’t open our borders to Jews. There is so much more going on here than good vs evil and America’s great altruism to save the world.

It’s a great idea to have a holiday honoring the dead. However, we’re honoring America’s wars instead. We’re honoring the racism inherent in our system which segregated blacks and whites–racism which still affects people of color today. We’re honoring the lie of self determination we fought for in WWII, while America still held onto colonies and continued to racially oppress its own people. We’re honoring the numerous rapes and war crimes of Vietnam.

My home town is majority white and could be the quintessential American suburb: great school system, affluent area, white population. This is reflected in our Memorial Day parade where almost everyone who walks down the main road is white, middle class and raising high the American banner of white supremacy and patriarchy.

If we really wanted to do something for our troops, how about we implement a program where soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are not encouraged to be islamophobic and racist. How about we protect the Bradley Mannings of the world instead of imprisoning them as threats to national security? What the women of the armed forces? They are suffering through sexual assault at increasing rates by other American troops. And this is the tradition we are honoring: one of violence against everyone.

This parade I had gone to since I was a child is a facade to further imbed American nationalism. I do not feel comfortable supporting a parade which perpetuates ideas of racism, patriarchy and violence.

By all means, honor the dead, but there are no heroes of war.