Jewish Identity and the Holocaust

Topic 7


Part 1: To what extent do you think the Holocaust can or should be a key ingredient of Jewish identity in the 21st century?

In 1995, for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Second World War, I was asked by the BBC to make a film from Auschwitz, and I was reluctant to do so, but I said, “I will only do so if I can tell the story the Jewish way.” And they said, “What’s the Jewish way?” And I said, “A Jewish story may begin with tears, but it always ends with hope.”

So in that half an hour programme, 25 minutes of it were from Auschwitz, but the last 5 minutes showed five-year-old Jewish children at a Jewish day school, and Jerusalem rebuilt. And the story was, really, “The Jewish people lives.” And that, I think, is the way you build in the Holocaust into Jewish identity. Not standing on its own, this black hole that swallows words and leaves you numb, but the story that begins in that pit and ends with this extraordinary phenomenon of Jewish life, stronger really than ever before, and that is how we tell the story. It’s also the way we tell the story on Passover. At the Seder service, we begin with the bread of affliction and the bitter hubs of slavery, but we end having drunk four cups of wine and toasted to the celebration of freedom.

Part 2: Is there something unique about the Holocaust practically?

The Holocaust was not the only significant human tragedy in the 20th century. We’ve had a mass-murder of Armenians by Turkey between 1917 and 1923. More recently, we’ve had horrendous mass killings in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Darfur. The killing rate in Rwanda was greater than that in the Holocaust: 800,000 people murdered, mainly by machete, in a mere hundred days.

What made the Holocaust different was that it was a different kind of thing. It wasn’t a conflict. It wasn’t a political or military conflict. Jews were not a national entity. This was not a political issue. This was an extraordinary and unprecedented thing about purity of race, which hardly existed before. It existed in 15th century Spain, but by and large was a 19th and early 20th century construct. Jews were a religious minority, scattered about around virtually every country in the world, and nobody ever attempted, when there was nothing political or military at stake, to systematically eliminate a part of the population from wherever it could. Nothing of the kind. And there are two phenomena that show that it was unique.

Number one, the incredible lengths to which the Nazis went to hide what they were doing, to destroy all the evidence, to make sure there was nothing written down that could be held against them, et cetera. On the one hand, Himmler declared that this was a great chapter in German glory. On the other hand, they refused to let any evidence of it survive. Now, that didn’t happen in any of the other conflicts that I’ve mentioned.

And secondly, most significantly, because simply to put the Holocaust on the human map, two new concepts had to be created that never existed before. Number one, genocide. Number two, crimes against humanity. And why did they need to be invented? Because very simply, every single one of the accused in the Nuremberg trials made the following defence: “I was only obeying orders.” Now until then, the defence “I was only obeying orders” was a valid defence. If you were obeying orders delivered by a properly constituted government of the country, then you were protected by the doctrine of national sovereignty. A government could decide what went on within its own borders. And all of a sudden, the Holocaust didn’t fit that any more, and so new legal concepts had to be born. And crimes against humanity is a qualification of, and, as it were, a refutation of the doctrine of national sovereignty.

So this attempt to hide, and this need to think in new ways, even to account for the Holocaust legally, these showed that nothing like it ever happened before, and I pray nothing like it will ever happen again.

Part 3: Is there something unique about the Holocaust theologically?

Theologically, just because we believe that every life is like a universe, the Holocaust does not create something new by way of theological dilemma. The theological dilemma is born in Genesis, Chapter Four, where there is sibling rivalry between the first two human children, and Cain kills Abel. God knows that Cain is planning to kill Abel and warns him in advance, and yet nonetheless Cain goes ahead and kills him. So why did God not intervene then? So the question that we raise about the Holocaust could be raised right then.

There’s nothing new theologically about it, but in human terms, obviously it is completely unprecedented. The only possible precedent would be that long trajectory of history of Jewish revolts against Rome, beginning with the Great Revolt, 66 to 73, then the Kitos Rebellion, which was throughout the diaspora as well in the years 115 to 117, and then the Bar Kochba Rebellion of 132 to 135. Put those three together and you get, pro rata, almost a comparable loss of human life. The Jewish people were smaller in those days, but that almost extinguished the flame of Judaism. That’s the only precedent I can think of.

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Discussion Questions

  1. Is it right to make the story of the Holocaust one of hope?
  2. The actions of the Holocaust were not illegal under German law. How should we respond when legality and morality diverge as it did with the Holocaust?
  3. Since the Holocaust has caused the creation of new international law and as such reshaped society, should we learn about it more thoroughly than other, comparable, events?

It is considered important, particularly for non-Jews, that we do not identify the Jewish people only in light of the Holocaust. The history of the Jewish people is a long and rich journey, with many highs and lows – all of which contribute to Jewish culture and identity today. To view Jews only through the lens of the Holocaust neglects the wealth of history, culture and heritage that has gone before. Moreover, it runs the risk of viewing Jews under the banner of victimhood, which is both an injustice to their history but also to the reality of Jewish experience in the Holocaust, where acts of resistance were often present in the Ghettos, the Camps and beyond.


Rabbi Sacks uses the phrase ‘purity of race’ to describe the reason for the genocide of the Jews. It is important to remind ourselves, as Rabbi Sacks does, that race is nothing more than a human construct, rooted in prejudice rather than science. It emerged through a misuse of Darwin’s theory of evolution, falsely suggesting that humans themselves had evolved into a variety of races (like different breeds of dog). Of course, we know that there is only one human race and despite differences in skin colour, height, weight, or any other physical feature, every human shares the same genetics. The Nazi idea of ‘racial purity’ was built around this phoney belief that there are different races of human. When the lie of this is exposed, we can more clearly see the ulterior motives toward power and domination, prejudice and discrimination that are present in the ideology.

In October 1943 Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, delivered a speech in Poznan, Occupied Poland, to senior SS officers. Rabbi Sacks refers to this speech in which Himmler described the actions of the Holocaust as ‘an unwritten and never to be written page of glory in our history’. This tells us several important things about the Nazis’ aims for the Holocaust. Firstly, by describing it as a ‘page of glory in our history’ Himmler shows that the Nazis were proud of what they were trying to accomplish. We might well ask why would they want it to be ‘unwritten and never to be written page’? This takes us deeper into the darkest reaches of the mindset of the Nazis and their objectives. To not write this ‘page of glory’ shows us that the objective was not simply to kill every living Jewish man, woman and child. In fact, the objective was to erase all traces of Jewish people, religion, culture and tradition from the face of history – to wipe it out completely. Because of this, it was essential to destroy the evidence, not due to any guilt or shame, but to make it all seem like it never even happened.

The term ‘Genocide’ was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish-Polish lawyer who, having evaded capture by the Nazis, wrote a book called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944. In this book he defined what he called ‘genocide’ as ‘the murder of peoples’ (to sit in relation to homicide – the murder of a person). This term, after some debate, was accepted and defined under UN Convention as:

…any of the following acts with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The term ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ is defined by the UN as:

… any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

  1. Murder;
  2. Extermination;
  3. Enslavement;
  4. Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
  5. Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
  6. Torture;
  7. Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
  8. Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognised as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
  9. Enforced disappearance of persons;
  10. The crime of apartheid;
  11. Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.


The First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE), sometimes called the Great Revolt, or The Jewish War, was the first of three major rebellions by the Jews against the Roman Empire, fought in Roman-controlled Judea, resulting in the destruction of Jewish towns, the displacement of its people and the appropriation of land for Roman military use, besides the destruction of the Jewish Temple and polity.

The Kitos War (115–117 CE) was one of the major Jewish–Roman wars, 66–136 CE. The rebellions erupted in the year 115, when a majority of the Roman armies were fighting Trajan’s Parthian War on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. Major uprisings by ethnic Judeans in Cyrenaica, Cyprus and Egypt spiralled out of control, resulting in a widespread slaughter of left-behind Roman garrisons and Roman citizens by Jewish rebels. The Jewish rebellions were finally crushed by Roman legionary forces, chiefly by the Roman general Lusius Quietus, whose second name later gave the conflict its title, as “Kitos” is a later corruption of Quietus.

The Bar Kochba revolt was a rebellion of the Jews of the Roman province of Judea, led by Simon bar Kochba, against the Roman Empire. Fought circa 132–136 CE, it was the last of three major Jewish–Roman wars, so it is also known as The Third Jewish–Roman War or The Third Jewish Revolt. Some historians also refer to it as the Second Revolt of Judea, not counting the Kitos War (115–117 CE), which had only marginally been fought in Judea.

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This series, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.