Thirty-three years after the collapse of Nazi Germany, Jews were alive and well in America. I was fresh out of college at the time, facing a rotten US economy and having a tough time finding job opportunities. When a suburban Temple’s Hebrew high school program offered a teaching position despite the awkwardness of my being Orthodox, I accepted. The majority of teachers, as it turned out, were Orthodox or Traditional. The pay was great, the students were ambivalent… I ended up staying three years.
The challenge evolved into a worthwhile endeavor. The students came to class with “attitude”, not really wanting to be there in the first place and expecting to be bored out of their minds. And yet, they weren’t. We’d been given enough latitude to deal with the attitude. We were permitted to do counter-revolutionary, “old world” things that had become extinct amongst this particular population. And so, we took our reluctant teenagers sukkah hopping in neighborhoods that they never knew existed, invited them into our homes to spend Shabbat, and taught them about foreign substances like cholent and sufganiyot. They were charmed by Judaism, so much so that we were even allowed to revise the curriculum and include a delicate subject matter: the Holocaust.
I mean this literally and without irreverence. We were “allowed” because the Temple’s educational chairman called a board meeting to discuss the possibility and then voted on it. The parents were deeply troubled about the whole idea; it passed by the slimmest margin. These were highly affluent, third and fourth generation American suburbanites whose children had zero exposure to anti-Semitism and there was zero desire to believe that it still existed. But this was also 1979, when a man named David Duke was campaigning for Louisiana’s State Senate and making headlines. Duke, a white nationalist, was a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a vocal anti-Zionist who’d made public assertions regarding Jewish control of the Federal Reserve, the government, and the press. The fact that he came in second with 26% of the vote was still unsettling to a lot of Americans.
With that in mind, I posed the BIG question about “Never Again” and assigned an essay asking students to answer the following: Do you think it’s possible that a Holocaust could “ever again” happen … in the United States? The fall-out was swift. The school’s educational director, under a deluge of complaints from outraged parents, revoked the assignment. When, in protest, I mentioned the Japanese-American internment camp, it fell on deaf ears. This was a mere 33 years after Auschwitz.
Another 33 years have now passed, and I just ran into one of my former students. It was a pleasure to see him again and a pleasure to reminisce about old times. “You know,” he said, “I still think about that Holocaust assignment. My niece attends Rutgers University. Have you been following the news? They’re saying ‘Never Again’ is happening again, only this time the Nazis are Jewish.”
Sadly, yes, I’d already been contacted by the OU’s JLIC | Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus educator, Nataly Weiss. In tribute to International Holocaust Memorial Day, a Rutgers student organization known as BAKA (Students for Belief, Awareness, Knowledge and Activism) organized a Jan 29th event under the title “Never Again for Anyone”. To clarify, this program had nothing to do with memorializing Holocaust victims; its purpose was to promote the claim that Israel’s government is involved in the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.
It’s refreshing that Rutgers students acknowledge the Holocaust at a time when other university professors are claiming it was just creative historical imagination. But it also takes some real historical imagination to equate Israel (the only free electoral democracy in the Middle East) with the Nazi regime. Using the memory of six million as propaganda to defame and de-legitimize the State of Israel is a breathtaking twist of campus logic, but it isn’t a first.
BAKA has been drawing concern from Jewish leaders for months now because of a series of pro-Palestinian events. The problem is that these “pro-Palestinian” events have morphed into something else: high-profile anti-Israel events with anti-Semitic undercurrents that are attracting large crowds of both student and community members. According to OU’s JLIC educator Rabbi Akiva Weiss, who is also on staff at Rutgers Hillel:
“The atmosphere on campus is beginning to turn toxic, and BAKA, behind the guise of social justice, is stirring the pot of rage and discord here at our state university. The continued use of blatant propaganda by this student group to radicalize the campus, fan the flames of anti-Semitism, and sow hatred against Israel is intolerable. Were it any other ethnic group, these programs would have been considered, at the very least, cases of incitement, if not crossing a line. But because they are pitched against Israel as human rights advocacy for Palestinians, they have somehow received a free pass.”
Aaron Marcus, a Rutgers junior who’s written for the Washington Times and is an alumnus of the National Journalism Center, covered the event on NewsRealBlog. He noted that Israel supporters were targeted and denied entrance in a discriminatory fashion despite the fact that BAKA operates out of a state funded institution and had promoted the event as free and open to the public.
Rabbi Weiss issued an appeal to help raise awareness in communities, synagogues and local newspapers by speaking out against these types of BAKA events. He’s also asking for support in the form of letters directed to the editor of The Daily Targum, which serves the Rutgers community, as well as the President of Rutgers University.
As for my former student, his niece’s account confirmed what I’d already heard, but he was thoughtful enough, after 33 years, to offer a few parting words of vindication:
“I often think of how my sixteen-year-old self might have responded to your question had the assignment not been revoked. I think it was an important question to ask back then and it’s as relevant today as it was thirty-three years ago. It seems inconceivable that something like the Holocaust could ever occur in a place like America, but my parent’s generation was steeped in denial. One thing’s for sure. If ‘Never Again’ is now the slogan of choice on a university campus for equating the Knesset with the Third Reich, anti-Semitism is alive and well in the USA.”
To read the OU2011 Resolution’s on the matter, please visit: Resolution on Campaign to Delegitimize Israel. To find out more about the OU’s JLIC program, please visit: Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.