The Shoah, White Supremacy, and Particularist Ethics
“This march is about encouraging all of you to pass it on to your families and your friends, to rise up and not be bystanders. Is that okay?” March of Remembrance director Rozalie Jerome, and the applause following her every point, indicate that spiritually just political action is, for many, a critical component of honoring Holocaust survivors and victims. Confronting the brutality of the Holocaust offers an avenue for Jews, Christians, and all others to take a particularist approach to racial, ethnic, and religious violence.
As opposed to universalism, which sameifies “all sides” in the name of closure and moving on, Jennifer Harvey writes that a particularist ethic can take into account distinctions in social position. It can thus “ascertain the different work required of differently racialized groups in the context of white supremacy.”
White Christian Supersessionism
In order to contextualize particularism, it bears elaborating that the seeds of an especially American strain of anti-Semitism were present in even the first shipload of English Puritans to arrive in North America. Whatever their economic, religious, or political motives may have been, a common throughline was Christian supersessionism over Judaism. Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” was conceptualized as a new Jerusalem, wherein the Anglo-Saxon spiritual descendants of Israel could colonize for the glory of God. Jonathan Edwards wrote that Christians were of a priestly “pedigree” and “race,” which theologian Kelly Brown Douglas points out as a pivotal element of binding Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism to the biblical God’s personality and image.
And so in white American popular conception, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes white generally and Anglo-Saxon specifically.1 The right to name America’s God was claimed by an Anglo-Saxon church community not quite sure whether even German “new stock,” let alone Jewish people, ought to be granted admission to the temple of Anglo-American whiteness.
The temple, incidentally, was another expropriated concept, at least as far as Jerusalem is concerned. Congregations of gentile Christians pray the Psalms, often with the sincere understanding that by virtue of their faith they have spiritually joined the “true Israel.” Since
Christian liturgy and theology writ large identifies itself, the universal church, with ethnic Israel, it follows that the Shoah must “become a defining moment” for Christianity as well.2 What then, does the moment entail for people in both faiths and beyond?
Effecting Tikkun Olam after the Shoah
One of the ways in which the Shoah’s shadow falls on modern theology is as a “model and pedagogy for future generations,”3 a source of reverence and mourning but also redemptive acts of “rehabilitating the divine image in human community” — or, as trinitarian theologists might put it, reenabling humankind to imitate the divine community. That is to say, the Holocaust not only can
but has already offered the 21st century a symbolic framework for contending with anti-Semitism and white supremacy, intricately bound as they are. Confronting the Holocaust’s brutality empowers the faithful and unfaithful alike to center their sense of political responsibility for its gravity.
Take, for instance, Never Again Action. The Jewish antiracist activist organization focuses on illegally disrupting U.S. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, blocking facilities and protesting
1 Douglas, Stand Your Ground , 43.
2 Sandmel, 164.
3 Greenberg, 29.
verbally for the emancipation of undocumented people who’ve been detained. Observers have to look no further than the front page of Never Again Action’s website to find the Shoah invoked: “We knew from our own history what happens when a government targets, dehumanizes and strips an entire group of people of all their civil and human rights.” The spectre of the Shoah, though unnamed (likely out of reverence) lends weight and credence to activist testimony, although it does not make explicit the shared enemy of white supremacy. Instead, NAA uses the related throughline of government tyranny and scapegoating.
The organization went on from its formation in mid-2019 to work ecumenically with Latin American political organizers and in association with other Jewish activist groups. It came to be joined by a number of gentiles moved by the reminder that for the most part the entire gentile world turned a blind eye to reports from 1940s Europe. The coalition-building amounted to Jewish
leadership of a movement of allies demanding a specific humanitarian objective: the freedom of jailed migrants. Though not entirely Jewish, groups of protesters followed the organization’s guidance in offering Kaddish for victims of ICE, and have invoked the fall of Jericho repeatedly while circumambulating detention centers.4
In the time of coronavirus, when in some ways decarceration is more necessary than ever, the strategy of Shoah symbolism further adapts to its context. As detainees are exposed to heightened risk of disease transmission, Never Again Action points out that infectious disease was also deadly for those forced into concentration camps.
The larger narrative of antagonism toward white supremacy, then, might be made more coherent by the Shoah metaphor, when employed warily of the risk that poor rhetoric can potentially cheapen the connection and disrespect victims and survivors. When executed reverently,5 these comparisons can help further embed social movements in a sense of narrative unity, toward the objective of tikkun olam. This “lofty Jewish notion,” as Hideo Fukushima said on the Holocaust
Remembrance Association broadcast this week, is often understood as an encouragement toward
reparation of harm in the world, including but not limited to antiracist work.
In addition to serving Jewish-led movements, NAA’s deep feeling of responsiveness for white supremacy ought to be emulated by white gentiles themselves (i.e. those most responsible for white supremacy) in activism that demands, for instance, the removal of public officials6 who publicize anti-Semitic images and slander about the alleged dual loyalty of Jewish Americans.
Perhaps the first component of a white gentile response to the Shoah is, as in the case of Baerbel Pfeiffer on the HRA broadcast, to apologize while feeling the appropriate weight of responsibility for the historical and present wounds of anti-Semitism and white supremacy. By “appropriate weight,” I mean a sense of accountability commensurate with someone’s particularist position. Whiteness as a privileged condition always comes with ethical strings; this is especially resonant for Pfeiffer as the descendant of Nazi perpetrators. By imitating her, all white gentiles can begin to embody the value of tikkun olam vis-a-vis the Shoah, along with continued anti-Semitic terrorism in the U.S., our country’s present and past dehumanization of undocumented people, and
so on. In this way we can begin to properly address both the Shoah’s unparalleled brutality and its modern echoes.
5 This, incidentally, doesn’t seem to be an open possibility for gentiles.
Anti-Defamation League. “Straight Talk on the Charge of Jewish Disloyalty.” 2018.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God . Maryknoll: Orbis Books,
Edwards, Jonathan. “Christians a chosen Race, a royal Priesthood, a holy Nation, a peculiar People”
[sic]. In The Works of Jonathan Edwards, A.M. , edited by Patrick H. Alexander. Peabody:
Hendrickson Pub., 1998.
González-Ramirez, Andrea. “The Millennial Jews Taking on ICE.” Gen. Medium , 29 January 2020.
Greenberg, Irving. “Judaism, Christianity, and Partnership After the Twentieth Century.” In
Christianity in Jewish Terms , edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David
Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.
Holocaust Remembrance Association. “Hope in the Face of Total Loss.” YouTube, 17 May 2020.
“Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation . Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.
Never Again Action. “Join the Fight.” N.d. https://www.neveragainaction.com/.
Sandmel, David Fox. “Israel, Judaism, and Christianity.” In Christianity in Jewish Terms , edited by
Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A.
Signer. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.