A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column where I took actress and director Natalie Portman to task for criticizing the Jewish community for placing an overemphasis on the Holocaust at the expense of other genocides such as what took place in Rwanda over 20 years ago.
A couple of days ago, Greg Wallance, a writer and an attorney (who for some odd reason is identified as George Wallace), wrote a piece for the Jewish Journal defending Portman’s comments and takes me along with former Israeli Labor MK Colette Avital and Holocaust survivor David Mermelstein to task for seeing fit to criticize Portman:
Portman’s paternal great-grandparents died in Auschwitz, she was born in Israel and, as a young actress, she played the title role in a revival of “The Diary of Anne Frank” on Broadway. Nonetheless, she was essentially accused of being an airhead from Hollywood who didn’t understand the unique nature of the Holocaust. Colette Avital, the chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, accused her of having a “limited” understanding of the Holocaust, which “cannot be compared with other tragedies.” Auschwitz survivor David Mermelstein charged her with dangerously “minimizing the importance of a Holocaust education.” Aaron Goldstein opined in The American Spectator, “If an Israeli-born Jew whose ancestors were killed at Auschwitz doesn’t understand what separates the Holocaust from all other acts of genocide then we have a very big problem.”
With all respect to her critics, I think Portman was attacked for something she didn’t say. Fairly read, Portman only argued that we must be sure to educate Jewish students about other genocides. That’s a long way from saying that other genocides are comparable to the Holocaust; indeed, she stated that she was not making “false equivalences.” In fact, there is no equivalence between the Holocaust and other genocides.
So Wallance asserts that I along with Avital and Mermelstein attacked Portman for something she didn’t say. Obviously, Avital and Mermelstein can speak on their own behalf. As for myself, let me direct Wallance’s attention to the first part of her statement:
I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education. Which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things.
So let’s be clear. Natalie Portman is on public record as stating that the Holocaust is “an important question to remember and respect, but not over other things.” But not over other things. In her eyes, the Holocaust should receive no special priority by the Jewish community over the genocide in Rwanda or any “other thing.” Wallance is right to say that there is no equivalence between the Holocaust and other genocides. Yet this is exactly what Portman is saying and this is why I saw fit to criticize her. The idea that I criticized Portman for something she didn’t say is simply nonsense.
The criticism of Portman is all the more deserving (be it from me, Avital or Mermelstein) precisely because Portman is Jewish and was born in Israel. It is worth restating this point. If an Israeli-born Jew whose ancestors were killed at Auschwitz doesn’t understand what separates the Holocaust from all other acts of genocide then we have a very big problem. The Holocaust is a central point in Jewish history and a defining feature of Jewish identity to the present day. It is the duty of Jews to tell our children about it not only for the sake of their education, but to impart the knowledge that anti-Semitism isn’t a thing of the past nor is the desire to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth. To de-emphasize Holocaust education for the sake of diversity and at a time when few Holocaust survivors remain to testify is simply irresponsible.
Wallance’s article is also disappointing given what he has written about the Holocaust, specifically the role the State Department played in impeding Jews to seek refuge in this country during WWII. What Wallance has written about is the very thing Portman wishes the Jewish community wouldn’t spend so much time dwelling upon.
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