How should we teach about the Holocaust? Is it educationally
helpful or problematic to compare our suffering with that of
other peoples? What is the attitude of the Jewish tradition to
the suffering of gentiles?
In this essay, Rabbi Carmy responds to an educator who argued
that an assignment asking students to compare the suffering of
Jews in the Holocaust with that of African Americans in the
slave trade is "obscene" and a "subversion of
yeshiva values." Rabbi Carmy argues that there exists
nothing problematic about the comparison per se, as the slave
trade did cause horrendous suffering to millions. If such an
assignment increased student desire to alleviate the pains of
Jews and gentiles, it would be fine. However, the assignment
deserves criticism precisely because it fails to achieve that
goal for the following reasons:
Cataloguing the evils done to many peoples may lead
students to the politically correct conclusion that everybody
suffers, but dull their sensitivity to individual cases of
Emphasizing the suffering of others sometimes stems from a
shallow universalism in which no sympathy remains for
one’s own brethren.
Why should comparing two instances of immense suffering in
a competitive manner increase student sensitivity regarding
the atrocities committed (on either side of the comparison)?
A focus on who has suffered more may engender the cult of
victimhood in which our community adopts a spiritually
debilitating attitude that employs our suffering as
perpetual grounds for entitlement.
In sum, Rabbi Carmy does not reject the assignment because it
shows too much concern for the suffering of others. Rather,
he rejects it because it reflects attitudes that inhibit our
concern for the suffering of both Jews and gentiles.
to read the essay (PDF 500KB).