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Reviewed by:
  • Holocaust Politics
  • Zev Garber
Holocaust Politics, by John K. Roth. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2001. 354 pp. $29.95.

The Shoah is the most documented genocidal event in Jewish and, arguably, world history. Three well-known survivors of the Shoah bear witness: "Auschwitz will remain as the darkest, the cruelest, the most incomprehensible event in history" (Elie Wiesel); "The decades since the end of World War II have witnessed a growing awareness throughout the world of the significance of the Holocaust as a central event in the history of the Jewish people and of Western civilization" (Israel Gutman); "What happened, happened. But that it happened cannot be easily accepted" (Jean Améry). Contemporary scholarship on the Shoah spans the spectrum of historiography, belles-lettres, ethics, philosophy, psychology, and religion, to name several of the better known venues. Though much has been written about the Holocaust planet, far less has been published to show how the Shoah educates, informs, and influences society. The Shoah has challenged and dented beyond reason and belief the foundation of Western civilization; nonetheless, learning the important lessons of the Shoah sixty years after World War II is difficult and frustrating, made so by the questions asked, the answers given, the tactics used, and the special interest served. To make sense of the crannies and nooks on the road back to Auschwitz in order to mend a shattered post-Shoah world is the purport of this book.

The worth of this book by John K. Roth, Pitzer Professor of Philosophy and an outstanding Christian scholar on Holocaust, is the discussion of contemporary Shoah issues and pin-point identification of a plethora of problems caused by competing attitudes and priorities in Holocaust studies today. In six evenly parsed chapters (sections of which appeared elsewhere), Roth asks such debated questions as Who owns [End Page 141] the Holocaust? What can and cannot be said about the Holocaust? How best to remember the Holocaust? What warning signals come from the Holocaust? What is the responsibility of post-Holocaust Christianity? What can we learn about ethics from the Holocaust? Also, the Epilogue discusses standard and extreme views on the bearing of Shoah on our everyday lives and concludes with ten aides-mémoire viewed as necessary in Holocaust education.

Though the book begins with a discussion and assessment of Holocaust politics (no doubt motivated by the author's aborted appointment as director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum), the focus of this work is on philosophical and religious issues emanating from the Shoah trauma. A summary of positions and research is given, with special attention to the role of effective argumentation. For example, on the meaning of the Holocaust, survivors Primo Levi and Charlotte Delbo and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas respectively say "useless violence," "useless knowledge," "useless suffering"; and Holocaust scholar Lawrence L. Langer writes, "there is nothing to be learned from a baby torn into two or a woman buried alive" (p. 272). Though Roth acknowledges the uniqueness of Jewish suffering and that holocaustal beastliness "can scarcely be morally edifying or spiritually uplifting," he fears the devastating effect of this parochial, skeptical advocacy on the legacy of the Shoah. He reasons, correctly in my opinion, that if no moral lesson can be learned from the Shoah then why bother to learn about it. Also, if the Holocaust is extreme banality of evil, and if Elie Wiesel is right that the only lesson that can be learned from the Shoah is that you can get away with it—post-Holocaust acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide suggest this—then why turn to the Shoah to explore current normative moral and ethical issues. Would not current evil ideology, religious fanaticism, racism, hatred, and global terrorism do? Not necessarily, writes Roth, who sees in the Shoah "the right kind of moral outrage" that can serve as a warning and cure in our days of rage.

But Roth's moral nerve works for and against him. He defends the view that there is a causal relation between the Shoah and current events, such as the rising antisemitism in Western Europe and violence between Israelis...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 141-143
Launched on MUSE
2005-01-06
Open Access
No
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