Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Meet Trump’s Holocaust tutor

Boris Epshteyn

What is the opposite of a faux pas?

Because that is what we have been dealing with ever since Friday. On that day, the Trump administration noted International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Except, the statement did not mention the Jews.

As someone said on Facebook: “That’s like talking about the Crucifixion, and forgetting to mention Jesus.”

Jews and others complained, loudly. The White House defended their omission, also loudly.

On Monday, press secretary Sean Spicer defended the statement. He mentioned that it was “with the help of an individual who is both Jewish and the descendent of Holocaust survivors.”

And the author is……Trump aide, Boris Epshteyn.

Epshteyn is a Russian-Jewish immigrant and the descendent of Holocaust survivors. Epshteyn was born in 1982 in the former Soviet Union. His college friendship with Trump’s son, Eric, led to his engagement in Trump’s campaign. He emerged as one of his chief attack dogs and reliable talking heads on television.

“Boris takes a certain amount of delight in trying to bully the interviewer,” said Joy Reid, the host of a show on MSNBC, who has clashed with Mr. Epshteyn. “He sees every night as combat and he goes in as very combative.”

So, how is it possible that this Russian-born Jew, with memories of the Holocaust in his own family, could write a statement that utterly relativizes the Holocaust, depriving it of any specific Jewish connection?

I suggest that without even realizing it, Boris Epshteyn internalized the classic Soviet narrative about the Holocaust.

And, in a way that he would find uncanny, Donald Trump has imbibed that narrative as well.

Let us understand utter centrality of the Russian Jewish experience to the Holocaust.

About one-third of all Jews who died in the Holocaust were Soviet citizens.

Between 1.5 million and 2.5 million of Soviet Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and about 200,000 more died in combat.

This amounted to about 10 per cent of all Soviet deaths — at a time when Jews were only 2.5 percent of the total pre-war Soviet population.

And yet, in the Soviet Union, for decades, it was simply forbidden to mention any specific Jewish connection to the Holocaust.

Consider the words of  Olga Baranova:

 Soviet historians usually viewed that catastrophe as an integral part of a larger phenomenon – the Nazi genocide and the tragedy of all Soviet people (whether Jews, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians) occasioned by Nazi racism directed not only at Jews, but also at Slavs who all were targets of the Nazi policy of enslavement and extermination.

Consider what happened at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev, on September 29-30, 1941.

Over the course of two days, German soldiers massacred 33,771 Jews. In the months following the massacre, German authorities stationed at Kiev killed thousands more Jews at Babi Yar, as well as non-Jews including Roma (Gypsies), Communists, and Soviet prisoners of war.

It is estimated that some 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar. It was the largest massive shooting during the Holocaust — the prime example of what has been called “the Holocaust by bullets.”

And yet, the very Jewish aspect of that horror was deliberately erased.

Even the fact that September 29-30 just happened to be Yom Kippur.

This inspired the great Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, to write his classic poem “Babi Yar,” which drew attention to the atrocity, in 1961.

It was not until 1976, when a memorial was erected at the site to honor the “citizens of Kiev” (note: not the Jews) who were killed there.

It was not until 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that a menorah-shaped monument to the Jewish victims of the Babi Yar massacres was allowed to be erected at the site that is now home to a city park.

The desire to remember the Holocaust was partially responsible for the reclamation of Jewish identity among young Soviet Jews.

To quote Yossi Klein Halevi:

A Zionist underground in the Soviet Union was forming around Holocaust commemoration. It began in the Rumbuli forest near Riga, where thousands of Jews were buried in mass graves. Attempts to mark the site were thwarted by the authorities, and Rumbuli became a place of defiant pilgrimage. Resisting the suppression of Holocaust memory became a catalyst for rebellion against the untenable position of the Soviet Jews, denied any positive Jewish identity but forbidden, because of state and popular anti-Semitism, entirely or smoothly to assimilate.

But, the intellectual damage had been done.

The Soviet method of interpreting the Holocaust — to universalize its meaning — became the dominant leftist mode of memory.

At the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, held in 2000 (which was, at the time, the largest international conference on the Holocaust that had ever been convened), speakers described concentration camp victims as “fellow Europeans.”

Or: as “fellow human beings.”

Or: as “innocent men, women, and children.”

Not:  “Jews.”

Now, I do not know Mr. Epshteyn. I do not know about his upbringing, about his Jewish identity, about his affiliations.

I am saying this, however: leaving the Jews out of the story of the Holocaust has an “impressive” Russian history — a history that walks hand in hand with its grim traditions of anti-Semitism.

No matter how and why the White House “omission of the Jews” happened, one thing is for sure.

No one misspoke. It was not a typo.

It was deliberate.

As to what that should tell us, I leave that to you, dear reader, to ponder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

21 Comments

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  • “The Soviet method of interpreting the Holocaust…became the dominant leftist mode of memory.” I find the statement a bit ironic given the tendency of some commentators on these threads to exalt leftist political thinking no end. What happened to the Jews during the period in question can in no way be minimized, but according to the thoroughly well documented, “The Black Book of Communism,” 25 million Soviet citizens of all stripes died under Stalin; 65 million under Mao; 1.7 in Cambodia, etc. We are not all Jews, but we all share a common humanity. Shouldn’t that common humanity in some sense transcend the religious or ethnic character of the victims?

  • We all share a common humanity, but too often that recognition is denied to Jews. Whatever other bad things have happened in history as the result of tyranny, it does not change the fact that Jews were the central victims of the Nazi Holocaust. To omit the Jews here is to erase them. It came on the same weekend as the travel ban (that Minitrue says isn’t a ban even though his boss says it’s a ban), which many, right or wrong, have compared to Nazi actions. Don’t fool yourself and say they didn’t think of that.

  • I’m going to read more about Babi Yar. I’d heard of it, but not a lot more. Just what you’ve written here is enough to horrify me. Thank you, Rabbi Salkin.

  • Edward, the difference is the Jewish people are historical scapegoats on a world wide scale. None of the others in Russia, Cambodia, or China are. To my knowledge, no other grouping of human beings have been subject to persecution like the Jews have. If you look at items on Breitbart, Info Wars or other white supremacist/Nazi/KKK websites, they’re not opposed to Chinese, Cambodian or Russian people. It’s Jews. Pre-WWII history tells of attacks specifically against Jewish people.

    Lastly, historical/cultural memory is a real thing which nearly every Jew has. (Rabbi Salkin can say more about this.) The millenia long persecution of Jewish people is part of their heredity and they are only one, small people. They cannot protect themselves against the rest of the world. They need us, the rest of humanity, to remember with them and help them be safe and survive.

  • Everything you said, but throw in gay people, and you are even more correct. The difference is, most gay people could hide in a way that most Jewish people could not.

  • Others suffered in the Holocaust but no one was as targeted as the Jews. Germany not only got rid of its own Jews but crossed borders to destroy Jews in other countries. Take a read of a book like Bloodlands and you’ll see what I mean. That is not to diminish the suffering of others. The Jews also suffered from a another problem. In such places as Poland, Ukraine and Romania anti-Semitism was a fever pitch. So even those who opposed the Nazis were not upset that the Germans were taking care of their Jewish problem. Interesting to read how at the end of the war how Jews returning to their homes were treated. Many were murdered by their old Polish neighbours. Thank God for Israel. As for Trump’s tutor? He sound like an idiot.

  • I understand the special distinction with respect to the Jews, this is why as a Christian they have and always will have my support. But contextually, in terms of sheer numbers it does not give force to his argument. He would have made a better point if he had emphasized the points you made. Such did not leap out at me in his commentary. It might be worth noting that at the present time according to the best available statistics, Christians are presently the most targeted subgroup of the human family. This neither surprises me nor distresses me, Jesus taught His followers, “Before they hated you, they hated Me.” The world manifestly does not love Jesus, nor should Christians expect the world to love them. And because most of us are limited by the parochialism of our Western mindset, we fail to look beyond our own immediate horizon to see the greater context.

  • You are ignoring the long history of antisemitism and persecution that goes back to the Czars and the Russian Orthodox Church. Most American Jews have an ancestor that come from Russia or Lithuania like my family. 90% of Lithuanian Jews were wiped out with the help of the local population, even though there were no gas chambers or crematoria in Lithuania. There is a straight line from Luther’s vicious pamphlet, On the Jews and Their Lies, and Kristallnacht. Christians have much to answer for when it comes to the Jews. It doesn’t transcend the religious or ethnic character when the group in question was persecuted at least since the Middle Ages by Christians.

  • In America, the Jews are still the group most targeted for hate crimes. Trump was speaking to an American audience. Here is where i criticize the left which does not see Jews as a part multi-culturalism or intersectionality or even just as victims of Trump.

  • My comment was to reflect that there is a larger world than America. I do not discount present conditions in America, I merely point out that statistically Christians are now a a greater risk on a worldwide basis.

  • Many putative Christians down through history have had a poor understanding of the intent and purpose of the Gospels, many crimes have been committed in the name of Christ by people who had no clear conception of what it means to be a genuine partisan of Christ. This was largely a measure of the fact that for centuries most people were illiterate and the leaders of the Catholic Church barred its members from studying the New Testament on their own, so that they could frame their own understanding of its teachings. Nor from the Christian perspective can we ignore the fact that their is a spiritual enemy of all mankind in the spirit and mind of Satan who deceives and mars all that that he touches through his malevolent influence on the mind and spirit of humanity.

  • When you combine religion and and the state, you are always asking for trouble which has been true with Christianity ever since Constantine. Religion flourishes in America, but not in Europe, because of that very reason.

    I think you dismiss the anti-Judaism that exists in the Gospels themselves. There are several books that you can read that will explain it better than I can.

  • I certainly agree that the Constantinian paradigm of what is essentially an amalgam of Church and State was a terrible development which compromised the Church for centuries. I would still contend that the Gospels teach that Christianity is a fuller and more complete flowering or fulfillment of Y’H’W’H’s plan for humanity; it is anti-Pharisaical, not anti-Judaic.

  • You don’t understand who the Pharisees really were. If it’s anti-pharisaic, it’s also anti-Judaic. Judaism would not have survived the Diaspora without the work the Pharisees had done. I tried to explain who the Pharisees were, but you don’t seem to have read it or understood it. We need an “The ‘Splainer” column on it. Try reading anything by Amy-Jill Levine.

    The idea that Christianity supersedes Judaism and is a more complete fulfillment Of YHVH’s plan is condescending and offensive. I could even be considered a form of anti-Judaism itself. I understand that you have your own beliefs and we won’t change each other’s beliefs, but why believe that either way is more complete than the other?

  • This if from an article in Sojourners. I can’t copy the whole article, because I don’t have a subscription. It’s called Quit Picking on the Pharisees by Amy Jill-Levine. She also wrote Short Stories by Jesus and The Jewish Annotated New Testament. She is a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt U.

    PEJORATIVE COMMENTS about racial and ethnic minorities, GLBTQI people, and the poor appropriately receive public censure. But say something negative about Pharisees, and the response is likely to be a hearty “amen.”

    When anti-Pharisaic comments appear, especially from church pulpits or Christian magazines, few complain. And when correctives are suggested, the responses are usually something like, “Of course not all Pharisees were money-loving, sanctimonious hypocrites.” The comparison to other bigoted comments—“Of course not all Latinos are illegal; of course not all African Americans are lazy”—should tell us how insufficient the excuses are.

    Just as we are heirs of centuries of racism, we are heirs of two millennia of negative stereotypes of Pharisees and, by extension, of Jews—for it is substantially from Pharisaic teaching that rabbinic Judaism springs. Whenever sermons and Bible studies proclaim that Jesus’ views concerning social justice are contrary to Jewish views grounded in Pharisaic teaching, they promote bad history and bad theology.

    The pastors and priests who make such comments are not anti-Semites. Even Pope Francis, who is certainly no bigot, speaks of Pharisees as “Closed-minded men, men who are so attached to the laws, to the letter of the law, that they were always closing the doorway to hope, love, and salvation.” Rather, these interpreters are unaware of the history of the Pharisees and unaware as well of how these claims about Pharisees often bleed over into anti-Jewish invective.

  • To your first point, I can only answer that Jesus Himself condemned the Pharisees’ as recorded in the Gospels. His charge was that they kept the outer ceremonial requirements of the Law without appropriating the inner spiritual precepts which underlay the ceremonials. They were focused on adhering to symbolic acts of righteousness rather than the genuine spirit of righteousness involving charity and humility and grace. I didn’t say it, He did. I regret that my argument with respect to Y’H’W’H’s (variant spelling) plan is offensive to you, but it is in fact a core tenet of the Christian faith from its inception. As to your last question, I think it can be fairly argued that there is one final objective spiritual truth, if so, then contending views must necessarily be weighed with respect to which is more a complete and correct fulfillment, otherwise anything can be affirmed by anyone, which is a recipe for theological chaos.

  • Well, Jesus was not alive when the Gospels were written, so we don’t know what he really said. For example, the Pharisees developed a concept called Pikuach Nefesh, saving lives in English, they believed that saving a life or saving one’s health was more important than observing the laws of the Sabbath. There were two schools of Pharisees, named after their leaders Hillel and Shammai. Shammai was generally stricter. The two schools argued quite a bit. There may be a few people in every organization who keep to the outer requirements of the law, but they were not representing Pharisees as a group. Hillel himself was tortured and executed by the Romans. He said I now know that I can love God with all heart. The sun was coming up, so he said the Shemah and died. Was he only observing the outer mitzvah of loving God with all your heart and soul? They certainly did do their work with charity, humility and grace. You are just wrong about that. Some of them were also poor. Pharisees were not all rich. They were trying to sanctify everyday life.

    Speaking of humility, can we really know objectively what God is and what God wants? We won’t know if we’re right until after we’re dead. What’s wrong with a little theological chaos? It’s good for the soul to question. The rabbis talk about an “argument for the sake of heaven.” I take a more pragmatic view that there are many paths to God and you should use whatever works for you. Anything can always be affirmed by anyone. That’s how religions start in the first place. Some of them fall by the wayside of history if people no longer accept them. The Greeks and the Romans once thought their Gods were objectively true.

  • It seems you would classify the authors of the Gospels as dissemblers, though the testimony of the text is declared to be largely transcribed from Jesus’ words by His closest disciples. People who reject that do it on very limited evidence. I see no rational reason to not trust the Gospels in their affirmations. Apart from different schools of Pharisaical thought (I prefer the term Rabbinical thought), I think history demonstrates the superiority of the pattern of Jewish faith under the Mosaic Law, and the extension that came with Christianity over any other existing or prior paradigm regarding the existence of God, though in both instances there have been grievous transgressions against both God and humanity along the way, which ironically only reinforces the central truths behind the Judeo-Christian framework regarding both repentance and forgiveness.

  • You’re confusing Hillel with Rabbi Akiva, who however was a follower of the School of Hillel. Hillel was considerably earlier.

  • Well, since statements in the Gospels are clearly at odds with the preponderance of Pharisaic teachings as found in the over-60 tomes of the Talmud, I would tend to agree that the writers of the Gospels were polemicists and yes, dissemblers. They totally misrepresent the extant Pharisaic reachings!

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