The Message of Maoz Tzur: Defying Universalization of the Holocaust
by Tzipora Weinberg
The story of Chanuka resists categorization. It is neither a saga of absolute redemption nor a tale of tragic loss; the onslaught at its center is considered a breach rather than an incursion, and it is preceded and followed by moments of great darkness. When the Chanuka story occurs, the Jewish people are graced by the stability of a Beis Hamikdash, yet they are beset by decrees that portray their vulnerability to the sovereign state. Their precarious position as a weak minority necessitated a miraculous victory against the Hellenists, and we commemorate and celebrate that win, along with other gifts that highlight illumination amidst haze and clarity amidst confusion, in the span of eight brilliant days and nights.
The central hymn that epitomizes Chanuka to many, namely Maoz Tzur, recounts a litany of sorrowful chapters in Jewish history, and reveals the hand of Providence as triumphant in each instance, before ending with a plea for the ultimate revelation of glory and the hastening of complete salvation. One of the subthemes of this poem is the particularity with which each instance of oppression is acknowledged. With distinct, often biblical references to each tyrannical regime and their methods of aggression, it implies that a critical part of commemorating perseverance is the lucid identification of the obstacles endured prior to deliverance. As we behold the Chanuka lights, we recall in detail the journey we have endured to get here. We offer blessing for miracles past and present, and express the promise of thanksgiving in the future, when Jewish persecution will finally be eradicated.
While Maoz Tzur reiterates the theme of victory over adversity in refrain after refrain, the contemporary Jewish zeitgeist seems to shy away from the embrace of this retrospective and particularist focus. Jewish history as a whole is not just a hodgepodge of brutal attacks and last-minute victories, and focusing on these can, in this view, bring down the collective morale and lead to a negative self-concept. A recent conversation between Professor Ruth Wisse and novelist Dara Horn, in a conference held by the Jewish Review of Books, addressed the question of whether Jewish literature should be depressing, alluding at one point to the idea that the Book of Yirmiyahu has a deleterious effect on the way Jews view themselves, specifically, as agents in the cycle of destruction. While this perspective may come off as extreme, it sheds light upon a stance that is pervasive in American culture when addressing the most recent and perhaps most horrible chapter in Jewish history, the Holocaust.
How do we talk about, how do we teach about the Holocaust? Do we present it as an isolate, predicated only upon its own particular set of circumstances? Or do we approach it as a part of the broad swath of genocidal acts that occurred in the modern age? Should we utilize the Holocaust as a vehicle for moralistic lessons, allowing it to serve as a cautionary tale, warning us away from totalitarian regimes in the modern age, teaching us to avoid similar debacles in the future? Or should the Holocaust be a stand-alone subject, to mine and explore as the Ur-Genocide, in which any comparison or repurposing of the narrative would be deemed as a cheapening, a minimization of its horrors?
Historian Alvin Rosenfeld treats this subject with great insight and depth in his book, The End of the Holocaust. Rosenfeld documents the plethora of Holocaust films and commemorations, and the proliferation of the study of the Holocaust and its terminology, as inversely proportional to a true appreciation of its particulars. It is precisely the successful dissemination and broadcast of the Holocaust as such, its absorption and permeation into the vernacular of Western society, argues Rosenfeld, that has turned the Holocaust into a household word and thus robbed it of its deserved impact.
As I see it, this distinction is justified from historical, political, and ethical standpoints. The collapse of distinctions in gradations of evil, and the differences between evil and mere discomfort- Holocaust versus terror, mortal blows in the face of curses, and genocide in the face of the bombing of a military outpost– threaten the lesser case with overemphasis and the more extreme case with trivialization.
Rosenfeld states that the creative softening of Holocaust horrors, resulting in a “less taxing version of a tragic history”, gnaws at the terrible facts of the Holocaust. If, as Ronald Reagan would have it, the Nazi soldiers were “just as surely victims as those of the concentration camps”, then the Holocaust was no more than an episode, a mere side effect, of that same war. Relativism, one might say, sweetens the poison of Holocaust horror. When we label as “Nazi” a Hamas activist or a member of ISIS, we magnify the severity of their deeds, yet at the same time- and herein lies the true danger– we dwarf the actions of the original Nazis. This metaphorical and relativistic usage denotes the end of the Holocaust, or, as Professor Edward Alexander refers to it, the stealing of the Holocaust, that Rosenfeld warns against so vehemently.
From the transformation of the Holocaust to a universal paradigm reflective of, and comparable to, all subsequent and prior misdeeds, we continue to co-opt its terminology toward phrases such as ecological Holocaust, demographic Holocaust, economic Holocaust, and spiritual Holocaust. These usages, according to Rosenfeld’s basic argument, undermine the Holocaust through their inferred banality. “Nazi” police, a barn that is “Auschwitz for fruits”, all forge a path toward Holocaust minimization and denial. Even in Israel, homeland and haven for Holocaust survivors, the lexicon includes “Judeo-Nazis” (this term coined by Yeshayahu Leibowitz to describe Israeli soldiers!), “AshkeNazis”, Rabin and Netanyahu portrayed in SS uniforms, the borders of 1967 referenced as “Auschwitz borders”, a book about abortion entitled “The Silent Holocaust”, and the disengagement bureau called “Judenrat”. All of these examples minimize the horror and cruelty of the Holocaust, ameliorating it into a mundane disturbance the likes of which are often seen and experienced. In this way, the Holocaust itself becomes clouded in popular perception, and becomes a type of evil that is yet manageable. This cycle of Holocaust usage leading to internalization of that usage, the assimilation of even positive messages gleaned from the Holocaust suggest that in fact, it was not so terrible after all.
This leads us to an additional issue which arises when we universalize the Holocaust, namely the tendency to utilize it as a source for the dissemination of lessons outside of, and usually completely ancillary to, the history itself. The Holocaust thus becomes a fount of human malice, but the crux of the event, what Dan Michman termed the “primary aim of being a war against the Jewish nation because of his Jewishness”  is forgotten. The Holocaust did not begin in 1939, with the outbreak of World War II; rather it began with the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933, when the Nazi discriminatory laws and the campaign against Jews was implemented. This was the beginning of a protracted vendetta whose culmination the Nazis themselves might not have been able to predict, yet from the outset it was clear that the Jews as human beings would have no place within the area of Nazi German governance. The end of this process occurred with the decision at Wannsee and its implementation in the death camps, bent on the complete physical destruction of every Jew in the world. This reality turned every Jew into a symbolic Holocaust survivor.
Moreover, despite the extreme nature of racial science, it did not develop in a vacuum; the Jews were never completely assimilated into their culture with equal rights and liberties. Racial science was an extreme expression of modern antisemitism, where the problem was rooted not in Jewish religion but in the Jew. It was not Jewish dress, language, deeds or mannerisms that so irked the Nazis. It was the essential Jewish self, that which cannot be changed and lies, dormant or fully-fledged, within every Jewish soul; this was antisemitism at the height of its power, a culmination of tropes and superstitions honed over centuries.
And so, in the eyes of the Jews, the narrative of the Holocaust is quintessentially Jewish, a tragedy that is linked to the long chain of persecutions, pogroms and previous tragic events that befell them. It is a continuation of the story of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the decrees of Tach and Tat, all attempts to expel Jews from Europe, until the German attempt succeeded. The Jews are dedicated practitioners of the cultivation of memory, and have transmitted the message to their children that ‘not only has one enemy alone risen up against us to destroy us; rather in each generation, they rise up to destroy us”; in sum, the Jewish narrative as a persecuted nation acknowledges a connective strand between all of the persecutions and victimizations of different times and places, a strand whose fibers represent different strains of antisemitism. A Jew tells his children that he hopes for redemption; he tells them this to prepare them emotionally for exile and subsequent liberty, and to fortify them for the lives that await them. It is not happenstance that juxtaposed Yom HaShoah and Passover; memory of past trials alongside redemption is a cornerstone of Jewish belief, “ they arise to destroy us” is grist for the mill of the Jewish spiritual experience.
How vital, then, to reinforce the concept that the Holocaust was first and foremost a Jewish story, not merely another thorn in the bristly thicket that was the second World War. Nor was it simply another instance of genocide that occurred amidst the mayhem of the 20th century. It was, rather, a continuation of the war against the Jews that was waged for hundreds of years, and in the Holocaust it had reached its acme, or its nadir; the actualization of an ageless racial and antisemitic ideology. If there is any lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, it is the necessity of a war on antisemitism. There is little to be gained from a simplification of this or other chapters in Jewish history; the message of Maoz Tzur inspires us to examine each aspect of our past with honesty, never to flatten the experiences with platitudes of happily ever after.
So when we gather around the Menorah to kindle and contemplate, let us respect the uniqueness of each chapter, each redemption in Jewish history as we discern the difference between darkness and light. And may we merit to participate in the resounding song of ultimate redemption: Az egmor b-shir mizmor, Chanukas Ha-mizbe’ach.
Tzipora Weinberg is an educator, author and presenter, serving as teacher leader and educational coach in numerous settings nationwide and abroad. Her particular focus is on Holocaust studies, and she is a consultant to schools and lay leaders, enabling the meaningful encounter with this crucial chapter in Jewish history.
 Rosenfeld, Alvin H. (2011). The End Of The Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p 11
 Michman, D. (2011). “Lo Rak Masa Retzach” Ha’aretz, October 10