Culturebox Rules: Feminism and the Holocaust

Should feminist scholars be allowed to apply their theories to the Holocaust? According to a senior editor at Commentary, the answer is no. Gabriel Schoenfeld, in an article for the June issue of that magazine, “Auschwitz and the Professors,” deplores a recent spate of books and studies written by women (and a few men) he calls “feminist Holocaustologians,” who indulge in “witless and malicious theorizing” and “the worst excesses” of a discipline–Holocaust Studies–he has no use for to begin with. The article provoked an outpouring of letters, twenty-one of which were published in Commentary’s August issue. In them, Schoenfeld is accused of sexism, recklessness, distortion, ignorance, and “trivializ[ing] the human experience of victims in the Holocaust.”

Culturebox intends to make a habit of ruling on disputes of this sort. So who’s right? Culturebox has just finished reading one of the key pieces of evidence for the prosecution, Women in the Holocaust, edited by Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman (Yale, 1998), and can confirm that it isn’t very good. At best, it tells hitherto untold tales about women in the ghettoes and death-camps, forcing us to ponder such imponderables as: When a baby is born in Auschwitz, is it crueller to let him starve or to feed him sugar water and prolong his death? At worst, the book engages in comparative victimology by making dubious and undocumentable claims, such as: Women’s training as nurturers and makers-do made them better able to adapt to camp life than men.

On the other hand, all fields of inquiry have their great thinkers and their embarrassing ones, and Culturebox has never understood why polemicists think a single cringeworthy quote is enough evidence to declare entire subjects off-limits. Schoenfeld has an answer to that, and it is a well-known one, having first been set forth in another Commentary essay in 1981 by the great Biblical scholar Robert Alter: The danger with Holocaust Studies is that, in the proliferation of methodologies and agendas, the incomprehensible horror of the event may be lost–eclipsed, as humanity of the Jews was eclipsed, by a fog of categories and subcategories and rhetorical feints at ideological opponents.

Fair enough, but there are differences between Alter and Schoenfeld worth pointing out. One is of tone–Alter is calm, respectful, and regretful. Schoenfeld is shrill and dismissive, with a tendency to distort others’ words for his own convenience. To take one of the more trivial examples, Schoenfeld writes: “Mainstream scholarship on the Nazi genocide, we are being told on every side, is not so much mainstream as ‘malestream.’” He then repeats the word “malestream” throughout the piece, as if to remind us of feminists’ tendency to excess. Culturebox combed the New York Public Library to find the word in the feminist-Holocaust literature, but found it nowhere. If it has been used, it has clearly not been used frequently, and so is not coming at us from “every side.”

The more significant difference is a matter of balance. Against the danger of trivializing the Holocaust by speaking of it too lightly, Alter juxtaposes the threat of elevating the Holocaust into something quasi-theological by speaking of it in religious terms. Alter quotes another great Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner, to the effect that “the murder of the Jews of Europe” has become part of “the civil religion of American Jews.” Schoenfeld, by censuring some kinds of Holocaust speech and failing to offer other kinds that would be acceptable to him, strongly implies that it is, indeed, a religious topic, for which some words are not just inaccurate or inappropriate but blasphemous.

In a way, Schoenfeld reminds Culturebox of the French intellectual and film director, Claude Lanzmann–a man who declared that after his film, Shoah, “certain things can no longer be done.” (See Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler to read about Lanzmann’s attacks on Holocaust victims who address it in ways he doesn’t like. Or click on Alex Ross’s review in Slate.) But even Lanzmann makes an interesting case for silence–he believes that causal explanations of Nazi actions belie their deep inexplicability.

Schoenfeld has nothing so provocative to say. His case against feminist Holocaust studies can be reduced to three main objections: 1) Alter’s argument, made with less subtlety; 2) a somewhat crankish concern that the “object of such exercises” as feminist Holocaust scholarship is “to sever Jewish women, in their own minds, from their families as well as from the larger Jewish community”; and 3) the sense that such treatment violates taste, decorum, and “human decency.” When it comes to discussing something as tasteless, indecent, and indecorous as the Holocaust, none of the above strike Culturebox as adequate grounds for censorship.

Judith Shulevitz