What We Can Learn from Holocaust “Jokes”

Sermon delivered January 27, 2012 by Rabbi Barry H.D. Block

I am old and uncool.  Therefore, each year, I spend a weekend with our Confirmation class, at a retreat on the banks of the Guadalupe River.  There, I get caught up on the lives of today’s high school and the reality of being Jewish teenagers in 21st Century San Antonio.

The peaceful, bucolic setting was an ironic backdrop, a few years ago, when some of the tenth graders told me about sick “jokes” they had heard at school.  In a few moments, I will repeat a few of these so-called “jokes.”  I do so with trepidation.  I really do not want to speak hateful words in these sacred precincts.  I am also afraid that people will be offended.  Well, we should be offended.  I am offended.  And if you have not heard a “Holocaust joke,” then I’m afraid that you need to hear one or two.  We all need to hear these horrifying, depraved attempts at humor, because our children are hearing them.  We all need to hear these obscenities because we need to confront a serious problem that plagues our society and our culture.
This year, shortly before the Confirmation Retreat, the parents of a ninth grader at a local public high school had called me for advice.  At school, another teenager had come up to their daughter and asked, “What’s worse than the Holocaust?”  “Six million Jews.”  I was speechless.

When I got to the Retreat, I asked the tenth graders:  “How many of you have heard a so-called Holocaust ‘joke?’”  The answer?  Every single one of them.  The classic:  “What’s the difference between Jews and pizza?”  I’m sorry, but you need to hear the evil being perpetrated in America today.  The purported difference between Jews and pizza is that pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven.

OK.  I’m done.  No more profane examples.   But what do these jokes mean?

Often, these so-called jokes are the tactics of bullies, and our Jewish kids are the victims.  Dan Olweus, creator of a Bullying Prevention Program, teaches:  “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”  The ninth grader whose parents called me felt powerless to protest the behavior of the bully who asserted that the survival of the six million would have been “worse than the Holocaust.”  I’m proud of our young woman, who responded, without missing a beat, “That’s not funny.”  But the kid who told the “joke” was part of the “cool crowd” at school.  Sure, the Jewish parents could have complained to the school administration, which would have taken the matter seriously.  Based on prior experience, though, our Jewish teenager was convinced that going to the authorities would subject her to further, greater, and even permanent abuse, and that she would be socially ostracized at the very least.

Holocaust jokes teach us that Jews ought to be at the forefront of assuring that our schools be proactive to combat bullying.  If parents do not know the school’s policy on bullying, we need to ask.  If we feel that the school is tolerating bullying, we must be vocal advocates for a policy of no tolerance.  Not all bullying is anti-Semitic, of course, but if we permit bullying in our children’s schools, our own kids will sooner or later be among the victims.

Some parents of high school students tell me that these Holocaust jokes are merely examples of today’s coarse society.  Our children hear and see words and images on Facebook – and even more on Youtube – that we could ever have imagined at their age.  The language is rougher.  The content is more violent.  So perhaps joking about the Holocaust is simply to be expected.  Everything else is fair game, why not humanity’s greatest inhumanity?

The answer, of course, is that everything else should not be fair game.  So many so-called “jokes” are not funny:  Making fun of a person’s illness or disability; perpetuating harmful, hateful stereotypes; racist epithets; excessive foul language; objectifying women or homosexuals.  The list goes on.  Sick jokes about the Holocaust are the natural results of tolerating comedy that isn’t funny, bullying writ large.

Yes, these so-called jokes about the Holocaust are examples of larger, unhappy trends in our society.  But they also point to a problem particular to the Holocaust.

As we are all too well aware, the passage of time means that fewer Holocaust survivors live in our midst.  The Jewish community, the State of Israel, the United States, and others have worked tirelessly to assure that the facts of the Holocaust are told, that records are preserved, and that the horrors of the Holocaust are well documented.  Blessedly, even here in San Antonio, we have a wonderful Holocaust Memorial Museum, and some of our members are its loyal volunteers.  Our own Anna Rado is among the small group of survivors who continue to tell their stories, to enlighten the next generation.  All of our kids in public schools are taught about the Holocaust, throughout the United States and in many nations around the world.

Still, Holocaust denial thrives.  Wicked purveyors of revisionist history would have us believe that the Holocaust is a lie.  Or that it wasn’t so bad.  Some were killed, but nothing like six million.  We have heard it all.  The Holocaust is depicted as a Jewish fantasy, a conspiracy concocted to justify the establishment of Israel, along with supposed Jewish domination of the world.

Some may argue that these “jokes” don’t deny the Holocaust.  True, they make fun of the facts, of the reality of the Holocaust, rather than suggesting that it didn’t happen.  But if one can joke about the Holocaust, then the murder of six million is somehow funny.  The joker may not refute the facts of the Holocaust, but that joker laughs at the horror.  My friends, the Holocaust is no laughing matter.  A systematic, governmental plan, executed with the goal of murdering millions, of wiping an entire people off the face of the Earth:  that is not a joke.  To suggest otherwise is to deny the impact of the Holocaust.  Holocaust jokes are nothing short of Holocaust denial.

Within the last year, our community lost one of the world’s greatest warriors against Holocaust denial.  Harry Mazal, of blessed memory, built the world’s largest privately-held Holocaust library, right here in San Antonio.  He wielded the knowledge and the documentation he amassed to fight Holocaust denial wherever it could be found.  Now, Harry’s quest is ours.  Now, we fight on a new front, against those who would joke about the murder of millions.

Tonight, let us commit to shed light into that very dark place where genocide is considered humorous.  Let us pledge to tell the world that the Holocaust is not a joke and that Holocaust jokes are not funny.

At the beginning of this evening’s service, Eden, Deborah, Marge and Penny kindled Shabbat light.  Light is our symbol of God’s presence.  By contrast, we read from Torah this week about the plague of darkness.  Darkness in Egypt is not merely the absence of light, but a darkness that is palpable, filling all space.  When we hear about Holocaust jokes, we can touch that kind of darkness.  The ignorance is tangible.  The crassness hurts.  But we are taught that the homes of the Israelites were filled with light.  And we are grateful that, in our own country, in our own day, light shines from the homes and houses of worship of Israel and of so many of our fellow citizens.  Now, let God’s light shine like a beam, exposing Holocaust jokes for the wicked Holocaust denial that they are.  Let us reflect God’s light, honoring those who perished and living with dignity, a light to all the world.

Amen.