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This issue’s guest editor is Dr. Victoria Barnett, Director of Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Dr. Barnett is a graduate of Indiana University, Union Theological Seminary, New York (M. Div.), and George Mason University (Ph.D.).  She is the author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (Oxford University Press, 1992) and Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity during the Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1999), and editor/translator of Wolfgang Gerlach’s And the Witnesses were Silent: the Confessing Church and the Jews (University of Nebraska Press, 2000) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Fortress Press, 2000), as well as numerous articles and book chapters on the churches during the Holocaust.

History as a discipline, and this history in particular, can offer powerful insights into such engagement. Historical work gives us the concrete record and the actual details that must be considered when we attempt to draw theological and ethical conclusions. The historical record of religious leaders and communities during the Holocaust is a complex one that prevents simplistic conclusions. It includes the record of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox church leaders who embraced National Socialism, as well as those who courageously opposed it. It includes the records of Muslims who rescued their neighbors in countries like Albania and Tunisia, as well as the history of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who embraced common cause with the Nazi regime for his own political aims. The reactions of some religious leaders were shaped by their theological understandings; others were driven more by factors like nationalism and institutional self-interest. This history shows us how certain theological interpretations of scriptural texts can be used to justify the murder of innocent human beings. It illustrates the ways in which the institutional church all too often made the same moral compromises as other German institutions. The ways in which Germans, church leaders, and others addressed this historical record after 1945 is instructive for other post-genocidal situations. The unfolding history of Jewish-Christian dialogue after 1945 offers rich insights into other difficult interreligious conversations.

In the summer of 1995, I arrived in Norway for a sabbatical year that included research about the ways in which Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” targeted even the very small population of Norwegian Jews who lived north of the Arctic Circle. The items on my “to do” list included meeting an early August application deadline for participation in the first of a series of biennial symposia on the Shoah. Organized by Leonard Grob and Henry Knight, the symposium would take place the following June at Wroxton College, Oxfordshire, England. Grob and Knight convened and sustained a group of scholars—international, interdisciplinary, interfaith, and intergenerational—whose tenth meeting takes place in June 2014. From its inception, the Wroxton symposium has tapped its roots in Holocaust studies to advance reflection and action focused on present-day situations, particularly those in which ethical and spiritual concerns loom large. Its members commit to working together beyond the few days that we spend at Wroxton College every other year. Writing projects play a key role in that commitment.

It is, to many of us, obvious that dialogue is a necessary response to the Holocaust. We need dialogue, need the common ground that makes dialogue possible. We know all too well what happens when human beings become disconnected from each other, and how people with whom we do not speak can become dehumanized. Dialogue is not the single answer to the world’s problems, but it is hard to imagine our finding our way to any sort of solutions without it.

Yet for those of us who engage in interreligious dialogue, it is not always clear what dialogue is. We think of dialogue as involving words, and yet good dialogues involve a great deal of listening. When we listen, we have to attend both to what is said, and what is unsaid. Dialogue is inextricably connected to silence.

Most meetings on interfaith dialogue, whether they are held under the auspices of academic or confessional discourse, follow a certain format. The presenters are generally selected in a manner that will seek to ensure that they contribute to perceived harmony among the participants. This inevitably means that those who question certain cherished traditions will be ostracized. It also means that differences which are what foster the need for such dialogue will often be overlooked, and instead points of convergence, real or assumed, focused upon. Sometimes, participants may be apologists, in which case the sense of harmony precludes opposing any of their viewpoints; or they may be polemists against their own religion, which endears them to a certain crowd. In either case, very little is actually accomplished on the level of widespread benefit, although individual friendships may be forged. And perhaps this is the reason why, after more than a decade of interfaith encounters through North America, spurred on by the horrific memory of 9/11, little has been achieved. The latest Pew polls show that relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims are still, while not acrimonious, certain not indicative of a pluralist outlook. The focus of many states on banning Shariah law—something that no mainstream Muslim organization has ever solicited—indicates the result of negative othering.

One of the most important lessons I believe we can learn from the Holocaust is that we must safeguard the dignity of every human being. Yet the persistent violations of this dignity at the hands of fellow human beings have been an omnipresent challenge many decades after the end of World War II. The well-known slogan “Never again” refers to the defiant affirmation from within the Jewish community that they will never allow another Holocaust. While there has been no repeat of the Holocaust in terms of the Jews, there have been other genocides, ethnic cleansings, and mass killings since the end of World War II. These crimes against humanity constitute a persistent challenge to the dignity and welfare of every human being. For those of us alarmed by these kinds of crimes, we have the responsibility to recognize, embrace and propagate the notion of the importance of safeguarding human dignity because of the bond we share as fellow human beings. Historically, an important step in the protection of human dignity is attentiveness to the presence of ideological thinking and/or propaganda in the public sphere that makes dehumanizing practices within society possible.

Narrowly defined, “post-Holocaust theology” refers to the theological body of literature (much of it written in the three decades immediately following the Holocaust) that used this historical event as a point of departure to re-examine the Jewish-Christian relationship as well as theological and ethical issues, such as complicity, antisemitism, theodicy and forgiveness, that posed particular challenges in the Holocaust’s wake. In the ensuing years, the very nature of the Holocaust as a historical and international event has necessarily broadened the scope of theological reflection, and new historiography on the role of the churches and other religious groups continues to raise troubling questions.

The participants in this roundtable conversation are theologians and professors who have been engaged in these issues for many years, often in interreligious contexts. This conversation was recorded on March 29, 2014. The participants have been allowed to edit and expand on their remarks.

The history of the events from 1933 to 1945 tells a profoundly human story that touches most people—whether they are visiting scholars or tourists, whether they come from the U.S. or another part of the world. I believe that it's the human connection—our capacity to feel empathy, outrage, solidarity, shame, and to reflect on history because we want to understand its implications for us today—that explains the numbers of people who visit the Museum each year as well as the continued interest in Holocaust history in classrooms around the world.

This selected bibliography, created by Dr. Victoria Barnett, provides resources for further study.

Today, modern Jewish-Christian dialogue involves many contentious issues among which are questions about the nature of Christian anti-Judaism and its role in the Shoah, about the construction of images of the Other in tradition and culture, about how to approach problematic scriptures, and about the Israel-Palestine conflict. There are broader questions, too, about whether Jews and Christians can work together on matters of social justice, debates about Church and State, and the science and religion culture wars. And there are pressing, pragmatic questions about how to bridge the gap between elite and popular inter-religious relations, and about whether Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue makes more sense now than Jewish-Christian dialogue. Jewish post-Holocaust theologies have something to contribute to many, although by no means all, of these subjects.

In what follows we will first survey some of the ideas and trends found within Jewish post-holocaust theology before considering how such theologies relate to interfaith dialogue more generally.

In Encountering the Stranger, co-editors Leonard Grob and John Roth present essays by eighteen contributors, three Jewish, three Christian, three Muslim, all of which, in some fashion, explore what it means to encounter the other. The contributors were brought together after attending a workshop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in October, 2007, and the urgency of the question of how one ought to encounter the other was framed in light of the Holocaust and contemporary religious violence and unrest. Deeply rooted in their respective traditions, though often disagreeing with their coreligionists, these essays provide the reader with a wide breadth of insight into this issue of critical world import.

Peter Amirand’s book, Amidst Mass Atrocity and The Rubble of Theology, is a weighty volume, both conceptually and emotionally. Starting with the voices of witnesses of mass atrocity and ending with the struggle to create a theodicy to respond, the project is ambitious. The book masters context and nuance, but I find it still struggles in delivering the theodicy the title hints at. Rather, it seeks to establish a framework for creating a theodicy of mass atrocity, and points to directions of further discussion.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) draws about 1.7 million visitors annually from around the world. While most visitors come to tour the exhibitions, the USHMM is much more than a traditional museum. Part of the Museum's mission is to educate about the history of the Holocaust and to work with members of all professions who seek to explore and understand its implications for their own work. The Museum offers programs for members of the military, secondary school teachers, police officers, international delegations brought to the U.S. by the State Department, and a wide range of other groups who discover important lessons in this history for their own spheres of responsibility. The Museum's Center for the Prevention of Genocide works with U.S. and foreign government officials and other professionals who must respond to contemporary genocidal emergencies. The Museum's extensive library and archival holdings include an ever-expanding collection of books, oral histories, original documents, and photographs. All these collections are open to the public, who can find resources ranging from the personal documentation that is so crucial for Holocaust survivors and their families to large archival collections that enable scholars from around the world to do interdisciplinary and cutting edge research.

Asked to reflect on the atrocities committed with tacit-- and sometimes explicit-- support from Christian religious figures and people of faith, I have many avenues to pursue, too many for me to marshal those thoughts like a good cat-herder.  Asked to reflect on the involvement or lack thereof from bystanders to those atrocities, I keep coming full-circle to the question that was raised several times during our tour:

"How could people do that?"

With each passing year, technology becomes faster, more intuitive, and more social. With ever-evolving technology, we like to think that large-scale atrocities simply cannot happen - we would be too quick to film and post and share, galvanizing the forces of justice. Petitions and hashtags spread like wildfire, movements go viral within hours, and the grassroots power of those protecting our basic human rights would flood the cities. Haven't we seen the power of social media for revolution and change over the past few years worldwide? It becomes more and more difficult to censor individuals when we so connected, and there's no going back now.

The immediacy of information and response has not yet saved us from ourselves.

We are mistaken when we try to make this a story of the past. No matter how much we wish it wasn't true, antisemitism, neo-Nazism, and domestic terrorism are all realities in modern America.

This is precisely why visiting the Holocaust Museum has meant so much to me.

In April 2014, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted State of Formation and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies for a workshop including tours of the permanent and featured exhibitions. Historian Dr. Victoria Barnett and museum scholars Robert Ehrenreich, Krista Hegburg, and Leah Wolfson hosted a discussion about their work and the Museum's University programs. We ended the day by visiting the archives and viewing artifacts from the American Friends Service Committee records with Librarian Ron Coleman.

In these video reflections, State of Formation Contributing Scholars Simran Jeet Singh, Theodore Dedon, Kelly West Figueroa-Ray, and Elise Alexander share their impressions from that day of learning and dialogue.

SJSingh USHMM from Stephanie Varnon-Hughes on Vimeo.

TDedon USHMM from Stephanie Varnon-Hughes on Vimeo.

KFigueroaRay USHMM from Stephanie Varnon-Hughes on Vimeo.

EAlexander USHMM from Stephanie Varnon-Hughes on Vimeo.

On April 3, 2014, the United Holocaust Memorial Museum invited State of Formation scholars to participate in a workshop to facilitate conversations around religions responses to the Holocaust and genocide, and to introduce these emerging inter-religious scholars to the resources of the Museum, its Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust and the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

Dr. Victoria Barnett, Staff Director of Committee on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, gave the group a guided tour of the Museum's Permanent Exhibition and then facilitated informal presentations by Robert Ehrenreich, director of the Museum's University Programs (UPD), Krista Hegburg, program officer, and Leah Wolfson, senior program officer.

Then, the scholars toured the special exhibition, "Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust," and the Museum library and archives.

Librarian Ron Coleman shared special objects from the archives from the American Friends Service Committee records, include handmade books by survivors and early post-Holocaust Jewish religious books.

Reflections from three scholars are included in this issue of the Journal. This slideshow shares images from that day of deep reflection, rigorous learning, renewed commitment, and rich conversation.

State of Formation at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum from Stephanie Varnon-Hughes on Vimeo.

 

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