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"Identity Politics and Suffering: Post-Holocaust Judaism and the Contemporary Moment": Martin Kavka

On November 11th, 2021 Dr. Martin Kavka came to William and Mary to discuss the work of the twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim and the implications of his work for our contemporary moment. Dr. Kavka provided a framework for understanding Fackenheim's idea of the commanding voice of Auschwitz which is fundamental to post- Holocuast Jewish studies. In Fackenheim’s key work God’s Presence in History, he states,  

Any Jew, then or now, making normalcy his supreme goal should have been, and 

still should be, in flight from this singled-out condition in total disarray. In fact, however, 

secularist no less than religious Jew have responded with a reaffirmation of their 

Jewish existence such as no social scientist would have predicted even if the 

holocuast had never occurred . . . The times, however, aare not normal times. A Jew

 at Auschwitz was not a specimen of the class “victim of prejudice” or even “victim of 

genocide.” He was singled out by a demonic power which sought his death absolutely, 

i.e., as an end in itself. For a Jew today merely to affirm his Jewish existence is to 

accept his singled-out condition; ist is to oppose the demons of Auschwitz: and it is to 

oppose them in the only way in which they can be opposed-with an absolute 

opposition.” (Fackenheim 81). 

In his lecture, Dr. Kavka invited us to examine this quote in order to understand the key element of Fackenheim’s post-Holocaust response. At the heart of this quote is the claim that post-Holocaust Jewish communities that affirm their identity qua Jews perform an irrational or imprudent act. Fackenheim believes these identitarian actions to be imprudent insofar as minority populations that proclaim their identitarian difference inevitably make themselves targets of negative popular sentiment. This is surely the case with regard to post-Holocaust Jewish communities given what Fackenheim takes to be the ongoing popular force of anti-semitism. If however Jewish communal expressions of identitarian pride are imprudent, what Fackenheim asks motivates them? Here Fackenheim posits his now famous account of the ‘Commanding Voice of Auschwitz’ or the 614th commandment which commands Jews not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. The Jewish communal choice to affirm Jewish identity in a post-Holocaust world must, Fackenheim argues, be a response to a non-rational and heteronomous commanding voice tht obligates them to resist any future attempt to continue Hitler’s destructive program against the Jewish people. 

     Despite his appreciation for the power of Fackenheim’s analysis, Dr. Kafka's lecture presented a critical review of Fackenheim’s work and its implications in secular society. According to Kavka, Fackenheim is correct to recognize a heteronomous commanding force behind the imprudence of a Jewish identitarian performance. Fackenheim is wrong, Kavka maintained in his refusal to recognize that a similar commanding voice motivates other contemporary minority group performances that in his estimation have been equally targeted and therefore equally vulnerable in these performances such as Act Up and Black Lives Matter. If according to Fackenheim Jewish acts of imprudence are only explainable due to an unknowing supernatural command for resistance, why would it not make sense to apply this same theory to acts of identitarian imprudence by other minority groups? In his lecture, Dr. Kavka presented a famous photo called Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge, which shows Leshia Evans, a black woman participating in BLM protest moments before being arrested by two police officers. He used the photo to demonstrate both the power of her resistance and the risk involved in it. 

     From here, Dr. Kavka discussed the implications of his reading of Fackenheim and suggested that Fackenheim’s failure to appreciate the overlap between post-Holocaust Jewish responses and the resistance of other targeted minority groups like Black Americans and Palestinians neglects a major opportunity for minority groups to achieve a deeper understanding of the risks and power of their parallel resistance movements. 

     I found Dr. Kavka to be an engaging and insightful lecturer. His openness to critique and support for students' questions demonstrated his love of learning. He made the content of his lecture digestible to the entire audience, not just those who have a deep understanding of Jewish studies. Furthermore, his lecture made a Jewish studies concept applicable to and insightful for any attempt to gain a deeper understanding of modern social movements.