I knew after reading the introduction to Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews that I would end up blogging about it. Actually, I knew it after just reading the description on the book jacket:
Often asked by major publications to write on subjects related to Jewish culture—and increasingly in response to a recent wave of deadly antisemitic attacks—Horn was troubled to realize what all of these assignments had in common: she was being asked to write about dead Jews, never about living ones…she challenges us to confront the reasons why there might be so much fascination with Jewish deaths, and so little respect for Jewish lives unfolding in the present.
I started reading this book right as the news broke about a school in Tennessee banning a Holocaust-themed graphic novel, Maus. What divinely-inspired timing.
The Disturbing Books It’s Safe To Love
If there’s any piece of Holocaust literature that most of us are likely to have read, it’s The Diary of Anne Frank. To be sure, that book has also been banned many times. But Horn makes a valid point that most of us can excuse the squirmy parts of Anne’s diary because of the iconic line, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”
In other words, despite being written by a child hiding in an attic from people who wanted to kill her (which they eventually did), Diary is an easier book to love because it affirms our best inclinations about humanity. It offers grace even for Nazis because we get that “good at heart” assurance. It doesn’t require us to look directly at the carnage that ignorance and anti-semitism can lead to.
I haven’t read Maus, but from what I’ve gathered, it’s a book that requires readers to look unflinchingly at the ugliest parts of a truly ugly period in human history. It demands readers to feel uncomfortable, which makes many parents uncomfortable. It’s the same type of discomfort that makes people so uncomfortable with Critical Race Theory (which is separate topic that I’m still learning about, and thus will not be sharing my thoughts here yet). CRT forces people to look at unfiltered black history, rather than through the lens of an inspirational Martin Luther King Jr. quote.
In other words, Maus tells the truth. And for some reason, that’s making people angry.
Venerating “Token Victims”
Because Anne Frank died so young and tragically, it’s easy to venerate her. Had Frank lived into her eighties and perhaps become an activist or written more books about what she experienced in Bergen-Belsen and the forces of evil that allowed it to happen, chances are, more people would dislike her. Or, at the very least, feel uncomfortable by her.
Anne Frank’s death at age sixteen means she is a permanent “token victim” who is easy to love because she asks nothing of us. She’s no Greta Thunberg, who regularly says things that get under the skin of those who deny climate change, enabling them to mock and dismiss her.
No Strangers To Ugly Truth
As Christians, this discomfort when confronted with our moral failings should not surprise us. We are sinners, are we not? Even if we are supposed to conform to the character of Christ, let’s face it…most of us suck at this on a daily basis.
This failure to consistently live up to our ideals doesn’t change the fact that it really should be Christians leading the crusade to keep books like Maus – books that tell the raw, unsavory truth – on our shelves.
Obviously, this is not the world we live in. We know there are many Christians at the forefront to keep this book, and others like it, out of reach. I pray that those believers look deep within themselves and earnestly wrestle with where that discomfort is coming from, because I think it’s deeper than simply wanting to keep children’s minds pure.
The truth, as I see it, is more disturbing: we don’t want to face our own complicity and inner biases. Which means we haven’t fully understood the gospel and what it says about us.