Monday, April 29, 2024

Review: People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present

People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted PresentPeople Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present by Dara Horn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dara Horn’s book is much praised, and deservedly so. She goes through the history of antisemitism in a novel and personal way. She doesn’t explain the causes of anti-Jewish hatred or do a detailed history. On one hand, this is an intensely personal journey; a memoir of sorts. On the other hand, it is an analysis of the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish hatred. Even in places where people seem to be sympathetic to the injustice befallen Jews, there is a sense of an underlying, if implicit, rejection of Jews. As Horn lays it out this is because this sympathy only seems to be there for dead Jews. Once Jews are dead, they are loved or celebrated. Living Jews are criticized, rejected, expected to conform.

This idea is part of what lies behind her trenchant criticism of the Holocaust Museum movement (if we can call it that). Counterintuitively, she suggests this might be causing or allowing greater anti-Jewishness. By detailing the horrors of the Holocaust, anything less mass murder of millions of Jews seems to be able to dismissed or downplayed as “Well, it’s not the Holocaust.” There is a kind of worship of the dead Jew that can be seen in so much Holocaust and antisemitism education: it seems at first to come from a place of sympathy and justice, but Horn picks out ways it which it is actually ugly and deep down a love of dead Jews.

Another element of her thesis is that people seem to prefer to tell stories about dead Jews rather than ones about actual, living Jews. A troubling question she asks is, which is easier to name: three Nazi death camps or three Yiddish writers. The positive call in Horn’s book is to celebrate Jewish life and thriving, not just our tragedies but our triumphs.

The reader, Xe Sands, was wonderful; she really seemed to capture the author’s voice. Not literally, I have no idea what Horn sounds like; I mean more in the sense of matching the tone and feel of the text. Horn’s sardonic wit can be biting and maybe off putting to some. I had several, “oh damn!,” moments while listening to the book. Sands carries this off perfectly.

I think this is an immensely important book, all Jews should read it. I don’t agree with everything, but it does help to make some sense of the recent rise of antisemitism.

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