Why “Shoah”? A Conceptual History and Two Narratives of Zionism and Antisemitism

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


Invited talk at the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism

The Hebrew word Shoah has become a standard term for the 1940s genocide of European Jewry, and also entered the vocabularies of several other languages. Why at all did this historical event necessitate a different entry in the socio-political lexicon? Based on archival, literary, and media sources from before, during, and after the war, my talk tracks the conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte) of the term Shoah in Hebrew, and its gradual appearance as the most common designation for the annihilation of European Jewry, overshadowing traditional terms such as hurban (destruction), on one hand, and the newly coined Hebrew term “retzah-‘am” (genocide) on the other. I argue that while alternative Hebrew terms had verb form and therefore suggested a dynamic element, Shoah was heard as a static notion and its use reflected an inadvertent de-historicizing of the historical event. This process ensued from the interplay between two Zionist narratives about antisemitism: an “ethnocentric” narrative that singled out the Jews as the victims of the world's villains; and a “polycentric” one, which depicted the Jews suffering as a result of “irrational” management of the public sphere. The adoption of a noun without verb form stemmed at first from the theodicy of the dominant optimistic, polycentric narrative, which lacked conceptual and lexical tools to cope with the murderous breakout in Europe. In due course, ironically, this inadvertent de-historicizing was mobilized for a more pessimist, ethnocentric Zionist narrative that used the term Shoah to de-historicize antisemitism in its entirety. The conceptual result of the new lexical entry was the dominance of “singularity of the holocaust” narrative among Jews in Israel (and elsewhere).
Held atBirkbeck University of London, United Kingdom