Peo­ple Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunt­ed Present

By – August 30, 2021

Why soci­ety is fas­ci­nat­ed with the death of Jews but cares lit­tle for liv­ing Jews is the sub­ject of Dara Horn’s newest book. Weav­ing togeth­er his­to­ry, social sci­ence, and per­son­al sto­ry, she asks read­ers to think crit­i­cal­ly about why we ven­er­ate sto­ries and spaces that make the destruc­tion of world Jew­ry a com­pelling nar­ra­tive while also min­i­miz­ing the cur­rent cri­sis of anti­semitism. As Horn con­cludes in her intro­duc­tion, the goal of Peo­ple Love Dead Jews is to unrav­el, doc­u­ment, describe, and artic­u­late the end­less unspo­ken ways in which the pop­u­lar obses­sion with dead Jews, even in its most appar­ent­ly benign and civic-mind­ed forms, is a pro­found affront to human dignity.”

In the chap­ters that fol­low, the author moves the read­er back and forth between exam­ples of the world’s fas­ci­na­tion, and at times obses­sion, with dead Jews and the anti­se­mit­ic events of Pitts­burgh (2018), San Diego (2019), and Jer­sey City (2019). She explores fas­ci­na­tion with Anne Frank, the recent estab­lish­ment of a muse­um to the now defunct Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Harbin, Chi­na, an inter­est in uplift­ing” Holo­caust fic­tion (and the movies made from these best­sellers), and an online archive of the for­got­ten Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties of North Africa and Asia. She explores the moti­va­tions of Var­i­an Fry and those who pre­serve his mem­o­ry. Fry, the first Amer­i­can to be named a Right­eous Among the Nations,” res­cued the anti-Nazi cul­tur­al elite, many of whom were Jews, from cer­tain death.

Toward the book’s con­clu­sion, in a par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­turb­ing chap­ter, the author lis­tens to an audio ver­sion of The Mer­chant of Venice with her ten-year-old. In a strange rever­sal, her son helps her to rec­og­nize that she has been con­di­tioned to accept Shylock’s famous solil­o­quy as Shakespeare’s attempt at human­iza­tion. In real­i­ty, her son sug­gests, Shylock’s words might be read as his jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for revenge. He is evil because he is treat­ed poor­ly. He is treat­ed poor­ly because there is some­thing repul­sive about him, because he is a Jew. Per­haps there is no deep­er under­stand­ing to be had.

Horn comes to the con­clu­sion that anti­semitism has a reemerged in Amer­i­ca because the last few gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can non-Jews had been cha­grined by the enor­mi­ty of the Holo­caust — which had been per­pet­u­at­ed by America’s ene­my, and which was gross enough to make anti­semitism social­ly unac­cept­able, even shame­ful. Now that peo­ple who remem­bered the shock of those events were dying off, the pub­lic shame asso­ci­at­ed with express­ing anti­semitism was dying too. In oth­er words, hat­ing Jews was nor­mal.” In the banal­i­ty of this expla­na­tion, the read­er comes to the con­clu­sion that some­times the truest answer is both the most painful and the least satisfying.

Peo­ple Love Dead Jews offers no defin­i­tive solu­tion to the para­dox it unfolds. Horn leaves the read­er with sev­er­al inter­wo­ven expla­na­tions, each of which lead us to con­front the dark real­i­ty that Jew­ish deaths make for a com­pelling edu­ca­tion­al nar­ra­tive, while fac­ing the anti­semitism of the present demands a com­mit­ment to equal­i­ty that the world remains unable to embrace.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions

Don’t be dis­tract­ed by the title of Dara’s Horn’s new book, Peo­ple Love Dead Jews. While the title may grab your atten­tion and may seem a bit sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic, the book that fol­lows is deep, well researched, beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, and nuanced in its thinking.

The book’s cen­tral premise is that while soci­eties may have com­pli­cat­ed feel­ings about liv­ing Jews, there is an impor­tant and often over­looked way that these same soci­eties view dead Jews — tok­eniz­ing dead Jews to seem arti­fi­cial­ly pos­i­tive, roman­tic, and sym­bol­ic. Horn’s book adds a new per­spec­tive to exist­ing writ­ing that high­lights the myr­i­ad ways in which anti­se­mit­ic tropes and bias­es affect how peo­ple see liv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties. The bias against Jews is not just about dis­crim­i­na­tion in the present, but also about a dis­tort­ed char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the past. Dara Horn’s work shines most bright­ly in two ways. First, Peo­ple Love Dead Jews is so well researched that even when Horn is writ­ing about fig­ures as ubiquitous/​well known as Anne Frank, the read­er learns impor­tant new infor­ma­tion. Sec­ond, Horn’s abil­i­ty to offer pow­er­ful par­a­digms that reframe how we think about an issue is pro­found, inci­sive, and utter­ly refreshing.