October 31, 2010

Whose Holocaust Is It, Anyway? (originally posted Oct. 5, 2009)

Q: Who owns the "Holocaust" brand? Who owns the right (or better, legitimacy) to apply the term "Holocaust" to any policy, social or religious issue?

A: No one

I call a moratorium. Nearly 65 years after the end of World War II, it is time to remove the "H" word from our political lexicons and leave it to the realm of history and thought. Ahh...whatever happened to thought?

Extremists on the right and left alternately use the term to characterize everything from abortion to lack of health insurance within the United States, to Israeli policies against the Palestinians, to anything that anyone wants to portray negatively.

Q: You know what was just like the Holocaust?

A: ...the Holocaust. Full stop. No metaphor, no allusion, no allegory, no comparison.

One need not prove a genocide or any mass murder is equal to the Holocaust in order to invoke the LESSONS of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a unique and specific historical fact that has rightly generated myriad lessons and applications. It was tragic, but it is not the same as all other tragedies, and vice-versa. Anyone who applies the term to any other historical or contemporary situation is missing the point -- be they a Jew or Israeli, a Christian or an American, even a Holocaust survivor.

Many years ago, Israelis determined that the establishment of the Jewish State was linked in significant ways to the events of World War II and the Holocaust. This has been enshrined in everything from Israeli school curricula to United Nations resolutions (at long last). Israel is not LIKE the Holocaust, rather it FOLLOWED the Holocaust.

Right-wingers within the pro-Israel community came down hard on President Obama's address to the Islamic world, delivered in Cairo earlier this year, when he (a) suggested that Jews and Palestinians have all suffered, and (b) referred to the Holocaust as an example of Jewish suffering. The criticism was that he claimed the Holocaust was equal to Palestinian suffering (which he didn't) and that he credited the Holocaust as Israel's raison d'etre (which he didn't).

On the other hand, the Prime Minister of Israel received universal Jewish acclaim last month when he opened his UN General Assembly speech with a call to arms against Iran -- because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust and is quite obviously pursuing a nuclear weapons program in violation of international obligations. (full text online at http://bit.ly/GdTBN)

How does the Prime Minister of Israel reintroduce himself to his fellow world leaders? "I stand here today as the Prime Minister of Israel, the Jewish state, and I speak to you on behalf of my country and my people. The United Nations was founded after the carnage of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. It was charged with preventing the recurrence of such horrendous events." In other words, threats to Israel should be filed under "H" for Holocaust. A bit later, he added: "History has shown us time and again that what starts with attacks on the Jews eventually ends up engulfing many others." So, if the United Nations does not stop Ahmadinejad now, the destruction will spread beyond Israel into World War III, along the lines of our 20th century experience. 

If Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, that seems dangerous enough by itself, without claiming it's another Holocaust. Do such claims strengthen the argmument or turn the Holocaust into a cliche?

If the Prime Minister of Israel is hailed as a conquering hero for pigeon-holing himself as the leader of a nation of Holocaust survivors, why can't the President of the United States mention the Holocaust as a reason why Muslims should have more empathy for Israelis?

Finally, why does the Prime Minister of Israel need to show the UN General Assembly proof that the Holocaust occurred (which he did), when the same UN General Assembly has been on record for five years with landmark high-level commemorations, and even adopted a resolution against Holocaust denial when Ahmadinejad hosted his infamous Holocaust-questioning conference in Tehran?

Israel is about so much more than the Holocaust, and so is Iran's nuclear weapons program. The Iranian threat is also about much more than the State of Israel, so having the Israeli Prime Minister make it seem all about Israel may not help convince those governments straddling the fence -- i.e., the ones that still need to be convinced to enforce sanctions and reduce their own economic and strategic ties with the Islamic Republic.

The only way to ensure that the Holocaust is not misused or trivialized is to let the Holocaust be the Holocaust -- the systematic extremination of six million Jews and millions of other non-combatants by Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. If that isn't enough to teach us all the lessons we need, invoking it on issue after issue won't make much of a difference anyway, nor will it help Israel modernize its image beyond a nation of victims.

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