Thursday, October 22, 2009

Exploiting the Victims/Remembering the Past

I know I’ve been writing a lot lately about the Shoah, but I’d like just one more chance to address a related issue before I turn back to happier and less upsetting topics. And the issue I’d like to raise this week is not actually about the Shoah itself, but about the willingness of people to use—or rather to exploit—the Holocaust for their own ends. It is not something any of us should just let go…and not only because it cheapens the memory of the martyrs and makes of our dead little more than grist for other people’s mills.

I begin with the now infamous comment of Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Coalition of Florida, who expressed his disapproval of the president’s health care initiative by declaring publicly that what “they” are trying to do to our nation’s elderly is not “something like what the Nazis did. It is precisely what the Nazis did.” And then, just for good measure, the Reverend Land awarded the Dr. Josef Mengele award, presumably an award appropriately given (if it existed, that is) to the physician who the most totally has betrayed the ethical basis of his profession, to Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the president’s chief health policy advisor and a Jew. It’s a free country. The Reverend Land is free to disagree with anything he wishes to disagree with. And he has the constitutional right to express himself forcefully and publicly on the matter if he wishes to. But to exploit the sacred obligation we all bear to remember, and never to forget, the events of the Holocaust to make a political point is as morally wrong as it is unacceptable. Whatever the merits of its health care proposals are or aren’t, the current administration is not promoting the idea of solving the health care crisis by killing sick people instead of healing them. Nor are they suggesting that a useful way to trim costs would be to murder the mentally challenged or the terminally ill or the very old. Dr. Emanuel does not spend his days, as Josef Mengele did, sending millions to their deaths. Nor does he advocate using human beings as living, unanaesthetized guinea pigs in medical experiments as scientifically worthless as they were diabolically inhuman.

Having cited the Reverend Land’s comments, I should also add that even he now says he agrees with my assessment of his remarks and, taking note of the pain his comments caused so many and in particular Jewish and other victims of the Nazis, he has both formally apologized and obligingly promised to use more judicious language in the future.

I’d like to think that the reverend has taken to heart the firestorm his remarks occasioned. But he is not at all alone. Representative Alan Grayson, a Democratic congressman from Florida, also referred to America’s health care system as a holocaust the other day. (You can hear Congressman Grayson’s comments on youtube at It's only a 23 second clip, but you’ll get the idea.) A few days later, he too apologized. They all apologize, it seems…but by the time they do the damage has already been done. And the slow devaluation of the meaning of the Shoah continues unabated as terminology specifically developed to make it possible to speak somehow about unimaginable horrors slowly makes its way into daily discourse. If you google “Hitler Obama,” you will get about nine million hits, not all of them relevant but a stunning amount offering to bring you to sites that promote the idea that the president is a crypto-Nazi whose Nazi-like policies will end up with transforming America into a Nazi state. A Republican woman’s organization in Maryland actually posted a detailed comparison of President Obama and Adolph Hitler on its website as though this were a serious way of evaluating the president’s first months in office.

I am not writing today to evaluate any of the criticism leveled against the president with respect to his health care proposals, only to say as clearly as I can that I think it is critically important that people of good will—and particularly Jewish people—respond forcefully when the Shoah is exploited to make political hay. Especially important to notice is that the offenders here are not rabid anti-Semites or loony Holocaust deniers. For the most part they are reasonable people—ministers and congressmen and members of respectable political organizations—to whom the Shoah has simply become a symbol of a really bad thing, thus something to evoke when discussing other really bad things.

Nor do I find it by definition morally or ethically wrong to compare the Shoah to other events in world history. There surely are things in our sorry world, and not a few of them, that bear comparison to the Shoah. The slaughter of half a million Rwandans in 1994, for example. Or the deaths of two million Cambodians in the mid-1970s. Or the mass murder of 1,500,000 Armenians during and just after the First World War. But these are examples of “real” genocide, of the concerted effort to destroy a national or ethnic culture by murdering its citizens or its proponents. To compare these instances of almost unspeakable horror with the effects of a proposed reform of some aspect of our national life, no matter how deleterious to the public good that reform may eventually turn out to be, is to go far beyond the rules of normal or moral rhetoric. Nor does it matter much to me that the people who use these comparisons are not motivated by anti-Semitism or by any specific desire to insult the martyrs who died during the Shoah. That may not have been their intention—I dare say I’m sure it wasn’t their intention—but their remarks are having the same effect on our national sense of the ultimate meaning of the Shoah that they would have had if the makers of those remarks actually had been motivated by bigotry, prejudice, or hatred.

The word “holocaust” was originally coined by the Greek translators of the Bible to describe the kind of offering that was wholly consumed by the fire atop the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, and for a long time that was its sole usage. By the nineteenth century, however, the term had gained some currency as a synonym for large-scale national tragedy and it was in that sense, for example, that Winston Churchill used it to describe the Armenian massacres I mentioned above. During the dark days of the Second World War itself, the Hebrew press adopted the word shoah (“catastrophe”) to refer to the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and that word was translated into English as Holocaust, which term gained currency too in the English-speaking world. It is not known who first thought to use that specific term to translate the Hebrew term, but, by the mid-1950s, “the Holocaust” was the term in general use to refer to the Shoah. And so it has remained to this day, even in Germany.

Even after all these years of reading so many Shoah memoirs and histories, both personal accounts and the works of “real” historians, I still routinely find details regarding the suffering the Jews of Europe underwent during the war that I find it almost impossible to believe. We are not talking about misguided national policies here, if misguided they be, but about inhuman behavior so despicably cruel that it is beyond anyone normal person’s ability to fathom, let alone adequately to describe in regular human language. We are talking about barbarism that beggars description, about crimes that defy the mind actually to accept as doable (let alone as actually having been done), about nightmares that no one could actually have had before they became reality. We are talking about national trauma so deep and so lasting that it seems to me likely that even my own children’s generation—now two generations removed in that I myself was born after the war ended—will live out their Jewish lives in its shadows as will, I suspect, their own children.

We do ourselves no favor at all by looking the other way when people use language rooted in the events of the Shoah to make some point that has nothing at all to do with the suffering of European Jewry or with the traumatic worldview those events have bequeathed to us all. Just the opposite is true, actually—we do ourselves a huge disservice by looking away. Far better to say nothing at all than to cheapen the memory of the dead by exploiting their suffering. To liken the president’s health care advisor to Dr. Mengele is beyond the pale of normal discourse. To compare his policy initiatives to the annihilation of European Jewry is beyond grotesque. It is not only expressive of a wholly incorrect take on history, but it is a true insult to the dead…and also to those of us who have taken it as our life tasks to memorialize them and to keep the world from forgetting their plight. The philosopher George Santayana famously said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That comment, it seems to me, can apply equally meaningfully to those who forget the past and those who willfully misuse it.

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