Are We Ever Allowed to Make Holocaust Comparisons?

Wherever you stand on today’s hysteria about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the phrases “concentration camps” and “Never Again” in regard to the mass detentions of immigrant children on the U.S. border probably has been predetermined by your politics.

That is to say, liberals will come to her defense, saying that we face a horrible moral situation and we need language that sparks people to action. Conservatives will decry her, saying her rhetoric cheapens the legacy of the Holocaust. Everyone will retreat to their previously drawn lines.

I don’t want to be guilty of that, so before making one or two points, I want to come clean: I am generally on the political left, but I think it is possible and necessary to be critical of leaders with whom you are sympathetic. The antisemitic blindspot of the left is an outrage, and people who care about the climate change, racism, LGBTQ issues, economic justice, and reining in unfettered corporations had better wake up quickly before the Democratic party slides into full-blown Corbynism. Which would be a disaster for everyone.

So let’s try to back off of how we feel about the messenger, and soberly ask: Was AOC wrong to use those terms? I would make a few points:

First: Being specific in our language is very important, especially when it comes to the Shoah. “Concentration camps” are not the same as “death camps”—and during the Shoah there were both. To quote Deborah Dwork, a preeminent contemporary scholar of the Shoah:

Initially, the Nazis established concentration camps to incarcerated Communists, Socialists, asocials, or other who did not fit into the national community. Their primary purpose was to “teach” these Germans what they needed to know to return to society. Jews, by definition, could never belong to the national community… The many Jews among these political prisoners were therefore treated worse and assigned to the most difficult and dangerous labor details.[1]

These concentration camps were limitless in their brutality, and of course enormous numbers of Jews died there. But they are not identical with the death camps—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno; each name seared into our consciousness—where the singular goal was to use all the technology available to annihilate enormous numbers of Jews as efficiently, and as brutally, as possible.

There have been concentration camps before and since the Shoah. Totalitarian regimes have “concentrated” groups of people into “camps” many times in our awful history. Auschwitz, however, is something different. (See the map below.)

Second:  Is the Shoah a singular event? I believe it is. That’s why I prefer the Hebrew shoah, “cataclysm”, to the English holocaust. This language preserves the Jewish ownership of our history, and it reminds us that while others were persecuted by the Nazis, the Jews were uniquely targeted. Furthermore, there’s something unsettling about the origins of the word holocaust, with its connections to biblical burnt-offerings. As if to say: there was something “sacrificial” about the murders, which of course there wasn’t.

Likewise for genocide, a word that needed to be coined because no linguistic precedent existed for the crimes that the Nazis committed against the Jews. “Genocide” is not a synonym for “murder,” even “mass murder,” and it should not be used as such. But still: There have been other genocides, some attempted and some fulfilled, in the past three-quarters of a century, and we need to identify them as such.

Third:  So, are we ever allowed to make comparisons to the Shoah? We’ve become so accustomed to calling our enemies “Nazis.” (I’ve done it.) Perhaps there is solace in knowing that the nastiest word we can come up with for the scummiest people is “Nazi”—isn’t it an acknowledgment of the evil of the Shoah if that’s the most extreme word we can think of?

But we should usually avoid using that language. Thoughtful people with diametrically different points of view from our own are not “worse than Hitler.”  But still…

Do we really believe that we should never make Shoah analogies? If so, what was the point of all that education, all those Holocaust Museums, all those Yom HaShoah commemorations? I thought the point was: Learn from history. Recognize the signs of creeping fascism in order to cut it off. Don’t let another human being be dehumanized to the point where they are treated like vermin.

I thought that’s what “Never again” meant: “Never again” to us—that’s why we needed Zionism; “Never again” to anyone—that’s why we needed a human rights movement.

Through our Shoah education, Jewish strength has become a Mitzvah (here in the sense of “commandment”). So, too, has Jewish empathy for others’ victimization.

We’ve properly used the Einsatzgruppen analogy when considering the annihilation of the Darfuris. We’ve correctly called the Rwandan devastation a “genocide.” When Arabic textbooks in Palestine and elsewhere show caricatures of hook-nosed Jews grubbing money and drinking blood, we say, We know where we’ve seen this before, and we call it out.

And I, for one, make the connection between those faces on the U.S. border—concentrated as they are into camps—and the faces of Jewish children in Germany during World War II.

So my take on AOC’s comments?    

The humanitarian disaster taking place on the U.S. border is a stain on our country. The Trump administration’s family separation policies diminish our moral authority everywhere. The failure of the other parts of the government to react is a disgrace, although we should appreciate the moral voices on both the right and the left that have spoken out.

If AOC had called it “Auschwitz,” she should be condemned. If she had called it “genocide,” it would be an abhorrent abuse of language. But she didn’t. She called it a “concentration camp” and she said “Never again.” I agree with her on both counts.

[1] Deborah Dwork & Robert Jan van Pelt, Holocaust: A History, 2002, p.356.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,  https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org

Marking Yom HaShoah in 2019

This is the text of the letter I sent out to the Babson College community today,
on the eve of Yom HaShoah:

Thursday is Yom HaShoah, the annual day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the annihilation of European Jewry during World War II. Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the defeat of the Nazis, it is a time for sober reflection about what the legacy of the Holocaust means to us who are now three and four generations removed from it.

In truth, all Jews today carry within them the legacy of the SHOAH (the Jewish term for the events called “the Holocaust”), although each carries it in a different way. Many Jews have branches on their family trees that simply break off. Others grew up with memories passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents about survival in the most miraculous, or most horrific, of circumstances. Others simply know the stories, and have a vague sense of responsibility because of the legacy of this painful history. It is part of us, forever.

Yom HaShoah seems especially resonant this year. Surveys of Americans tell us dispiriting news. Two-thirds of millenials (and 41% of all Americans) do not know what Auschwitz was; 22% of them never heard of the Holocaust (or aren’t sure if they have). The remaining survivors of the death camps are elderly today; in a few years, there will be no living eyewitnesses to the crimes of the Nazis and their enablers.

And the emerging trends of hate, violence, and white supremacy are on our minds this year. The murderous attack at the Chabad synagogue of Poway, California last week - six months after the massacre of Jews on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh - in the name of white nationalism conjures up great horror among us on this Yom HaShoah.

This week, the ADL released its annual study of antisemitism in America. In 2018, it recorded 1,879 antisemitic incidents in the United States, including the bloodiest in American history (the assault in Pittsburgh). This number is the third-highest annual number that the ADL has ever recorded. This is why many Jews, young and old, are asking questions we've never asked in our lifetimes:  How safe are we here, really? 

What is there to say or do? I think the answer from Jewish tradition is twofold. There is a famous saying by the great sage Hillel from over 2,000 years ago (it would be a cliché if it weren’t so perfectly accurate):  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

If I am not for myself”— this is why Jews take the legacy of the Shoah so personally. Jewish survival, and its transmission to the next generation, is an absolute obligation for us; the Shoah makes that message only more profound. This is part of what the State of Israel means to us: There is a refuge; a safe place (recalling that the whole world, including America, turned its backs on many victims of the Nazis); and, not insignificantly, a Jewish army to defend itself. The Shoah isn’t the reason Israel exists (its roots extend far earlier than the War), but it does explain the passion with which its supporters will defend it.

In other words, this response to the Shoah is: AM YISRAEL CHAIThe Jewish People lives. And every Jew has a responsibility to make it so. 

But if I am only for myself”— That “but” is crucial. The Shoah didn’t start with death camps; it began with the increasing dehumanization of Jews, and propaganda that gradually eroded rights and liberties to the point where we were turned into something less-than-fully-human. Denial of rights leads to oppression. And that leads to neighbors abandoning and attacking neighbors; which led to genocide. It was systematic, it was thoughtfully planned, and it was almost successful.

This idea, too, seems particularly profound in 2019. The massacres of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand remain a fresh wound. As does the assault on Christians in Sri Lanka. And the burning of three black churches in Louisiana last month. Just to cite the three most notorious, and most recent, examples of the current rise of hateful violence. 

In other words, the other commanding voice of the Shoah is to stand up against the dehumanization of anyone, anywhere. To say to every tyrant: “Not on our watch.” To know and understand our neighbors - and to defend and protect them.

That is what is at stake in the memory of the Shoah. That is what we mean when we say “Never Again.”

Hitler Didn't Create Israel. (Modernity Did.)

Two 20th Century events irrevocably shaped Jewish destiny: the massacre of six million Jews in the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel. They are certainly linked; after all, a visitor cannot understand Israel without visiting Yad VaShem. And yet, it is crucial to understand that Israel was well on its way to becoming real long before Hitler’s rise.

As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, friends and foes alike repeat the falsehood that Israel was established because of the Holocaust. Many Jews, lacking the knowledge of Israel’s history and purpose, believe that Israel came into being in 1948 as some sort of reparation the world’s failure to stop the Nazis in time. Occasionally Palestinian propagandists suggest that Jews were awarded Palestine as compensation for their victimhood—and that Palestinians have suffered for Europe’s crimes.

Even President Barack Obama, in his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, demonstrated this misreading of history, invoking the Shoah as the only rationale upon which Israel exists.

But the origins of Zionism are far earlier than World War II. Certainly, there were always Jewish enclaves in the Land of Israel throughout the ages. But when we speak of “Zionism,” we mean the modernist movement that emerged in the 19th century salons and journals of Enlightenment-era Europe.

Various streams of Zionism appeared at that time. They fit four general categories: religious awakening, the question of how to be a Jew in modern times, the renewal of Jewish culture, and a response to anti-Semitism.

Most Jewish religious movements in the 19th century—Orthodox and Reform alike—avoided calling upon Jews to move en masse to the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, as early as the 1830s nonconformists like Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai in Serbia (1798-1878) and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer in Prussia (1795-1874) were making the religious case for self-emancipation and the establishment of new schools and communities in Palestine.

However, most 19th century Zionist leaders were secular Jews who had been influenced by the zeitgeist of the day: nationalism. It dawned on them—and, unfortunately, on their neighbors—that Jews would always be guests (at best) amidst the nationalist aspirations that were flourishing across the continent. Jews—who had always identified as am yisrael, “the nation of Israel”— began to explore what membership in the Jewish nation meant.

Many of the Zionist leaders had abandoned traditional religion which, in their view, failed to offer meaning in the modern world. So they asked: What, beyond religion, does Jewish peoplehood mean today? For thinkers like Yosef Hayyim Brenner (1881-1921) or Aharon David Gordon (1856-1922), Jewish spirit in the Diaspora would always be stunted; only by working the Land of Israel itself would a new, healthy Jew emerge. And for Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), Jewish autonomy entailed a renaissance of Jewish culture and in all the expressions of its spirit. This renaissance could not happen as guests in another’s home.

Others were convinced that Zinoism was the only refuge from pogroms and state- and church-sanctioned anti-Semitism. This political Zionism culminated with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Herzl concluded that a cataclysm was approaching and he sought a political refuge to save Jewish lives—decades before Hitler’s appearance.

In 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, where leaders of different streams gathered to shape the movement. Afterwards, Herzl wrote in his diary:

In Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this aloud I would meet with general laughter; but in another five years, and certainly in another fifty years, everyone will be convinced of this. 

After World War I, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Great Britain came to dominate the Middle East, maps and futures were being redrawn. The floodgates opened with the Balfour Declaration. On November 2, 1917, the British foreign secretary officially endorsed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The Balfour Declaration coincided with waves of Jewish immigrants coming to Palestine. The Second Aliyah (1904-1914) brought 40,000 people, largely Russian socialists and labor Zionists, fleeing the pogroms. The Third Aliyah (1919-1923) brought another 40,000 Jews and the Fourth Aliyah (1924-1928) brought 80,000, as a result of postwar economic crises—and immigration quotas in the United States.

Simultaneously, the Yishuv (the nascent Jewish government in Palestine) was building the infrastructure of the state-to-be. The city of Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 on the seashore north of Jaffa. The Haganah, the antecedent of the Israel Defense Forces, was established in 1920. And Hebrew University in Jerusalem was dedicated in 1925.

These currents made the coming reality of a Jewish state clear by the 1930s. In 1937, the British Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State. Setting a sad precedent, the Zionist leadership accepted the plan while the Arabs rejected it. But by now the words “Jewish state” were no longer a political unicorn; its realization was in sight.

This momentum was contagious overseas. American Reform rabbis reversed their longstanding rejection of Zionism. In the Columbus Platform of 1937, they wrote:

In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.

Even then, few anticipated the Final Solution. If the Nazis never had come to power, or if they had been stopped by the allies before the Holocaust came to be, there is no reason to think that the Zionists’ momentum would have ceased.

Of course, the death camps did happen, and in 1948 the State of Israel was declared. Hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived on Israel’s shores. The attempts by the British to limit Jewish migration to Israel—as dramatized by the Exodus 1947 episode—only served to illustrate why a Jewish State was necessary.

Why is all this important? Because to understand Israel today, one must realize that the Shoah is part of the collective story of the Jewish people. But our connections to the land—and to one another, to am yisrael—were in place long before the Nazis’ vile rise to power. The Shoah may justify the vigor with which Israelis fight for their right to exist, but it does not explain why Israel became a historical reality.

Hitler did not create the State of Israel. But because of the Shoah, Israel’s importance, its legitimacy, and its centrality in Jewish life are laid bare.