politics

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

Saying No to the Neturei Karta of the Left

 ?הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.?וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי? וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָ

Hillel would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?  (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

When it comes to Hillel’s famous quote, selective memories prevail. The Jewish left has a tendency to forget the first clause—if we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else will. And the right tends to ignore the second—if we’re only concerned about our own needs, what happened to our essential human empathy? Hillel knew that living in tension with these two values was the jumping-off point for much of Jewish ethics.

This tension surfaced on Thursday evening, as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston voted to prohibit Council member-organizations from partnering with or co-sponsoring events with “self-identified Jewish organizations...that declare themselves to be anti-Zionist”. This is a good and proper decision.

Some people may not think so. Some inside-the-tent groups on the Jewish left opposed the measure, arguing that we need to expand the Council, to be inclusive of the widest possibly array of voices that are found in the Jewish community. That dilemma—one which progressive minded people are especially sensitive to—was widely felt at the JCRC meeting.

The JCRC vote became a necessity when one of the Council’s constituent organizations—Boston Workmen’s Circle—suggested that its occasional partnering with anti-Israel groups, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, might mean that they are not in compliance with JCRC’s membership requirements. This prompted a close look at what, precisely, membership in JCRC means.

The JCRC was founded in Boston in 1944 as a coalition of organizations to act as a unified voice for Jewish concerns. First and foremost among those concerns was combating antisemitism. But JCRC also became the leading Jewish voice in New England for progressive causes, such as the labor movement, civil rights, women’s rights, etc. And fighting for a secure, Jewish, democratic, and peaceful State of Israel—which was a progressive cause then, and, for many of us, remains so today.

Thursday’s discussion was absolutely civil and occasionally emotional. Workmen’s Circle, with its Yiddish-socialist early 20th century roots, was a founding member of the Boston JCRC. Its representative, urging the Council to reject the measure, argued that if some groups haven’t found a place at the Jewish “table”, we should “make a bigger table.”  As JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton pointed out, there was an appropriate sadness in the room—because it would be sad to lose organizations of good people, committed to righteous causes, over this issue.

Further, it’s terribly sad when Israel—which once was the great unifier of the Jewish people—becomes the thing that divides.

And it’s sadder still when the State of Israel behaves in such reprehensible ways (not only towards Palestinians, but also towards large swaths of American Jews) that some Jews feel that they have no choice but to abandon the Zionist enterprise altogether.

I felt all those things at the meeting—and I also felt a surging sense of pride to raise my card and vote in favor of the resolution.

Because, as Jeremy also pointed out, boundaries in fact mean something. They don’t merely exclude. They also define: what, precisely, do we stand for?

Granting legitimacy to anti-Zionist voices (which, noisy as they may be, are a microscopic constituency among American Jews) would be a disaster.

After all, among the greatest gifts that Zionism brought was the invigorated notion that the Jews are a people; that we are a cantankerous, often dysfunctional, but nonetheless-in-the-same-boat family wherever we are found.  The State of Israel became the greatest expression of this, and the ultimate experiment in putting Jewish ideas into action (a government, a university, a military, a culture, a society) in two thousand years.

Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace jettison all that. They made explicit last week what has been obvious for much longer, when they issued a defining statement affirming that they are opposed to Zionism in all its forms. Let’s be clear: this isn’t an academic exercise. If that point of view gains traction in the American mainstream, the direct result will be the killing of more Jews.

It’s difficult to make those boundaries. Progressive-minded people quite appropriately want to be inclusive of as many others as possible; indeed, we are often stronger together.

But there are boundaries. For instance, most Jews recognize that the group known as Neturei Karta—an arm of the ultra-extremist Satmar Hasidic sect—are beyond the pale of mainstream Jewry. They’re the ones who show up and picket community Israel celebrations, or who meet with the most implacable leaders of Israel’s enemy nations to offer their friendship and support. They call Zionism a demonic abomination (and worse) and insist that it delays, rather than hastens, the world’s redemption.

Well, last week the JVP made it official: they are the Neturei Karta of the left. They chose the side of the Jewish people’s enemies, abandoned the notion of Jewish peoplehood, and rejected any awe of being part of a generation for which our ancestors desperately yearned (and often died). Their argument completely misunderstands or ignores history, utterly abandons the work of the Zionist left, and in fact strengthens those who oppose any vision of a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

They inhabit that strange parallel universe where the fringiest extremes of the left and right bend around so far that they become ideologically rather close. It’s the sort of place where tiki-torch bearing MAGA extremists dovetail with the antisemitic extreme of elements of the Women’s March leaders, who somehow find it so difficult to disassociate from Farrakhan.

Voices like these are active opponents of the values inherent in the mainstream Jewish community, especially its civil rights elements—the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Labor Committee, etc. Not to mention the wonderful Zioness Movement—“unabashedly progressive, unquestionably Zionist.”

And then there’s Boston’s JCRC itself:  historically standing for decency, justice, human rights, and peace for all. “For all” includes us, too, you know. Our opposition to Trumpism in all of its grotesque forms does not mean we have to join together with other kinds of haters, including antisemites.

Hillel himself would have appreciated the irony.