Commentary Magazine


Topic: Holocaust

Two Righteous Men Among the Nations

The question of whether a person ought to be canonized by the Catholic Church is one on which non-Catholics ought to remain largely silent. Even when it comes to historical figures who are mired in controversies that touch on the sensitivities of other faiths and peoples—the candidacy of World War Two-era Pope Pius XII comes to mind—those non-Catholics inclined to an opinion on the question of who is or is not recognized by the Catholic Church ought to err on the side of silence. Just as it is not the business of any faith to edit the prayers of other religions, so, too, must we treat the process by which the Vatican confers upon figures the title of saint as being one that is rooted in a faith that merits our respect, whatever our opinions about the actions or lives of specific candidates might be.

But in the cases of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of whom were canonized today in a solemn ceremony in Rome, it is entirely appropriate to add our applause to the acclaim that has greeted the honor accorded those two individuals. That both of these men are important figures in the history of the church as well as the world is not in question. But each deserves special recognition from Jews. The combined efforts of the pair transformed interfaith relations between these two communities of faith from a theoretical construct that was mostly observed in the breach to a living, breathing friendship. In the history of the church, these two popes stand as beacons not only of the struggle for human freedom but for the capacity of an ancient church to change so as to be able to embrace those who practice another, even older faith.

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The question of whether a person ought to be canonized by the Catholic Church is one on which non-Catholics ought to remain largely silent. Even when it comes to historical figures who are mired in controversies that touch on the sensitivities of other faiths and peoples—the candidacy of World War Two-era Pope Pius XII comes to mind—those non-Catholics inclined to an opinion on the question of who is or is not recognized by the Catholic Church ought to err on the side of silence. Just as it is not the business of any faith to edit the prayers of other religions, so, too, must we treat the process by which the Vatican confers upon figures the title of saint as being one that is rooted in a faith that merits our respect, whatever our opinions about the actions or lives of specific candidates might be.

But in the cases of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of whom were canonized today in a solemn ceremony in Rome, it is entirely appropriate to add our applause to the acclaim that has greeted the honor accorded those two individuals. That both of these men are important figures in the history of the church as well as the world is not in question. But each deserves special recognition from Jews. The combined efforts of the pair transformed interfaith relations between these two communities of faith from a theoretical construct that was mostly observed in the breach to a living, breathing friendship. In the history of the church, these two popes stand as beacons not only of the struggle for human freedom but for the capacity of an ancient church to change so as to be able to embrace those who practice another, even older faith.

The role that John Paul II played in the struggle against Communism is well known. The first Polish pope was a symbol of the fight for freedom behind the Iron Curtain. If Stalin famously and satirically asked “how many divisions” did the pope have about one of John Paul’s predecessors, then the Soviet tsar’s successors found how just how powerful a man of faith could be. If in the medieval era and specifically in the 19th century, the church was viewed by many as an ally of the established order in Europe against the cause of liberty, John Paul II made it clear that in the 20th century, Catholics were on the front lines in the battle for individual liberty against the toxic influence of totalitarianism.

That stand by itself would have secured John Paul’s place in history. But he also deserves enormous credit for transforming Catholic-Jewish relations. While some in the media took a cynical view of Pope Francis’s effort to highlight the similarities between John XXIII, who is viewed as the hero of church liberals, and John Paul II, who is depicted as the champion of conservatives, there is no question that they shared a common agenda when it came to revolutionizing relations between Catholics and Jews.

John XXIII is best remembered for his convening of the Second Vatican Council that led to changes in Church doctrine and practices. Most importantly for Jews, it ended the teaching of the deicide myth, effectively acquitting the Jewish people of a role in the killing of Jesus. He also ended the use of the word “perfidious” with respect to Jews in Catholic prayers. But even long before this important work, John XXIII earned the gratitude of the Jewish people for his role in saving many Jews from the Holocaust while serving as papal nuncio in Turkey and Greece. After the Shoah, while serving in the same capacity in France he refused orders not to return baptized Jewish children to their surviving parents. He is also believed to have helped influence Pope Pius XII to remain silent about the question of partition of Palestine thus making it easier for Catholic countries to vote for the creation of a Jewish state.

Pope John Paul II built on the good work of Pope John XXIII with regard to interfaith relations. He was the first pope to visit a synagogue as well as the one who finally recognized the State of Israel. His advocacy for treating Jews as brothers in faith rather than rivals or enemies marked a turning point for the relationship between the two faiths and in the way Catholics were educated by their church. Under his leadership, the church became a bulwark in the struggle against anti-Semitism in a manner that it had never before assumed. Just as important, his personal example of friendship with Jews with whom he had grown up in Poland and suffered under Nazi rule ended forever the notion of a natural antagonism between Catholics and Jews.

No person, even a saint, is perfect, and it is possible to construct a critique of John Paul II’s papacy in terms of its slow reaction to the pedophile scandal that rocked Catholicism on his watch. But that is a problem that predated his papacy and cannot be ascribed to the Vatican as it can to specific individuals or institutions. Whatever we may think about the church’s past failures in that regard, it does not erase his or any other pope’s good work.

Thus, while I cannot venture an opinion as to the qualifications of either man (or anyone else for that matter) for Catholic sainthood, I can say that both John XXIII and John Paul II stand as two of the most important positive figures in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations. They are richly deserving of the title of Righteous Among the Nations, the name of the honor given by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, to those who saved Jews during the Holocaust. May the memories of both these popes be for a blessing. 

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Abbas and the Trouble with Holocaust Commemoration

Today Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas did as many peace process proponents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been imploring him to do. He condemned the Holocaust in terms that are entirely appropriate, saying the Shoah was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy for the victims. If, as we are informed by the New York Times, this statement is published in the Palestinian media in Arabic in the same phrasing as in the English version for Israelis and the international media, that is progress of a sort, especially coming as it does from the lips of a man who wrote a doctoral thesis centered on the theme that the Holocaust was a “Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.”

The timing of the statement was meant to coincide with the beginning tonight of Yom HaShoah—the day set by the State of Israel and the international Jewish community for Holocaust remembrance. Yet coming as it did only days after Abbas signed a unity agreement with the Hamas terrorist movement that is committed in its charter to not only the destruction of Israel but to the slaughter of its Jewish population, it is hard to view this statement as purely an expression of the evolution of Abbas’s views about the Holocaust. The man who only one day earlier restated his pledge to “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a pledge that would signal that the Palestinians were truly prepared to end their century long war on Zionism—it is easy to understand the less than enthusiastic reaction to Abbas’s words from Israel’s government. But far from being greeted with the cynicism that Abbas might have expected, it was instead Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who appears to have come out the loser in the exchange with pundits. Abbas’s apologists are lauding the Palestinian for his “outreach” campaign—the Holocaust statement was procured by celebrity interfaith proponent Rabbi Marc Schneir—and blasting Netanyahu for a petty rejection of the Palestinian gesture. Abbas’s words, welcome as they might be, were a clever tactical move and in the viewpoint of much of the international press seemed to outweigh any negative feedback about the Hamas deal.

But this contretemps illustrates something more significant than the success of the Palestinians in distracting the world from what was, in effect, their fourth rejection of an Israeli peace offer, including independence and statehood, in the last 15 years. If the world thinks Abbas’s nice words about the Holocaust are more important than his pact with Hamas or even his personal embrace of the terrorist murderers who shed Jewish blood, then perhaps it is time to start worrying about a trend that appears to elevate Holocaust commemoration over and above any concern for Jews currently alive.

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Today Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas did as many peace process proponents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have been imploring him to do. He condemned the Holocaust in terms that are entirely appropriate, saying the Shoah was “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy for the victims. If, as we are informed by the New York Times, this statement is published in the Palestinian media in Arabic in the same phrasing as in the English version for Israelis and the international media, that is progress of a sort, especially coming as it does from the lips of a man who wrote a doctoral thesis centered on the theme that the Holocaust was a “Zionist fantasy, the fantastic lie that six million Jews were killed.”

The timing of the statement was meant to coincide with the beginning tonight of Yom HaShoah—the day set by the State of Israel and the international Jewish community for Holocaust remembrance. Yet coming as it did only days after Abbas signed a unity agreement with the Hamas terrorist movement that is committed in its charter to not only the destruction of Israel but to the slaughter of its Jewish population, it is hard to view this statement as purely an expression of the evolution of Abbas’s views about the Holocaust. The man who only one day earlier restated his pledge to “never” recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a pledge that would signal that the Palestinians were truly prepared to end their century long war on Zionism—it is easy to understand the less than enthusiastic reaction to Abbas’s words from Israel’s government. But far from being greeted with the cynicism that Abbas might have expected, it was instead Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who appears to have come out the loser in the exchange with pundits. Abbas’s apologists are lauding the Palestinian for his “outreach” campaign—the Holocaust statement was procured by celebrity interfaith proponent Rabbi Marc Schneir—and blasting Netanyahu for a petty rejection of the Palestinian gesture. Abbas’s words, welcome as they might be, were a clever tactical move and in the viewpoint of much of the international press seemed to outweigh any negative feedback about the Hamas deal.

But this contretemps illustrates something more significant than the success of the Palestinians in distracting the world from what was, in effect, their fourth rejection of an Israeli peace offer, including independence and statehood, in the last 15 years. If the world thinks Abbas’s nice words about the Holocaust are more important than his pact with Hamas or even his personal embrace of the terrorist murderers who shed Jewish blood, then perhaps it is time to start worrying about a trend that appears to elevate Holocaust commemoration over and above any concern for Jews currently alive.

Remembering the Holocaust is a sacred obligation and it is especially important to keep alive the memory of the six million who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators at a time when the ranks of the survivors grow fewer with each passing year. But the point of these memorials is not merely to shed tears over the Jews who died seven decades ago. The Holocaust was the culmination of two millennia of anti-Semitism. The Nazi crime was unique in terms of its scale and the embrace by one of the world’s most civilized and powerful nations of a racist eliminationist creed. But it was neither the first nor the last attack on the existence of the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism has outlived the Nazis just as it did other host organisms to which this vile virus attached itself. Today, the major source of anti-Semitic invective and hate speech is the Arab and Muslim world. This contemporary incarnation uses resentment against the existence of one lone Jewish state on this planet to mobilize not only Arab anger against Israel but to reawaken traditional Jew-hatred in Europe.

The trend toward universalizing the Holocaust so as to have its commemoration become a surrogate for every expression of intolerance or ill-feeling on any subject has done nothing to wipe out hate while diluting the specific historic lesson of this event. Yet to also condemn that attack on Jewish existence and the silence and inaction of the rest of the world outside of the context of contemporary anti-Semitism is similarly unhelpful. At a time when there’s a vicious anti-Semitic regime in Iran whose leaders have promoted Holocaust denial while at the same time plotting to achieve the means to achieve a second such slaughter, the tears shed for the six million are meaningless if they are not also accompanied by a determination to thwart rather than to appease Tehran.

The sad truth is that the popularity of Holocaust commemoration—even on the part of many who are hostile to contemporary Jewish life—as well as the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials seems to reflect a preference for dead Jews over live ones. The irony is that the movement to promote Holocaust remembrance was largely born out of an effort to teach both Jews and non-Jews the perils of silence about anti-Semitism. The boom in Holocaust memorials started in the 1960s as the movements to promote freedom for Soviet Jewry and to protect the embattled State of Israel gained greater traction in the West. It was widely understood that the clichéd refrain of Holocaust memorial—“never again”—was not merely an expression of ex post facto outrage about the conduct of the Nazis but a pledge to fight for the freedom and the lives of the descendants of the survivors.

Yet as the dustup about Abbas’s words illustrates, Holocaust commemoration has now taken on a life of its own that is utterly disconnected from any actual concern about defending Jewish lives, let alone history. It is a good thing that Palestinian Arabs understand and respect Jewish history rather than deny it, as their media routinely does with respect to Jerusalem and other issues. A degree of honesty from Abbas about the way the Palestinian Arab leadership embraced Hitler might also be in order. But courtesies about the events of the 1940s do not outweigh efforts to deny legitimacy to Jewish rights let alone justify the embrace of those who shed Jewish blood in our own time. If Holocaust commemoration has evolved to a point where these factors are unimportant, then perhaps it is time for those of us who have worked so hard to make it part of the fabric of Western culture to rethink the impact of what we have accomplished. 

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A Righteous Man and the Imperative to Act

Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

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Today Georgetown University honored a former professor with a day of events commemorating the centennial of his birth. But the man for whom this is being done was no ordinary political science teacher. Jan Karski, who died in 2000, taught at Georgetown for four decades but he is remembered today for his efforts during World War Two when, as a young officer serving in the Polish resistance, he witnessed the horror of the Holocaust and brought news of the atrocities to the West. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, named him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. But his story stands out not just because he was one of the few who stood up for the persecuted Jews of Europe at a time when most either joined the perpetrators or stood by silently thinking only of their own safety.

Karski risked his life many times over to bring eyewitness testimony of the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and of the transport of Jews to death camps to Western leaders. But the point about Karski’s amazing tale is that the people he told about the Holocaust at a time when it was still going on either refused to believe him or ignored his testimony. This should inform our view of the history of these events, including the controversy over the failure of the Allies to attempt to halt or impede the slaughter as well as the ongoing campaign to whitewash the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, as Karski said, listened with indifference to his account of Jewish genocide. But just as important, his courageous yet failed attempt to galvanize the West to action stands as an indictment not only of those who did not heed his warnings but to contemporary leaders who likewise stand by impotently while innocents are killed in their thousands or who think they need not take the genocidal threats of anti-Semitic despots seriously.

Born Jan Kozielewski, he used Karski as his nom de guerre when after his escape from Soviet imprisonment (an army officer, he was captured when the Soviet Union invaded Poland as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact) and joined the Polish Home Army. During the course of his activities in the underground, Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit point for the Belzec death camp. In 1942 he brought proof of the reality of the Holocaust to first Britain and then the following year to the United States when, under the sponsorship of the free Polish government in exile, he spread the news of the extermination of the Jews to American leaders including Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and William Donovan, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. As he later told the story, in his own writings, Roosevelt was silent when Karski discussed the fate of the Jews, asking questions only about the conditions of horses in Poland. Frankfurter, a Jew, said that while he didn’t question Karski’s honesty, he nevertheless “could not believe him.” Karski was shocked at the Allied leaders’ refusal to act on his knowledge even to bomb the railroad tracks to the death camps when that became possible.

This is important because Karski’s reports not only make it abundantly clear that the nature of the Nazi war on the Jews was not a secret to the West but that it was also a matter of public record. Karski published an account of what was going on in Poland in 1944. The idea that no one knew about the Holocaust until the death camps were liberated in 1945 is a myth that was accepted as truth because few, either in positions of power or out of them, wanted to acknowledge that the Allies simply chose to ignore Karski’s accounts or treat them as irrelevant to their wartime mission of defeating Germany.

The question of what could have been done to rescue the Jews of Europe is still a sore point with many rightly pointing out that most of those murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators were beyond the help of the Allies. But the minimal attempts to foster rescue, such as the belated and underfunded War Refugee Board, did result in saving hundreds of thousands of Jews. Had Roosevelt’s administration treated the issue as one worth their time, it is simply implausible to assert that more lives could not have been saved.

But even if you don’t want to wade into those bitter historical arguments, Karski’s legacy demands attention. Since the Holocaust occurred, we have seen several instances of genocide. In each one of those cases, whether it was in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Sudan, the world once again wrung its collective hands and did nothing until it was too late. Today, Bashar Assad’s Syrian forces have killed more than a hundred thousand people and again the West, and in particular the United States, was unable to find the will to act even when a “red line” about the use of chemical weapons was crossed. Elsewhere, Iran, the leading international state sponsor of terror as well as one of the most vicious anti-Semitic regimes on the planet, plots to build a nuclear weapon. The West’s response is not to ensure that Iran’s plans, which could facilitate another Holocaust, are made impossible but only that they be delayed by a diplomatic process that seems aimed more at creating détente with the ayatollahs than at stopping them.

Jan Karski’s example, as well as the failure of those who chose not to listen to him, stands as a reminder that all the tears wept today about the Holocaust are meaningless if they are not accompanied by action to ensure that contemporary atrocities are not halted or prevented.

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Holocaust Day Isn’t What it Used to Be

Across Europe, Holocaust Memorial Day just isn’t what it used to be. There are still the same sobering gatherings and television broadcasts reflecting on the horrors of a historical event, taking the opportunity to reaffirm the mantra of “Never Again.” Yet, at the same time there is a growing sense of a counter-movement to Holocaust Memorial Day. At times this takes the form of outright displays of Jew-hatred intentionally scheduled to coincide with the commemorations, as if in protest that murdered Jews should be mourned. More subtly there have also been concerted efforts to hijack and manipulate the message of the day.

Most sickening of all were the scenes from France. On the day prior to Holocaust Memorial Day Paris witnessed shocking scenes of open anti-Semitism during anti-government protests which police estimate to have been attended by some 17,000 people. The protest, titled by organizers the Day of Rage, witnessed crowds chanting “Jews out of France” and “The story of the gas chambers is bull****.” At around the same time social media sites were being flooded with pictures of individuals performing the quenelle, the modified Nazi salute, in front of Jewish and Holocaust-related sites. The quenelle was even performed in the Belgium Parliament, shortly before Holocaust Memorial Day, by MP Laurent Louis who also took the opportunity to state that the Holocaust had been setup and financed by Zionists.

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Across Europe, Holocaust Memorial Day just isn’t what it used to be. There are still the same sobering gatherings and television broadcasts reflecting on the horrors of a historical event, taking the opportunity to reaffirm the mantra of “Never Again.” Yet, at the same time there is a growing sense of a counter-movement to Holocaust Memorial Day. At times this takes the form of outright displays of Jew-hatred intentionally scheduled to coincide with the commemorations, as if in protest that murdered Jews should be mourned. More subtly there have also been concerted efforts to hijack and manipulate the message of the day.

Most sickening of all were the scenes from France. On the day prior to Holocaust Memorial Day Paris witnessed shocking scenes of open anti-Semitism during anti-government protests which police estimate to have been attended by some 17,000 people. The protest, titled by organizers the Day of Rage, witnessed crowds chanting “Jews out of France” and “The story of the gas chambers is bull****.” At around the same time social media sites were being flooded with pictures of individuals performing the quenelle, the modified Nazi salute, in front of Jewish and Holocaust-related sites. The quenelle was even performed in the Belgium Parliament, shortly before Holocaust Memorial Day, by MP Laurent Louis who also took the opportunity to state that the Holocaust had been setup and financed by Zionists.

Other efforts to challenge Holocaust Memorial Day have at least attempted to pass themselves off under the seemingly legitimate guise of political correctness. One of the most concerted campaigns has been that of Muslim groups to have Holocaust Memorial Day replaced with Genocide Memorial Day, which uncannily falls just days before Holocaust commemorations. Mehdi Hasan has written about his shame at his own community’s efforts to belittle the Holocaust, highlighting how in past years the Muslim Council of Britain has boycotted the memorial day. This year the Islamic Human Rights Commission has held Genocide Day events in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. But as became apparent at one such previous event organized by the IHRC, the focus was not other genocides, but primarily the crimes of Zionism. During the Q&A it was asserted that the “real” Holocaust had been the wartime bombing of German cities and that Anne Frank had not been murdered, but had merely died of typhus.

Another increasingly popular Holocaust Memorial Day activity is using the day to highlight the cause of the Palestinians and lambast Jews and Israel. Days before commemorations, British MP David Ward was once again doing just that. Last year he accused “the Jews” of not having learned “the lessons of the Holocaust.” This year, speaking in Parliament, Ward asked if we should not use the day to remember “the millions of displaced Palestinians, still denied their right, to return to their homes.” This effort to sublimate the memory of murdered Jews beneath the political cause of the Palestinians was most overtly manifested in 2009 when a Swedish city canceled its Holocaust commemorations, with one organizer explaining, “We have been preoccupied and grief-stricken by the war in Gaza.”

There has also been the bizarre phenomenon of selecting what would seem to be the most unsuitable people for participation in the commemorations. At this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day it was announced that Prime Minister Cameron has established a new Holocaust Commission, but on that commission will sit Labour’s Ed Balls, who was exposed for dressing as a Nazi in his spare time. Meanwhile, London’s 2013 Holocaust Memorial Ceremony, attended by Mayor Boris Johnson and former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, featured as a speaker Muslim activist Hassan Farooq–a curious choice given that Farooq is on record praising Hitler and calling for the murder and gassing of Jews.

This year, however, the person who perhaps did the most for subtly perverting the meaning and spirit of Holocaust Memorial Day was the EU’s foreign-affairs representative Baroness Ashton. Ashton’s Holocaust Memorial Day statement took the opportunity to condemn racism, to praise those who had protected “their fellow citizens” and to declare that “respect of human rights and diversity lies at the heart of what the European Union stands for.” Yet, Jews and anti-Semitism were not mentioned once. Chilling to see the Jews erased from a statement that supposedly commemorates the event that attempted to erase them altogether.

Perhaps many Europeans have gotten tired of feeling guilty about the Holocaust, being reminded of their own societies’ participation, collaboration, or indifferent inaction to the murder of not just any people, but specifically the Jews. And remembering the Jews of World War Two only serves to remind them of the Jews still around today, and to remind them that they don’t much like these Jews either.  

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Anti-Semitism Should Not Be Criminalized

The challenge France faces in stemming the tide of a resurgent anti-Semitism has been on full display during the controversy over its now-infamous anti-Semitic comic and the modified Nazi-like salute he has sadly popularized. Both the bigotry and the government’s discomfiting attempts to quash it were neatly summarized in these two sentences from the Associated Press report on Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala:

The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) denies his act — or the “quenelle” — is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.

To deny the quenelle is anti-Semitic is merely to insult the public’s intelligence. The modified Nazi salute is accompanied by Dieudonne’s “comedy” in which he laments the lack of gas chambers for French Jews. But that second sentence is problematic as well. He’s been “convicted” time and again for his racism and anti-Semitism. Dieudonne’s hateful act should be shunned, but not by punished by the government. Yet as Dieudonne’s popularity has increased, so has the French government’s authoritarian response–one that should be anathema to a free society:

Nantes and Tours have become the latest French cities to ban a show by controversial comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

Dieudonne, who has six convictions for hate speech against Jews, had been due to open his tour in Nantes on Thursday.

Bordeaux and Marseille had already cancelled performances.

President Francois Hollande earlier urged French officials to enforce an order authorising the ban, but Dieudonne has vowed to appeal.

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The challenge France faces in stemming the tide of a resurgent anti-Semitism has been on full display during the controversy over its now-infamous anti-Semitic comic and the modified Nazi-like salute he has sadly popularized. Both the bigotry and the government’s discomfiting attempts to quash it were neatly summarized in these two sentences from the Associated Press report on Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala:

The 47-year-old Dieudonne (pronounced DYEU-dun-ay) denies his act — or the “quenelle” — is anti-Semitic. However, he has been convicted more than a half-dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism over the years.

To deny the quenelle is anti-Semitic is merely to insult the public’s intelligence. The modified Nazi salute is accompanied by Dieudonne’s “comedy” in which he laments the lack of gas chambers for French Jews. But that second sentence is problematic as well. He’s been “convicted” time and again for his racism and anti-Semitism. Dieudonne’s hateful act should be shunned, but not by punished by the government. Yet as Dieudonne’s popularity has increased, so has the French government’s authoritarian response–one that should be anathema to a free society:

Nantes and Tours have become the latest French cities to ban a show by controversial comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala.

Dieudonne, who has six convictions for hate speech against Jews, had been due to open his tour in Nantes on Thursday.

Bordeaux and Marseille had already cancelled performances.

President Francois Hollande earlier urged French officials to enforce an order authorising the ban, but Dieudonne has vowed to appeal.

The Jews of France should hope Dieudonne wins his appeal. As Jonathan noted last week, banning the gesture and Dieudonne’s “comedy” will only make both more popular.

Additionally, such actions will reinforce Dieudonne’s hateful speech. When anti-Semites anywhere propagandize about malign Jewish influence on their beloved countries, the last thing that would discredit them would be for the Jewish minority to appear to prevail on the government to outlaw anti-Jewish remarks and take away the livelihood of its proponents.

More specifically, the French actions risk retroactively buttressing Dieudonne’s protestation that the quenelle is an “anti-establishment” sign, not an anti-Jewish gesture. Once the government outlaws it and those who use it, the quenelle goes from being anti-Semitic to also being anti-establishment. (Is anything more anti-establishment than a government-banned hand gesture?)

The controversy over the quenelle takes place against the backdrop of Europe’s decades-long struggle to learn the right lessons from the Holocaust. One of those efforts–well-intentioned and an outgrowth of the earlier attempts to get the continent’s surviving Nazis assimilated back into society–was to criminalize Holocaust denial. Unfortunately, criminalizing speech is its own form of legitimization: only dangerous, seductive ideas must be forbidden to be defeated. The exception of course is speech that incites violence, and there is unfortunately a thin line, especially in Europe, between anti-Semitic speech and anti-Semitic violence.

Thus the laws against Holocaust denial and similar hateful speech are part of a genuine desire to grapple with balancing freedom and security. In its 2007 write-up of the Holocaust denial conviction of Ernst Zuendel, the New York Times included this aside:

Interestingly, Mr. Zuendel had spent much of his adult life in Canada — having lived and worked there since 1958, and where he wrote a little book called “The Hitler We Loved and Why.” But the Canadians decided he was a security threat in 2005 and sent him back to Germany.

It can be tempting to consider hate speech a security threat. The two can work in tandem without being equated, but it’s always a struggle for countries–especially those that don’t have a First Amendment–to decide where to draw the line. And European countries dealing with the terrible combination of past genocide and present anti-Semitism should be commended for their desire make pariahs of those who pine for the days of state-sponsored extermination.

But those ideas–when they remain ideas, and not battlefield cries–should be defeated by a society, not outlawed by the government. Jailing anti-Semites for their opinions won’t reduce anti-Semitism. Incarceration can deter action, but it’s unlikely to alleviate grievance, and anyway it is an unjust method of changing minds. The same goes for the government banning “comedians” whose act offends basic notions of decency.

It’s also worth reminding the Jews of Europe that their religious beliefs contain ideas that the modern secular left consider offensive as well. They may find that a heavyhanded government enforcing a standard of righteous thought is on their side this time. If they think it will stay that way, then they, too, have unlearned the lessons of the past.

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Haaretz’s Holocaust Revisionism

A new level of vileness has been reached in the pages of Haaretz. It has already published work extremely critical of the State of Israel–even running columnists that support boycotting the state. But regardless of one’s opinions on the Palestinian issue, the paper has now shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

The article’s argument is that maybe if the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters.

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A new level of vileness has been reached in the pages of Haaretz. It has already published work extremely critical of the State of Israel–even running columnists that support boycotting the state. But regardless of one’s opinions on the Palestinian issue, the paper has now shown that it exists in a world entirely divorced from any Jewish consensus, and cannot claim the title of loyal opposition. It has crossed all prior bounds of decency and published a criticism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, calling it a “myth,” and accusing its heroes of being responsible for the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto. Despite disagreements on diplomatic, territorial, and religious issues, the memory of the Holocaust–its heroes and victims–had been the great unifying porch in post-War Jewish consciousness. Now the Holocaust is fair game too.

The article’s argument is that maybe if the fighters had not been so uppity, if they had not made a fuss–then the Nazis, who had already murdered 500,000 Jews of Warsaw, might have let the remaining 50,000 live. Maybe! It is not a new argument. Rather, the author amazingly resurrects and endorses the arguments of the Judernat, the Jewish collaboration government of the Ghetto. With every new deportation, they urged restrain with increasing urgency–maybe they will let the rest of us live, and if you fight, all the past deportations would be a sacrifice in vain.

There can be no more terrible case of “blaming the victim” than laying any responsibility for the liquidation of the Ghetto at the feet of the fighters.

It is true, the Jewish “communal leadership”–and the rabbis–opposed the uprising. That is what made it brave. The Judenrat had no right to decide if residents of the Ghetto died in gas chambers or fighting for their freedom.

Of course, Haaretz wants to be “edgy,” “iconoclastic,” and debunk cherished myths. But despite the article’s headline–“The Warsaw Ghetto Myth”– it reveals no myths at all, only a lack of precision where we always knew it existed. It claims that it turns out that not many people participated in the uprising–a well-known fact. Then it attempts to introduce confusion by saying the precise figures are “murky,” and endorses the low-ball estimates based on the recollections of one person. Playing such counting games is vile. No one knows the number of participants, just as no one knows the number of Holocaust victims. And “revising” such vague numbers downward is now the standard canard of Holocaust deniers.

Again, the small numbers do not “debunk” any myths–they reinforce them. This was a small group of young people who bravely risked capture and death by slow torture, in contradiction with the collaborationist leadership that had thus far been wrong about everything.

Ultimately, the article’s target is not really the Holocaust. The author objects to the glorification of the glorified by the Zionist movement in the early years of the state. Perhaps the fighters should have awaited deportation and seen themselves as “sacrifices for peace,” to use the buzzword of the Second Intifada.

No doubt this is why Haaretz has, somewhat oddly for a newspaper, chosen to revisit the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The newspaper has long tried to persuade Jews in Israel that they need no longer fight–they can trust someone to save them. John Kerry is coming to Jerusalem next month with just such a pitch. In order to advance their political agenda, the newspaper does not stop at besmirching one of the proudest pages of our history, nor at aligning themselves with the most shameful, the Judenrat.

The sanctified memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is not based on its military significance, its size–or its conformity to the Zionist ethos. Rather, it is the considered, consensus judgment of Jewish history that the fighters were right.

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Of The Great Escape, History, and Collective Amnesia

Earlier this month, I traveled to Zagan, Poland, to talk to a Polish military unit on their way to Afghanistan. I had never heard of Zagan before, but I should have: It was the site of the “Great Escape” memorialized in the 1963 Steve McQueen/James Garner film. On a free day, some colleagues and I went to the site of Stalag Luft III, the prison camp from which the mass escape occurred. The museum commemorating the prisoners of the camp was small, but stellar. While the movie took great liberties—first and foremost, Americans were not present in the camp at the time of the escape—Germans did intern American airmen at the camp at other times, including three veterans of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, one of whom has just recently passed away.

The museum historian who provided a personal tour has interacted with many of the former prisoners or their families, and has collected a number of fantastic mementos of the American presence, including sketches done in the camp by an American prisoner of other American prisoners. New discoveries are being made almost weekly, as curators continue to scour the substantial grounds with metal detectors. Not too long ago, site personnel even discovered the remains of another tunnel. Next year, I believe, will be the last reunion for the Stalag Luft III prisoners as old age claims those the Germans did not. In recent years, some German former guards have also joined the reunions, the most recent of which was held in Dayton.

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Earlier this month, I traveled to Zagan, Poland, to talk to a Polish military unit on their way to Afghanistan. I had never heard of Zagan before, but I should have: It was the site of the “Great Escape” memorialized in the 1963 Steve McQueen/James Garner film. On a free day, some colleagues and I went to the site of Stalag Luft III, the prison camp from which the mass escape occurred. The museum commemorating the prisoners of the camp was small, but stellar. While the movie took great liberties—first and foremost, Americans were not present in the camp at the time of the escape—Germans did intern American airmen at the camp at other times, including three veterans of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, one of whom has just recently passed away.

The museum historian who provided a personal tour has interacted with many of the former prisoners or their families, and has collected a number of fantastic mementos of the American presence, including sketches done in the camp by an American prisoner of other American prisoners. New discoveries are being made almost weekly, as curators continue to scour the substantial grounds with metal detectors. Not too long ago, site personnel even discovered the remains of another tunnel. Next year, I believe, will be the last reunion for the Stalag Luft III prisoners as old age claims those the Germans did not. In recent years, some German former guards have also joined the reunions, the most recent of which was held in Dayton.

I came across many Holocaust survivors growing up; when I briefly taught at a Sunday school in Connecticut while in graduate school, I brought an escapee from Sobibor to talk to my class. And, of course, growing up I knew many World War II veterans. That so many eyewitnesses to these decisive episodes of history are now dying out is sad. That their stories and an understanding of what they fought for are now diminished if not ignored in high school and university history classes is tragic. So seldom have intellectuals turned their backs on so much history. That a museum such as that in Zagan so enthusiastically chronicle is fortunate; that only a handful of Americans and Europeans will ever see them is a poor reflection on our collective ability to appreciate our recent past.

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Merkel at Dachau: Europe at the Brink

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit yesterday to the site of the Dachau concentration camp was criticized by the German left. The Green Party, among others, blasted Merkel for using the site of Nazi horrors as a campaign stop during the run-up to Germany’s scheduled parliamentary elections. The fact that her next stop after the appearance at the museum commemorating the victims of the Third Reich was a speech at a beer tent in the nearby town that bears the same name as the camp was seen by some as exposing the crass nature of her motivation in going to Dachau. But while it remains to be seen as to whether this event will help her as she cruises to reelection, Merkel deserves praise not just for being the first German chancellor to visit the Dachau camp but for articulating a call for tolerance at a time when the future of European civilization seems to be hanging in the balance.

To speak of the stakes of a speech about the specter of extremism in Europe today in such terms may strike some as hyperbole, but that is not the case. As Michel Gurfinkiel wrote this month in Mosaic, we are living at a moment when a rising tide of anti-Semitism may wipe out the remnants of European Jewry. With hate for Jews, often masquerading as mere disagreement with Israeli policies, having its biggest comeback in Europe since 1945, at no time since then has it been as important for a major European leader to make such a statement. By going to Dachau at this moment to warn the continent and the German people that they must turn away from hate, she may not be able to reverse this trend, but she has set an example that other European leaders must emulate.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit yesterday to the site of the Dachau concentration camp was criticized by the German left. The Green Party, among others, blasted Merkel for using the site of Nazi horrors as a campaign stop during the run-up to Germany’s scheduled parliamentary elections. The fact that her next stop after the appearance at the museum commemorating the victims of the Third Reich was a speech at a beer tent in the nearby town that bears the same name as the camp was seen by some as exposing the crass nature of her motivation in going to Dachau. But while it remains to be seen as to whether this event will help her as she cruises to reelection, Merkel deserves praise not just for being the first German chancellor to visit the Dachau camp but for articulating a call for tolerance at a time when the future of European civilization seems to be hanging in the balance.

To speak of the stakes of a speech about the specter of extremism in Europe today in such terms may strike some as hyperbole, but that is not the case. As Michel Gurfinkiel wrote this month in Mosaic, we are living at a moment when a rising tide of anti-Semitism may wipe out the remnants of European Jewry. With hate for Jews, often masquerading as mere disagreement with Israeli policies, having its biggest comeback in Europe since 1945, at no time since then has it been as important for a major European leader to make such a statement. By going to Dachau at this moment to warn the continent and the German people that they must turn away from hate, she may not be able to reverse this trend, but she has set an example that other European leaders must emulate.

As the New York Times reports:

“How could Germans go so far as to deny people human dignity and the right to live based on their race, religion, their political persuasion or their sexual orientation?” she said in a somber ceremony on the wide plaza where inmates once assembled daily for roll call. “Places such as this warn each one of us to help ensure that such things never happen again.”

Merkel is right, but what has happened in Europe is, as Gurfinkiel noted, a threat not just to Jews and minorities, but also to the European idea of modern civilization. Many are in denial about the situation, yet as I wrote in response to his piece, his prediction that catastrophe lies ahead is a reasonable response to a steady drip of incidents and trends that have called into question whether the postwar revival of Jewish life in Europe is at an end.

Neo-Nazis grow in numbers and influence in places like Greece as well as in Germany. Intolerance for foreigners along with the importation of Islamist prejudices via the large number of immigrants from the Muslim world has created a toxic mix of hatred that makes Europe dangerous for Jews and other minorities. This is felt not only in the growing number of anti-Semitic incidents but the willingness of allegedly liberal Europeans to consider banning Jewish religious practices such as circumcision and kosher slaughter.

Moreover, the widespread revulsion expressed toward Israel and the delegitimization of Zionism is not merely a variant of traditional anti-Semitism. It is an effort to erase the memory of the Holocaust by falsely casting Jews as the new Nazis. As such, it is not merely a distortion of the truth about the Middle East conflict but a blatant case of Holocaust revisionism.

While Merkel should be applauded for speaking out when so many persons of influence are silent, her visit to Dachau will have no meaning at all if it is seen as only a necessary effort to remember the Holocaust. Europeans have worked hard in recent years to memorialize the victims of the Nazis. But since this has happened at the same time that the efforts of living Jews to defend themselves have been viciously attacked, it’s far from clear that these memorials have much meaning. What we have learned in recent years is that a Europe that abandons Israel will inevitably begin to abandon its own Jewish citizens as well as others. It can only be hoped that Merkel’s warning is a sign that there is still time for a critical mass of European opinion to reverse this ominous trend.

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Remembering Warsaw By Trashing Zionism

Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of one of the greatest acts of heroism in the history of the world. On April 19, 1943, SS forces entered the Warsaw Ghetto to begin the final “liquidation” of the enclave in which hundreds of thousands of Jews had been herded. But instead of rounding up the tens of thousands of starving Jews, they were attacked by Jewish resistance forces that stalled their advance and set off a battle that would last for weeks. Two separate groups organized the resistance. One was the ZOB—The Jewish Combat Organization—a coalition that was largely led by left-wing Zionists. The other was the ZZW—the Jewish Military Union—led by right-wing Zionists. Both fought bravely in a struggle that could not alter the fate of the Jews of Warsaw but which nevertheless reminded the world that the honor of the Jewish people had been redeemed in even the most hopeless of circumstances.

Resistance to the Nazis was expressed in many ways, and we now understand that those who stayed with the elderly and children as well as those who died with dignity in other ways deserve to be remembered just as do those few who were able to take up arms against their murderers. But we rightly remember the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and all those who were able to resist the Nazis because their efforts were a symbol of heroism that has inspired subsequent generations of Jews to stand up against those who seek to carry on the hate of Hitler and his legions. The most famous moment of the revolt was the raising by the ZZW of the flag of Poland and the blue and white banner of Zionism over Muranowski Square. This was an event that even the Germans considered of immense importance since it showed their opponents were part of a nation they could not kill–a nation that would be reborn five years later as the State of Israel.

But in a curious act of revisionism, the New York Times commemorated the Ghetto Uprising today with an article that seeks to push back against this narrative and to replace it with one that downgrades the importance of Zionism in both the story of the Warsaw revolt and its place in Jewish history.

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Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of one of the greatest acts of heroism in the history of the world. On April 19, 1943, SS forces entered the Warsaw Ghetto to begin the final “liquidation” of the enclave in which hundreds of thousands of Jews had been herded. But instead of rounding up the tens of thousands of starving Jews, they were attacked by Jewish resistance forces that stalled their advance and set off a battle that would last for weeks. Two separate groups organized the resistance. One was the ZOB—The Jewish Combat Organization—a coalition that was largely led by left-wing Zionists. The other was the ZZW—the Jewish Military Union—led by right-wing Zionists. Both fought bravely in a struggle that could not alter the fate of the Jews of Warsaw but which nevertheless reminded the world that the honor of the Jewish people had been redeemed in even the most hopeless of circumstances.

Resistance to the Nazis was expressed in many ways, and we now understand that those who stayed with the elderly and children as well as those who died with dignity in other ways deserve to be remembered just as do those few who were able to take up arms against their murderers. But we rightly remember the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and all those who were able to resist the Nazis because their efforts were a symbol of heroism that has inspired subsequent generations of Jews to stand up against those who seek to carry on the hate of Hitler and his legions. The most famous moment of the revolt was the raising by the ZZW of the flag of Poland and the blue and white banner of Zionism over Muranowski Square. This was an event that even the Germans considered of immense importance since it showed their opponents were part of a nation they could not kill–a nation that would be reborn five years later as the State of Israel.

But in a curious act of revisionism, the New York Times commemorated the Ghetto Uprising today with an article that seeks to push back against this narrative and to replace it with one that downgrades the importance of Zionism in both the story of the Warsaw revolt and its place in Jewish history.

Yale University scholar Marci Shore’s “The Jewish Hero History Forgot” focused on Marek Edelman, one leader of the ZOB who was not a supporter of Zionism. While Edelman deserves to be honored as a hero, her attempt to debunk the traditional view of the uprising tells us more about the left’s animus toward Israel than it does about the events of 1943 or the Jews of Poland. Though all those who resisted and even those who did not should be memorialized, the idea that Edelman’s distaste for the Jewish state should be the last word about the Holocaust is as offensive as it is a distortion of Jewish history.

Edelman was a member of the Bund, the Jewish Labor Party, a socialist group dedicated to preserving Jewish life and culture in Poland and which rejected Zionism. The argument between the two movements is an interesting chapter of the Jewish past, but surely not one that needs to be re-fought in light of what happened. Yet Shore argues that the Bundist position was actually reasonable:

Today, the teleological deceptions of retrospect make it seem a foregone conclusion that the Zionists would win that debate. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s, the Bund’s program seemed much more grounded, sensible and realistic: a Jewish workers’ party allied with a larger labor movement, a secular Jewish culture in Yiddish, the language already spoken by most Jews, a future in the place where Jews already lived, alongside people they already knew. The Zionist idea that millions of European Jews would adopt a new language, uproot themselves en masse, and resettle in a Middle Eastern desert amid people about whom they knew nothing was far less realistic.

But the problem with this attempt to rehabilitate a failed ideology is that even in the 1930s, the idea that there was a viable Jewish future in a virulently anti-Semitic Poland set in a Europe where Nazism was on the rise was the fantasy, not the burgeoning and successful effort to rebuild Jewish life in what was then called Palestine.

As Shore notes, after the war when almost all of the survivors of the revolt found their way to Israel, Edelman stayed in Poland and served as a doctor. But his subsequent life in a Poland where those few Jews who stayed behind were subjected to a new wave of anti-Semitism from the Communist government merely demonstrated anew how wrong the Bundists had been all along. While she writes of him as someone celebrated today as a Polish hero, anti-Semitism is alive and well in contemporary Poland.

She chides Israel for not treating Edelman with the honor he deserved, but that is also a distortion of the record. It was he who disdained Israel more than it slighted him, as she indicates with her concluding quote  in which he says “a single-nation state is never a good thing.”

But it is difficult to understand how one can think about what happened in Warsaw 70 years ago as well as the rest of the Holocaust without concluding that creating a national home for the Jewish people where they could defend themselves was a good thing.

Jews of every conceivable religious and political belief lived, fought and died in Warsaw. But their plight illustrated that the Zionist idea that Jews must take their fate into their own hands was correct. What the Zionists understood in the pre-Holocaust era was that the belief that Europe could remain home to millions of Jews was an illusion. Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky told the Jews of Warsaw on Tisha B’Av—the date on which Jews commemorate the destruction of their ancient Temple—in 1938 that “the catastrophe is coming closer” and they and the rest of European Jewry must be evacuated. Rather than working with him to save European Jewry, the Bundists mocked Jabotinsky.

From the perspective of 2013, the Zionist critique of pre-war Jewish complacence is still compelling. Today, even the U.S. State Department has concluded that a troubling wave of anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. In France, the largest Jewish community on the continent is under siege with many leaving for Israel. The concept that the Jews must have a state of their own where they can stand against the still-vibrant forces of hate remains irrefutable.

Contemporary leftist critics of Israel may also view the Jewish state with distaste and wish to somehow separate it from the sacred memory of Jewish resistance against the Nazis. But the attempt to replace the Zionist narrative with one in which the revolt is detached from subsequent Jewish history is utterly fraudulent. The Ghetto fighters were the forerunners of those who have fought to preserve Jewish life and sovereignty during the 65 years of Israel’s existence. For the New York Times to choose to devote its only coverage to this subject by publishing Shore’s thinly veiled critique of Zionist historiography is a disgrace.

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Re: What Does It Mean to Remember the Holocaust?

As a footnote to Jonathan Tobin’s post on what it means to remember the Holocaust, let me call attention to the post today by Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (CJHS) entitled “It’s Not Enough.” The post asks 20 questions about action today, rather than simply remembering the past, since the ultimate purpose of recalling history is to ensure it is not repeated. Here are four of the questions:

Do you believe that the lesson we should learn from the Holocaust is one of tolerance?

Do you believe that continued sanctions and negotiations will deter a nuclear Iran?

Do you believe that American Jewry did all they could to stop the slaughter during the Holocaust?

Do you believe that another Holocaust can’t happen?

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As a footnote to Jonathan Tobin’s post on what it means to remember the Holocaust, let me call attention to the post today by Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (CJHS) entitled “It’s Not Enough.” The post asks 20 questions about action today, rather than simply remembering the past, since the ultimate purpose of recalling history is to ensure it is not repeated. Here are four of the questions:

Do you believe that the lesson we should learn from the Holocaust is one of tolerance?

Do you believe that continued sanctions and negotiations will deter a nuclear Iran?

Do you believe that American Jewry did all they could to stop the slaughter during the Holocaust?

Do you believe that another Holocaust can’t happen?

The slogan “Never Again” is meaningless if it does not have operational significance. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this view was contained in the words of Joel M. Geiderman, vice chairman of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Council, given in the Capitol rotunda on this day in 2009, before an audience of leaders that included President Obama. He called on them in the name of the victims of the Holocaust to assure that no country that threatens the destruction of another people ever obtains the means to achieve it:

By my articulating these words to you in this building, in this great hall of freedom, I am reminding all of you that what we do and don’t do matters and will be remembered. It would be far too easy to light twelve candles for twelve million murdered rather than six candles for six million. The harder work is to make sure that that does not happen. No more candles. Not anywhere. Never again.

The 20 CJHS questions are a guide to the things to think about as yet another storm gathers.

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Bergen-Belsen Survivors Sing Hatikvah

Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—began Sunday night and ends tonight. Tom Gross—whose Mideast Dispatch is one of the most valuable websites for those focusing on Middle East issues, Israel, anti-Semitism and security—includes today a link to a 1945 BBC report featuring Bergen-Belsen Survivors singing Hatikvah (“The Hope”)—the future national anthem of Israel—just days after liberation.

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Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—began Sunday night and ends tonight. Tom Gross—whose Mideast Dispatch is one of the most valuable websites for those focusing on Middle East issues, Israel, anti-Semitism and security—includes today a link to a 1945 BBC report featuring Bergen-Belsen Survivors singing Hatikvah (“The Hope”)—the future national anthem of Israel—just days after liberation.

Scroll down to click on the video. It is worth remembering not only the tragedy of the Holocaust, but also the spirit of those so lucky to survive.

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What Does It Mean to Remember the Holocaust?

In Jewish communities around the world as well as in city halls, state houses and in Washington, people will gather today to remember the Holocaust, as is the custom on Yom HaShoah. This Holocaust Remembrance Day will produce vast amounts of rhetoric urging us to not let the six million victims of the Nazis and their collaborators be forgotten. There will be calls, as there are every year, for vigilance against hatred and intolerance of all kinds seeking to extract a universal message from this specific tragedy. All of this will be well intentioned and much of it will be both heartfelt and appropriate. But the terrible question hanging over all these proceedings remains the same one that should nag at the hearts and the consciences of many of those assembled every year. It is whether the institutionalization of Holocaust remembrance in the last generation has accomplished much other than reinforcing the anodyne conclusion that the Nazis were terrible and that the sufferings of their victims was awful.

To pose this query is not to question the magnitude of the achievement of a generation of survivors, scholars and activists who have worked hard for the past few decades to create museums, programs and a vast body of literature that ought to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten. As a result of their efforts, there is little chance that the Shoah will become a mere footnote to World War II or that it will be submerged in the vacuous collective memory of the world as just one more instance of inhumanity. But we need to place that achievement in perspective. In the past two decades there have not only been numerous instances of other genocidal atrocities, be it in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur, but an alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the world. There is a need for us to ask just how much the world has learned from the Holocaust, or whether it has learned anything at all. Even more to the point, with threats of genocide being uttered by the leaders of Iran in just the last month against Israel and with a growth in the number of those willing to join or justify hateful campaigns aimed at destroying the Jewish state, understanding the lessons of history now requires a lot more than the lip service that will be paid to the Holocaust today.

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In Jewish communities around the world as well as in city halls, state houses and in Washington, people will gather today to remember the Holocaust, as is the custom on Yom HaShoah. This Holocaust Remembrance Day will produce vast amounts of rhetoric urging us to not let the six million victims of the Nazis and their collaborators be forgotten. There will be calls, as there are every year, for vigilance against hatred and intolerance of all kinds seeking to extract a universal message from this specific tragedy. All of this will be well intentioned and much of it will be both heartfelt and appropriate. But the terrible question hanging over all these proceedings remains the same one that should nag at the hearts and the consciences of many of those assembled every year. It is whether the institutionalization of Holocaust remembrance in the last generation has accomplished much other than reinforcing the anodyne conclusion that the Nazis were terrible and that the sufferings of their victims was awful.

To pose this query is not to question the magnitude of the achievement of a generation of survivors, scholars and activists who have worked hard for the past few decades to create museums, programs and a vast body of literature that ought to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten. As a result of their efforts, there is little chance that the Shoah will become a mere footnote to World War II or that it will be submerged in the vacuous collective memory of the world as just one more instance of inhumanity. But we need to place that achievement in perspective. In the past two decades there have not only been numerous instances of other genocidal atrocities, be it in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur, but an alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the world. There is a need for us to ask just how much the world has learned from the Holocaust, or whether it has learned anything at all. Even more to the point, with threats of genocide being uttered by the leaders of Iran in just the last month against Israel and with a growth in the number of those willing to join or justify hateful campaigns aimed at destroying the Jewish state, understanding the lessons of history now requires a lot more than the lip service that will be paid to the Holocaust today.

It needs to be stated in as succinct a manner as possible that an ocean of tears cried today or any other day about what happened from 1933 to 1945 will not save a single soul from a similar fate if all we’re willing to do is to talk about the past. Historical remembrance is intrinsically worthwhile. But if we are to give any real meaning to our attempts to embed these events in the consciousness of the world, it cannot be done outside of the context of the ongoing campaign to continue a murderous assault on the Jewish people.

What must be understood on this day, as on every other day of the year, is that sympathy for the six million is meaningless, even counter-productive, if it is not accompanied by a resolve to resist those who threaten the lives and the right to self-determination of the six million Jews who live in Israel today. The phrase “never again,” is a mere cliché if it is not attached to a commitment that Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear program that threatens Israel’s existence as well as the security of the entire world. Rhetoric about the million Jewish children slaughtered by Hitler’s minions is useless if it is not connected to a promise to fight back against boycott campaigns that are part of the economic war on the life of the Jewish state.

We must note that many of those who are indifferent to the existential threat that Iran poses to Jewish life or who claim that singling out Israel and Zionism for discriminatory treatment is not anti-Semitic, can be found among the ranks of those who annually wax eloquent about the injustice of the Holocaust. Dead Jews, especially those long dead in a conflict that is not seen as directly connected to the current one in the Middle East, are quite popular. It is those still living and who wish to defend their lives and their state that are not so well loved.

That is why what is needed more than ever is a realization that those who will today commemorate the Holocaust without a mention of Iran or an affirmation of the need to fight against the new variant of anti-Semitism, in which Israel and Zionism have become the substitutes for the word “Jew,” are not honoring the memory of the six million. Nor are they making atrocities less likely to happen in the future. Absent that affirmation to stand up for the living and for those who will follow, the sorrow that will be aired today is both hypocritical and meaningless. We must remember–but with a purpose.

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Illustrating the Link Between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

The Commentator draws our attention today to the fact that Britain’s Sunday Times celebrated the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz—the date that is observed outside of Israel and the United States as Holocaust Memorial Day—by publishing a cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a hook-nosed thug cementing helpless Arab victims into a wall whose bricks are lined with blood rather than mortar. This is an apt reminder of just how low Europe’s intellectual elites have sunk and how deep the taint of anti-Semitism is baked into the political culture of the West these days. As the Commentator’s Raheem Kassam points out, in Britain as in many other places, the Holocaust is not a historical lesson of the product of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and Jewish powerlessness as it is an excuse to depict Israel as a Nazi-like entity.

The cartoon will be defended as fair comment about Israel’s security fence that the Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders depict as a war crime. That this strictly defensive measure was made necessary by the Palestinians’ campaign of suicide bombings that cost the lives of a thousand Jews in the last decade goes unmentioned. The willingness of Israel-bashers to appropriate the Holocaust to promote a new generation of anti-Semitic imagery is rooted in a worldview in which the actions of the Palestinians, or their consistent refusal to make peace, are irrelevant. If even a fence to keep out suicide bombers can be seen as criminal then it is obvious that no terrorist outrage or act of hateful incitement (such as the Egyptian president’s belief that Israelis are the “descendants of apes and pigs”) is worthy of censure so long as Israelis are standing up for themselves and refusing to be slaughtered as the Jews of Europe were 70 years ago.

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The Commentator draws our attention today to the fact that Britain’s Sunday Times celebrated the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz—the date that is observed outside of Israel and the United States as Holocaust Memorial Day—by publishing a cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a hook-nosed thug cementing helpless Arab victims into a wall whose bricks are lined with blood rather than mortar. This is an apt reminder of just how low Europe’s intellectual elites have sunk and how deep the taint of anti-Semitism is baked into the political culture of the West these days. As the Commentator’s Raheem Kassam points out, in Britain as in many other places, the Holocaust is not a historical lesson of the product of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and Jewish powerlessness as it is an excuse to depict Israel as a Nazi-like entity.

The cartoon will be defended as fair comment about Israel’s security fence that the Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders depict as a war crime. That this strictly defensive measure was made necessary by the Palestinians’ campaign of suicide bombings that cost the lives of a thousand Jews in the last decade goes unmentioned. The willingness of Israel-bashers to appropriate the Holocaust to promote a new generation of anti-Semitic imagery is rooted in a worldview in which the actions of the Palestinians, or their consistent refusal to make peace, are irrelevant. If even a fence to keep out suicide bombers can be seen as criminal then it is obvious that no terrorist outrage or act of hateful incitement (such as the Egyptian president’s belief that Israelis are the “descendants of apes and pigs”) is worthy of censure so long as Israelis are standing up for themselves and refusing to be slaughtered as the Jews of Europe were 70 years ago.

In the face of slanders such as this cartoon about Netanyahu, the facts are almost beside the point. In order for it to be considered a defensible point of view about the Middle East, you’d have to believe the artist and the editors who condoned its publication know nothing of why Israel built a security fence or that the terrorist campaign that it was built to stop was preceded by repeated Israeli offers of a Palestinian state that were refused and answered with war. Can it be that no one at the Sunday Times is aware of the fact that the Palestinians again refused (or rather fled from it to avoid answering) an even more generous peace offer in 2008 and have consistently refused to return to the negotiating table since then despite an Israeli settlement freeze, Netanyahu’s acceptance of a two-state solution and pleas for them to talk without preconditions? Those are mere details to be ignored when the big picture you are trying to draw is of an evil Israel and its evil leader hurting the innocent.

While many have seized on the fact that Netanyahu didn’t do as well as originally expected in this last week’s election as somehow being proof that Israelis are rejecting his views about the Palestinians, this is nonsense. The point about the election is that Netanyahu’s basic views about the peace process are now so clearly endorsed by a broad consensus that encompasses not only the Israeli right but also the center and even some on the left that the election was decided on other issues. Though some would like it to be different, there’s actually very little to differentiate Netanyahu’s foreign policy views from those of Yair Lapid or even Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich or Tzipi Livni, who actually campaigned on a platform of reviving the peace process.

The point is most Israelis have long given up on the Palestinians, whom they rightly understand to be light years away from the sort of sea change that would allow them to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn. So, too, do they no longer listen to a Europe where blood libels like the Sunday Times cartoon are seen as commonplace and just a more sophisticated version of Morsi’s hate speech.

Israel is not perfect and its politicians can be criticized. But this commemoration of Europe’s Holocaust Memorial Day with such slanders shows the inability of those who believe Israel has no right to exist or to defend itself to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian dispute without resorting to imagery like that of the cartoon or Morsi’s imprecations. Though Israel-bashers claim labeling them as anti-Semites is unfair, their reflexive use of Nazi-like blood libels illustrates the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism better than any argument their opponents can muster.

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Fetishizing Holocaust Tattoos

The gradual disappearance of Holocaust survivors has long been viewed with worry by those tasked with ensuring that the world never forgets the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators. The passage of time means that the most able advocates of remembrance will soon be but a memory themselves. Fear that their experiences would be forgotten have fueled the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials, as well as praiseworthy efforts to create libraries of survivor testimony that will all remain once they are gone. But for some that is not enough.

For some grandchildren of survivors and others who care about the subject, that has led to a bizarre fad in which they have taken to having the numbers that the Nazis branded on the survivors tattooed on their own arms. As a New York Times feature published on Monday shows, this phenomenon has grown from isolated instances to what must considered a trend with large numbers of youths in Israel. While the motives behind this seem pure, one cannot help but wonder at anyone embracing a practice whose purpose was to dehumanize captive Jews. While survivors who lived long enough eventually saw that most considered those numbers to be a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame, the act of fetishizing this evidence of the Nazis’ crimes seems like something that says more about the current generation than it does about the experience of the survivors.

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The gradual disappearance of Holocaust survivors has long been viewed with worry by those tasked with ensuring that the world never forgets the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators. The passage of time means that the most able advocates of remembrance will soon be but a memory themselves. Fear that their experiences would be forgotten have fueled the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials, as well as praiseworthy efforts to create libraries of survivor testimony that will all remain once they are gone. But for some that is not enough.

For some grandchildren of survivors and others who care about the subject, that has led to a bizarre fad in which they have taken to having the numbers that the Nazis branded on the survivors tattooed on their own arms. As a New York Times feature published on Monday shows, this phenomenon has grown from isolated instances to what must considered a trend with large numbers of youths in Israel. While the motives behind this seem pure, one cannot help but wonder at anyone embracing a practice whose purpose was to dehumanize captive Jews. While survivors who lived long enough eventually saw that most considered those numbers to be a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame, the act of fetishizing this evidence of the Nazis’ crimes seems like something that says more about the current generation than it does about the experience of the survivors.

It is true that in the past insults directed at Jews have become symbols that transcended their original intent. Secret practitioners of Judaism in Catholic Spain were taunted as “Marranos” — a word that meant “pigs” but history has accepted the label as a mark of heroism. Yet while tattoos are — for reasons that completely escape me — all the rage in 2012, this is a very different sort of thing than a mere word.

For those grounded in traditional Judaism, the idea of using tattoos to memorialize the Shoah is intrinsically abhorrent since Jewish religious law forbids the practice under any circumstances. While not all the victims were religious any more than all the survivors and their descendants are, there is something profoundly distasteful about adopting a practice that was, in part, a Nazi effort to outrage Jewish sensibilities as well as to dehumanize the victims by replacing their name with a number.

But even if we were to somehow ignore this rather important point which is mentioned only in passing in the Times article, let’s understand that the tattoo craze seems like an effort to personalize an experience that can never truly belong to the person copying a survivor’s numbers.

Advocates for the practice will say that those who are appalled by this don’t understand today’s youth who see nothing wrong with tattoos and relate better to such individual gestures than more amorphous concepts. That may be so. A number on an arm may have a deep personal meaning for individuals, but turning oneself into a living Holocaust memorial via a tattoo is to merely become, as some of those interviewed for the Times story seemed to want, a conversation piece.

It might be admitted, as historian Michael Berenbaum told the Times, that a Holocaust number is preferable to some of the other things people pay to have drawn on their skin these days. But no one should be under the illusion that a tattoo can properly memorialize the six million slain in the Shoah or those who emerged from it.

The most important challenge for Jews today is to reconnect with Judaism, Jewish peoplehood and to act to protect the living Jewish state that is the best guarantee that the Holocaust will never happen again. That requires joint action that seems the antithesis of elevating a tattooed number inspired by Nazi dehumanization into a conversation starter.

It needs to be restated that the only proper memorial to the victims is a living breathing Jewish people determined to survive and thrive in a world still filled with anti-Semites who might like to emulate Hitler. Drawing a number on your skin may have meaning to individuals (or, as in one case, serve as a reminder to a young man to call his grandfather) but Jewish identity can’t be rooted in a vain attempt to relive a tragic past. Judaism is an affirmation of life not death. Seen in that light, the attempt by some secular Jews to grab onto a symbol of the slaughter as a way to connect with the past seems more like a futile provocation than a method of perpetuating the memory of this great tragedy.

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Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention Won’t Make Up for Obama’s Lack of Will to Act

In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.

Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.

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In his speech at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum this morning, President Obama once again said all the right things. Though speaking without the passion that can animate his utterances when he is talking about things he feels the most strongly — such as demonizing his domestic opponents — the president sounded many of the right notes about support for the state of Israel and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons as well as the need for the United States to act to prevent human rights catastrophes. But the president’s problem when it comes to applying the lessons of the Holocaust to statecraft has never been rhetorical.

Rather, it is the gap between what he says and what he does that is the cause for concern. Even though the president announced the creation of a board comprised of representatives of a cross section of government agencies that would be tasked with the prevention of atrocities, institutionalizing an approach to this issue isn’t the complete answer. In the absence of the will of the president to act, more government infrastructure won’t help. And given that the record of this administration has shown it to consider such issues to be among their lowest priorities, it’s hard to see how this speech will change things.

In his speech, Obama cited the example of Jan Karski, the heroic young Polish officer who smuggled himself into Treblinka in 1942 to find out what was happening and then escaped to the West where he told his tale to the leaders of the West including President Roosevelt. But what Obama failed to include in his account was the fact that FDR responded with silence and indifference to Karski’s shattering testimony when it was presented to him in person. And it is that precedent that illustrates why the mere convening of a meeting of the new atrocities prevention board today is a matter of little import so long as the president is more interested in talking about the subject rather than taking action.

The key test of his integrity on such matters today is the situation in Syria. In his introduction of the president at the museum, Elie Wiesel asked how it was possible for men like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to still be in power if we have actually learned any of the lessons of the Holocaust. But the president’s speech should have given Wiesel little comfort.

Obama said the United States will continue working to isolate the Syrian regime and make an effort to help document the atrocities going on there so as to facilitate the prosecution of those responsible after the fact. But he said nothing to give Assad the impression that the U.S. would do anything that might actually contribute to his downfall.

If, in the face of the massacres going on in Syria, the best that the president can offer is a promise of more meaningless economic sanctions, then of what possible use is an atrocity prevention panel?

The same question can be asked of Obama’s approach to Iran, whose pursuit of nuclear weapons raises the specter of another mass slaughter of the Jewish people made all the more ironic by the regime’s denial of the Nazis’ attempt at genocide. The president’s rhetoric on Iran has been consistently strong, and today’s pledge was just as good. But so long as he is willing to rely on a diplomatic channel in which the European Union’s Catherine Ashton (a veteran Israel-hater) is determined to make nice with Tehran rather than to press it, it’s hard to see how any of his excellent statements are to be translated into effective policy. Criticizing the State Department of the 1940s for its indifference to the Holocaust may satisfy some of the president’s audience today, but it doesn’t make up for contemporary failures.

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Note to Candidates: Drop Nazi Analogies

One of the most distressing trends of Holocaust commemoration is the way the destruction of European Jewry has become a metaphor for anything anyone doesn’t like. Many in our governing class may be aware of the history but fail to understand that using it as a talking point in denouncing their opponents is not merely in bad taste but actually contributes to the trivialization of the topic. In recent years, a number of politicians from both major parties have made the same mistake. But, just in time for today’s Yom HaShoah commemorations, Politico reports that a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia has chimed in by comparing regulations in the state’s Monongalia County requiring buildings to state they are smoke-free to the Nazi policies of forcing Jews to wear Stars of David.

John Raese’s criticisms of the nanny state at work may be on target, but like other recent offenders (a list that includes Democrats like California Governor Jerry Brown, Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen and Florida Republican Rep. Allen West who all compared political opponents to Joseph Goebbels), he needs to understand that comparing such things to the Nazis is both inappropriate and ill-informed.

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One of the most distressing trends of Holocaust commemoration is the way the destruction of European Jewry has become a metaphor for anything anyone doesn’t like. Many in our governing class may be aware of the history but fail to understand that using it as a talking point in denouncing their opponents is not merely in bad taste but actually contributes to the trivialization of the topic. In recent years, a number of politicians from both major parties have made the same mistake. But, just in time for today’s Yom HaShoah commemorations, Politico reports that a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia has chimed in by comparing regulations in the state’s Monongalia County requiring buildings to state they are smoke-free to the Nazi policies of forcing Jews to wear Stars of David.

John Raese’s criticisms of the nanny state at work may be on target, but like other recent offenders (a list that includes Democrats like California Governor Jerry Brown, Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen and Florida Republican Rep. Allen West who all compared political opponents to Joseph Goebbels), he needs to understand that comparing such things to the Nazis is both inappropriate and ill-informed.

After decades of attempting to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust, it is dismaying to think that the effort has succeeded to the point where it has become a universal metaphor for unpleasant political rhetoric or unpopular government policies. But while all forms of tyranny are to be despised and all acts of genocide (actual or potential) must be resisted, the Holocaust is a unique chapter in history and should be respected as such.

As for Raese, listening to the video of his speech, one sees that his problem is he can’t seem to understand there is a difference between the impulse to liberal fascism – in which the left mobilizes the power of government to compel society to accept their ideas — and the actual Holocaust. He also wrongly says that Nazis forced “everybody” to wear Stars of David. No, they didn’t. It was just the Jews who did so, and that’s the point of bias he fails to understand. That he referred to Franklin Roosevelt in his speech as “Fidel Roosevelt” while criticizing the New Deal’s excesses just adds to the impropriety of his remarks.

But while Raese, a perennial GOP candidate who has little chance of defeating Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin, isn’t significant, the trend his comments exemplify is troubling. It’s high time American politicians stopped using the Holocaust as a catchall metaphor. It ought to be clear by now that an iron rule of political discourse is that he or she who mentions Hitler first generally loses.

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Don’t Strand the Holocaust in History

This evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. For most, it will be a moment of mourning as well as an occasion to ponder the lessons of history and to ask whether humanity has learned anything in the 67 years since the end of the Second World War. But for some on the left, the Holocaust has become a political liability that must be drained of all relevance to the contemporary world.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that demands that “Netanyahu stop hiding behind Holocaust warnings.” Haaretz, which articulates the opinion of the minority of Israelis who espouse the views of the hard left about the conflict with the Palestinians as well as the potential confrontation with Iran, has come to negatively view any attempt to ground the country’s security policies in the historical experience of the Jewish people. Thus, for them it’s not merely enough to chide the prime minister for what they wrongly believe is the promiscuous use of Holocaust analogies. Instead, their goal, as well as that of others who pay lip service to the idea of proper commemoration of the Six Million who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, is to strand the event in history.  Doing so serves their immediate political purpose but, in fact, confounds the entire concept of remembrance of the Holocaust.

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This evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. For most, it will be a moment of mourning as well as an occasion to ponder the lessons of history and to ask whether humanity has learned anything in the 67 years since the end of the Second World War. But for some on the left, the Holocaust has become a political liability that must be drained of all relevance to the contemporary world.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that demands that “Netanyahu stop hiding behind Holocaust warnings.” Haaretz, which articulates the opinion of the minority of Israelis who espouse the views of the hard left about the conflict with the Palestinians as well as the potential confrontation with Iran, has come to negatively view any attempt to ground the country’s security policies in the historical experience of the Jewish people. Thus, for them it’s not merely enough to chide the prime minister for what they wrongly believe is the promiscuous use of Holocaust analogies. Instead, their goal, as well as that of others who pay lip service to the idea of proper commemoration of the Six Million who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, is to strand the event in history.  Doing so serves their immediate political purpose but, in fact, confounds the entire concept of remembrance of the Holocaust.

This is a familiar theme from the left, which in recent years has come to view mentions of the Holocaust as a dodge that has allowed Israel to avoid coming to grips with the tough issues of war and peace as well as its social cohesion. But it’s not Netanyahu and others who are in the wrong; it is those who wish to isolate the destruction of European Jewry in history and to avoid drawing conclusions from it who are profoundly misguided.

Though the Holocaust has universal significance, its particular meaning relates to what happens when Jews are rendered powerless in the face of powerful foes bent on their destruction. While there are those who wish to discuss it only in the most general terms about bias, the Holocaust was a specific event that happened to a people who had been demonized for 2,000 years and lacked the ability to adequately defend themselves.

Netanyahu is not injecting a political agenda into commemoration of this tragedy. It is actually those who wish to ban mentions of Iran’s nuclear program, the genocidal intent of Hamas and other Islamist terrorists as well as the rising tide of European anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism from the discussion of the Shoah who are distorting the debate.

The notion that Israelis or American Jews are so distracted by fears rooted in the Holocaust that they have ignored other problems or exaggerated the present threats to Jewish existence is rooted in a foolish assumption that Islamist forces who speak of their desire to eradicate Israel don’t mean what they say. Netanyahu isn’t, as Haaretz charges, irresponsibly “feeding the fear” of a second Holocaust to the detriment of his country. He is merely acknowledging the reality that Jewish history has the ability to inform our understanding of today’s conflicts, and that we must act on the conclusions we must draw from the past.

Every slur or example of hate speech is not a potential Holocaust. But the efforts of a powerful Islamist state to obtain nuclear weapons that might be used to make good on its pledge to eradicate Israel is as much of an existential threat as that of the Nazis. That doesn’t mean that Iran is Germany or that Khamenei or Ahmadinejad is Hitler, but the analogy doesn’t have to be perfect to make sense. The same applies to those Islamist terrorists, often funded by Iran, who have similar hopes about cleansing the Middle East of the one Jewish state.

What we must understand is that any commemoration of the Holocaust that does not speak of the need to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons or of preserving Israel’s security against the threat of Palestinian terrorism is not worthy of the name. Far from there being too much talk about Iran when discussing the Holocaust, there is not enough. Though today’s situation is not akin to that of 1939 when there was no Jewish state ready to defend itself or an America that despite the ambivalence of its president is united in support of Israel, the peril is nonetheless real.

The mere recital of expressions of sorrow for the Six Million is not enough. Acts of remembrance that do not cause us to draw conclusions about the present are of little use. For all the effort and resources that have gone into the proliferation of Holocaust memorials around the United States, it must be understood that the best and only true memorial to the Shoah is to be found in the creation and the survival of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people itself. Those who weep today about the fate of the Six Million but say nothing about the possibility that the West will not act to stop Iran or seek to discourage Israel from defending its people have learned nothing.

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Justice Failed in the Demjanjuk Case

Yesterday, John Demjanjuk died in a German nursing home. Though twice convicted of participation in one of history’s great atrocities, with the assistance of clever lawyers, liberal judges and owing to his age and infirmity, Demjanjuk didn’t pass away in jail. Upon his death, his family once again declared his innocence and, due to a technicality in German law that says sentences are not final until the last appeal is ruled on, could even claim that his death voided his conviction. The New York Times obituary, though providing voluminous detail about his case, insisted on describing his case as merely a one of “questions” and “mysteries.”

But any objective examination of his story reveals little that could be fairly termed a “mystery.” Demjanjuk was a soldier in the Red Army who was captured by the Germans. Like many other Ukrainians he fought for Hitler’s army. But he was no ordinary turncoat solider hoping to evade the grim fate that befell most Soviet prisoners of the Nazis. He volunteered to be a death camp guard. Even if one accepts the doubts that were raised as to whether he was the infamous “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka extermination facility, there is no doubt that he was a terrible Ivan who served at the equally horrific Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenbürg camps. But though enough proof of his complicity in these crimes was brought forward to secure two convictions many years later, like many another Holocaust criminal, Demjanjuk didn’t die inside prison walls. While his Holocaust-denying fan club (among whose members we must count pundit and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan) may claim the last laugh we must credit the hard work of activists and prosecutors who never gave up the fight to bring him to book for his crimes. In doing so, they did honor to the victims as well as to the cause of justice. We can’t help but note though that their efforts must be said to have fallen short since Demjanjuk never got the date with the hangman that he richly deserved.

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Yesterday, John Demjanjuk died in a German nursing home. Though twice convicted of participation in one of history’s great atrocities, with the assistance of clever lawyers, liberal judges and owing to his age and infirmity, Demjanjuk didn’t pass away in jail. Upon his death, his family once again declared his innocence and, due to a technicality in German law that says sentences are not final until the last appeal is ruled on, could even claim that his death voided his conviction. The New York Times obituary, though providing voluminous detail about his case, insisted on describing his case as merely a one of “questions” and “mysteries.”

But any objective examination of his story reveals little that could be fairly termed a “mystery.” Demjanjuk was a soldier in the Red Army who was captured by the Germans. Like many other Ukrainians he fought for Hitler’s army. But he was no ordinary turncoat solider hoping to evade the grim fate that befell most Soviet prisoners of the Nazis. He volunteered to be a death camp guard. Even if one accepts the doubts that were raised as to whether he was the infamous “Ivan the Terrible” of the Treblinka extermination facility, there is no doubt that he was a terrible Ivan who served at the equally horrific Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenbürg camps. But though enough proof of his complicity in these crimes was brought forward to secure two convictions many years later, like many another Holocaust criminal, Demjanjuk didn’t die inside prison walls. While his Holocaust-denying fan club (among whose members we must count pundit and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan) may claim the last laugh we must credit the hard work of activists and prosecutors who never gave up the fight to bring him to book for his crimes. In doing so, they did honor to the victims as well as to the cause of justice. We can’t help but note though that their efforts must be said to have fallen short since Demjanjuk never got the date with the hangman that he richly deserved.

The Cold War allowed many Eastern Europeans who took part in Nazi-era crimes to pretend to be victims. Demjanjuk was one such person and like many others who took part in these crimes, Demjanjuk evaded the long arm of the law after World War II ended and entered the United States where he took the name John and eventually became a citizen and raised a family. But unfortunately for him, evidence of his ties to the SS was uncovered, including an identity card with his picture. Survivors also identified him. His lies were eventually exposed and after many years of litigation the Justice Department was able to revoke his citizenship and deport him to Israel where he was put on trial.

After exhaustive arguments and extensive testimony from survivors who identified him as the man who brutally assaulted victims and killed many with his bare hands at Treblinka, Demjanjuk was convicted and sentenced to death. But five years later, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the verdict and set him free.

The court’s justification for this action was the claim that other guards claimed that another Ivan, named Marchenko was the “terrible” guard of Treblinka. But the court’s ruling was not so much a conclusive ruling about his innocence as a meditation on the role of Israel justice. The majority seemed to feel that so long as even a shadow of a doubt existed as to his guilt it would be better that Israel should not take his life or deprive him of his liberty. This was meant and was actually perceived in many quarters as tribute to the quality of Jewish mercy as well as Israeli justice but it may well have been very bad law. As even the Times noted, Demjanjuk had listed his mother’s maiden name as Marchenko on his U.S. entry papers. The preponderance of evidence still must be said to show that Demjanjuk really was Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka.

Instead of the execution that he merited, he was sent back to America in 1993. But there again, intrepid prosecutors set to work to try and convict him again, this time, for being a guard at the camps that his lawyers said he was at rather than Treblinka. Again long delays put off his second deportation and trial (this time in Germany) and his conviction on those awful charges did not come until 2011.

We may take some solace in that the extended legal process for Demjanjuk helped educate the world about the Holocaust. We may also take pride in the efforts of those who labored for so many years to try and bring him to account for his part in these crimes. But there is much about this case that ought to be regarded with disgust.

Among the most shameful aspects of this story is the way some, like Buchanan, used Cold War enmity to obfuscate the guilt of Demjanjuk and other Eastern Europeans who were Hitler’s collaborators. Also shameful was the criticism aimed at the many Holocaust survivors who stepped forward to identify Demjanjuk as one of their torturers. The aspersions cast and doubts that were raised about the veracity of their testimony were deeply unfortunate. Most of all, the unwillingness of the Israeli Supreme Court to take responsibility for the case and to rule with fairness as well as mercy did little honor to that institution.

The plain fact of the matter is that John Demjanjuk never got the sentence his crimes warranted. In that he was not alone since many such criminals evaded prosecution, let alone prison time or execution. And for that we may all hang our heads in shame.

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Six Million Dead but Eleven, or Is It Twelve, Million Universalizing Lies

While Israel and most Jews commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (which this year falls on May 1), which precedes the Jewish state’s Independence Day by a week, the international community has chosen to use the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. So throughout Europe and at UN facilities, there will be ceremonies to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day today. While all efforts to recall the murder of six million Jews are to be welcomed, the fact is many of those doing so in such places will attempt to maroon the Holocaust in history and separate it from the rising tide of anti-Semitism that is largely focused on a hatred of Israel that is currently sweeping Europe and the Middle East. Suffice it to say that those who will today bewail the Holocaust, while not also directly condemning those who seek to isolate and destroy Israel and the efforts of Holocaust-denying Iran to gain nuclear weapons. are hypocrites.

But Holocaust Remembrance Day is also an appropriate moment to think seriously about those Jews whose own efforts to “universalize” the Holocaust have done much to distort its meaning. In the new winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt dissects the impact of Simon Wiesenthal and his not-altogether-salubrious contribution to the way the world thinks about the Shoah.

Wiesenthal’s deceptions about his own experiences during the Holocaust are well known and have been debunked many times. Also well-known is the fact that his boasts about helping to track down 1,000 Nazi war criminals are largely bogus. In particular, his claim that he was responsible for the capture of Adolf Eichmann was a lie. But, as Lipstadt notes, otherwise hardened journalists like the left-wing Israeli author Tom Segev have given Wiesenthal a pass on all this because they approve of the way the Austrian survivor sought to universalize the Shoah. It was Wiesenthal who popularized the notion that there were eleven million victims of the Holocaust (six million Jews and five million non-Jews), a figure that has been largely accepted by most Jews as well as non-Jews — even though it is not true. As Lipstadt writes:

On the one hand, the total number of non-Jewish civilians killed by the Germans in the course of World War II is far higher than five million. On the other hand, the number of non-Jewish civilians killed for racial or ideological reasons does not come close to five million. … When Israeli historians Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman challenged Wiesenthal on this point, he admitted that he had invented the figure of eleven million victims in order to stimulate interest in the Holocaust among non-Jews. He chose five million because it was almost, but not quite, as large as six million. … In recent months, Wiesenthal’s concoction has been further improved upon by a group of rabbis and imams who visited Auschwitz under the aegis of the US State Department. The statement they issued after their visit referred to the “twelve million victims, six million Jews and six million non-Jews.” Now we have parity. One wonders what’s next.

Lies about the Holocaust, even well-intentioned lies, as Lipstadt notes, give ammunition to Holocaust deniers. But even if there were no Holocaust deniers, they would still be wrong, because any commemoration that is not rooted in the truth will ultimately do more harm than good. Distorting the history of the Holocaust in order to diminish Jewish suffering — and to avoid the conclusion that the best monument to the Shoah is a strong Jewish state that can ensure that the Jews will never again be victimized in this manner — is an insult to the memory of the six million.

While Israel and most Jews commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (which this year falls on May 1), which precedes the Jewish state’s Independence Day by a week, the international community has chosen to use the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. So throughout Europe and at UN facilities, there will be ceremonies to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day today. While all efforts to recall the murder of six million Jews are to be welcomed, the fact is many of those doing so in such places will attempt to maroon the Holocaust in history and separate it from the rising tide of anti-Semitism that is largely focused on a hatred of Israel that is currently sweeping Europe and the Middle East. Suffice it to say that those who will today bewail the Holocaust, while not also directly condemning those who seek to isolate and destroy Israel and the efforts of Holocaust-denying Iran to gain nuclear weapons. are hypocrites.

But Holocaust Remembrance Day is also an appropriate moment to think seriously about those Jews whose own efforts to “universalize” the Holocaust have done much to distort its meaning. In the new winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt dissects the impact of Simon Wiesenthal and his not-altogether-salubrious contribution to the way the world thinks about the Shoah.

Wiesenthal’s deceptions about his own experiences during the Holocaust are well known and have been debunked many times. Also well-known is the fact that his boasts about helping to track down 1,000 Nazi war criminals are largely bogus. In particular, his claim that he was responsible for the capture of Adolf Eichmann was a lie. But, as Lipstadt notes, otherwise hardened journalists like the left-wing Israeli author Tom Segev have given Wiesenthal a pass on all this because they approve of the way the Austrian survivor sought to universalize the Shoah. It was Wiesenthal who popularized the notion that there were eleven million victims of the Holocaust (six million Jews and five million non-Jews), a figure that has been largely accepted by most Jews as well as non-Jews — even though it is not true. As Lipstadt writes:

On the one hand, the total number of non-Jewish civilians killed by the Germans in the course of World War II is far higher than five million. On the other hand, the number of non-Jewish civilians killed for racial or ideological reasons does not come close to five million. … When Israeli historians Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman challenged Wiesenthal on this point, he admitted that he had invented the figure of eleven million victims in order to stimulate interest in the Holocaust among non-Jews. He chose five million because it was almost, but not quite, as large as six million. … In recent months, Wiesenthal’s concoction has been further improved upon by a group of rabbis and imams who visited Auschwitz under the aegis of the US State Department. The statement they issued after their visit referred to the “twelve million victims, six million Jews and six million non-Jews.” Now we have parity. One wonders what’s next.

Lies about the Holocaust, even well-intentioned lies, as Lipstadt notes, give ammunition to Holocaust deniers. But even if there were no Holocaust deniers, they would still be wrong, because any commemoration that is not rooted in the truth will ultimately do more harm than good. Distorting the history of the Holocaust in order to diminish Jewish suffering — and to avoid the conclusion that the best monument to the Shoah is a strong Jewish state that can ensure that the Jews will never again be victimized in this manner — is an insult to the memory of the six million.

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In the Shadow of Iran, Holocaust Remembrance Must Have a Purpose

At synagogues and community centers, as well as city halls and statehouses around the country, Americans gathered yesterday and today to mark Yom HaShoah, the date in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the tragedy of the Holocaust. The choreography of these events is invariably the same. Community leaders, clergymen, and politicians, as well as representatives of the dwindling band of survivors, will speak of the importance of remembrance of this great crime and vow that “Never again” will the world stand by and watch as a people is slaughtered. Prayers will be said and songs that invoke the pathos of the victims as well as the heroism of those who resisted the Nazis and their collaborators will be sung. All this is right and proper and appropriate. And it is also utterly insufficient.

The notion that the example of the Holocaust would be used to mobilize the world to prevent subsequent acts of genocide was always a bit optimistic.  Yet some well-meaning educators thought the memory of the Shoah must be morphed into a more general concern for humanity lest it be seen as merely a parochial concern. In addition, those who sought to downplay contemporary threats to Jewish life particularly derided the idea that Holocaust remembrance must have specific lessons for Jews about powerlessness and sovereignty. For those like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who once referred to Israel as “Yad Vashem with an air force,” the worry was that Israel and its friends were so obsessed by the Holocaust that they were unwilling to make peace with the Arabs. This was an absurd charge against a country that would spend two decades making concessions and peace offers to Palestinian groups that still refuse to recognize the Jewish state’s legitimacy within any borders.

But in 2010 these post-Zionist dismissals of the existential threats to Israel are even more out of touch with reality than in the past. Even as the speakers at Yom Hashoah ceremonies recited the words “never again,” the leaders of the Islamist regime in Iran (whose president ironically denies the Holocaust while plotting a new one) were happily noting the international community’s weak response to their plans for the development of a nuclear weapon. The entire world is threatened by this prospect but we all know that the priority target for Iran and its terrorist allies Hezbollah and Hamas is the State of Israel. Whether the Iranians actually detonate such a weapon or merely use it to blackmail other countries, the peril to Israel and its population of more than 6 million Jews must be seen as imminent.

Yet the idea that America, let alone an indifferent Europe, is prepared to actually do something to stop Iran is not taken seriously by anyone. Last week even President Obama, who spent his first year in office attempting to engage and appease Iran, more or less acknowledged that his weak attempts to enact toothless sanctions on Tehran might not convince the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime to change course. That means that it is only a matter of time until the day comes (perhaps on Obama’s watch) when the world will wake up to the nightmare of an Iranian bomb.

The question is, what are American Jews — the vast majority of whom voted for Obama as loyal Democrats — prepared to do to convince their president to act before it is too late? There is no evidence to suggest that there is a pervasive sense of alarm or outrage about the administration’s feckless Iran policy or its perverse insistence on hostility toward the democratically elected government of Israel. Thus, for all of the attention devoted to observances of Yom Hashoah among American Jews, it appears as if the actual lesson of the Holocaust has no resonance for all too many. Though it was always true, this year the mere recital of expressions of sorrow for the Six Million are not enough. Acts of remembrance that do not lead us to draw conclusions about the present are of little use. For all the care and money that has gone into the proliferation of Holocaust memorials around the United States, it must be understood that the best and only true memorial to the Shoah is to be found in the creation and the survival of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people itself. Those who weep over fate of the Six Million but say nothing as Barack Obama lets Iran off the hook have learned nothing.

At synagogues and community centers, as well as city halls and statehouses around the country, Americans gathered yesterday and today to mark Yom HaShoah, the date in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the tragedy of the Holocaust. The choreography of these events is invariably the same. Community leaders, clergymen, and politicians, as well as representatives of the dwindling band of survivors, will speak of the importance of remembrance of this great crime and vow that “Never again” will the world stand by and watch as a people is slaughtered. Prayers will be said and songs that invoke the pathos of the victims as well as the heroism of those who resisted the Nazis and their collaborators will be sung. All this is right and proper and appropriate. And it is also utterly insufficient.

The notion that the example of the Holocaust would be used to mobilize the world to prevent subsequent acts of genocide was always a bit optimistic.  Yet some well-meaning educators thought the memory of the Shoah must be morphed into a more general concern for humanity lest it be seen as merely a parochial concern. In addition, those who sought to downplay contemporary threats to Jewish life particularly derided the idea that Holocaust remembrance must have specific lessons for Jews about powerlessness and sovereignty. For those like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who once referred to Israel as “Yad Vashem with an air force,” the worry was that Israel and its friends were so obsessed by the Holocaust that they were unwilling to make peace with the Arabs. This was an absurd charge against a country that would spend two decades making concessions and peace offers to Palestinian groups that still refuse to recognize the Jewish state’s legitimacy within any borders.

But in 2010 these post-Zionist dismissals of the existential threats to Israel are even more out of touch with reality than in the past. Even as the speakers at Yom Hashoah ceremonies recited the words “never again,” the leaders of the Islamist regime in Iran (whose president ironically denies the Holocaust while plotting a new one) were happily noting the international community’s weak response to their plans for the development of a nuclear weapon. The entire world is threatened by this prospect but we all know that the priority target for Iran and its terrorist allies Hezbollah and Hamas is the State of Israel. Whether the Iranians actually detonate such a weapon or merely use it to blackmail other countries, the peril to Israel and its population of more than 6 million Jews must be seen as imminent.

Yet the idea that America, let alone an indifferent Europe, is prepared to actually do something to stop Iran is not taken seriously by anyone. Last week even President Obama, who spent his first year in office attempting to engage and appease Iran, more or less acknowledged that his weak attempts to enact toothless sanctions on Tehran might not convince the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime to change course. That means that it is only a matter of time until the day comes (perhaps on Obama’s watch) when the world will wake up to the nightmare of an Iranian bomb.

The question is, what are American Jews — the vast majority of whom voted for Obama as loyal Democrats — prepared to do to convince their president to act before it is too late? There is no evidence to suggest that there is a pervasive sense of alarm or outrage about the administration’s feckless Iran policy or its perverse insistence on hostility toward the democratically elected government of Israel. Thus, for all of the attention devoted to observances of Yom Hashoah among American Jews, it appears as if the actual lesson of the Holocaust has no resonance for all too many. Though it was always true, this year the mere recital of expressions of sorrow for the Six Million are not enough. Acts of remembrance that do not lead us to draw conclusions about the present are of little use. For all the care and money that has gone into the proliferation of Holocaust memorials around the United States, it must be understood that the best and only true memorial to the Shoah is to be found in the creation and the survival of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people itself. Those who weep over fate of the Six Million but say nothing as Barack Obama lets Iran off the hook have learned nothing.

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