Commentary Magazine


Topic: Holocaust

Israel’s President Should Recognize the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian genocide, the centenary of which is marked today, is a wound that has yet to close, perhaps because of the lack of official recognition by some Western countries. So it’s encouraging, as well as interesting from a geopolitical perspective, to note that there are rumors that Israeli President Ruby Rivlin will officially recognize the Armenian genocide in a meeting with Armenian community leaders this weekend. Here, for example, is what the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren tweeted out overnight:

The Armenian genocide, the centenary of which is marked today, is a wound that has yet to close, perhaps because of the lack of official recognition by some Western countries. So it’s encouraging, as well as interesting from a geopolitical perspective, to note that there are rumors that Israeli President Ruby Rivlin will officially recognize the Armenian genocide in a meeting with Armenian community leaders this weekend. Here, for example, is what the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren tweeted out overnight:

I happen to think that what was done to the Armenians a century ago by their Ottoman rulers amounts to genocide. I’ve always been a bit less insistent that various congresses and parliaments officially designate it as such, though I do wish they would, and I think individual politicians, even presidents and prime ministers, should say it was genocide if they do indeed think it was (which most of them seem to). This is slightly different than passing parliamentary resolutions, for procedural reasons, but also for reasons of honesty: if you believe something was genocide, and you were asked point blank if it was, then you should say so. Lying about genocide is a less-than-sterling political act.

I was recently recounting my experiences on the “March of the Living,” the annual trip for high school seniors to the death camps in Poland and then to Israel to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day. My most vivid memory has to do with scheduling. After visiting our last of the camps in Poland (I believe for our group it was Majdanek) we went straight to the airport to catch our flight to Israel.

Thousands of kids attend the trip each year, so the different buses break up into groups and have slightly different itineraries, or at least visit places in different orders. My bus had the great fortune of going straight from Ben-Gurion airport to the Western Wall. So my group had gone from the camps to the Kotel with no stops (or sleep) in between.

As you might imagine, it is an overwhelming experience, going from a place that marks the low point of our people to the place that marks the high. But that trip from Majdanek to the Western Wall either goes right through the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem (I can’t remember which path we took), or at the very least right next to it. There is some glaring incongruity in that, due to Israel’s non-recognition of the Armenian genocide.

Is that too sentimental a basis on which to make policy? Maybe, but we’re talking about the return of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after two thousand years wandering the earth. There’s really no eliminating sentiment here. (It was Ben-Gurion himself who said that in Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.)

What about geopolitical considerations? Well, they’re not nothing. But if it’s the right thing to do to recognize the genocide, then it’s the right thing to do. Also, geopolitical realities have shifted anyway, and Turkey’s drift into Erdogan’s Islamist nightmare should at least give some politicians an excuse now to lend a symbolic hand to the downtrodden.

Additionally, I believe that recognizing the Armenian genocide is, for the Jewish community, a strategic imperative. The Armenians were first subjected to mass demonization efforts to cast them as disloyal citizens. That laid the groundwork for the argument that they were thus a national-security risk, and that rounding them up was not simple bigotry but a sort of counteroffensive war measure.

There is no community more likely to be accused of imperfect loyalty, even–or especially!–in the “enlightened” West, than the Jews. And in every such country, they are a vulnerable minority. It does not make much sense, then, for the Jewish state to argue that the demonization and isolation campaigns against Jews even in Europe recall a dark genocidal chapter not too long ago, and yet not recognize it as such with regard to others.

Some argue that it could cheapen the designation of genocide to apply it to a situation that may not be so clear-cut. But I think, in the case of the Armenians, the opposite is true. I think it cheapens the term genocide to only use it, as the current American administration has, when it is easy to do so and to drum up support for military action, such as with the ISIS assault on the Yazidis.

It would be appropriate, therefore, for Israel to make this recognition. But it would also be appropriate for another reason. Ruby Rivlin has thus far had something of a remarkable presidency. The office of the president of Israel is mostly ceremonial. And Rivlin has used that to great effect. In October, he became the first Israeli president to attend the annual memorial ceremony for the victims of the 1956 massacre in the Arab village of Kafr Qasem. Israel has to “look straight at what happened in the Kafr Qasem massacre and teach all future generations about it,” Rivlin said. He’s also spoken out movingly against racism.

As a dedicated rightist, Rivlin caught many off-guard when he showed this appetite for atonement and reconciliation. So if any Israeli president were to recognize the Armenian genocide, it’s appropriate that it would be him.

At this point, they’re just rumors. But the reporting suggests that Rivlin is seriously considering it. He should, and he should walk through the Armenian quarter of his nation’s ancient capital with his head held high.

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Naming the Accomplices of the Holocaust

Last week, FBI director James B. Comey wrote an opinion piece about the importance of Holocaust education published in the Washington Post. But this seemingly anodyne exercise on Yom HaShoah has landed Comey in the middle of a diplomatic incident as well as earning himself a scolding from the Post’s Anne Applebaum for seeming to inaccurately describe the government of Poland as an accomplice of the Nazis during the Holocaust. However, Applebaum’s defense of Poland goes a little too far. Though she’s right to draw a bright line between the complicity of Germany and that of other nations, especially Poland, in mass murder, she too somewhat distorts the issue by seeming to downplay the role anti-Semitism throughout Eastern Europe played in facilitating the destruction of European Jewry. But the main lesson we should draw from this brouhaha is that by engaging in arguments that seek to whitewash some of those who behaved atrociously during the 1940s, we are distracting ourselves from the real threats facing Jews, Poles, and Europeans in 2015.

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Last week, FBI director James B. Comey wrote an opinion piece about the importance of Holocaust education published in the Washington Post. But this seemingly anodyne exercise on Yom HaShoah has landed Comey in the middle of a diplomatic incident as well as earning himself a scolding from the Post’s Anne Applebaum for seeming to inaccurately describe the government of Poland as an accomplice of the Nazis during the Holocaust. However, Applebaum’s defense of Poland goes a little too far. Though she’s right to draw a bright line between the complicity of Germany and that of other nations, especially Poland, in mass murder, she too somewhat distorts the issue by seeming to downplay the role anti-Semitism throughout Eastern Europe played in facilitating the destruction of European Jewry. But the main lesson we should draw from this brouhaha is that by engaging in arguments that seek to whitewash some of those who behaved atrociously during the 1940s, we are distracting ourselves from the real threats facing Jews, Poles, and Europeans in 2015.

Comey is in trouble because of the following passage in his Post piece:

In their minds, the murderers and accomplices of Germany, and Poland, and Hungary, and so many, many other places didn’t do something evil. They convinced themselves it was the right thing to do, the thing they had to do. That’s what people do. And that should truly frighten us.

That first sentence enraged Poles, who rightly pointed that either through bad punctuation or ignorance, Comey was lumping Poland in with Nazi Germany. That’s profoundly wrong as there was, as Applebaum rightly points out, no Polish collaborationist government as there was in France, Norway, and some other occupied nations. Moreover, unlike other ethnicities that were treated badly by the Germans but not treated as subhumans Poles were also singled out for atrocities by the Nazis and suffered mass slaughter. Polish Jews suffered far more than their non-Jewish compatriots and were targeted for extinction while most Poles were not. But Poles still are right to take umbrage at any notion that they were, as a people, direct accomplices in the way that many in the Baltic States and Ukraine, to take just two examples, were.

Applebaum is also right to note that the murder of Hungarian Jewry didn’t begin until that Axis ally collapsed as Germany assumed direct rule over Hungary.

But Applebaum goes too far when she claims that the sole fault for the Holocaust rests on “German state terror” or that participation in the mass murder on the part of Germans or their non-German accomplices was prompted primarily by fear and that those who did so “knew they were terribly, terribly wrong.” That interpretation of history serves some purpose for the people of contemporary Europe because it allows them to claim that those of their forebears who were part of the apparatus of death or cheered it were in some ways also victims. But such an assertion ignores the role that anti-Semitism played in Europe, especially in those countries of Eastern Europe where the most grievous mass slaughters of Jews took place.

Let’s specify that in a narrow sense Applebaum is right that Germany must always accept the lion’s share of the blame for everything that happened during the Holocaust. But it is disingenuous to claim that their task of singling out the Jews and then murdering them was not eased by the willingness of even the most poorly treated subject populations in Eastern Europe to treat Jews as worthy objects of persecution.

Nor can it be asserted with any credibility that the mass slaughters, especially those in areas that had been seized from the Soviets, were not materially aided by large numbers of non-Jewish local collaborators. While these populations had good reason to despise their Soviet overlords, nothing excuses their assistance of mass killings or the willingness of so many of their men to serve in volunteer units fighting beside the Nazis.

If they did so, it was not just because they feared the Nazis but because they, like so many Germans, believed the Jews deserved to be expropriated, deported, and or killed in cold blood. This “eliminationist” mentality, as historian Daniel Goldhagen described it, wasn’t so much the product of fear as it was of 2,000 years of anti-Semitism that rendered the Nazis’ ideology palatable to many who might otherwise have found it impossible to make common cause with what was a fundamentally revolutionary and socialist concept. Killers of Jews did not seem much troubled by their consciences, including those Poles that engaged in pogroms against the remnant of Jewish survivors that attempted to return to their homes after the war. The Nazis may have ruled by fear but they don’t seem to have needed it to convince so many people to either take part in their war against the Jews or to be quiet about it.

Applebaum, who is married to a prominent Polish politician, is understandably devoted to defending the good name of Poland, which, for all of the problems of its past, does not deserve to be lumped in with the Nazis as Comey seemed to do. But when Poles or other Eastern Europeans waste their time trying to parse this history so as to deny even minor complicity for the anti-Semitism that facilitated the Holocaust, they are wasting their time and ours.

Contemporary Poland is not responsible for the malevolent culture of Jew hatred that dominated its society in the 1930s and even during the war in which that country was also subjected to atrocities. Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, including countries whose populations did collaborate en masse with the Germans, now lives under the threat of Russian aggression. Thus, Poles have better things to worry about than whether some in the West are able to recall the role played by non-German Jew-haters in the Holocaust.

By the same token, Jews, who face a rising tide of global anti-Semitism fueled by an Islamist variant of the same eliminationist spirit that animated the Nazis, need not re-fight the battles of the past.

Comey should correct his punctuation but let’s not try and revise history to soothe contemporary national egos. Nor should we hold onto illusions about evil acts only being motivated by fear. As we face a new generation of aggressors like Russia and potential mass-murderers in ISIS and Iran, it’s a mistake to forget that evil is every bit as persuasive as fear.

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The Holocaust and History’s Many Lessons

Debate continues over the relevance of the Holocaust to today’s Iran crisis, in the wake of Yom HaShoah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about learning the lessons of history. Jonathan Tobin covered the Iran issue on Wednesday, and Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer takes up what he imagines to be the West’s perspective today. Pfeffer’s column is thoughtful and well worth reading. And he makes some very important points about how the West has clearly learned at least some lessons of the Holocaust, as demonstrated in some of its policies toward Jews and Israel. But there’s also another aspect of this that’s worth some consideration, and it has more to do with non-Jewish victims than with the Jews.

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Debate continues over the relevance of the Holocaust to today’s Iran crisis, in the wake of Yom HaShoah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments about learning the lessons of history. Jonathan Tobin covered the Iran issue on Wednesday, and Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer takes up what he imagines to be the West’s perspective today. Pfeffer’s column is thoughtful and well worth reading. And he makes some very important points about how the West has clearly learned at least some lessons of the Holocaust, as demonstrated in some of its policies toward Jews and Israel. But there’s also another aspect of this that’s worth some consideration, and it has more to do with non-Jewish victims than with the Jews.

But first, one quibble. Pfeffer writes that the West would of course have noticed Netanyahu’s comment about Arab voters being bussed to the polls, and should have expected backlash. But in this lies a crucial point: it’s understandable to have been irked by the comment, but look at the double standard. When Iranian leaders make extreme comments the Obama administration dismisses them as intended for a domestic political audience, nothing more. The press isn’t exactly blameless here either. In fact, it should be central to the discussion.

When we talk about historical analogies and the Nazis, we often stress the comparison between regimes more than the comparison between reactions to the regimes by gullible Westerners. It’s not that we ignore the latter–we don’t–it’s just that we tend to focus on the evil party asserting its genocidal intent.

But what lessons have Westerners learned from their own history? Here, it’s instructive to glance at Andrew Nagorski’s book Hitlerland. One of the stories he tells is of Chicago Daily News reporter Edgar Mowrer, who was reporting on Germany in the 1930s and even wrote an early book on the emergence of the Hitler era. Nagorski writes:

Yet even Mowrer wasn’t quiet sure what Hitler represented–and what to expect if he took power. “Did he believe all that he said?” he asked. “The question is inapplicable to this sort of personality. Subjectively Adolf Hitler was, in my opinion, entirely sincere even in his self-contradictions. For his is a humorless mind that simply excludes the need for consistency that might distress more intellectual types. To an actor the truth is anything that lies in its effect: if it makes the right impression it is true.” …

As for the true intentions of his anti-Semitic campaign, Mowrer sounded alarmed in some moments but uncertain in others. “A suspicion arises that Adolf Hitler himself accepted anti-Semitism with his characteristic mixture of emotionalism and political cunning,” he wrote. “Many doubted if he really desired pogroms.”

Well, we know how that story ends. The point is, proper historical reflection takes into account not only whether and how the current Iranian regime is animated by common principles with Nazi Germany but also whether we can really say we’ve learned the proper lessons from the past if we’re still dismissing unhinged rhetoric as play-acting for a domestic crowd. (We also should ask if play-acting for a domestic crowd is, in light of history, really as harmless as we sometimes make it out to be.)

Nonetheless, Pfeffer’s larger point about how the Jews have been welcomed in certain corners of the West–America being the shining example–is well taken. So is his point about America’s staunch pro-Israel policies.

Yet there is a difference between treating victims a certain way and preventing others from becoming victims. This is where, I think, many critics are coming from.

Pfeffer’s column has the bad luck to be timed just as the release of hundreds of pages of newly declassified documents, reported first by Colum Lynch yesterday at Foreign Policy, draws new attention to Western inaction during the Rwandan genocide. It’s a long story, and it doesn’t necessarily change the underlying dynamics all that much, though it does shift some more of the weight of the Clinton administration’s bystander role to Richard Clarke and Susan Rice.

Rice’s inclusion there should not be shocking. She is, after all, the official once quoted as cautioning Bill Clinton against recognizing the genocide for what it was because of the effect that could have on the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes in the congressional midterms. Here’s Lynch introducing the revelation:

But the recently declassified documents — which include more than 200 pages of internal memos and handwritten notes from Rice and other key White House players — provide a far more granular account of how the White House sought to limit U.N. action. They fill a major gap in the historical record, providing the most detailed chronicle to date of policy instructions and actions taken by White House staffers, particularly Clarke and Rice, who appear to have exercised greater influence over U.S. policy on Rwanda than the White House’s Africa hands.

Just as relevant here is the sentence that comes next: “The National Security Archive and the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide obtained the documents during a two-and-a-half-year effort to amass long-secret records of internal deliberations by the United States, the U.N., and other foreign governments.”

The Holocaust Memorial Museum was a driving force in getting these documents released. That’s no coincidence. And Rwanda’s far from the only case of Western inaction. Not every mass killing amounts to genocide, but we’re seeing campaigns of ethnic violence and ethnic cleansing across the Middle East and Africa. The most recent example is the Yazidis of Iraq, which ISIS tried to exterminate. But the general treatment of Christians–Copts in Egypt, various Christian groups in Nigeria–suggests we are, unfortunately, far from seeing the end of such campaigns.

So has the West learned its lessons from the Holocaust? The honest answer is: some of them. It would be grossly unfair to claim they’ve learned nothing. But it would be wishful thinking to suggest they’ve learned everything.

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Can We Speak of Iran and the Holocaust?

In Israel this evening, the nation began observing Yom HaShoah, its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. At the ceremony at the Yad Vashem Memorial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke passionately about the failure of today’s democracies to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. In doing so, he directly compared appeasement of the Nazis with contemporary efforts to engage Iran and its nuclear threat via diplomacy. However, it is likely that much of what passes for liberal and enlightened opinion in both Europe and the United States will dismiss Netanyahu’s analogies as well as his warnings about the potential costs of the course of action pursued by President Obama and U.S. allies. Like his speech to Congress last month in which he attempted to warn about the perils of the nuclear deal that was concluded weeks later, the prime minister’s speech will be put down as apocalyptic rhetoric from an intemperate leader whose voice has long since ceased to be heeded by the White House. But as painful as it may be for Obama loyalists and other Netanyahu-bashers to admit, those who wish to ignore his points need to think carefully before brushing aside his remarks as over the top or inappropriate.

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In Israel this evening, the nation began observing Yom HaShoah, its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. At the ceremony at the Yad Vashem Memorial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke passionately about the failure of today’s democracies to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. In doing so, he directly compared appeasement of the Nazis with contemporary efforts to engage Iran and its nuclear threat via diplomacy. However, it is likely that much of what passes for liberal and enlightened opinion in both Europe and the United States will dismiss Netanyahu’s analogies as well as his warnings about the potential costs of the course of action pursued by President Obama and U.S. allies. Like his speech to Congress last month in which he attempted to warn about the perils of the nuclear deal that was concluded weeks later, the prime minister’s speech will be put down as apocalyptic rhetoric from an intemperate leader whose voice has long since ceased to be heeded by the White House. But as painful as it may be for Obama loyalists and other Netanyahu-bashers to admit, those who wish to ignore his points need to think carefully before brushing aside his remarks as over the top or inappropriate.

For the administration and its loyal press cheerleaders, Netanyahu isn’t so much the boy who cried “wolf,” as some would have it, as he is a Cassandra constantly predicting doom. Though they will in moments of lucidity concede that Iran is a state sponsor of terror, seeks regional hegemony, promotes anti-Semitism, and threatens Israel with destruction, they insist that the best way of dealing with this threat is via diplomacy. The president has, they tell us, gotten the best possible deal with Iran that will, at the very least, postpone or lessen the prospect of Iran getting a bomb. They contend that there are no alternatives to the nuclear deal short of a war that no one wants and whose outcome would be uncertain. More to the point, most people are so tired of promiscuous use of Holocaust comparisons that the rule of thumb in modern debate has become that the first person to mention it loses.

This is an absurd distortion of the situation since what Netanyahu and other critics of the Iran deal have called for is tougher diplomacy, backed by enhanced sanctions, not war. They have also pointed out, with justice, that the deal embraced by the president offers Iran two paths to a bomb: one by cheating on an agreement with gaping loopholes and no real accountability or monitoring, and the other by abiding by its terms and waiting patiently for it to expire all the while continuing their nuclear research.

But even if we take President Obama at his word when he says that what he has done is intended to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he has also made it clear that his real agenda is not so much to put the Islamist regime in a corner as it is to allow it to “get right with the world” and to transform itself into a government that is both trustworthy and peaceful. This is why the president views the Iran deal as his foreign-policy legacy. His goal here is not just nuclear restrictions but détente with Tehran.

And that is why Netanyahu’s rhetoric is entirely appropriate.

The problem with much of the debate about Iran is that it is premised on the assumption that the nuclear issue can be isolated from the rest of Iranian policies. President Obama says it is because he knows Iran won’t change that he wants to take every opportunity to limit the nuclear program that he pledged to dismantle when running for reelection in 2012. But if Iran won’t change, then we must confront the nature of the regime and that is something those who support the president’s appeasement of Tehran consistently refuse to do.

Netanyahu is not engaging in hyperbole when he speaks of the anti-Semitism that is integral to Iranian state policy as well as its sponsorship of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Nor is he exaggerating a whit when he talks of its oppression of religious minorities and vows to spread its Islamic revolution via proxies all the while crying “death to America” and “death to Israel.” Iran is not monolithic, but the consensus among its factions on the question of Israel’s elimination and the desirability of obtaining a nuclear weapon, with which that goal might be achieved or at least threatened, is not in question.

American liberals may be tired of Netanyahu and bored with talk of the peril from Iran. But they must understand that, at best, the deal Obama has struck will make Iran a threshold nuclear power. At worst, he has smoothed their path to a bomb. Once that is understood, the administration’s efforts to understand and even sympathize with Iran’s concerns must be seen as folly, not wisdom or good policy.

Netanyahu is right when he points out that talk about the horrors of the Holocaust and vowing “never again” is cheap when it is tethered to policies that essentially empower those who not only deny the reality of the Shoah but also seek the means to perpetrate a new one. Iran is not Germany but on a day when the lessons of history should be uppermost in our minds, the burden of proof lies with those defending appeasement of a government that seeks to complete the work Hitler started, not with those lamenting this disgraceful attempt to make a devil’s bargain with a violent hate-filled theocratic regime.

In the United States, we have built many monuments and museums about the Holocaust. But we forget that the only proper monument to the Six Million is a defensible Jewish state that exists to safeguard those that the Nazis failed to murder and their descendants. Remembering the Holocaust in such a way as to forget this vital truth is meaningless. Seen in that light, Netanyahu is sadly dead right to invoke the Holocaust in the context of Iran. It is his critics who should be rethinking their refusal to think seriously about the verdict of history, not the prime minister.

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The Holocaust, White Privilege, and American Jewry

This morning the Times of Israel reported on the fascinating archeological work of Caroline Sturdy Colls, an associate professor at England’s Staffordshire University. Colls just published a book on applying non-invasive, “CSI-like” forensic methods to archeological research at sensitive Holocaust-related grounds. It is a hopeful peek into the future, though that future has a cloud hanging over it too: we’ll need better forensic tools in part because we’re going to need to show the world what happened without survivors to guide us. Intellectually, however, educating people on the non-obvious lingering effects of the Holocaust will be even more challenging, as a bizarre piece in today’s New Republic reminds us.

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This morning the Times of Israel reported on the fascinating archeological work of Caroline Sturdy Colls, an associate professor at England’s Staffordshire University. Colls just published a book on applying non-invasive, “CSI-like” forensic methods to archeological research at sensitive Holocaust-related grounds. It is a hopeful peek into the future, though that future has a cloud hanging over it too: we’ll need better forensic tools in part because we’re going to need to show the world what happened without survivors to guide us. Intellectually, however, educating people on the non-obvious lingering effects of the Holocaust will be even more challenging, as a bizarre piece in today’s New Republic reminds us.

The column, by Phoebe Maltz Bovy, was titled “The Holocaust Doesn’t Discount Jewish White Privilege Today” (it appears to have been changed at some point to “Does the Holocaust Discount Jewish White Privilege?”) and is specifically responding to two points in a recent Tablet column by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. The general thrust of the piece was about being pro-Israel in liberal environments and how some Jews in such situations feel safer closeting their Zionism. Bovy’s critique of it is an exercise in missing the point.

The first point Bovy is responding to is Brodesser-Akner’s assertion that many pro-Israel Jews suffer in silence: “My DM boxes on Twitter and Facebook are filled with people like me—liberals, culture reporters, economics reporters—baffled and sad at the way the cause of Jews avoiding another attempt at our genocide has gone from a liberal one to a capital-c Conservative one.”

Bovy’s response is to find fault in the imputation of achdus:

When it comes to Israeli policy especially, it seems not just inaccurate but dangerous to suggest that the American Jews who aren’t, say, rah-rah for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in public are thus in private. It would play into stereotypes of Jews having dual loyalties, or all holding the same (far-right) views when it comes to Israel.

You’ll notice Bovy got everything in that excerpt wrong, from Brodesser-Akner’s intended point, to its implications, to conflating support for Israel with loyalty to Israel’s government, and even to the mistaken characterization of the views in question.

The second point Bovy is responding to, and which is relevant to the question of the Holocaust, is the following tweet, which Brodesser-Akner sent out recently and expounded on in her essay:

Bovy then does what all helpful leftists do: declare someone else’s privilege and minimize their suffering. Here’s the crux of her case against Brodesser-Akner:

It’s entirely possible for a Jew whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust to benefit from certain aspects of (for lack of a better term) white privilege. That the Nazis wouldn’t have considered you white doesn’t mean that store clerks, taxi drivers, prospective employers, and others in the contemporary United States won’t accord you the unearned advantages white people, Jewish and otherwise, enjoy. That your ancestors were victims of genocide in a different place and at a different time doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the victimizing caste in your own society, any more than having had impoverished forbears means that you can’t have been born into money. (Not, to be clear, that all Jews are!)

Again, talk about missing the point. But what I think many of Bovy’s critics are missing is that her argument, crucially, fails on her own terms too, and those of the social-justice warriors of the left. If you think “white privilege” can be reduced to the ability to get a taxi, then sure, Brodesser-Akner is probably privileged. Bovy is making what seems like an obvious point: if you’re one of the many Jews who don’t wear identifying garments, you can make white America think you’re one of them.

Bovy is also surely not the first to tell Brodesser-Akner that her ancestors might have been victims but she can also “be part of the victimizing caste in [her] own society”–this is the accusation leveled at Israel and its supporters every day, though in far uglier ways than this. More interesting is that the arguments of the social-justice left have become so rote and mechanized that they no longer seem to understand them as intellectual concepts, just bumper-sticker slogans to be deployed as trump cards.

And understanding a fuller picture of what is usually meant by white privilege–beyond benefiting from the supposed casual racism of cab drivers–is helpful here. One of the better pieces on white privilege in recent months was Reihan Salam’s column in Slate back in December. He was writing after the controversial grand jury decisions, in Ferguson and New York, not to indict police officers who killed a black man while on duty. Salam noted that white privilege was not just about law enforcement, but that there was an economic element to it as well.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but here is the part that jumps out at me in the context of Bovy’s Holocaust remark:

Even white Americans of modest means are more likely to have inherited something, in the form of housing wealth or useful professional connections, than the descendants of slaves. In his influential 2005 book When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson recounts in fascinating detail the various ways in which the New Deal and Fair Deal social programs of the 1930s and 1940s expanded economic opportunities for whites while doing so unevenly at best for blacks, particularly in the segregated South. Many rural whites who had known nothing but the direst poverty saw their lives transformed as everything from rural electrification to generous educational benefits for veterans allowed them to build human capital, earn higher incomes, and accumulate savings. This legacy, in ways large and small, continues to enrich the children and grandchildren of the whites of that era. This is the stuff of white privilege.

He also points out that “all kinds of valuable social goods are transmitted through social networks.” How is this relevant to Brodesser-Akner? Well, if you’re an American Jew in Brodesser-Akner’s age range you probably descend from parents or grandparents who were less the beneficiaries of white affirmative action and more the targets of anti-Semitism, in their professional lives at least, that greatly reduced your family’s share of the wealth and access that could be passed to future generations. You are, in other words, on the outside of white privilege looking in.

And specifically, someone with few surviving relatives due to the Holocaust is someone who might not have the extended network–familial and otherwise–that would facilitate economic advancement, especially for someone dealing with the generational legacy of past discrimination.

Of course, Jews have been quite good at building networks, a skill picked up in response to societal exclusion. In this, they have much more in common with other recent immigrant groups than with “the victimizing caste” in white America.

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Abbas’s Nazi-Zionist Conspiracy Theory and the Western Dupes Who Avert Their Eyes

A decade after his death, Yasser Arafat’s legacy is still with us. He perfected the art of saying one thing in English to manipulate the Clinton administration and another in Arabic to reassure the Palestinians that his promises to Clinton were lies he assumed the president was too inattentive to figure out. Arafat may be gone, but the torch has been passed, and Mahmoud Abbas has learned well from his mentor.

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A decade after his death, Yasser Arafat’s legacy is still with us. He perfected the art of saying one thing in English to manipulate the Clinton administration and another in Arabic to reassure the Palestinians that his promises to Clinton were lies he assumed the president was too inattentive to figure out. Arafat may be gone, but the torch has been passed, and Mahmoud Abbas has learned well from his mentor.

The latest evidence of this is Ronen Bergman’s in-depth report today on Abbas’s career as an intellectual fraud. Bergman writes:

The Palestinian Authority’s new media division is putting considerable effort it seems into the construction and maintenance of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’official website. The site is user-friendly and includes information on the familiar parts of Abbas’ resume — from his childhood in Safed to the president’s office in Ramallah. The site details Abbas’ political journey as a Palestinian leader, without forgetting to include all of the awards and citations he has received along the way.

Far from hiding Abbas’s extremism, Bergman reports, the site “glorifies Abbas’ work” and even presents him as a “philosopher with a unique perspective on history, and an important intellectual.” Among the works listed are Abbas’s books, which can be read on the site–in Arabic.

One such book is The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism, based on Abbas’s infamous 1982 paper calling basic facts of the Holocaust into question. The book’s central idea is that Zionist leaders saw the Holocaust as beneficial to their cause and worthy of their cooperation, so they struck up an alliance with the Nazis to facilitate the extermination of the Jewish people. A taste:

In this book, Abbas wonders, among other things, “How can one believe that the Zionist movement, which set out to protect a nation, would later become the reason for its destruction? History teaches us about (the Emperor) Nero who torched Rome. But Nero was mad, and his madness rids him of the responsibility to his actions. History also teaches us about leaders who betrayed their people and their country and sold them out to their enemies. But these leaders are isolated. They alone carry the responsibility for their actions. But when a large national public movement conspires against its ‘people,’ well that is embarrassing…

“An Arab proverb says: ‘If a dispute arises between thieves, the theft is discovered.’ This is what happened with the Zionist movement. When ‘Labor’ (Mapai) was in power in the State of Israel, it refused to include the revisionists and those started exposing facts and blowing away the smoke screen of lies. We cannot fail to mention that many of the Zionist movement’s people during the war were amazed of the results of the cooperation between the Zionists and the Nazis, and the massive amount of victims struck them with terror… To this one must add that many documents from the Third Reich had reached many hands, which allowed us to present these documents that illustrate the nature of the relations and cooperation between the Nazis and the Zionist movement.”

Bergman goes into some detail on Abbas’s intellectual development, and his article is worth reading in full. He also points out that Abbas has rejected accusations of Holocaust denial over the years, and yet “The fact the books were recently reprinted with funding from the Palestinian Authority and are recommended on the PA president’s official website, negates the claims made by Abbas and his associates several times that this is just a thesis paper released over 30 years ago.” Bergman also notes that Abbas’s denial of his Holocaust denial has been far more muted in Arab media than to Western audiences.

The fact of the matter is that Abbas is proud of his “achievements” in anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering. The West treats him as though he is something he is not, in large part because they, and the Western media they rely on, don’t read or speak Arabic and don’t really know who Abbas is, despite treating him as a man of peace. (As the State Department still does.)

It also feeds into the anti-Netanyahu obsession of many Western journalists who seem forced to paint Abbas as some sort of moderate in order to build a more damning case against Netanyahu or to blame him for the lack of peace. When Abbas recently put out a statement slamming Israeli proponents of equal prayer rights on the Temple Mount, he disguised it as a call for calm. This prompted Jeffrey Goldberg, one of Bibi’s consistent hecklers, to tweet the following: “Abbas, labeled by Netanyahu gov’t as a Holocaust-denying fanatic, endorses Bibi’s call for calm in Jerusalem.”

Yikes. Not only did that misread Abbas’s message, but it implied that Netanyahu was somehow mistaken to treat Abbas as “a Holocaust-denying fanatic.” As Bergman’s report makes clear, such Western proponents of Abbas’s supposed moderation have a tremendous amount of egg on their face when someone actually makes the effort to read Abbas’s public pronouncements of his own beliefs. Abbas is indeed who his critics say he is. And he wants everyone to know it.

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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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