Commentary Magazine


Topic: Holocaust

Illustrating the Link Between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fetishizing Holocaust Tattoos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Note to Candidates: Drop Nazi Analogies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Don’t Strand the Holocaust in History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Justice Failed in the Demjanjuk Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bibi Calls for a Response to Evil

On the eve of Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day, Bibi Netanyahu gave a moving and thoughtful speech. It should be read in full. His comments relating the Nazi horror to the current threat posed by Iran were especially noteworthy:

The historic failure of the free societies when faced with the Nazi animal was that they did not stand up against it in time, while there was still a chance to stop it.

And here we are today again witnesses to the fire of the new-old hatred, the hatred of the Jews, that is expressed by organizations and regimes associated with radical Islam, headed by Iran and its proxies.

Iran’s leaders race to develop nuclear weapons and they openly state their desire to destroy Israel.  But in the face of these repeated statements to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the Earth, in the best case we hear a weak protest which is also fading away.

The required firm protest is not heard – not a sharp condemnation, not a cry of warning.

The world continues on as usual and there are even those who direct their criticism at us, against Israel.

Today, 65 years after the Holocaust, we must say in all honesty that what is so upsetting is the lack of any kind of opposition.  The world gradually accepts Iran’s statements of destruction against Israel and we still do not see the necessary international determination to stop Iran from arming itself.

But if we learned anything from the lessons of the Holocaust it is that we must not remain silent and be deterred in the face of evil.

I call on all enlightened countries to rise up and forcefully and firmly condemn Iran’s destructive intentions and to act with genuine determination to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

His point is well taken. A serious plan by the U.S. administration to thwart the mullahs’ acquisition of nuclear weapons is not all that’s lacking — there is also a lack of moral outrage. I am hard-pressed to recall Obama or any senior official making the connection between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its radical ideological fervor and desire for destruction of the Jewish state. This, of course, is the administration that doesn’t like to bring up such things. But in doing so, it also lessens the urgency and undercuts the moral imperative for preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

And frankly, there is a shocking lack of urgency within the American Jewish community, as well. When the president goes into his que sera, sera stance regarding the crisis in Iran, where is the outrage? Where are the statements and the protests? Entirely lacking. It is not hard to discern the administration’s abject lack of seriousness with regard to stopping the mullahs’ nuclear program, yet the leadership of the American Jewish community has play-acted along with the administration. Oh yes, sanctions are coming. We got very reassuring answers from Hillary. This is what you hear from supposedly serious-minded Jewish activists. Certainly they have read Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pooh-poohing of military action and the news reports of watered-down sanctions. So when do they plan on speaking up? Are we to see a repeat of the 1930s and 40s, when the American Jewish community remained largely mute, wary of raising a fuss as the Nazi menace ravaged European Jewry?

Netanyahu’s speech was a plea for moral seriousness in the West — and also among American Jewish leaders, who are curiously and tragically underwhelming in their advocacy for a more robust response from the administration to Israel’s existential threat. There is grave doubt whether American Jewish leaders will heed his call and do so in a timely and effective manner.

On the eve of Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day, Bibi Netanyahu gave a moving and thoughtful speech. It should be read in full. His comments relating the Nazi horror to the current threat posed by Iran were especially noteworthy:

The historic failure of the free societies when faced with the Nazi animal was that they did not stand up against it in time, while there was still a chance to stop it.

And here we are today again witnesses to the fire of the new-old hatred, the hatred of the Jews, that is expressed by organizations and regimes associated with radical Islam, headed by Iran and its proxies.

Iran’s leaders race to develop nuclear weapons and they openly state their desire to destroy Israel.  But in the face of these repeated statements to wipe the Jewish state off the face of the Earth, in the best case we hear a weak protest which is also fading away.

The required firm protest is not heard – not a sharp condemnation, not a cry of warning.

The world continues on as usual and there are even those who direct their criticism at us, against Israel.

Today, 65 years after the Holocaust, we must say in all honesty that what is so upsetting is the lack of any kind of opposition.  The world gradually accepts Iran’s statements of destruction against Israel and we still do not see the necessary international determination to stop Iran from arming itself.

But if we learned anything from the lessons of the Holocaust it is that we must not remain silent and be deterred in the face of evil.

I call on all enlightened countries to rise up and forcefully and firmly condemn Iran’s destructive intentions and to act with genuine determination to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

His point is well taken. A serious plan by the U.S. administration to thwart the mullahs’ acquisition of nuclear weapons is not all that’s lacking — there is also a lack of moral outrage. I am hard-pressed to recall Obama or any senior official making the connection between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its radical ideological fervor and desire for destruction of the Jewish state. This, of course, is the administration that doesn’t like to bring up such things. But in doing so, it also lessens the urgency and undercuts the moral imperative for preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

And frankly, there is a shocking lack of urgency within the American Jewish community, as well. When the president goes into his que sera, sera stance regarding the crisis in Iran, where is the outrage? Where are the statements and the protests? Entirely lacking. It is not hard to discern the administration’s abject lack of seriousness with regard to stopping the mullahs’ nuclear program, yet the leadership of the American Jewish community has play-acted along with the administration. Oh yes, sanctions are coming. We got very reassuring answers from Hillary. This is what you hear from supposedly serious-minded Jewish activists. Certainly they have read Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pooh-poohing of military action and the news reports of watered-down sanctions. So when do they plan on speaking up? Are we to see a repeat of the 1930s and 40s, when the American Jewish community remained largely mute, wary of raising a fuss as the Nazi menace ravaged European Jewry?

Netanyahu’s speech was a plea for moral seriousness in the West — and also among American Jewish leaders, who are curiously and tragically underwhelming in their advocacy for a more robust response from the administration to Israel’s existential threat. There is grave doubt whether American Jewish leaders will heed his call and do so in a timely and effective manner.

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Michael Lerner, Vulgarian

April 15 is Yom haShoah, the day of commemoration of the Holocaust. The Nazis killed one-third of the world’s Jewish population, and most Jews, at least most Ashkenazi Jews, lost an ancestor or cousin in this unparalleled slaughter. Many lost their whole families. Around the world, Jews will pray for these lost ones and lament the immense part of the body of our people that was torn away from us—a wound that will never heal. It is a moment of deepest grief and solemnity.

Except, that is, to one Michael Lerner, who has just announced that he will use the occasion to launch a “campaign for a Global Marshall Plan.”

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April 15 is Yom haShoah, the day of commemoration of the Holocaust. The Nazis killed one-third of the world’s Jewish population, and most Jews, at least most Ashkenazi Jews, lost an ancestor or cousin in this unparalleled slaughter. Many lost their whole families. Around the world, Jews will pray for these lost ones and lament the immense part of the body of our people that was torn away from us—a wound that will never heal. It is a moment of deepest grief and solemnity.

Except, that is, to one Michael Lerner, who has just announced that he will use the occasion to launch a “campaign for a Global Marshall Plan.”

Michael Lerner is someone about whom I would not ordinarily comment, except that this display of vulgarity cannot be allowed to pass unnoticed. Lerner was a 1960’s New Leftist, founder of the Seattle Liberation Front. When a demonstration he organized turned into a riot, he was tried as part of the “Seattle Seven.” While many other 60’s radicals eventually rethought their juvenile beliefs, Lerner set his mind instead to carving out new turf. He reappeared as a psychotherapist, dressing his old ideology in a new robe by founding the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, which purported to study the “psychodynamics of American society.”

Lerner married wealth, and although the marriage did not last, the wealth did, enabling him to found the magazine Tikkun. A few years later, a disillusioned employee revealed that letters to the editor that ran in its pages, lavishing praise on the magazine and Lerner, were in fact fabricated by Lerner himself.

In his next self-reinvention, Lerner appeared as a rabbi, although his theological training was as sketchy as that of such other famous self-promoters as the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. In this guise, he propounded the “politics of meaning”—the meaning of which was indecipherable. Of greater moment, Lerner used his rabbinic title as cover for a relentless campaign against Israel, including the embrace of such unsavory enemies of the Jewish state as Cindy Sheehan, prompting the scholar Edward Alexander to observe, “nothing anti-Semitic is entirely alien to him.”

Like other leftists cloaking themselves in rabbinic garb, Lerner redefined Passover as a vehicle on which to display ideological bumper stickers rather than as a commemoration of the creation of Judaism through the exodus from Egypt, the receipt of the Ten Commandments, and the settlement of the promised land.

However, his use of Yom haShoah for his own purposes sets a new standard of coarseness. Lerner writes: “I want to explain to you why we picked the Holocaust Memorial Day to launch this initiative. To the starvation and suffering on the planet today (with 2.4 billion people living on less than $2 a day) we say: Never Again.” If taken seriously, this is moronic. Never again? Again what? There has always been starvation and suffering. And while suffering is impossible to measure, there is, proportionately, less starvation today than ever before. However sad the perdurance of these afflictions may be, it is not a discrete event. What can it possibly mean to say “never again” in this context?

But of course, Lerner’s explanation is not to be taken seriously. The true explanation is that this is just one more stage performance by a “rabbi” whose self-absorption is bottomless and for whom nothing, apparently, is sacred. As attorney Joseph Welch said famously to Senator McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

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Weekend Reading

This Sunday, April 15th, is Yom haShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Israeli parliament mandated the creation of this day–which falls on the 27th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar—in 1951, to honor the memories and the unimaginable sufferings of the victims of the Holocaust. Reflecting on the deeper meaning of the Holocaust in COMMENTARY’s very first issue (November 1945), the magazine’s founding editor Elliot Cohen wrote presciently:

[T]he kind of thinking and feeling that set loose this nightmare phenomenon still burns high in many countries, and lies latent in all. We have no gauge to measure the potentialities of this great Nazi secret weapon of World War II. But there are many—and they are not guided by personal hurt alone—who believe that here is a force that, in the political and social scene, can wreak destruction comparable to the atomic bomb itself. It was the ignis fatuus that lured the German people to their doom. It was the flame of the torch that kindled World War II. To resist it; to learn how to stamp it out; to re-affirm and restore the sense of the sanctity of the human person and the rights of man: here, too, our world is greatly challenged. How that challenge is to be met is, of course, of particular interest to Jews, but hardly less to all mankind, if there is to be a human future.

Over the ensuing decades, COMMENTARY has honored the commandment of remembrance by publishing many important articles on the Holocaust—memoirs, fiction, works of historiography, philosophy, religious thought, and literary criticism—by some of America’s and Europe’s most important writers. We present a small selection for this weekend’s reading.

Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: The Perversity of Brilliance
Norman Podhoretz — September 1963

Belsen Remembered
Lucy Dawidowicz — March 1966

Jewish Faith and the Holocaust: A Fragment
Emil L. Fackenheim — August 1968

Iron—A Memoir
Primo Levi — August 1977

Lies About the Holocaust
Lucy Dawidowicz — December 1980

The Lost Transport
Joseph Polak — September 1995

The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination
Cynthia Ozick — March 1999

Krystyna’s Gift—A Memoir
Lydia Aran — February 2004

This Sunday, April 15th, is Yom haShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Israeli parliament mandated the creation of this day–which falls on the 27th of Nisan in the Jewish calendar—in 1951, to honor the memories and the unimaginable sufferings of the victims of the Holocaust. Reflecting on the deeper meaning of the Holocaust in COMMENTARY’s very first issue (November 1945), the magazine’s founding editor Elliot Cohen wrote presciently:

[T]he kind of thinking and feeling that set loose this nightmare phenomenon still burns high in many countries, and lies latent in all. We have no gauge to measure the potentialities of this great Nazi secret weapon of World War II. But there are many—and they are not guided by personal hurt alone—who believe that here is a force that, in the political and social scene, can wreak destruction comparable to the atomic bomb itself. It was the ignis fatuus that lured the German people to their doom. It was the flame of the torch that kindled World War II. To resist it; to learn how to stamp it out; to re-affirm and restore the sense of the sanctity of the human person and the rights of man: here, too, our world is greatly challenged. How that challenge is to be met is, of course, of particular interest to Jews, but hardly less to all mankind, if there is to be a human future.

Over the ensuing decades, COMMENTARY has honored the commandment of remembrance by publishing many important articles on the Holocaust—memoirs, fiction, works of historiography, philosophy, religious thought, and literary criticism—by some of America’s and Europe’s most important writers. We present a small selection for this weekend’s reading.

Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: The Perversity of Brilliance
Norman Podhoretz — September 1963

Belsen Remembered
Lucy Dawidowicz — March 1966

Jewish Faith and the Holocaust: A Fragment
Emil L. Fackenheim — August 1968

Iron—A Memoir
Primo Levi — August 1977

Lies About the Holocaust
Lucy Dawidowicz — December 1980

The Lost Transport
Joseph Polak — September 1995

The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination
Cynthia Ozick — March 1999

Krystyna’s Gift—A Memoir
Lydia Aran — February 2004

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Vandals in Berlin

January 27, 1945—the date of the liberation of Auschwitz—is commemorated in Germany as Holocaust Day, and this year it was marked by vandalism. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was defaced, evidently by neo-Nazis, who treated it as if it were a public latrine. Even more distressing is the revelation that such vandalism has been a constant problem since the memorial’s opening, a problem that has been deliberately downplayed by city authorities, allegedly to discourage copycat acts.

Since the controversial memorial’s site was selected in 1992, fear that it would invite just this sort of vandalism has abounded. It stands at the very epicenter of Berlin, just south of the Brandenburg Gate, around the corner from the new American embassy. But now we see that it is not the location of the memorial but its peculiar design that makes it prone to defacement. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the monument consists of some 2,711 concrete pillars, or stelae, arranged on a rigid geometric grid and spreading out over five acres. The paths between these pillars are so narrow that only one person can comfortably pass between them. Eisenman’s intent, it seems, was to make the viewer’s confrontation with the monument’s bleak, pitiless geometry as intense and solitary an experience as possible. Too solitary, alas: it clearly offers an endless number of secluded corners for mischief.

When the memorial opened two years ago, Eisenman resisted attempts to make it more secure against vandalism, including restrictions on admittance and on behavior within the memorial. He stalwartly argued for the right of children to play on the site, and to jump from pillar to pillar, saying that these activities evoke “the sounds of life” of an urban Jewish neighborhood. A memorable battle he lost in this arena was his objection to the treatment of the concrete pillars with an anti-graffiti coating. Eisenman told reporters that graffiti ranks as a healthy and legitimate creative outlet in his native New York, and that he “didn’t want the graffiti coating” because he considers vandalism “an expression of the city.”

Any thriving city, we should recognize, can express many things. The trick lies in recognizing which of these expressions constitutes a death threat—an obligation all the more incumbent on the Berlin authorities for the tragic gravity of the monument’s origin and purpose.

January 27, 1945—the date of the liberation of Auschwitz—is commemorated in Germany as Holocaust Day, and this year it was marked by vandalism. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was defaced, evidently by neo-Nazis, who treated it as if it were a public latrine. Even more distressing is the revelation that such vandalism has been a constant problem since the memorial’s opening, a problem that has been deliberately downplayed by city authorities, allegedly to discourage copycat acts.

Since the controversial memorial’s site was selected in 1992, fear that it would invite just this sort of vandalism has abounded. It stands at the very epicenter of Berlin, just south of the Brandenburg Gate, around the corner from the new American embassy. But now we see that it is not the location of the memorial but its peculiar design that makes it prone to defacement. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the monument consists of some 2,711 concrete pillars, or stelae, arranged on a rigid geometric grid and spreading out over five acres. The paths between these pillars are so narrow that only one person can comfortably pass between them. Eisenman’s intent, it seems, was to make the viewer’s confrontation with the monument’s bleak, pitiless geometry as intense and solitary an experience as possible. Too solitary, alas: it clearly offers an endless number of secluded corners for mischief.

When the memorial opened two years ago, Eisenman resisted attempts to make it more secure against vandalism, including restrictions on admittance and on behavior within the memorial. He stalwartly argued for the right of children to play on the site, and to jump from pillar to pillar, saying that these activities evoke “the sounds of life” of an urban Jewish neighborhood. A memorable battle he lost in this arena was his objection to the treatment of the concrete pillars with an anti-graffiti coating. Eisenman told reporters that graffiti ranks as a healthy and legitimate creative outlet in his native New York, and that he “didn’t want the graffiti coating” because he considers vandalism “an expression of the city.”

Any thriving city, we should recognize, can express many things. The trick lies in recognizing which of these expressions constitutes a death threat—an obligation all the more incumbent on the Berlin authorities for the tragic gravity of the monument’s origin and purpose.

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