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Jewish Journal

Who Owns the ‘N’ Word?

by Michael Berenbaum

October 28, 2009 | 8:26 pm

This week, we have finally reached Holocaust overload.

It began Sept. 23, 2009, when the General Assembly of the United Nations featured a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust. In a speech widely cheered in Jewish circles, both in Israel and the Diaspora, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rose to the bait the next day; standing with German documentation of the gas chambers, he went toe to toe, rhetorical flourish to rhetorical flourish, with the self-elected leader of the Iranian people. “It didn’t happen,” the president said.

“Oh, yes it did,” the prime minister retorted.

In the political sphere we have recently heard equally trivial statements.

• The Rev. Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention called health care reform proposals “what the Nazis did” and invented the “Dr. Josef Mengele Award” to present to health care policy-maker Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a respected oncologist who has written brilliantly on medical ethics. Recall that Mengele conducted medical experiments that routinely and deliberately killed his patients, and he presided over selections at Birkenau.

• Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) referred to the current health care system as a “holocaust in America.”

• The Republican National Committee posted a video online showing Adolf Hitler discussing health care proposals.

But wait, there’s more!

As the debate heated up last summer, pictures of the president with a Hitler-like mustache appeared. Surely, even his most severe critics can agree that even if Obama has not earned the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded him, he surely has not earned comparisons to Hitler. In both cases one may say, “What has he done to deserve that?”

Then there were the so-called death panels — in reality, a Republican congressman’s well thought-out proposal that Medicare pay for two consultations at age 65 and again at 70 with one’s own physician about the all-important end-of-life decisions. This marvelous proposal was then called “Nazi medicine” when in reality it was its antithesis. The first of the 10 principles of medical ethics introduced by the judges at the Nuremberg Nazi doctors’ trial was that a patient is entitled to informed consent. That is, to be told of any treatment and to consent to its implementation. The so-called death panels were about informed consent. Nevertheless, the Nazi analogy stuck, and because of such trivialization and falsification, the proposal was withdrawn.

This past week, The Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative Movement’s rabbinical body, issued a statement condemning these all-too-facile and inaccurate comparisons. They urged caution. Invoking the Talmud, they pleaded: “Sages, be cautious in the words you utter.” 

They pleaded for civility: “When one has a public platform one cannot allow the heat of rhetoric to outrun its reason. “

My distinguished colleagues made a pronouncement, as is clearly their right and their obligation. But they offered no analysis as to why this heated rhetoric, why these bizarre — and clearly false — analogies. We must ask the question: why?

The answer, I’m afraid, is this: We are the victims of our success.

Over the past decades the Holocaust has taken its place as the “negative absolute” of the Western world.

In a world of relativism, when we do not know what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, we have near universal agreement — except for the lunatic fringe — that Nazism was the embodiment of evil. It was bad — absolutely and indisputably bad.

As criticism of President Obama mounted, his enemies — not his opponents — went on the attack: They called the president a socialist and a Marxist. But in the post-Cold War world, such terms no longer sting the way they once did. Out of frustration, out of sheer pique, Obama’s critics resorted to the nuclear bombs of moral epithets: Nazis, Hitler, the Holocaust. Those terms seem to be understood. “Nazi” still carries moral weight in contemporary culture, and is reinforced by the many films that have brought the story of the Holocaust to the foreground or used it as a back story that seem to dominate cinema and television. The Holocaust occupies center stage in museums and memorials, in conferences and in scholarship, but also in the public sphere.

Beyond our success at spreading awareness of the Holocaust, I have a deeply uncomfortable feeling that Jews, committed and serious Jews concerned with the survival of the Jewish people, are often themselves increasingly responsible for trivializing the Holocaust by using it as a rhetorical political tool with little regard to its appropriateness or the consequences of its misuse.

We make all too trivial comparisons between the Holocaust and contemporary anti-Semitism.

We employ rhetoric of the Holocaust all too easily, all too cheaply.

We thought that the Holocaust could be transmitted into the mainstream of American culture — indeed of world culture — without the vacuousness and viciousness of that culture overwhelming it, without trivialization, minimalization and falsification. And we were wrong. The minute that Elie Wiesel was translated and transformed from Yiddish into French and then into English, the second our first made-for-TV Holocaust movie aired, we ceded control of the imagery and rhetoric to the world’s imagination. We didn’t make the Holocaust less serious, but we offered it up to a culture that is less serious about it. My esteemed Conservative rabbis can chastise its misuse, but their words are too late.

Whenever I invoke the Holocaust, I think of two injunctions offered by two very serious scholars of the Holocaust.

John Roth admonished us: “Handle with care!”

Rabbi Irving Greenberg established a principle of authentic expression after the Holocaust: No statement, theological or otherwise, can be made that cannot be made in the presence of burning children.

In our world, very little is handled with care in the public sphere.

In our world, there is precious little humility that would suggest awe before an event of such magnitude.

Let us declare a moratorium on Holocaust analogies.

Those who invoke the analogies of the Holocaust demonstrate how little they understand of that time and place — and more importantly, of our time and our place.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

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