Names make a difference, and names must be used with precision, or they are abused.
Naming is the most human of deeds. It was how Adam ordered the animal world; it is how scientists control disease and identify phenomena.
I fear that we have spent a generation building up the moral capital of a word that signifies an event, and just as we have done with our monetary capital, we are in the process of expending moral capital with nothing to show in return.
Naturally, I am thinking about the word “Holocaust” and the assault on its meaning in contemporary times. A few examples:
• The International Association of Genocide Scholars has been going back and forth furiously about whether Israel committed genocide in Gaza.
• A Jewish member of the British Parliament has compared Israelis to the Nazis.
• The president of Iran denies the Holocaust. The president of Germany affirms it.
Over the past few months, I received urgent e-mails from my Jewish activist friends: “Help stop a second Holocaust,” they read, followed by an assignment:
- Send an e-mail to Israeli politicians not to join the government.
- Write President George Bush to halt the Annapolis Peace Talks.
- Vote for John McCain and not a Muslim friend of radical anti-Semites for president.
Again and again, Jewish activists portray us as on the brink of a second genocide, as if nothing has changed over the past decades, nothing has been learned, nothing has been done.
Permit me some words of clarity to preserve that moral capital. Permit me to speak frankly.
To those on the left, which is my natural political habitat, I must say bluntly Israel has the power to commit genocide. The imbalance of power between the Palestinians and the Israelis is overwhelming.
Israel has the provocation. If rockets were falling on homes in Bangor, Maine, or San Diego, I wonder how restrained the United States would be. If our cities were being bombed and our children killed, how long would we wait to respond overwhelmingly, disproportionately?
Israel has not committed genocide. It is really as simple as that.
Why do some want to depict Israelis as Nazis? Let us seek to understand their strategy, not to condone it or accept it.
For the Europeans, it is an alleviation of guilt and a soft-core denial of the Holocaust. If Israelis are Nazis, then the behavior of Europeans in World War II is less objectionable, less morally reprehensible.
Holocaust denial in the Muslim world is different from Holocaust denial in the West. The latter seeks to rehabilitate the good name of Hitler and to cleanse fascism of its bad name.
In the Islamic world, denial of the Holocaust seeks to undo what it regards as the most important outcome of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel. Its Holocaust denial is not about history, it is about wishing away, imagining away, a country that some would wish out of existence.
It combines two of the three elements that distinguish legitimate objections to Israeli policies from anti-Semitism — delegitimization and demonization. If Israel is Nazi-like, it is demonic; if the Israelis are the new Nazis, then Israel itself is illegitimate.
The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of millions of Jews that emerged as the sustained policy of the Nazified German state over 12 years and implemented as a national priority between 1941-45 in some 21 countries that were controlled or allied with Germany.
Whatever the events in Gaza are, they bear no resemblance to the Holocaust and the Israelis no resemblance to the Nazis. That does not make everything Israel does just or wise; it is merely restating the obvious.
There are questions to ask, important questions, ethical questions that must be faced in a new series of battles:
How are the Israeli government and its army to respond to an irregular force that hides within civilian institutions — schools, mosques and hospitals among them — and behind civilians precisely because it knows that the possibility of civilian deaths restrain the actions of a democratic state?
It is not sufficient to say that it cannot be done, because if that were the case, one would cede to these forces an unimpeded victory.
The conventional categories of warfare, the battles between armies, do not apply; conventional definitions of appropriate military behavior must be reapplied under these new circumstances. Some evidence is impressive. The Israelis made more than 90,000 calls. They also dropped leaflets and gave warnings to civilians in Gaza.
Some mistakes were also made. The Israeli army must be more precise; targeting must be more specific.
As to the Jews and our fear of a repeat of the Holocaust, I have a deeply uncomfortable feeling that Jews, committed and serious Jews concerned with the survival of the Jewish people, are increasingly responsible for trivializing the word “Holocaust” by using it as a rhetorical political tool, with little regard to its appropriateness or the consequences of its misuse.
I neither wish to condone or to minimize contemporary anti-Semitism nor to presume for a moment that Jews are not vulnerable today. To state that something is not the Holocaust, that a second Holocaust is not pending, is merely to restate the obvious, not to prescribe complacency.
The word “Holocaust” must be guarded, lest we undo the moral capital that we have accumulated and its importance to moral discourse.
It must be guarded from misuse by our enemies and from trivialization by some of our most ardent supporters.
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor of theology (adjunct) at American Jewish University.