There was a time when no one living in Israel needed a reminder of what was at stake when the Jewish state was created in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust. Israelis and Jews the world over knew that the survival of the Jewish people depended on the ability to have a home to return to after our near-ruinous encounter with European anti-Semitism.
There was also a time when the words “Hitler,” “Nazi” and “Gestapo” were not thrown about recklessly, when images of the emaciated inmates of Nazi concentration camps were a reminder not just to the Jewish people but to all the world of the terrible turn of events that led to the death of 6 million Jews and millions of others in the Holocaust.
The uniqueness of the Holocaust was what made the State of Israel such a powerful answer to those who had attempted to annihilate the Jews. And its memory would ensure that the mass genocide that befell European Jewry would never happen again. Indeed, the message of “Never Again” redefined Jewish experience and peoplehood in the latter half of the 20th century.
But over time we have found the need to remind others—and sometimes ourselves—of the importance of this experience and of the need to protect its memory from those who would distort it. That is why we have felt it necessary to battle efforts to undermine or trivialize the history of the Holocaust. It is why we have worked to expose Holocaust deniers. And it is why we repeatedly speak out when the Holocaust becomes grist for inappropriate comparisons, or when terminology such as “Nazi” or “Hitler” are misused to wage political attacks or are trivialized in popular culture.
Yet never did I think that we would have to speak out about the abject trivialization of the Holocaust by a group of Jews living in Israel. But that is exactly what happened this month, when a group of haredi Orthodox protested following efforts by secular Israelis to roll back gender segregation on some bus lines by dressing up in concentration camp garb and wearing yellow Stars of David inscribed with the word “Jude.”
The scene in Jersualem square was both an aberration and an outrage. This was blatant, in-your-face Holocaust trivialization on a level that until now we have rarely witnessed in Israeli society.
For decades, Israelis and Jews around the world have worked to protect the memory of the Holocaust. We built Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. In the United States, we founded the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Today there’s even a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Germany.
We worked hard with like-minded righteous gentiles and governments to protect and preserve the sites in Europe most closely associated with the Shoah, including the concentration camps, the deportation sites, the mass graves and the evidence of once-thriving Jewish communities. And we created and stressed educational efforts, such as Echoes and Reflections—the multimedia Holocaust curriculum developed by the Anti-Defamation League in partnership with Yad Vashem and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute—to ensure that the lessons of the Shoah are passed on to future generations.
We also battled efforts to undermine or trivialize the history and memory of the Holocaust. The most pernicious form was Holocaust denial, a form of anti-Semitism. But while the deniers remain mostly on the fringes of society, we have found ourselves increasingly engaged in a battle against a more subtle form of trivialization borne of ignorance, forgetfulness and carelessness about truth and memory.
For more than a decade, inappropriate and offensive comparisons to the Holocaust have cropped up increasingly in the U.S. If you have a falling out with someone, call them a Nazi. If you don’t like someone’s political positions, accuse them of being like Hitler. Political leaders have accused each other of using propaganda like Goebbels or of “sending in the brownshirts.” Celebrities compare their personal ordeals to those of Anne Frank, or in a traumatic moment in their lives, make trite comparisons to Hitler or the Holocaust.
As Jews, we have found ourselves needing to constantly raise our voices against this kind of trivialization in an effort not only to remind others of the pain and offensiveness of these remarks, but also to protect the memory of the Holocaust, so that we do not wake up one day to a world that no longer remembers the lessons of that period—or, worse, is indifferent to them.
At a time when the trivialization of the Holocaust is booming around the world, it is now becoming apparent that we also need to do a better job of reminding ourselves and our children of the importance of remembrance and of protecting the memory of those who perished and the honor of those who fought to defeat the murderous Nazis.
Israelis should no longer refer to other Israelis as “Nazis.” Jewish settlers should know better than to shout “Nazi” against Israeli soldiers (there primarily for the settler’s protection) in the West Bank. The fact that some Israelis refer to the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank as “the Auschwitz border” shows how far removed some Israelis and Jews have become from the true horrors of the Shoah.
It is time for those who abuse the memory of the Holocaust, particularly those in Israel, to understand that words have consequences. This was one of the primary lessons of the Holocaust—that hateful, bigoted words can lead to violent acts.
Now that 70 years have passed, the danger is that an overuse of words—and inapt comparisons—will contribute to a lessening of the true impact and meaning of the Holocaust and, likewise, the memory of one of the significant reasons why the Jewish State of Israel was brought into being in the first place.
Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor.