While Israel and Jewish communities commemorate the Holocaust with a Yom Hashoah on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (which this year falls on May 2), the rest of the world does so on Jan. 27, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. But while any effort to remember the Six Million is, at least in theory, praiseworthy, a lot of what will be said on that day will do little good and perhaps some harm.
In gatherings at the United Nations and world capitals, 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 questions hanging over all these proceedings remain the same every year.
One is whether the institutionalization of Holocaust remembrance has accomplished much more than reinforcing the anodyne conclusion that the Nazis were despicable, and that the sufferings of their victims was awful.
The second is whether the proliferation of information about the Holocaust has caused it to become an empty metaphor for anything we think is terrible, regardless of how inappropriate that may be.
The third is whether appreciation for the sufferings of Jews in the past is accompanied by a disinterest in the security of the Jews of the present, as well as a belief that acts of anti-Semitism are permissible so long as they are done in the name of anti-Zionism.
To pose the first 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.
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, Darfur or Syria—but also an alarming rise of anti-Semitism in the world. While lip service has at times been paid to a “responsibility to protect” innocents from genocide, little was done to prevent these eminently preventable tragedies, and there is no reason to think that will change the next time. For world leaders to drag the Holocaust into their insincere rhetoric undermines any remaining belief that the lessons have or ever can be learned.
An ocean of tears cried on Jan. 27 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 it. If we are to give any real meaning to our attempts to embed these events in the consciousness of the world, then it must be accompanied by meaningful action.
Second, the meaning of the Holocaust has been cheapened by the willingness of so many people to use it as a metaphor or equate with false analogies. The notion that illegal immigrants are seeking entry to the United States or trying to evade the law after already entering the country are in any way analogous to the Jews fleeing Nazi Europe is as absurd as it is false. Whatever one may think about these issues, invoking the plight of doomed European Jewry as a justification for a desire to oppose the enforcement of America’s immigration laws undermines both the uniqueness of the Holocaust and any understanding of what was at stake.
Third, the most insidious aspect of much of the contemporary talk about the Holocaust is the effort to discuss it outside of the context of the ongoing campaign to continue a murderous assault on the Jewish people. Dead Jews, especially those long dead in a tragic atrocity that is not seen as directly connected to the current one in the Middle East, are quite popular. It is those who are still living—and who wish to defend their lives and their nation—that are not so well-loved.
We live in a time when a rising tide of anti-Semitism is sweeping across the world. Much of that hate for Jews is disguised as “criticism” of the State of Israel or anti-Zionism. Though advocates for the BDS movement that seeks to eliminate the Jewish state claim innocence of any anti-Semitic belief or intent, that’s a cynical lie. Their ideological war that seeks to deny rights to Jews that they would not deny to any other people is by definition an act of bias against Jews, and therefore, anti-Semitic.
The process by which expressions of anti-Semitism in the guise of commenting about Israel have been legitimized is deeply discouraging. When the use of classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes—such as “dual loyalty” and Jews “hypnotizing the world,” and backing BDS even by members of Congress—occurs without them suffering any sort of penalty is something that must change.
All the breast-beating about the Holocaust from world leaders every January is often insufferable because so much of it ignores these basic truths. Their rhetoric about the victims of Hitler’s crimes remains useless if it’s not connected to a promise to fight back against boycott campaigns that are integral to a process of marginalizing Diaspora Jews or opposition to terror committed against Jews in the name of the Palestinians.
Those who speak on Jan. 27 must remember that the only real memorial to the Holocaust isn’t any statue or even the museums about the Shoah that have proliferated around the world. It’s the actual State of Israel that remains the guarantor of the future of the remnants of the Jewish people Hitler tried to wipe out exterminate. Hypocrites, including non-Jews and Jews alike, who give a pass to contemporary anti-Semites because they share their political beliefs—or who seek to undermine or attack the Jewish state and its supporters—have no business opening their mouths about the Holocaust.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.