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Jewish World Review April 9, 1999 /23 Nissan 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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From Silence to Cacophony:
Holocaust metaphors are the coin of the realm

(JWR) ---- (
THERE WAS A TIME -- AND IT WASN'T ALL THAT LONG AGO -- that those who fought to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive had to strain to be heard in the Jewish world. As for the non-Jewish world, the awful events of the Shoah were subsumed under a generic heading of World War II Nazi atrocities.

Those days are past. The Holocaust is no longer a painful, private memory for survivors and a source of collective guilt and shame for the Jewish community at large, as it was in the decades following the tragedy. An author like Elie Wiesel, who was once a literary curiosity, is sought after for comment on any tragedy.

Nowadays, the Holocaust belongs to everyone, from movie producers to the marketing industry.

When a few years ago I saw an episode of the hit science-fiction television show "X-Files," in which the disappearance of amphibians from a rural lake was described as a "frog holocaust," I realized a boundary had been crossed in American culture.

From President Clinton's justification for the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia to the pop culture of television, the Holocaust has become the benchmark for universal suffering and victimhood.

Is that what we wanted? Talk to survivors as well as to most Jews, and you are liable to get conflicting answers.

Like Judaism itself - in which the universalist impulse and the particularist manifestations of Jewish nationhood are both integral - a debate over "ownership" of the Holocaust is ongoing.

We want the world to take notice of the specific and unique Jewish tragedy that took the lives of 6 million Jews in what we call in Hebrew the Shoah.

But at the same time, we also want the world to learn from this terrible chapter in our history. We want the Holocaust to stand as a lesson to humanity, and prevent future episodes of mass bloodshed from recurring. The problem is, it is difficult to have it both ways.

The debate has been particularly bitter among academics. The furor caused by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's controversial best-selling 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, raged in large part over the author's willingness to explain the Shoah as a specific historic event that was rooted in a unique synthesis of causes and effects.

Namely, the combination of traditional European-Christian Jew-hatred with what Goldhagen called an "eliminationist" mentality toward Jews that was widely shared by Germans, but not to the same degree by other Europeans.

Leaving aside the shortcomings of Goldhagen's book and the jealousy its financial success generated among his underpaid fellow historians, the problem most scholars had with it was the notion that the Holocaust could be explained as the result of German evil.

As one outraged scholar told me at the time, "If Goldhagen is right, then the Holocaust is marooned in history."

What he meant was that if the Shoah was thought of as merely a Jewish or even a Jewish-German story, it would no longer serve as a touchstone for current events.

A similar controversy several years ago over the Holocaust education program "Facing History and Ourselves," which is used by many high schools, also centered on the question of how much universalism ought to be included in Shoah studies. If everything from the screeds of Louis Farrakhan to the vulgar humor of Howard Stern are examples of hate speech that can be the first step toward a Holocaust - as one "Facing History" educator once told me - then the hazy boundary between history and metaphor has been thoroughly breached.

The same sort of tension lies beneath the squabbles about the future of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Activist Rabbi Avi Weiss has accused the museum leadership of giving in to the impulse to "universalize" the Holocaust and de-emphasize its Jewish content. While I do not believe Weiss' fears are reflected in the exhibits at the museum, which do not shortchange the Jewish tragedy of the Shoah, I understand his concern.

The museum's legacy and that of similar institutions will be carried forward by a new generation of scholars who are often caught up in the intellectual and political fads of the moment.

The fiasco that was the Holocaust museum's 1998 invitation to Yasser Arafat illustrated the uncomfortable marriage of Jewish and non-Jewish interests - the U.S. government - running the place. In that case, the symbolism of the institution was hijacked for a political purpose.

Elsewhere in the academic world, Holocaust scholarship has similarly been diverted into the trendy territory of gender studies and other historiographical indulgences, as was described in a widely read article in Commentary by its senior editor, Gabriel Schoenfeld.

Memory is a powerful force. The memory of the Holocaust motivated, in large part, the rise of the Soviet Jewry movement in this country as well as pro-Israel activism. We cannot be surprised when other causes - including many which we support - help themselves to the potent symbolism of the Shoah.

Schoenfeld was right when he decried in a recent New York Times opinion piece the way Shoah remembrance has become an outlet for tourism or an excuse for multicultural extravaganzas dedicated to tolerance, but having little respect for the Holocaust itself.

The world has changed. Where once writers like Wiesel who broke the silence about the Shoah were marginalized, it is now hard to avoid him.

Not everything is or was a Holocaust. The constant use of Holocaust imagery to describe the crimes of the combatants in the Balkan wars over Bosnia and Kosovo is problematic. Unlike the Holocaust, these conflicts have usually involved two sides, where both were armed. The losers have invariably been massacred or evicted from their homes.

That is not a Holocaust, but after spending the past 30 years pounding away at the indifference of Europe to the suffering of the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, we can't be surprised when the pictures of pitiful refugees produce Holocaust-inspired rhetoric and even calls to action, whether well thought out or not.

The outpouring of concern over Kosovo and the avalanche of largely ill-matched Holocaust imagery is the evidence of our success as a community in making our voices heard. If we are displeased with the result, we can blame no one but ourselves.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin