A New Argument Against Political Holocaust Analogies

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Mary and Sarah are good friends. As high school juniors, they are finally “grown up”, ready to get their licenses, start worrying about college applications and, due to the current public climate, have taken a brand new interest in politics.
But Mary and Sarah have very different family stories. Three of Sarah’s great grandparents along with four or five of her great uncles and aunts (she can never remember) perished in the Holocaust – and all four of her grandparents are survivors. Three of them in the camps themselves while the last one spent the war, as a young boy, hidden in an attic by a benevolent priest and his wife out in the countryside.
Mary, however, comes from a long line of American Protestants. While 23andMe testing revealed that she has Russian lineage, no one in Mary’s family can remember anything but them being American.
Like 66% of Americans under 35 Mary, when prompted, has no idea what Auschwitz is. While she is not like the 22% of Americans that have never heard of the Holocaust, her only knowledge of the travesty is that it was “bad” and “many people died.” How many died or the extent of the terror she has no idea. She has heard a couple of different explanations from various friends or references on some Netflix shows but the events were so long ago and plus, she thinks to herself, who can even be sure of anything today with so much fake news all around!
Sarah, of course, is quite the opposite. Every Passover, Yom HaShoah, and even the occasional Shabbat is full of conversation about the Holocaust. “Your generation doesn’t understand real suffering and pain,” her grandma, whom everyone called Bubbie, frequently bemoaned when prompted even the slightest. And how could Sarah blame her? As a lifelong consumer of Holocaust memoirs, books, museums, and movies, Sarah knew that the Holocaust was on a level of its own. A seemingly mythical time and place where the limits of suffering knew no bounds.
Let’s take a step back.
The use of Holocaust analogies within the political sphere is nothing new, nor is their use partisan. Nearly everyone has been a part of some discussion where eventually people were compared to Hitler or political proposals compared to Nazism in some way. It seems that every ideology - whether we are talking about the debate between capitalism/socialism, religion/atheism, Marxism/facism, etc. - tries to pin the other side as the natural progenitor to the holocaust.
The past few weeks we have seen a resurgence of this type of discourse when freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the border detention camps concentration camps, a statement which - regardless of the dictionary definition - immediately evokes memories of the Holocaust.
Now let me say at the outset that what is happening at the US/Mexico border is terrible. Full stop. There is nothing defensible about the sheer inhumanity that is occurring at the hands of our own government and as both Jews and citizens we should be doing everything we can to enact change.
But this article is not about the border. Or at least not directly. Rather I wanted to use that example to argue a broader, and perhaps new, argument against the use of Holocaust analogies.
And Mary and Sarah are the perfect hypothetical case study.
First let’s imagine Sarah hearing that the detention centers are being compared to the same camps that her grandparents went through. The same camps that she has read and been told about her entire life. The camps that represent the limits of inhumanity. Then she begins to read about the border detention centers.
Dirt, unfiltered water and old food one detainee wrote. Harshly cold or boiling hot cells with no protection, bar a few old and tattered blankets or the ability to open a window a few inches, another recounts. Thousands of immigrants kept in various centers across the country, compacted into extremely small rooms with one smelly and overflowing toilet in the corner. Children ripped away from their parents, with several of them dying from neglect over the past couple of months.
But as Sarah reads this in the context of the Holocaust, another thought pops up in her head. “This doesn’t sound that bad.”
Now it isn’t that she doesn’t realize that what is happening isn’t terrible, rather once the Holocaust has been evoked, she has been primed via another suffering orders of magnitude worse than anything appearing in the detention centers.
And she is correct. Anyone familiar with the Holocaust understands that the border detention centers are no comparison. In other words, from the perspective of the Holocaust the detention centers really “aren’t so bad.” And while AOC’s point was not to cheapen the Holocaust or say that they are equivalent in their inhumanity or magnitude - Sarah cannot help but conclude that the talk about the detention centers must be steeped in hyperbolae and she now approaches the topic with much skepticism. This was, I am sorry to admit, much of my early reaction to the issue.
On the other hand we have Mary. If you recall Mary knows next to nothing about the Holocaust. The name Auschwitz, for all she knows, could be the name of a nice German restaurant.
When Mary reads accounts of the border detention centers and the comparisons to the Holocaust she is moved. “What is happening at the detention centers is absolutely terrible!” she remarks to everyone she sees after reading and watching multiple forms of media depicting the border camps. “Now I finally understand what the Holocaust was and why it was so bad!”
But she doesn’t. Again, anyone who is familiar with the Holocaust knows that they are fundamentally different - both in terms of magnitude and even cause. However, as fewer and fewer people are Holocaust-educated there is a real risk that if people only hear about and learn about the Holocaust via political analogies they will fail to understand its true horrors thereby cheapening it in a devastating way.
Anytime one has a reasonable political argument to make, and advocating against the current border situation is unquestionably within this category, they can do so without reverting to Holocaust analogies. It isn’t just that it is a cheap, lazy, and easy tactic - rather the fear is that depending on one’s predisposition it can detrimentally alter their view of both the Holocaust and the thing to which it’s being compared.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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