Opinion | The Holocaust is not a metaphor

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Solomon Stevens
Solomon Stevens (Courtesy of Stevens)

By Solomon D. Stevens

As Jews we are often told that the world must not be allowed to forget the Holocaust. We often say “Never Forget” as a way of emphasizing its importance for Jews and for the whole world. I certainly agree with that, but keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive isn’t enough. The problem is not just that the memory of the Holocaust might fade with time; the real issue is that the Holocaust itself might be hijacked for political purposes and that its meaning and significance could be lost forever.

Consider the deplorable use of the Holocaust by right-wing politicians during the pandemic, who often framed their frustration with mask and vaccination requirements as a struggle against Nazism. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican representative from Georgia, said that people “don’t need your medical brownshirts showing up at their door ordering vaccinations. You can’t force people to be part of the human experiment.”

She is clearly trying to steal the Holocaust to elevate her personal concerns about vaccines and masks, and this leads her to claim that U.S. officials are as oppressive as the Nazi brownshirts, and reasonable health measures are just as violent as the medical experiments of Nazi doctors like Josef Mengele.

This is, of course, insulting to all the Jews who suffered during the Holocaust. The insensitivity of it is staggering. But what I am focusing on here is the way it confuses ignorant people about the meaning of the Holocaust. Our health care workers are not Josef Mengele. The Holocaust should not be used to score cheap political points. This is insulting, but it is also dangerous.

The Dallas Human Rights and Holocaust Museum reports that one elected official in Idaho, complaining that the governor was requiring nonessential workers to stay at home, claimed that during the Holocaust, “nonessential workers got put on a train.” But Jews were not “put on a train” because they were nonessential workers. This would be laughable if it were not so serious.

They were put on a train because they were Jews, and they were being sent to forced labor and extermination camps because they were Jews. They were not just being asked to stay at home briefly to keep a virus from spreading. This is a truly contemptible use of the Holocaust, and it also represents a crude attempt to capitalize on the respected place that the Holocaust has in history for selfish purposes. Not only was this an insult to all the Jews who were slaughtered by the Nazis, it misses the point.

The right-wing commentator Glenn Beck has compared the decision of Facebook and Twitter to ban hate speech on their platforms with Nazis putting Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Beck said, “This is like the Germans with the Jews behind the wall. They would put them in the ghetto. Well, this is the digital ghetto. You can talk all you want, Jews. You do whatever you want behind the wall. Well, that’s not meaningful and that’s where we are.”

This makes me so angry, I can barely contain myself. Beck implies that the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had complete freedom within the ghetto. Everything was fine there. The only problem is that their speech was not allowed beyond the walls. But the Warsaw ghetto was hellish. And in the end, those who did not die of starvation or illness in the ghetto were killed or sent to concentration camps. This rant of Beck’s is a travesty and a false analogy. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto were being systematically prepared for extermination. They weren’t just losing their privileges on some social media sites because they were spreading hatred and lies. They were the victim of hatred and lies.

We have every right to be offended by this political use of the Holocaust. But, more than anything, we should be concerned that over time the Holocaust could become a meaningless metaphor for anything unpleasant. We must not allow the Holocaust to be transformed into a metaphor to be thrown around whenever it suits someone’s political purposes. We should continue to say “Never Again,” but we have a new challenge: We need to work tirelessly to clarify what it is that we must not forget. The Holocaust is not a metaphor. It is history, and we have to fight to keep its historical significance.

Solomon D. Stevens has a Ph.D. from Boston College. His publications include “Religion, Politics, and the Law” (co-authored with Peter Schotten) and “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.”

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