Marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day in an official statement, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton this week stressed the importance of remembering and honoring each of the victims, of keeping alive the memory of the tragedy, and of respecting diversity, which, she wrote, along with human rights, "lies at the heart of what the European Union stands for."
So far so good. Except, that's where she ends. An entire statement devoted to the need for preserving the memory and the meaning of the victims and the crime. Only, there is not one mention of the identity of the victims. Nor, for that matter, of the perpetrators. Nor of the fact that the Holocaust was a war to explicitly, mercilessly, genocidally, specifically and comprehensively annihilate Jews.
Jews, first and foremost, and also gays, Roma, Communists and others. To turn their unique identities into numbers, to rob them of their right to be individuals, to rob their collective identities of the right to continue to exist.
This year, in an inadvertently obscene effort to commemorate the Holocaust, the EU eradicated its victims.
But EU High Representative Ashton didn't stop there. In language which is oddly passive – considering the cold fury and down-to-the-wire relentlessness in which the SS in particular, the Nazi German command as a whole, and large numbers of local collaborators across Europe, hunted down and killed the Jewish populations under occupation – there is a sense that the slaughter was something of a monstrous natural disaster, visited upon an undifferentiated civilian population by an unnamed and undifferentiated force.
"We honor every one of those brutally murdered in the darkest period of European history," she writes, going on to cite the Holocaust as a reminder to "us all of the need to continue fighting prejudice and racism in our own time. We must remain vigilant against the dangers of hate speech and redouble our commitment to prevent any form of intolerance."
She's right. I looked up intolerance, and found this as one of the definitions: "The state of being unwilling to accept something."
It's reasonable to assume that considerable expenditures of seriousness, time, effort and consultation were invested in the EU statement. It's reasonable to assume that High Representative Ashton wanted, above all else, to avoid causing insult and injury in commemorating the ultimate insult and injury to humanity itself - one which occurred on European soil, was conceived and executed by Europeans, and is still within the living memory of thousands of victims in Europe and in places as far away from Europe as they could get.
It's reasonable to assume that her goal was to keep the memory of the Holocaust from fading, and to discern in it a lesson, for our own day, and our own Europe.
Or maybe it's time to stop assuming.
Maybe what sounds like little more than lip service, actually is little more than lip service.
Granted, we live in a time when the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews has been ground down into small-bore rhetorical ammunition, used with insensitivity and thoughtlessness to buttress arguments against abortion, against Tea Party Republicans, against gun control, against President Obama, against the U.S. Supreme Court, against film producer Harvey Weinstein.
At the same time, distortion and trivialization and exploitation of the Holocaust have become a staple of incendiary discourse on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Mr. Lieberman's reference to Europe in the 1940s in this context is inappropriate and offensive to Europeans," Ashton's spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said at the time.
The spokesperson was right. If any and all criticism can evoke the Holocaust, then the Holocaust is drained of all meaning.
By the same token, though, if the Holocaust is made into little more than some amorphously unfortunate past happenstance, its victims left unnamed even in the barest sense, it might as well never have occurred at all.
There's certainly enough Holocaust denial already in this world. The last thing we need is to have the European Union contributing to it.
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