1. Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz’s assertion that the Jewish people are facing a “second Holocaust” because of intermarriage may sound hideous to the uninitiated, but it is a common analogy in Jewish religious circles, especially among the ultra-Orthodox; the popular term, actually, is “silent Holocaust”. Peretz, a newcomer to the cabinet table, may not have internalized the fact that as a minister, especially an Education Minister, he needs to exercise restraint. Given that elections are on the horizon, however, one cannot discount the possibility that Peretz knew exactly what he was doing: Throwing a bone to his so-called “national-hareidi” constituency.
Peretz’s statement would have sparked controversy in any case: His remark poured salt on the gaping wounds of Conservative and especially Reform American Jews, whose relations with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are tense and whose communities are increasingly populated by intermarried couples. Nonetheless, the brouhaha sparked by Peretz would have been far tamer were it not for the ongoing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “concentration camp” controversy (and the alert antennae of our former Haaretz colleague Barak Ravid, who broke the story). American Jewish organizations, which came down on Ocasio-Cortez like a ton of bricks, condemned Perez speedily – albeit in far more moderate tones - lest they be accused of double standards.
Nonetheless, double standards they are. To a secular ear, Ocasio-Cortez’s analogy between detention centers for immigrants operated by U.S. border authorities and “concentration camps”, gratuitous and insensitive as it may have been, is far more legitimate and far less outrageous than one equating the physical annihilation of European Jews with marriages of love between Jews and gentiles. In fact, the Ocasio-Cortez comparison is also closer to the mark than Netanyahu’s own incessant comparison of Iran to Nazi Germany, which Jewish organizations have refrained from reproving and, in some cases, have embraced themselves.
At the same cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu likened Iran’s latest moves to enrich uranium in contravention of its 2015 nuclear deal to Nazi Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, which violated the Versailles and Locarno treaties. The landmark 20th Century event, which is probably not as familiar to most people as Netanyahu seems to believe, was met by French and British passivity and, in his words, marked the start of World War II.
Netanyahu regularly compares Iranian statements on Israel to Nazi vows to annihilate the Jews, and the 2015 deal itself to the infamous 1938 Munich agreement. His then defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, took the comparison one step further in 2015 by casting Barack Obama as a latter day Neville Chamberlain, before he was forced to retract.
The Iran-Nazi analogy, however, suffers from one fatal flaw: The existence of an Israel – never mind the U.S. – that can, according to foreign sources, obliterate and evaporate Iran within minutes, bringing 4,000 years of Persian civilization to an abrupt end. If Jews had had even a remotely similar capability during World War II, the Holocaust would have been over before it even started. Erasing this factor from the equation is a thus gross distortion of history and what can arguably be portrayed as a perversion of the essence of the Holocaust: The total helplessness of the Jews in the face of the Nazi plan to exterminate their race.
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In 2001, Netanyahu compared Yasser Arafat to Hitler and Stalin, another ludicrous assertion first propagated by his predecessor Menachem Begin, and no one seemed to object. It was only when he strayed far further afield and actually shifted responsibility for conceiving the Final Solution from Hitler to the Palestinian Mufti Haj Amin El-Husseini that Netanyahu met a strong backlash that forced him, after an extended hiatus, to retract. In his quest for propaganda points, Netanyahu engaged in what can only be described as outright Holocaust-denial, absolving Adolf Hitler, David Irving style, of the ultimate responsibility for the murder of six million Jews.
Ironically, the claim that the Mufti was the true instigator of the Holocaust stems from the same source from which Peretz drew his “second Holocaust” analogy: the ultra-Orthodox. As the late (and great) David Landau elaborates in his masterful book on Haredi life “Piety and Power”, several ultra-Orthodox rabbis, including the once leading light of the yeshiva world, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, blamed the Mufti for planting the seeds of the Final Solution in Hitler’s mind, contrary to all the known evidence. The irony is doubled when one considers that the Mufti’s culpability was but a way station to fingering the ultimate culprit: Zionism. By agitating for a Jewish state, Zionists had transformed a once-benign Mufti – he never was – into the instrument of Jewish destruction.
According to ultra-Orthodox historiography, the Holocaust was caused by the Jewish sin of Modernity, in both its Zionist and Reform apparitions. Many adhere to the causality cited by one of Europe’s great pre-Holocaust rabbis, Vilna’s Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, who wrote in 1939: “In Western countries, the Reform Movement has struck at the roots, and from there the evil has gone forth now, to pursue them with wrath, to destroy them and expunge them. They have caused the poison of hatred against our people to spread to other lands as well.”
Intermarriage, long considered the ultimate manifestation of assimilation, is, in the eyes of the devout, akin to death itself. But before Reform and Conservative Jews get on their high horses, they might consider Fiddler on the Roof, arguably the most successful Jewish stage production of all time. When his beloved Hodl tells him she intends to marry a gentile man, Tevye sits shiva and performs all the traditional rituals of mourning. Hodl, as the current TV hit with Alice Silverstone says, was dead to him, just as her countless successors in the U.S. and around the world are dead to Israel’s Education Minister and his co-believers.
2. The use of Nazi imagery is not exclusive to the ultra-Orthodox. In Israel, the term “Nazi” is freely applied not only to malevolent Muslims but also to anyone perceived as being cruel or inconsiderate. Although the characterization has receded from public discourse – Ben Gurion, remember, routinely described Revisionist leader Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky as “Vladimir Hitler” and Menachem Begin as a “Hitlerite type” - it remains in common usage in day-to-day life. Your tough army commanders are Nazis, unrelenting policemen are Nazis, tax auditors are Nazis and even the football referee who ruled for the other team is a Nazi. And everything, from massive traffic jam to basketball debacle to a botched wedding, is a “Shoah”.
The same is true, albeit to a lesser degree, of “concentration camps.” Israeli newspapers routinely report on the “concentration camps” set up China to contain their Uyghur minority. The same term was applied in Rwanda, Bosnia and ISIS held camps in Iraq and Syria. When Israeli protestors demonstrated against the establishment of detention centers for what Israel describes as “illegal immigrants” from Africa, they waved placards saying that these were “just like concentration camps.”
Before Ocasio-Cortez was portrayed as having “desecrated the Holocaust” by using the term “concentration camps”, it was the lingua franca outside of Israel as well. Bill Clinton described Serbian holding pens for Muslim Bosnians as “concentration camps”, the same term used by Republican Senator Marco Rubio last year in order to blast China. In 2017, Pope Francis said that the overcrowding in camps for refugees is reminiscent of “concentration camps”.
Don’t get me wrong: No matter how horrid the conditions in the detention centers visited by Ocasio-Cortez on the U.S. southern border, they’re not even on the same planet as the elaborate system of camps set up the Nazis, in which millions of people died. The detention centers don’t supply slave labor, don’t starve people to death, don’t expose them to deadly diseases, don’t use them for medical experiments and don’t send them on for extermination in gas chambers. Ocasio-Cortez’s analogy was a facetious provocation, which yielded the exact result she was looking for: Media attention on the camps – and on herself.
The concerted eruption of righteous indignation against Ocasio-Cortez was nonetheless obscene, especially since she hadn’t even mentioned the Nazis – her allusion to the Holocaust was inferred from her use of the term “Never Again”. The motivation of her Republican opponents is at least clear: To inflate Ocasio-Cortez to mammoth proportions and to taint the entire Democratic Party with her brand of left-wing radicalism, in an effort, among other things, to realize the GOP’s long-held but regularly-frustrated dream of attracting more Jewish money and vote. Unfortunately, the same strategy probably played a role in generating the blanket condemnations of Jewish groups, many of which are funded today by right-wing donors with the same ideological goals.
In doing so, the protestors coopted the term “concentration camps”, depicting it as a unique Nazi instrument of extermination despite its wide use in other contexts, before and after the Holocaust, essentially placing the term outside the pale of normal political discourse. Their position came as a surprise to many Jews around the world, not least of which in Israel: We had been taught, and Holocaust historians had concurred, that while hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in concentration camps, and while they suffered mortality rates far higher than other nationalities interred in the camps, and in fact were driven to their deaths - it was the machinery of industrial annihilation set up by the Nazis in famous camps such as Treblinka, Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno and others that were the unique hallmarks of the Holocaust.
The Nazi camp system, in fact, consisted of many thousands of concentration and slave labor camps. In 2013, the United States Holocaust Museum astounded the world by announcing that its researchers estimated that the number of Nazi internment camps reached an astonishing 42,500 and counting, including 980 designated “concentration camps” and 30,000 slave labor camps. The majority of the 15 million prisoners who passed through the camps weren’t Jews, nor were Jews the majority of their victims.
Ocasio-Cortez may have been guilty of gross exaggeration and malevolent hyperbole, and U.S. patriots might feel rightly offended by an insinuation that the U.S. government is using “Nazi tactics” but she did not “desecrate the Holocaust” as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach asserted in a full-page ad in the New York Times. At least, not on the scale of a Peretz, Netanyahu or Donald Trump – who didn’t even mention Jews in his first International Holocaust Day statement - who routinely get a pass.
Right-wingers, it seems, are immune by default from allegations of misusing the memory of the Holocaust, unless they step over a line, as Netanyahu did with the mufti. Left-wingers, on the other hand, are barred from even indirect analogies, witness Ocasio-Cortez as well as the uproar that enveloped former deputy army Chief of Staff and current Ehud Barak companion Yair Golan, who dared speak of trends in Israeli politics and society that resemble similar trends in “Europe and Germany 70, 80 and 90 years ago.”
Golan wasn’t referring directly to the Final Solution or Nazi extermination camps but to the rise of the National Socialists in Weimar Germany. But even the Third Reich’s democratic, liberal and overly chaotic predecessor has been declared off limits and for good reason, which becomes readily apparent to any liberal Jew, Israeli or otherwise, acquainted with Benjamin Carter Hett’s masterful 2018 book on Weimar, entitled “The Death of Democracy”. Read it and weep.
3. I lost two grandparents in the Holocaust, as well as four uncles and aunts, more than a dozen first cousins and scores of great aunts, great uncles, second cousins and those once removed. Through the miracle of Geni.com and other genealogical sites, I have only recently learned of several more close relatives of my mother’s father, including her aunts, uncles and first cousins, which I had never heard of before. On the same day we were introduced I found out that most of new relatives had died in Auschwitz while others were shot to death in a hellhole called Izbica, near Lublin.
My mother’s family, the Sachs, owned a textile shop before the war in the picturesque Czech town of Litomřice, then more widely known by its German name, Leitmeritz. Along with most of the region’s Jews, they were expelled to Prague when the Nazis annexed the Sudetenland in 1938. My mother and her sister escaped from there to Palestine in 1939. My grandfather, Artur, was deported to Theresienstadt, a stone’s throw from Leitmeritz across the Elbe River, where he died in September 1943 of typhoid fever. My grandmother, Paula, survived Theresienstadt for another whole year before she was deported to Auschwitz, where she was gassed to death.
When I first visited Theresienstadt in 1990, I was surprised to learn that Leitmeritz had not only served as the garrison town and supply center for Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ so-called “show camp”, but had also hosted a separate concentration camp named after the town. The camp supplied prisoners to two underground factories established by the Nazis to escape Allied bombing in Germany: One manufactured tank engines, while the other was meant to serve the German electrical manufacturer Osram. 18,000 prisoners passed through KZ-Leitmeritz, as it was called. 4,500 of them died in the camp. 760 were Jews.
Theresienstadt was part and parcel of the Final Solution. KZ-Leitmeritz was not. Before Ocasio-Cortez, it was that simple.
4. Rabbi Joachim Prinz has largely been forgotten, but he was one of the 20th Century’s greatest Jewish heroes. As a leading rabbi in Berlin until 1937, the German-born Prinz defied the Nazis and saved countless Jews by bolstering their morale and encouraging them to emigrate to Palestine and, if not, to the U.S. As spiritual leader of the Bnai Avraham synagogue in Newark, from 1937, Prinz stood at the forefront of the fight against domestic fascism, was a founding father of American Zionist institutions and the most prominent Jewish figure, alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the Civil Rights Movement.
Heschel has weathered the amnesia of time in American Jewish consciousness far better than Prinz, though both were equally idolized in the 1950’s and 1960’s by liberal American Jews. Nonetheless, Prinz was twice touched by immortality: First, as the fearless indefatigable foe of fascism in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and second, by virtue of having spoken right before Martin Luther King made his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington in 1963.
Prinz regularly compared the plight of blacks in America to that of Jews in Germany. He did the same in front of the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who came to Washington on August 28, 1963 to demonstrate for “Freedom and Jobs”. In a short but inspiring speech, dwarfed in history by King’s masterful words, Prinz said: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
“A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent,” he said.
One shudders to think how Prinz’s speech would have been greeted today by the likes of Boteach, the Republican Jewish Coalition or even Yad Vashem or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Prinz, after all, was a Reform Rabbi, hence, by Peretz’s standards, an instrument of destruction. And he was a liberal, which means that his opponents would have declared open season on him, with gusto and impunity.
How lucky we are that Prinz lived in an era when Jews still viewed the Holocaust as an inspiration to strive for a better world and not as political cudgel or defensive shield to rebuff criticism of Israel, when “Never Again” was a universal appeal against all forms of evil, and not a slogan reserved for the exclusive use of Jews and Israel. This was before the Holocaust was hijacked by the right-wing rage machine, which, as Israelis and Americans can attest, balks at nothing.