Op-Ed: When Holocaust analogies run amok

Abraham H. Foxman

By Abraham H. Foxman, JTA, NEW YORK

There was a time when no one living in Israel needed a

reminder of what was at stake when the Jewish state was created in

1948 in the aftermath of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.

Israelis and Jews the world over knew that the survival of the

Jewish people depended on the ability to have a home to return to

after our near-ruinous encounter with European anti-Semitism.

There was also a time when the words “Hitler,” “Nazi” and “Gestapo”

were not thrown about recklessly, when images of the emaciated

inmates of Nazi concentration camps were a reminder not just to the

Jewish people but to all the world of the terrible turn of events

that led to the death of six million Jews and millions of others in

the Holocaust.

The uniqueness of the Holocaust was what made the State of Israel

such a powerful answer to those who had attempted to annihilate the

Jews. And its memory would ensure that the mass genocide that

befell European Jewry would never happen again. Indeed, the message

of “Never Again” redefined Jewish experience and peoplehood in the

latter half of the 20th century.

But over time we have found the need to remind others-and sometimes

ourselves-of the importance of this experience and of the need to

protect its memory from those who would distort it. That is why we

have felt it necessary to battle efforts to undermine or trivialize

the history of the Holocaust. It is why we have worked to expose

Holocaust deniers. And it is why we repeatedly speak out when the

Holocaust becomes grist for inappropriate comparisons, or when

terminology such as “Nazi” or “Hitler” are misused to wage

political attacks or are trivialized in popular culture.

Yet never did I think that we would have to speak out about the

abject trivialization of the Holocaust by a group of Jews living in

Israel. But that is exactly what happened this month, when a group

of Haredi Orthodox protested following efforts by secular Israelis

to roll back gender segregation on some bus lines by dressing up in

concentration camp garb and wearing yellow Stars of David inscribed

with the word “Jude.”

The scene in Jerusalem square was both an aberration and an

outrage. This was blatant, in-your-face Holocaust trivialization on

a level that until now we have rarely witnessed in Israeli


For decades, Israelis and Jews around the world have worked to

protect the memory of the Holocaust. We built Yad Vashem in

Jerusalem. In the United States, we founded the Holocaust Memorial

Museum in Washington. Today there’s even a Holocaust memorial in

Berlin, Germany.

We worked hard with like-minded teous Gentiles and governments to

protect and preserve the sites in Europe most closely associated

with the Shoah, including the concentration camps, the deportation

sites, the mass graves and the evidence of once-thriving Jewish

communities. And we created and stressed educational efforts, such

as Echoes and Reflections-the multimedia Holocaust curriculum

developed by the Anti-Defamation League in partnership with Yad

Vashem and the USC Shoah Foundation Institute-to ensure that the

lessons of the Shoah are passed on to future generations.

We also battled efforts to undermine or trivialize the history and

memory of the Holocaust. The most pernicious form was Holocaust

denial, a form of anti-Semitism. But while the deniers remain

mostly on the fringes of society, we have found ourselves

increasingly engaged in a battle against a more subtle form of

trivialization borne of ignorance, forgetfulness and carelessness

about truth and memory.

For more than a decade, inappropriate and offensive comparisons to

the Holocaust have cropped up increasingly in the U.S. If you have

a falling out with someone, call them a Nazi. If you don’t like

someone’s political positions, accuse them of being like Hitler.

Political leaders have accused each other of using propaganda like

Goebbels or of “sending in the brownshirts.” Celebrities compare

their personal ordeals to those of Anne Frank, or in a traumatic

moment in their lives, make trite comparisons to Hitler or the


As Jews, we have found ourselves needing to constantly raise our

voices against this kind of trivialization in an effort not only to

remind others of the pain and offensiveness of these remarks, but

also to protect the memory of the Holocaust, so that we do not wake

up one day to a world that no longer remembers the lessons of that

period-or, worse, is indifferent to them.

At a time when the trivialization of the Holocaust is booming

around the world, it is now becoming apparent that we also need to

do a better job of reminding ourselves and our children of the

importance of remembrance and of protecting the memory of those who

perished and the honor of those who fought to defeat the murderous


Israelis should no longer refer to other Israelis as “Nazis.”

Jewish settlers should know better than to shout “Nazi” against

Israeli soldiers (there primarily for the settler’s protection) in

the West Bank. The fact that some Israelis refer to the 1967 border

between Israel and the West Bank as “the Auschwitz border” shows

how far removed some Israelis and Jews have become from the true

horrors of the Shoah.

It is time for those who abuse the memory of the Holocaust,

particularly those in Israel, to understand that words have

consequences. This was one of the primary lessons of the

Holocaust-that hateful, bigoted words can lead to violent


Now that 70 years have passed, the danger is that an overuse of

words-and inapt comparisons-will contribute to a lessening of the

true impact and meaning of the Holocaust and, likewise, the memory

of one of the significant reasons why the Jewish State of Israel

was brought into being in the first place.