Using Holocaust to define evil weakens its memory

Even while the Holocaust is finally becoming the quintessential reincarnation of evil in Europe, Europeans are busy trivializing it.

Soon, careless references to the Holocaust will intersect not only with the efforts of those who have tried to belittle it, but also with the concerted and stated aim of pro-Palestinian apologists to make the Palestinian predicament akin to the suffering of the Jews during the World War II.

That the Holocaust symbolizes absolute evil should be obvious. That all evil becomes, by rhetorical hyperbole or malicious intent, equivalent to the Holocaust, should be less evident. Nevertheless, this is precisely what is happening in Europe today. Referring to Nazism, London Mayor Ken Livingstone said in a recent interview with Ha’aretz, “For all my generation, we defined evil by that: that this is the absolute worst in human history.”

And while one can agree, for once, with the London mayor, it does not necessarily follow that Guantanamo Bay becomes Auschwitz, as a banner during an anti-war demonstration in London in November 2003 claimed. It does not mean that a transit center for clandestine immigrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa — recently exposed for its dire conditions and maltreatment of its residents — is like Auschwitz. And it certainly does not mean that abortion is like the extermination of the Jews of Europe, as a recent newspaper editorial argued in Italy.

Intellectuals should be able to tell the difference: That all evil becomes the same is a testimony to their intellectual failure, not a reflection of a new truth about good and evil in the world.

Here’s the irony then: The Holocaust has so pervaded the European conscience that it has become a code word for evil. But the effort to demonize every day’s political and moral banes by referring to the Holocaust ends up not only making all other evils equal, but it also turns the Holocaust into a trivial matter.

Nobody has died at Guantanamo or at Lampedusa so far. The two experiences are also quite different from one another. Yet, they all become “Auschwitz.” And in the process, Auschwitz loses its distinct, uniquely evil — and uniquely Jewish — quality. While nobody necessarily intends to trivialize the Holocaust, the long-term effect on public opinion is the same.

Among those who manipulate the Holocaust to belittle it or to void it of its Jewish component are pro-Palestinian apologists. The effort to equate the Palestinians’ plight with the Holocaust is part of the ongoing pro-Palestinian propaganda effort against Israel to deny Israel any legitimacy. By elevating the Palestinian predicament to genocide, not only is Israel demonized as the latest reincarnation of Nazism — hence, evil — but the Palestinians also become the new archetypal underdog — “the Jews of the 21st century” — deserving protection from the new Hitlers.

So it should not come as a surprise that a British government-appointed advisory board of Muslim representatives recently told Tony Blair that the best response to the London bombings was to transform Holocaust Memorial Day into a more inclusive “Genocide Memorial Day” in order to commemorate victims of other such experiences (including Palestinians, Kashmiris and Chechens).

Jewish responses, both in the United Kingdom and Israel, ranged from outrage to surprise.

As new assaults on the memory of the Holocaust will continue and new attempts to trivialize, belittle or deny it through insidious and inaccurate comparisons will multiply, there should be neither surprise nor complacency. Last January, representatives of Islamic organizations refused to attend official Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations. The Union of Islamic Organizations of France leader, Lhaj Thami Breze, and the head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Iqbal Sacranie, argued that Holocaust Memorial Day was not inclusive and therefore not worthy of their presence.

Objecting to the uniqueness of the Jewish genocide, Sacranie supported instead a Genocide Memorial Day, when all victims of genocides, past and present, would be commemorated, and when “peace with justice” would be promoted for those continuing to suffer in the world, especially in Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya.

This argument is disingenuous: Sacranie mentioned only the emotional issues feeding into a strong sense of pan-Islamic grievance within Europe and across the Islamic world. As genocides past and present he quoted Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda but omitted Armenia and Sudan. His agenda thus was clear both in its sins of omission. (These omissions shrouded in silence those tragedies in which the murderers were — and still are — Muslim armies and Muslim governments.)

Mention of Palestine as a place where genocide is allegedly taking place is a trivialization of the Holocaust that also borders on denial.

With European voices busy using and abusing the memory of the Holocaust for their own rhetorical and political purposes, the memory of the Holocaust is eroding, paradoxically, precisely at the moment when it has been recognized almost universally as the epitome of evil.

So far, efforts have failed to deny the unique Jewish dimension of the Holocaust. But the future holds no guarantees: Sooner or later, the assaults on the ramparts of memory will find a breach.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a columnist for Italy’s daily Il Foglio. This article previously appeared in the Jerusalem Post.