February 22, 2024
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Why Politicians Shouldn’t Exploit the Holocaust

(This appeared recently on i24news.tv)

It is only natural that Israeli Jewish society–and Jewish society everywhere–is traumatized. One-third of the Jewish people were murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies, supporters and collaborators in World War II. Politics, culture, and other spheres of life are vitally influenced by the Holocaust. Politicians draw parallels between what happened then and present political situations. One has to add immediately that all such comparisons are totally wrong. The Iranian leadership is not Nazi, nor is Hamas or even ISIS.

Israeli politicians misuse the Holocaust constantly, and in many, if not most, cases quite unconsciously. But on the other hand, the danger, especially from radical Islamic murderous ideology, is not the invention of Israeli politicians, but is something quite real. The Holocaust is not past, it is the present, and the fear of a repetition of the trauma exists and must be taken into account when dealing with Israel.

Not only Israeli politics are affected. Literally not a day passes without an article or news item in Israeli media relating in some way to the Holocaust. Prose and poetry, too, are permeated with Holocaust topics.

The Holocaust was, obviously, a genocide, a term coined in 1943 (by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish refugee lawyer in New York). In the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (passed by the UN on December 9, 1948), genocide is defined as the “intent and action to annihilate an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group as such, in whole or in part.” The “in whole’” were the Jews; the “in part” were the Poles.

The Convention, while an important element in international law, has not been implemented except in the case of Srebrenica in Bosnia. Since 1948, there have been many cases of genocide or genocide-like events, but the international community has been incapable of reacting because the only body that can do so is the UN Security Council with its five veto powers, and in many cases such action was prevented by a veto or the threat of one.

In our globalized world it is misleading to try and deal with Israel alone, or the Middle East alone, or the impact of the Holocaust on Jews, Israel, and Arabs, alone. These are global issues. Of course, as the Holocaust was a genocide, it has parallels with other genocides. In fact, in order to understand the Holocaust, it is essential to compare it with other forms of the same pathology.

The main parallel is not only the fact that all are mass murders, but that the suffering of the victims of all genocides is the same. There are no gradations of suffering, and murder is murder, including murder of children, torture is torture, and there are no genocides better or worse than others.

But there are elements in the Holocaust that have no precedent in human history, as far as one can tell.

First, the Nazis developed–in stages–an ideology intended to identify, register, dispossess, humiliate, concentrate, transport and kill every person they defined as being Jewish, everywhere in the world–and there are documents to prove that. There is no precedent for that in human history.

Second, the motive was purely anti-pragmatic, contrary to all other genocides or genocide-like events, which were motivated by quests for power, or by military, economic, social factors. The Jews had no territory, or power, they did not control any economy (they were mostly middle-class citizens who owned property but did not control anything), and they were not a political actor as a group. The Nazis invented an international Jewish conspiracy, when there was no united Jewish political presence in any country. Nazi ideology, a mutation of pre-Nazi antisemitism, was based on irrational hallucinations.

There is no precedent for a genocide committed for ideological reasons: there are hundreds of examples showing that Nazi Germany acted against its own economic interests by murdering a population that it could have utilized as workers, experts, and so on.

Third, that ideology and that movement arose in one of the main centers of civilization, in a country which had been the beacon of liberal, humanistic thought and culture. This, again, is a constellation which has no precedent.

The Holocaust was therefore an unprecedented, extreme case of genocide. It was not unique, because uniqueness would mean that nothing like it could ever happen again. That is not so because the Holocaust was not the work of a God or Satan, but of human beings. It can therefore be explained, though with great difficulty, and something similar could recur (historical events never repeat themselves exactly).

Prevention of another event such as the Holocaust or like it, means prevention of genocide, generally. In fact, it is advisable to start dealing with genocide prevention by studying the Holocaust as its most extreme manifestation. Studying the Holocaust and presenting it to the public, including of course the Israeli Jewish public–as it really happened and not as politicians and others simplify and distort it–is also the most effective way to fight the social trauma that it engendered.

There are groups, now also groups of governments, seeking ways to prevent mass atrocities, including genocides. These steps will not yield results that can be applied to the present crises of the Middle East, Sudan, the CAR, and other places, but they can perhaps form the groundwork for future preventive policies. This will take time, but unfortunately it is fairly certain that humanity will be faced with more mass atrocities in the future, so preparations involving governments and academics are essential.

Prof. Yehuda Bauer is an Israeli Holocaust scholar. Yehuda Bauer, an Israel Prize winner, is a Czechoslovak-born Israeli historian and scholar of the Holocaust. He is Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the Abraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is academic adviser to Yad Vashem and the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, and senior adviser to the Swedish Government on the International Forum on Genocide Prevention.

By Prof. Yehuda Bauer

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