Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Are Holocaust analogies ever right? Yes. Now.
Are Holocaust analogies ever right? Yes. Now.
In the wake of President Trump’s refusal to disavow white supremacy at last month’s first presidential debate, the Jewish Democratic Council released a powerful 30 second ad making the direct comparison between Trump’s tactics and the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany. Many cried foul, including the Anti-Defamation League, though prominent Jews like historian Deborah Lipstadt and former ADL director Abe Foxman sympathized with the ad’s message.
So the question that has hovered over political debates and cocktail party conversations for decades once again came to the fore: Is it ever appropriate to use Holocaust analogies, and if so, when?
Yes it is appropriate, when done judiciously and respectfully and when necessary. It is both appropriate and necessary with regard to Trump and Trumpism.
In my house, back when my kids were growing up, we had the Anne Frank Rule.
One night during a school vacation, my family was engaged in a stimulating round of “Apples to Apples”—that popular game where a rotating judge picks a descriptive card (like “refreshing,” or “feh!”) and other contestants select cards that they hope the judge will consider the best possible match (like “Passover” and “Alan Dershowitz”). Naturally, we were playing the Jewish version.
This particular game was one of our all-timers. It came down to the final hand, with my two sons and me each having a chance to win. With the game on the line, we doubled the stakes and pulled out two descriptive cards: “odd” and “offensive.”
My sons played “Crown Heights,” “my bedroom,” “J-Date” and “Dennis Prager.” I suppose any of those could have been the best match. But I held the trump card in my hand. You see, I had just drawn “Anne Frank.” We have a little rule in my family, one suggested to us by a close friend. Whoever plays the “Anne Frank” card automatically wins that hand. No questions asked. The idea is that it would be offensive to Anne’s memory, and by extension, all Holocaust victims, for Anne to lose to, say, “Joan Rivers” or “potato kugel.”
But here, the exact opposite would be occurring. Anne would win for matching “odd” and “offensive.” How could we shame her in this way?
I succumbed to that logic and pulled back the card. I lost the battle but won the war, as my family then engaged in a dialogue about how, just as Anne’s is no normal card, the Holocaust is not just any old piece of the Jewish identity puzzle.
The “Anne Frank Rule” applies to our culture writ large just as it works for “Apples to Apples.” Once the Holocaust is invoked in an argument, it usually is game, set and match—but only when the subject is raised at the proper time and by the proper person, and only if it is not overused. The Holocaust has been brought into so many political arguments, on all sides of the spectrum, that a new rule was created: Godwin’s Law, stating that if a discussion continues long enough, inevitably someone or something will be compared to Hitler, which ends the discussion.
The Shoah offers numerous potential lessons that can be applied to contemporary situations, but it’s debatable as to which analogies “work.” Comparing any concession in international negotiations to the appeasement at Munich, for instance, is a tactic that has been so overused that its potency has been drained. Google “Netanyahu” and “Munich,” for instance, and you get over 1,080.000 results. And President Trump was totally out of line when he recently compared New York City’s crackdown on Orthodox Jewish anti-lockdown demonstrations to Nazi-era roundups.
So the Holocaust card, like the Anne Frank card, must be played sparingly and with due deliberation.
But in the Trump era, all bets are off.
When the Holocaust-related term “Concentration Camps” was used in July of 2019, in describing the crowded and squalid detention facilities used by the Trump administration for asylum seekers and other refugees at the U.S.-Mexican border, the U.S. Holocaust Museum cried foul. I winced a bit myself. But in an essay for Slate, Yale historian Timothy Snyder explained how and when Holocaust analogies are not only appropriate, they are necessary.
“To forbid analogies makes the Holocaust irrelevant to future generations. If an American child can identify with Anne Frank, an American child might ask what it is like for immigrant children to be separated from their parents. To forbid analogies is to forbid learning, and to forbid empathizing . . . The point of historical comparisons is not to seek a perfect match— which can never be found—but to learn how to look out for warning signs.”
Even Michael Godwin, the originator of Godwin’s Law tweeted after Charlottesville that his law had met its match in the Trump era. “By all means, compare these (expletive)-heads to the Nazis,” he wrote. “Again and again. I’m with you.”
The use of the Shoah in conversations about refugees or hate groups is completely appropriate, especially in light of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were turned away at the door to freedom, including—it must be noted—the family of Anne Frank, whose father Otto sought to bring his family to America. Had she survived, Anne Frank would have turned 90 last year—and she could have lived a perfectly uneventful, happy life.
Holocaust analogies should be used sparingly, to be sure, but when used appropriately, there is no question as to who has the moral authority to play that card. Jews do.
I’ve never been a big fan of calling the Jews a “chosen people.” Still, I never saw the concept as a signal of superiority, but rather as a summons and a responsibility, to bring Sinai’s vision of holiness, justice and love to the world. Chosenness still calls on us to strive to repair the world, as it did at Sinai; but now our moral voice has been amplified 10 times over by historical experience. When Jews invoke Auschwitz, the world listens— because we were there. Many hate us for that, especially if they idealize fascism. Others admire us. But everyone listens.
We need to hold the Anne Frank card close to our vest, play it when necessary, and appreciate the moral power of its message.
And that message has never been more relevant than right now.