By some miracle, the world seemed to decide, after the holocaust, that anti-Semitism was not the Jews’ issue to be dealt with by them alone, as everyone had previously agreed, but the world’s issue to be dealt with by everyone.
This acknowledgment by the nations of the world did not immediately bring the Messiah, as we are learning this week.
On the contrary, this week we have witnessed the awful treatment of immigrant children by the United States authorities, and the fumbling, contradictory, and sometimes downright cruel statements on the matter from the Trump administration. The outcry was powerful and relatively widespread, and as of today the President seems to have reneged on the policy of family separation.
On a related but different note — and this is an important point, for I fully maintain the right to be annoyed by something else this week, no matter how utterly omnipresent some others feel their hobby-horse must be — there were a lot of people, especially online, who brought the holocaust into it.
Of course, the parallels between the dire situation of the immigrant children and Hitler’s concentration camps are very thin indeed. It goes without saying that pointing this out does not diminish the desperate need for solutions on the border at all. It is not even worth replying to the claim that one needs to be “more upset” with the “caged babies” than with the holocaust comparison.
The only part of the now-classic holocaust overreach that still interests me is: Why must the suffering of those sacred Jews be compared with whatever evil flows from your Twitter feed this evening? The people who do this are not anti-semitic. On the contrary, many of them are seeking only to raise up the cause of the immigrant children. Some of the people speaking out against it are holocaust survivors themselves. They mean no harm by their comparison, even though it essentially uses the holocaust, makes from it a tool, desacralizes it.
My question is more, how did we get here? How did one of the most uniquely evil occurrences in the history of civilization become the analogy for so many lesser evils?
My theory is that it’s explained by a historical process that has taken place since the war. As is often the case with Jewish history, it both reflects and illuminated other events taking place around us.
The profaning of the holocaust happens in three steps. To make everyone angry (it would happen anyway upon hearing the details), let’s call them liberalism, leftism, and reaction.
In the aftermath of the war, and following the miraculous “everybody’s problem”-ing of Jew hatred, there arose a new world order seeking to maintain global peace as much as possible, and raise the standard of human rights the world over. This liberal order (so-called for the way it values rights) did not view the holocaust only in its particulars, but sought to apply the lessons learned from Hitler on a broad scale.
In more cynical words, what was primarily a Jewish calamity and a Jewish story (and, for that matter, a story of the Romani, the disabled, the homosexual, etc.) was immediately abstracted into a universal cause. What was a fundamentally unique sacred (that is, incomparable) tragedy became everyone’s property.
This was inevitable, because universalism itself was the order of the day. Hitler was terribly pro-German, you see, and his chauvinism was seen as a primary cause in everything that followed. Without his inspiring belief in a country that was down and out and his populist support from patriotic Germans (and German-speaking non-Germans), his ascension to power would have been much more difficult. And of course, an endless focus on self-definition and national pride makes the “internationalist” (read: disloyal) outgroup a tempting target for scapegoating and more…
So, with the support of much of world Jewry (especially American Jews), “Never Again” came to be the slogan. It grew beyond never again in Germany, or never again in a G-d-denying techno-state, or never again for the Jews. It needed to grow beyond these things, because it was the foundational myth of a movement seeking to create a true “humankind,” a borderless global brotherhood of man, in which no genocide was possible and no one’s identity could become so powerful that the holocaust could happen again. Nationalism, populism, and a whole list of other things were deemed antithetical to this world-building, and if one objected, one could simply point to the holocaust and say, “Never Again.”
This was the beginning of how the holocaust became profane, a cheap political tool. It was a sin committed by those who truly wished to prevent another genocide.
The holocaust was a universal phenomenon, but that did not mean it could ever be used against the Jews G-d-forbid. It just meant that their story was now inclusive. What could go wrong?
Jewish fortunes turned up after the war, both in the United States and the fledgling state of Israel, whose population began to swell with refugees from the Arab world. Jews became wealthier, more successful, more accepted into the fabric of life. The long arc set in motion by the holocaust seemed to be the arc of history bending toward justice. The new status quo was defined as an anti-holocaust, and it turns out Jews thrive in anti-holocausts.
There were, however, some rumblings about Israel, rumblings that have, over the decades, grown into a roar. The very people who were the banner of broad globally applicable international human rights had settled into their own land, which they identified with their own people. They did not get along with their neighbors. They had certain populist and national views on things not shared by the nations of the world who allowed them to exist. They seemed awfully un-“Never Again” in their treatment of the Palestinians. Oh, surely they didn’t gas them by the million or what have you, but it wasn’t in the spirit of the thing.
You see, once liberalism universalized the holocaust, leftism (so-called for its side of the room) took the next logical step and took the universal principles without favoring any particular group. Fair is fair, these free-thinkers (many of them Jewish, of course) reasoned. If the world without genocide is what’s really important, we cannot give special dispensations to groups who were victims of our founding calamity. We must apply principle indiscriminately.
Of course, it is very rare within a courtroom and vanishingly unlikely outside of one to see the indiscriminate application of principle, and so this “soft leftism” soon hardened into “hard leftism.” What I am calling hard leftism loves both to eat and to have cakes. You see, the next step after abstraction and universalization of the principle is to apply it, and no one thinks everyone is equally deserving of its application. If we are to create a world of true equality and freedom, where no one need ever worry about even the potential of genocide again, we must knock down thousands of years of differences in power between various groups. We must knock them down with our own assertion of power.
“Soft leftism” says that Jews are no exception to the rules of the new order because the rules are the ultimate good. “Hard leftism,” the next step, says that because the international liberal order was created in part to negate the holocaust, and Jewish fortunes indeed improved under that order, Jews are especially obligated to help those who are now at a disadvantage. “How can you sit by and do nothing,” the Jew is asked, “when you were the primary victim of the holocaust?”
What is important about the calamity perpetrated by the Nazis is not the story of what happened to the Jews per se, nor even the general lessons learned from the tragedy, but the new world free of oppression that must be created, and the old world of imbalance that must be destroyed. And it is from this perspective that even alleging the holocaust may have some uniquely Jewish or sacred quality can itself be seen as a perpetuation of the holocaust. The transformation of the definition is complete. The true holocaust is the system of oppression that must be destroyed. The false holocaust is the historical event.
Sadly, there is a third stage to the holocaust’s transformation.
The reaction (so-called for being the third step) is the logical outcome of hard leftism. Once power is asserted to demolish the world of imbalance and oppression, those who are being knocked down a few pegs will come to question the worthiness of the wrecking crew.
Where liberalism was mere universal principle and everyone theoretically had a seat at the table, leftism is more proactive and exclusionary. “Good people” under the liberal order have no inherent moral standing under the leftist order if they do not actively contribute to the demolition process. Many, indeed, benefit from or are privileged by historical imbalances that cannot be fixed by a personal adherence to principle.
The newly evil question their status, and see an assertion of power against them in service of an ideology. They decide to fight fire with fire. If they are going to be told to sit down, shut up, and let others rule, for that will bring balance to the world, they will stand up, make noise, and throw off the definitions that seek to bracket them.
Underlying this world order which seeks to bind them with rules beyond their control and definitions that do not depend on their actions, they find the holocaust and the reaction to it. The Jews, they see, are the original victim group, the original protected class from whom the order drew inspiration. And they fill with resentment. The Jews are not a people who have suffered. They are a people who make others suffer. The holocaust is now the name for a reviled system of power and control, invented in the name of the Jews.
The perspective of the reaction is, of course, similar (in some ideological respects) to the philosophy of those who perpetrated the actual holocaust.
The reaction is not the end of this process, but rather a step in a vicious cycle, as we can see from a lot of the animus surrounding the holocaust analogy this week.
Those holding by a leftist view of the holocaust are angry with Jews who object to comparing the Nazis to the Trump administration’s immigration policy. They see all the objection as a distraction from the mission of ending oppression now, a mission ironically inspired in part by the holocaust. The actual event of the holocaust is, in their eyes, a distraction from the essence of the holocaust, the world of imbalance. And to allege that the holocaust is in some way sacred and incomparable is to forfeit one’s true Judaism rather than to defend it.
The reaction, in turn, is sick of being told that everything is the holocaust, and view it as an excuse for control. Judaism is, in their eyes, merely a facet of the imposed world order. They double down on rejecting all holocaust language, and anything that language is used to castigate.
The left, in turn, doubles down even further. They insist that this rejection of the holocaust comparison is, in face, a rejection of their entire world-view, which is tantamount to the rejection of goodness itself, which is, of course, to perpetrate a small holocaust.
And so on it goes with every political issue in the age of Trump, who more than any other single figure has signalled the beginning of the end for the liberal order of individual moral responsibility. With the decay of the liberal order, the power struggle intensifies daily. Holocaust-as-any-and-all-oppression and holocaust-as-method-of-control war constantly. And those Jews who see the holocaust as simply the holocaust are lost.
How do we break this cycle?
Undo liberalism? The reaction is working hard at that already, and it’s hard to see how it’s good for the Jews. Many of them wish, ultimately, to reverse what we’ve called liberalism itself, to try to go back to some older world order, to break the bonds of internationalism, in short, to reverse time. And it is an unavoidable fact that the times under the new order have been the best times for Jews to be Jews in history.
I think the key may lie in keeping liberalism, but avoiding its more radical universalizing qualities. Adherence to principle and personal moral action should remain important, so as to avoid the old tribalism, but on the other hand, they must not come at the expense of individual and irreducible stories and souls. In short, the key is to see the holocaust as a lesson for all mankind, but a lesson grounded in a particular story that happened to particular people that cannot be taken away from them or melted down into analogical applications.
This blend of irreducible identity and universal morality is itself a classic hallmark of the Jewish mission. It parallels the blend of ineffable soul and grounded body. It is the unity of qualifying and universalizing reason with the self-contained soul that precedes the era of the Moshiach, when there will be an end to darkness and evil will be swallowed up forever.