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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The Day the Holocaust Died



This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

The Holocaust stopped mattering to me on August 18, 2007. It was around dinner, a late dinner, so it was around 7:30 in the evening. It's Abe Foxman's fault. I blame him, and I may never forgive him.

Abe Foxman survived the Holocaust, the one that no longer matters to me, in the care of his Catholic nanny, who enrolled him in the church and taught him to spit at Jews on the street. His parents got him back after the war. On some level it is ironic that this man, technically a survivor though not exactly Elie Wiesel, killed the Holocaust for me.

If you don't know who Foxman is, you're lucky. He runs the Anti-Defamation League, an organization founded about a century ago in the wake of Leo Frank being lynched in Georgia. Leo Frank was a Jew, and that's more or less why they lynched him. More than a few people hated Jews back then, so the Anti-Defamation League was formed in response.

They've done a fine job, because I haven't seen or heard of a Jew being lynched by a very large mob in this country in some time. I'm a Jew, and I live in the city where Frank was strung up a tree, so I like to keep tabs on whether Jew-lynching has come back into vogue. To the best of my knowledge, it hasn't.

This has not stopped Mr. Foxman from professing, pretty much ad nauseam, how much Jews are hated these days. We're endangered, he says. Anti-Semites are all among us, so we must be vigilant lest the Jew-lynching and Jew-gassing returns. He's written a couple of books on the subject. One was called Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism. The old anti-Semitism cost many millions of Jews their lives. The new anti-Semitism seems to involve a large number of Muslims, Arabs, and leftie professors who are not fond of Israel, or at least Israeli policy.

His latest book? The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control. The deadliest? Have I missed a rash of Jews being executed in this country due to the myth of insidious Jewish influence? Alarmist much?

That Foxman is a blowhard who opens his mouth way too often to overstate things way too much, a fact which I think is largely indisputable, is not why I stopped caring about the Holocaust - or at least listening to people talk about it.

Some people's blood is going to boil when they read that. Only a child of privilege, having grown up half a dozen decades, and a sizeable ocean, away from the horrors could so flippantly say something like that. I don't care about the Holocaust? What? Do I own it? Do I really think I deserve a better Holocaust, a more fulfilling mass murder to read about? What chutzpah! Who do I think I am?

Oh, calm down. Open your ears, and I'll explain. I'm not a completely spoiled tyrant. Of course the Holocaust matters. Six million Jews died, along with about five million other souls deemed undesirable by Hitler's regime, and by died I mean they were stripped of their belongings, forced from their homes, walled off in ghettos, worked to death, starved to death, then left to disease and despair. The ones who fought back were shot, bombed, and buried in the rubble, and that was before they were packed up in boxcars and shipped like cattle to the camps. Where they were gassed.

You know, in case they needed one more way to die.

That matters. That's something you probably should look into. As mistakes go, history doesn't really need to repeat this one. If you elect an addle-brained stumblebum for a president, you can get away with that four or five times. On the other hand, annihilating millions of people for being Jewish - or gay, or black, or Communist, or just about anything really - doesn't qualify as an oops. You don't get a mulligan on something like that.

So it's not that the Holocaust stopped mattering to me on that Friday afternoon in August. It's just that on that day, I stopped listening to most of the people who frequently comment on the genocide of the Jews. I decided I wasn't going to read any more of their books - all 59,176 of them - or watch any more of their movies. Not even the ones that get the Oscar for best documentary every year. Then there are the museums, the memorials, and the traveling exhibits. I've been to most, if not all, of them.

From now on, I boycott.

If you'd like to know why, if your personal political correctness thermometer isn't wedged too far up your rear exit canal, let me direct your attention to the greater metropolitan area of Boston, Massachusetts.

There, in the suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, lives an Armenian-American named David Boyajian. He wrote to a local newspaper over the summer, criticizing the town's anti-bigotry program, which just so happens to be administered by Foxman's ADL. According to his letter, the ADL "has made the Holocaust and its denial key pieces" of its program, all while "hypocritically working with Turkey to oppose recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915-23."

You may not know about the Armenian genocide. That's not surprising. There are hundreds of museums and memorials, large and small, keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust. The Armenians, on the other hand, have no such institutional power and face the continued efforts of Turkey to deny that any genocide took place.

Believe me, it did. Or don't believe me. Ask any one of a litany of respected scholars and historians, including Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt. She's been lionized by the Jewish world, and rightfully so, for fighting tirelessly against Holocaust deniers. Time and time again, including in op-eds and interviews, she's made it very clear that Armenians suffered a genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks during World War I. One-and-a-half million of them were slaughtered. It isn't a question for historical debate, it's a settled question with piles of evidence backing up the claim.

That hasn't stopped Foxman - and other Jewish leaders - from acting like nothing ever happened. When he was asked in July if the Armenian slaughter was genocide, his answer was a short, "I don't know." The ADL has joined other Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee, in opposing efforts at recognizing the Armenian genocide.

Stop for a moment and think about the reaction of the Jewish community to Holocaust deniers. Every time the Iranian president spouts off about the "myth" of the Holocaust, Jewish groups - the Anti-Defamation League at the front of the line - roundly condemns him. So why would an organization that fights so hard against those who would deny the Holocaust, become an adamant denier of another genocide? The answer is simple, if ugly. They didn't want to offend Turkey, a major ally of Israel in the Middle East.

For years, Turkey has lobbied Jewish groups to stay away from the genocide label, explicitly saying they might be less supportive of Israel. The highest ranks of Turkish officials, including their foreign minister, approached the ADL and others to make their case, and in a fit of fear and realpolitik, the ADL shook hands with Turkey and essentially became accomplices in genocide denial.

Then came 7:30 p.m. on August 18. I was picking through my usual diet of news and magazines when I stumbled on the story. Andrew Tarsy, head of the ADL's New England office, had been fired. His crime was demanding that the national organization remove its head from its hypocritical posterior and recognize the Armenian genocide.

I'll admit I became a bit of a zealot after that. I fired up LexisNexis on a daily basis, scouring the wire services and news outlets for any morsel of information on the ADL's moral implosion. That's what I called it, a moral implosion. I was happy when the backlash came, when Boston's Jewish community rallied behind Tarsy and demanded the ADL reverse itself. At least some people get it.

A little over a week later, Foxman was forced to relent. He rehired Tarsy and issued a statement calling the "consequences" of the massacre of Armenians "tantamount to genocide." This is a little bit like saying the consequences of Nazi gas chambers was tantamount to mass murder. In the words of Joey Kurtzman, the executive editor of Jewcy.com, "It denies the intentionality of genocide."

Foxman wasn't content just hedging his bets though, tiptoeing around the genocide of 1.5 million people. Almost as soon as he sent out his pseudo mea culpa, he sent another letter to the Turkish prime minister. In it, he literally apologized for admitting that yes, Turks had done a bad thing a hundred years ago.

"We had no intention," Foxman proclaims in the letter, "to put the Turkish people or its leaders in a difficult position. I am writing this letter to you to express our sorrow over what we have caused for the leadership and people of Turkey in the past few days."

I was eating lunch when I read that one. My reaction involved an attempt to curse through a mouthful of very hot soup. What exactly was Foxman apologizing for? I wondered if he'd ever thought to express deep sorrow to the leadership and people of Germany. "We had no intention of putting you in the difficult position of having to answer for mass murder," I imagined he might say, "but you did kind of kill several million of us. We would like to express our deep sorrow over the embarrassment we've caused you."

This is an organization created to fight bigotry generally and anti-Semitism in particular, to make our world better by exposing hatred and holding racism, genocidal or otherwise, to account. Where exactly do they get off apologizing to genocide deniers? In two sentences, Foxman had broken the camel's back, letting a deluge of missteps and hyperbolic statements turn into the absolute shredding of his organization's moral authority.

That shredding goes far beyond the issue of Armenian genocide. Earlier this year, Foxman publicly criticized the only Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison, for comparing some of Bush's post-9/11 power grabs with the Nazi use of the Reichstag Fire to seize absolute control of Germany. This he did after the ADL had privately worked with Ellison on a statement of retraction and apology, and this he did despite the fact there isn't anything inherently wrong with drawing historical comparisons to modern events. Why is history there if not to be analyzed, applied, and learned from? The history of the Nazis and the Holocaust isn't immune from that, nor should it be.

Then there's the use of anti-Semitism, cast as a dire threat to the state of Israel, as cudgel against political opponents. I could quote from Foxman's new book where so many people who are merely critics of Israeli policy get recast as anti-Semites. But it would be just as easy to quote from Alvin Rosenfeld's recent article, "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism," endorsed and released by the American Jewish Committee. It explicitly equates progressive political positions, including critiques of Israeli policy, with anti-Semitic belief. The guise of an Israel wiped out by Arab nukes is often presented as a potential "second Holocaust," and at best these progressive critics are aiding and abetting the enemies of Jews. Rosenfeld is hardly alone in putting forth this position, though he may be the most explicit.

This is why the Holocaust no longer matters to me, why I'd just as soon we forget about it, if this is what we're going to do with it. By this, I mean put it in museums, memorialize it to the point of irrelevance, and use it as a platform for moral authoritarianism. By this, I mean use it as a cudgel to silence critics we don't want to hear from, all the while ignoring the crimes of people who support us - or support Israel, which isn't necessarily the same as supporting us. By this, I mean render the Holocaust from a disaster of human action and inaction to be learned from into some kind of memorial flame, too hot to touch and too fragile to light the way to a better tomorrow.

I'm not hopeless about this. Abe Foxman and his ilk can't occupy the stage forever. At the very least, perhaps he could get laryngitis. But I'm not particularly hopeful either. We've made a civic religion, eagerly adopted by plenty of Jews who can't be bothered to meander into a synagogue more than a couple times a year, out of Holocaust remembrance. We've replaced a wandering Diaspora of Torah scholars with an affluent American populace of Jews holding up the flame for the Holocaust without bothering to ask ourselves what moral imperatives that memory requires of us.

If we're not going to ask those questions, and listen to the difficult answers, then we're probably better off not remembering at all. After all, a false veneer of moral authority in the absence of moral action may be the most immoral thing of all.

Editor's Note: We realize Bradford R. Pilcher's views may upset some so please feel free to write us letters which we'll publish in the next issue. And, in the meantime, we promise you that Pilcher is not the president of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Southeastern Fan Club.

-- Text by Bradford R. Pilcher / AP Photo

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
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