Thoughts About a Name

Rabbi Michael Berenbaum
American Jewish University

Parshat Vaera: Exodus 6:2-9:35
Haftorah: Ezekial 28:25-29:21

God spoke to Moses and said to him: "I am the Lord." I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not make my name known to them by My Name YHWH. [Exodus 6: 2-3]

Names make a difference and names must be used with precision or they are abused.

Naming is the most human of deeds; it was how Adam ordered the animal world, it is how scientists control disease and identify phenomena.

Last week I stood at Auschwitz viewing the original designs of the gas chambers in German documents, seeing the original muffles of the crematoria, the original doors, the original vents.

On January 19th, Israel withdrew from Gaza ending this round of a skirmish - or should we call it a war.

And on January 20th, Barak Obama became President of the United States, the first African-American ever to hold that office, elected because he was judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.

I fear that we have spent a generation building up the moral capital of a word that signifies an Event and just as we have done with our monetary capital, we are in the process of expending moral capital with nothing to show in return.

Naturally, I am thinking about the word "Holocaust" and the assault on its meaning in contemporary times. A few examples:

  • The International Association of Genocide Scholars has been going back furiously about whether Israel committed genocide in Gaza.

  • An English Jewish MP has compared Israelis to the Nazis (but not to the English at Dresden).

  • The President of Iran denies the Holocaust. The President of Germany affirms it.

I receive urgent emails from my Jewish activist friends: "Help stop a second Holocaust" it reads, followed by an assignment:

-Send a email to Israeli politicians not to join the government;
-Write now former President Bush to halt the Annapolis Peace Talks, 
-Vote for John McCain and not a Muslim friend of radical anti-Semites for President. 

Again and again, Jewish activists portray us as on the brink of a second genocide, as if nothing has changed over the past decades, nothing has been learned, nothing has been done.

Permit me some words of clarity to preserve that moral capital.

Permit me to speak frankly.

To those on the left, which is my natural political habitat, I must say bluntly.

Israel has the power to commit genocide. The imbalance of power between the Palestinians and the Israelis is overwhelming.

Israel has the provocation. If rockets were falling on homes in Bangor, Maine, or San Diego, California, I wonder how restrained the United States would be. If our cities were being bombed and our children killed, how long would be wait to respond overwhelmingly, disproportionately.

Israel has not committed genocide.

Why do some want to depict Israelis as Nazis? For the Europeans, it is an alleviation of guilt and a soft-core denial of the Holocaust. If Israelis are Nazis, then the behavior of Europeans a generation ago is less objectionable, less morally reprehensible.

Holocaust denial in the Muslim world is different from Holocaust denial in the West. The latter seek to rehabilitate the good name of Hitler and to cleanse fascism of its bad name. 

In the Islamic world, denial of the Holocaust seeks to undo what they regard as the most important outcome of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel. Holocaust denial is not about history, it is about wishing away, imagining away a country that some would wish out of existence. It combines two of the three elements that distinguish legitimate objections to Israeli policies from anti-Semitism - delegitimization and demonization. If Israel is Nazi-like it is demonic; if the Israelis are the new Nazis then Israel itself is illegitimate.

The Holocaust was the systematic state-sponsored murder of millions of Jews that emerged as the sustained policy of the Nazified German state over 12 years and implemented as a national priority between 1941-45 in some 21 countries that were controlled or allied with Germany. 

Whatever the events in Gaza are, they bear no resemblance to the Holocaust and the Israelis no resemblance to the Nazis. That does not make everything Israel does just or wise, it is merely restating the obvious.

There are questions to ask, important questions:

How are the government and its army to respond to an irregular force that hides within civilian institutions - schools, mosques and hospitals among them?

It is not sufficient to say that it cannot be done because if that were the case, one would cede to these forces an unimpeded victory.

The conventional categories of warfare, the battles between armies do not apply; conventional definitions of appropriate military behavior must be reapplied under these new circumstances. Some evidence is impressive. More than 90,000 calls were made, leaflets were dropped and warnings were made to civilians.

Some mistakes were also made. The army must be more precise, targeting must be more specific.

As to the Jews and our fear of a repeated of the Holocaust: I have a deeply uncomfortable feeling that Jews, committed and serious Jews concerned with the survival of the Jewish people, are increasingly responsible for the trivializing the Holocaust by using it as a rhetorical political tool with little regard to its appropriateness or the consequences of its misuse. Tom Tugend quoted me in the Jewish Journal as criticizing the title - not the content - of a recent film entitled Ever Again, which clearly meant to evoke the post-Holocaust commitment of "Never Again." By its title, far more than its content, it sought to convey that anti-Semitism today somehow is analogous to what was experienced between 1933-45.

The vulnerability of the 1930s cannot be compared with contemporary Jewish vulnerability. 

It was different!

And we are different. 

The Holocaust was unique. Not every Jewish vulnerability is the vulnerability of the Holocaust and not every enemy is Adolf Hitler. As Leon Wieseltier wrote, "Hitler is dead." Hitler ruled most of Europe and Arafat could not travel more than 150 yards from his battered headquarters. The great leaders of Hamas were in hiding.

Comparing the contemporary situation to the 1930s is to cede to our enemies a power they do not have, an intent they may not share, and to disparage to great achievement of the Zionist revolution that the Jews become actors in history rather than its passive victims. 

It is to invite upon ourselves not only nightmare of our own times, but the absolute darkness of another time and another place that is not our own and bears no resemblance to our own. Those who do so manifest considerable ignorance of those times and misinterpret our own. 

I neither wish to condone or to minimize contemporary anti-Semitism nor to presume for a moment that Jews are not vulnerable today. To state that something is not the Holocaust, that a second Holocaust is not pending, is merely to restate the obvious, not to prescribe complacency.

The name "Holocaust" must be guarded lest we undo the moral capital that we have accumulated this generation and its importance to moral discourse.

It must be guarded from misuse by our enemies, by trivialization by some of our most ardent supporters.