How to talk about the Holocaust: Analogize rarely, never appropriate

Holocaust appropriation is kidnapping.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing (photo credit: YURI GRIPAS / REUTERS)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing
(photo credit: YURI GRIPAS / REUTERS)
Poetry after Auschwitz might be barbaric, but controversy about that worst of all places is constant. Some 70 years after the Red Army came knocking at the gates of hell on earth, Auschwitz is once again headline news, with contention about the use and misuse of the Holocaust touching and inflaming museums, the halls of Congress and US immigration policy. Clearly, we still don’t know how to talk about the Holocaust. That needs to change.
The rule: when it comes to the Holocaust, analogy should be used cautiously and appropriation must always be rejected.
There are those who can think of no greater sin than making of the Holocaust a misty metaphor tolerance. For them, the destruction of European Jewry is a tragedy of particularity. They look at US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comments labeling detention facilities along the southern border “concentration camps” and the ensuing usage of “#NeverAgain” to protest the Trump Administration’s policies as distortions amounting to historical theft. The moment the Holocaust leaves the Jews, it becomes a cynical tool of distortion and ideological hijacking. Of course, the Holocaust is not the only genocide, this perspective acknowledges. But its scope and scale were unique. Look, but don’t compare.
Others sees the Holocaust as an instance of man’s cruelty against man and uses it freely as a template for urging tolerance. While not specifically denying its Jewish content, they believe that an excessive focus on it misses the point. It is a tool for a more just world, and keeping it exclusively in Jewish hands is, they think, a kind of selfishness. These voices reacted with disgust to the US Holocaust Museum’s condemnation of Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison as parochial policing. The Holocaust must be everywhere, or it is nowhere. For some on the Right, it means that every day is Groundhog Day, 1938. For some on the Left, it means that the Holocaust is just another tool in the social justice toolkit, ready to be trotted out to combat perceived racism against any favored class of victims.
To talk more effectively about the Holocaust, we need to think better about it, and that starts with the recognition that analogy is at the core of how people understand themselves and the world around them. They see one thing, and it reminds them of something else. They consider similarity and difference. Holding something apart from analogy entirely is a recipe for its irrelevance. Analogical thinking is a Jewish mode of thought, as well. The Maccabees, Queen Esther, the Exodus; all of these travel from antiquity into the present on analogical wings.
However, those who argue that Auschwitz is beyond comparison are correct to warn that analogy is always in danger of sliding into appropriation. Analogy intelligently done is alert to difference as well as similarity and requires the agility to temper the rush to comparison with the sober acknowledgment that there are distinctions that make a difference. Properly executed analogy is attuned not only to slogans and symbols, but to processes and complexity. It is a powerful tool because it is a limited one.
Holocaust appropriation is kidnapping. It is taking another’s pain whole cloth and importing it into a context where it generates more heat than light. It is necessarily shallow, because appropriators are more interested in surfaces than depth and detail. Unlike analogy, which does the hard work of comparison and contrast, appropriation does the easy task of proclaiming sameness. Being ethically sound and intellectually honest demands line drawing, not self-serving erasure. Appropriation picks favorites, obscuring the pain of some to highlight the suffering of others. Its memory is necessarily short and selective. There are those still living who looked “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele in the eye.
The onus must always be on those who invoke the Holocaust to do so justly. There are many kinds of injustice, and the burden of proof lies squarely on those who decide that Jewish suffering is the most apt prism through which to view a current issue. The better part of wisdom likely lies in declining to pursue such analogies, and when they are deployed, wielding them cautiously. Never Again, yes – but not Always and Everywhere. Ocasio-Cortez, use my people’s tragedy to inspire you to pursue justice. But never forget that when you speak, six million are listening.    
The writer is a commentator and lawyer.