As society grows increasingly complex, becoming familiar with semantic tools helps to better analyze current events. It is, for instance, important to recognize the variants of recurrent motifs.
This is seldom if ever taught systematically. One frequently repeated motif used to mislead people is whitewashing. The darker the issue, the more whitewashing is applied. To understand this concept more clearly, the covering up of issues related to the Holocaust can be used as a good example. Among the multiple distortions of the Holocaust, whitewashing has a significant place.
A few illustrations: In 1985, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl invited US President Ronald Reagan for a joint visit to the German military cemetery in Bitburg. It aimed to be a symbolic act for the strong US-German bonds 40 years after Germany surrendered.
The initial impression given was that only soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht, the German army, were buried there. The Germans wanted to create a distinction between the army – supposedly not involved in war crimes – and the criminal SS, which carried out most of the mass murders of Jews. This fallacy backfired. Shortly after the visit was announced, it transpired that members of the Waffen SS, the military arm of the SS, were also buried in this cemetery. This led to huge protests against the visit.
In his memoirs, Elie Wiesel devotes an entire chapter to the Bitburg affair. He summarizes how Kohl knowingly tricked Reagan into the visit, as well as the essence of the whitewashing attempt. The year after the Bitburg visit, it also became publicly known that the Wehrmacht had been frequently involved in the mass murder of Jews.
Yet another illustration of whitewashing concerning the Holocaust: The Vatican attempted to pressure Yad Vashem’s museum to change the text under a photo of Pope Pius XII. The Vatican wanted to whitewash the pope’s wartime behavior. Yad Vashem reacted by saying that it was inconceivable that diplomatic pressure should be used on a matter of historical research.
A third illustration concerns wartime US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In addition to whitewashing, this involved another motif, “deflection.” US State Department officials were blamed for the fact that the immigration of Jews into the United States during the war was far below the legal limits set by the US Congress. Historians have, however, proven that this policy had the full knowledge and approval of Roosevelt.
WHITEWASHING is often also an important motif used in denying antisemitism. This is frequently used together with “minimizing” it. The UK Labour party is a prime example. A majority of its members are antisemitism whitewashers and minimizers. A recent poll by YouGov for The Mail on Sunday showed that 53% of Labour members believe that the problem of antisemitism in the party is exaggerated. Another 25% believe there is no such problem at all. Yet, a detailed study by scholar Alan Johnson, himself a Labour member, has shown that the party is institutionally antisemitic. The whitewashing/minimizing by the majority of Labour members can be considered part of this institutional antisemitism.
Becoming familiar with these examples of the whitewashing motif enables comparison to other contemporary issues. One almost classic example from Congress was a statement by the Jewish liberal Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), about several of her colleague Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota)’s antisemitic remarks. She said “As a Somalian refugee from a different culture, Omar has things to learn.” The uninformed reader might think that Omar arrived recently in the United States. In fact, she has lived in the US since the 1990’s. During that time Omar learned to run successfully for Congress – a challenge far more difficult than avoiding the use of antisemitic comments.
In March 2020, Marie Newman defeated the incumbent Democrat in a hotly contested primary in a Democrat-leaning Illinois district. A rapid look at her website shows that Newman opposes the violence of both Israelis and Palestinians. Besides that, there are no further demands of the Palestinians and many demands of Israel. Newman is an extreme whitewasher of the Palestinians by not mentioning any of their anti-democratic actions and crimes.
US presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) is a multiple purpose whitewasher. Even today, he is still not willing to condemn outright the Cuban leader and mass murderer Fidel Castro. Sanders also speaks about respecting the dignity of the Palestinians, yet, they have voted in their parliamentary elections to give the genocidal Hamas movement a majority. The Palestinian Authority leadership glorifies murderers and has “a pay for slay” policy rewarding them or their families for murdering Israelis. Sanders also calls the Israeli government racist. He whitewashes himself saying that he is a democratic socialist in favor of “justice, decency, and human dignity.” Yet, democrats do not vilify other democrats while at the same time dignifying murderers.
Teaching how the whitewashing motif is applied is important for those opposed to antisemitism. Yet, it is also helpful for anybody interested in enhancing their understanding of what is behind the news. Teaching this and other motifs by providing extensive examples will also be most helpful for schoolchildren. This will enable them to better understand the increasingly opaque and confusing society they will live in.
The writer is the emeritus Chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He received the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s International Leadership Award and the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research’s International Lion of Judah Award.