The new 'truth' about Good and Evil

Efforts to demonize everyday political woes by reference to the Holocaust end up turning the Shoah into a trivial matter

Even while the Holocaust is finally becoming in Europe the quintessential reincarnation of evil, Europeans are busy trivializing it. Soon, careless references to the Holocaust will intersect not only with the efforts of those who have tried to belittle it, but also with the concerted and stated aim of pro-Palestinian apologists to make the Palestinian predicament akin to the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War. That the Holocaust symbolizes absolute evil should be obvious. That all evil becomes, by rhetorical hyperbole or malicious intent, equivalent to the Holocaust, should be less evident. Nevertheless, this is precisely what is happening in Europe today. Referring to Nazism, London Mayor Ken Livingstone said, in a recent interview to Haaretz, that "For all my generation, we defined evil by that: that this is the absolute worst in human history." And while one can only agree, for once, with the mayor, it does not necessarily follow that Guantanamo Bay becomes Auschwitz, as a banner during an anti-war demonstration in London in November 2003 claimed. It does not mean that a transit center for clandestine immigrants in the Italian island of Lampedusa - recently exposed for its dire conditions and maltreatment of its residents - is like Auschwitz. And it certainly does not mean that abortion is like the "extermination of the Jews of Europe," as a recent newspaper editorial argued in Italy. Intellectuals should be able to tell the difference: that all evil becomes the same is a testimony to their intellectual failure, not a reflection of a new truth about good and evil in the world. Here's the irony then. The Holocaust has so pervaded the European conscience that it has become a code word for evil. But the effort to demonize every day's political and moral banes by reference to the Holocaust ended up not only making all other evils equal, but it also turned the Holocaust into a trivial matter: nobody has died at Guantanamo or at Lampedusa so far. The two experiences are also quite different from one another. Yet, they all become "Auschwitz." And in the process, Auschwitz loses its distinct, uniquely evil and uniquely Jewish quality. While nobody necessarily intended to trivialize the Holocaust, the long-term effect on public opinion is the same. THAT AMONG those who manipulate the Holocaust to belittle it or to void it of its Jewish component are pro-Palestinian apologists is also obvious. The effort to equate the Palestinians' plight with the Holocaust is part of the ongoing pro-Palestinian propaganda effort against Israel to deny Israel any legitimacy. By elevating the Palestinian predicament to genocide, not only is Israel demonized as the latest reincarnation of Nazism - hence evil - but the Palestinians also become the new archetypal underdog - the Jews of the 21st century - deserving protection from the new Hitlers. So it should not come as a surprise that a British government-appointed advisory board of Muslim representatives recently told Tony Blair that the best response to the London bombings was to transform Holocaust Memorial Day into a more inclusive "Genocide Memorial Day" in order to commemorate victims of other such experiences (including Palestinians, Kashmiris and Chechens). Jewish responses, both in the UK and Israel, ranged from outrage to surprise. While rage is commendable and should not subside as new assaults on the memory of the Holocaust will continue and new attempts to trivialize, belittle or deny it through insidious and inaccurate comparisons will multiply, there should be neither surprise nor complacency. In January 2005, representatives for the Muslim Council of Britain, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), the Union of Italian Muslims (UMI) and the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations of Italy (UCOII) refused to attend official Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations. The UOIF leader, Lhaj Thami Breze, and the head of the MCB, Iqbal Sacranie, expressly chose not to attend commemorations, arguing that Holocaust Memorial Day was not inclusive and therefore not worthy of their presence. As Sacranie explained in a letter to the editor in The Guardian on January 27, "The view held by the Muslim Council of Britain since the inception of Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001 is that the subtext of the Memorial Day - 'Never Again' - is diluted by the exclusive nature of the event. The memorial day would in our opinion be better served by covering the ongoing mass killings and human rights abuses in our world, and thus make the cry 'Never Again' real for all people who suffer, even now." Objecting to the uniqueness of the Jewish genocide, Sacranie supported instead a "Genocide Memorial Day," when all victims of genocides, past and present, would be commemorated, and when "peace with justice" was to be promoted for those continuing to suffer in the world, especially "in Palestine," Kashmir and Chechnya. THIS ARGUMENT is disingenuous: as alleged victims of genocide, Sacranie mentioned only Palestinians, Chechens, and Kashmiris, the emotional issues feeding into a strong sense of pan-Islamic grievance within Europe and across the Islamic world. As genocides past and present he quoted Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda but omitted Armenia and Sudan. His agenda thus was clear both in its sins of omission and of commission. Omissions aimed to shroud in silence those tragedies in which the murderers were (and still are) Muslim armies and Muslim governments. Mention of Palestine as a place where genocide is allegedly taking place is a trivialization of the Holocaust that also borders on denial. Inclusion of Bosnia and Kosovo, where ethnic cleansing on a large scale took place, Kashmir, where inter-ethnic conflict is happening, and Chechnya, where vast human rights abuses and massacres still do not amount to genocide, is meant to blur all differences and make all suffering become genocide. Blurring differences and omitting tragedies is aimed to cloak Muslims in a mantle of victimization and force Europe to accept such distortions for the sake of accommodation. And with European voices busy using and abusing the memory of the Holocaust for their own rhetorical and political purposes, the memory of the Holocaust is eroding, paradoxically, precisely at the moment when it has been recognized almost universally as the epitome of evil. So far, efforts have failed to deny the unique Jewish dimension of the Holocaust. But the future holds no guarantees: sooner or later, the assaults on the ramparts of memory will find a breach. The writer is Leone Ginzburg Research Fellow in Israel Studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a columnist for Italy's daily Il Foglio.