Our country is deeply divided between those who believe we should be taking in the Syrian refugees and those who do not.
As often is the case with many issues today, it is complicated, and though neither side will admit it, there is merit to both viewpoints. That said, I can argue both sides of this issue, but am not going to take a position on it here since this op-ed is only nominally about the Syrian immigrants. What it is really about is the overuse and improper use of the word Holocaust.
It is also a call to action for Jewish people to stop using this term, and to correct others when they use it, unless they are specifically referring to the Holocaust itself. Similarly, we need to place a moratorium on analogizing current events to those relating to or arising from the Holocaust. If we fail to stop this rampant use of the term Holocaust, the word is going to continue to lose the impact of its historical uniqueness. It also is going to minimize the struggles and the suffering of those who endured it. In addition, its overuse and resulting dilution is one reason why Israel, which faces daily terrorism as no other country ever has before, is so easily criticized for its response to this terrorism.
The Holocaust was and remains a singular event in history, one that had never occurred before and (thankfully) has not occurred since. Besides the fact that the scope — 6 million murdered Jews — and horror — dehumanizing, gassing and shooting all Jews, from young children to the elderly — is barely fathomable to our “enlightened” minds, the purpose itself was diabolical. That is not to say that there have not been other mass murders in the 70 years since. Pol Pot killed one million Cambodians killed in the 1970s; 800,000 Tutsis were killed in Rwanda in the 1990s, and Assad killed 250,000 Syrians during that country’s civil war — so far. But all of these murders, as heinous, revolting and contemptible as they were, were all carried out for political purposes and within the confines of a single country.
They were not done, as the Holocaust was, for the sole purpose of wiping an entire people off the face of the Earth.
Although many of the Syrian immigrants have suffered great hardships — and again, I am not expressing an opinion on whether we should take them in — their plight, their options, and their likely fate if they remain in Syria is nothing like that of the Jewish people in the 1940s. That is, their imminent demise is not anything close to the near certainty it was for the Jews of Germany, Austria, Poland, and most of Eastern Europe. Likewise, there is no comparison to the Jews who escaped Germany and had nowhere to go. Dozens of nearby Arab countries have the space and economies sufficient to support the Syrian refugees.
There were few countries in Europe that would accept Jewish refugees during World War II, and even fewer that could protect them from the Nazis’ atrocities. Even those Jews who escaped from Poland and Germany and landed in places like France or Sweden found that they were not safe there either. Often they ended up dead, as they would have had they stayed. That is far from the case with the Syrian refugees — though this not an argument for refusing to allow them into the United States.
We are cheapening the word “Holocaust” by its constant use. In trademark law, companies protect their names by preventing them from being diluted by entering into common use. Once a company’s name or mark becomes the common term for the product it is known as a generic term and loses trademark protections. It is why Kleenex is not a tissue; Band-Aid is not a bandage strip; and the International Olympic Committee sues anybody who uses its interlocked rings for business purposes. These companies have fought hard to protect their trademarks. Likewise, the Jewish people should fight hard as well to protect our unfortunate ownership of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Finally, not only do we minimize the impact of the word Holocaust by allowing its improper use, we desecrate the names and sufferings of those who went through it. We lessen their experiences and allow them to die once more by denying them their unique (albeit horrific) place in the historical context of man’s inhumanity toward man. It desensitizes the rest of the world, and the Jewish people as well, to the inexplicable circumstances that caused the Holocaust. It also casts aside the special role it played in shaping future conflicts and the creation of the State of Israel itself.
We must avoid further dilution of the Holocaust by no longer allowing these grossly inaccurate and misleading uses of our tragic history to support political positions, no matter how worthy they may be. So the next time somebody says that a terrible world event is “like the Holocaust,” hand that person a tissue (not a Kleenex) and commiserate. Then gently correct your friend by noting that the event was a horrible tragedy, but it was not anything like THE Holocaust.
In that way, we can assure that our cry of “never again” really means something.