For Jews, these are the Days of Awe, the ten days between with the New Year and the Day of Atonement, when Jews repent for past sins and make resolutions for the future. One topic Jews may ponder is the special place assigned them among the peoples of the world. This is a distinction most Jews would rather do without. Injustices to which they have been subjected over the millennia are constantly diluted and devalued into a kind of common currency of calamity, with which all may identify. On the other hand, injustices which they have (supposedly) visited upon others are constantly magnified into unique catastrophes,to which history offers no parallels.
One sees evidence of the first phenomenon in the comparison of the plight of the Syrian refugees with the Jewish refugees of 1938. Pundits, and even a questioner at the second presidential debate, repeatedly mention the supposed equivalency.
There is no such equivalency. In 1938, the Jewish people faced a threat unprecedented in modern history. Nazi policy, written in their literature and brazenly announced in their rallies, held that the Jews were a subhuman, bacterial species which had to be exterminated for the sake of mankind. This meant that the Nazis would not only gather up and murder the Jews within Germany. They would go farther. They would range over any territory they could conquer, seeking and gathering up Jews wherever they could find them, so that the entire “race” could be concentrated in camps and exterminated.
For a Jew, there was no possibility of redemption. Jews who converted to Christianity, even Jews who, for whatever reason, embraced fascism, were still considered carriers of this bacterial strain, and were duly gathered up and murdered.
Syrians refugees are fleeing a horrific landscape of death. But their horror is not the Holocaust. No one in that benighted country – not Assad, not ISIS, not any of the rebel factions – talks about eliminating the Syrian race, the way Hitler talked about eliminating the Jews. No one is intent on ranging outside the country, to find escaping Syrians, to gather them up in camps for murder on a mass industrial scale.
To equate Syrian suffering with the Jewish Holocaust is to deny history, and to diminish and dilute the unique dreadfulness of the Jewish experience.
The same dilutive machinery is at work in the transformation of the word “ghetto.” Its original meaning was a quarter in a city to which the Jews were restricted. Venice, Frankfurt, Prague, Rome, and many other European cities walled off their Jewish populations, limiting their contact with gentiles and subjecting them to onerous restrictions. In Venice, for example, Jews were allowed out only during the day, and were locked up in their ghetto at night. A ghetto was, in a sense, a concentration camp in embryo: a place of forced segregation where Jews were confined to prevent them from infecting their more fully human neighbors.
Today, “ghetto” refers to any poor, predominantly minority urban neighborhood. Young people who encounter the term in rap songs, or their parents who heard it in Elvis Presley’s titled hit, have no idea of its original, uniquely Jewish origins.
As with the attempt to equate the Syrian experience with the Holocaust, the dilution of the term “ghetto” serves to diminish the Jewish experience, and to render its extraordinary calamities somehow ordinary.
While Jewish hardships are diluted so that they seem almost commonplace, alleged Jewish transgressions are treated as unique. Consider the treatment of the Palestinian refugees.
Throughout history, war has always created dislocation. Our own American Revolution led to the displacement of thousands of Loyalists. In the aftermath of World War II, about the time when Israel was emerging as an independent state, the world was witnessing an epidemic of dislocations. Finns were ejected from Karelia, Hungarians from Yugoslavia, Ukrainians from Poland, Poles from Ukraine, and ethnic Germans from practically every region of Eastern Europe, including Königsberg, where Germans had lived for seven centuries. All of these displaced peoples suffered. The dislocation of the Germans alone is estimated to have caused between 500,000 to three million deaths. Meanwhile in Asia, India was gaining independence from Great Britain and Pakistan was separating itself from India. In the wake of the chaos, some 10 to 12 million people were uprooted – Hindus and Sikhs to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. No one knows for sure how many perished in the upheaval, but the consensus figure is around 500,000.
These events occurred about the same time that the creation of Israel led to the Palestinian refugee problem. But their experience has proved very different. None of the millions of others forcibly displaced during the same era are seen as holding claims to their native lands today. The very term “refugee” is used differently when applied to them. Palestinians are the only dispossessed people whose descendants qualify as “refugees.” By 1960, the last remaining refugee camps of World War II had been cleared. But the Palestinian “refugee camps” are still with us, populated by the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of the original refugees. Alone among all the peoples of the world, the number of Palestinian “refugees” grows rather than wanes with time.
Consequently, to those who blame the Jews for the Palestinian situation, this is an offense without a statute of limitations. It is a perpetual black mark, one that only grows larger and darker over the years.
This same black mark explains why Israel, along among all nations, is not accorded the right to select its own capital. Even its friends, such as the United States, situate their embassies in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. For the same reason, Israel is the only member of the UN barred from serving on the Security Council.
This special treatment – downplaying the wrongs done to Jews, elevating the wrongs supposedly done by Jews – need not be cause for despair. But as Jews gather to pray in the Days of Awe, it may be enough for them to recall the words of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”