Last week, the separation of children from their parents by the Trump Administration revived an ongoing controversy, over when is ok to compare any event to the Holocaust. Renowned Holocaust historian, Deborah Lipstadt, wrote in The Atlantic that “Trump’s family-separation policy is horrible, but equating it with genocide is both historically and strategically misguided.”
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden was hit with a wave of criticism when he tweeted out a picture of the Birkenau Death Camp writing: “Other governments have separated mothers and children.” He later stated: “I was trying to point out we need to be careful not to move in that direction.”
This is not the first time the question of whether it is appropriate to make comparisons to the Holocaust has sprung up. For some, it is never appropriate to compare anything to the Holocaust. They consider the Holocaust a uniquely Jewish event to which no other carnage can compare. There is surely some element of truth to that view. No other modern event has ever tried to totally eradicate a people. Therefore, whether discussing the massacres in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda or Syria, none of those events can be equated to the Holocaust. Though certainly, to those murdered in the aforementioned persecution that took place — mostly at times the world has been fully aware and did not intervene — it makes no difference whether or not we call that tragedy a Holocaust, the victims are equally dead. And whether we call it a Holocaust or not, we have a responsibility to do our utmost to stop these deadly massacres.
Here in Israel, the question is argued whether the lessons of the Holocaust are universal or particularist to the Jewish people. In other words, should we learn from the Holocaust that we must never again allow such horrors to happen to the Jewish people — and thus every threat to Israel can be considered another potential Holocaust? Or is the lesson for Jews that this profound catastrophe happened to us and we must ensure it never happens to another people? We complain that the world did not save as many Jews as they could, therefore, we must do our part to save everyone we can. In reality, there is little in Israeli policy over the past decade that reflects the later point of view.
Events in America during the past week obviously do not constitute a Holocaust. There have been no mass killings. The Trump administration has no plans to kill the migrants, no plans to do physical harm to the children it has separated. Though that begs a different question — while it is clear one cannot possibly compare anything less than mass killing to the Holocaust, when is one permitted to compare a current event to Nazi-like behavior? Was General Hayden wrong to say the separation of children from parents was part of a slippery slope that could lead to events similar to what happened during the Holocaust?
When should we Jews, who have suffered so through the centuries, warn that behavior towards one group or another is dangerous, and while it may not lead to a Holocaust it should set off warning bells?
How are we supposed to react when the President of the United States refers to asylum seekers as people who want to “infest” America — evoking images of vermin? Describing Nazi ideology, the United States Holocaust Museum states: “Driven by a racist ideology that regarded Jews as ‘parasitic vermin’ worthy only of eradication, the Nazis implemented genocide on an unprecedented scale.”
It is very clear there is no Holocaust happening in the United States. However, does it require an impending Holocaust to happen in order to warn that the direction of the country may be heading down a very dark path?
When is it right for us to take the lessons we as a people acquired at a terrible cost and declare that what is happening at this very moment is not right? At what point is it justified to say that when a President of the United States declares a particular type of people are “infecting the country” that such defamation easily leads to a level of hatred that could likely lead to a very dark place? When the President of the United States makes up numbers claiming “these people have killed 63,000 people,” what can we expect to happen in the future?
Paul Krugman wrote that what is happening in America is not a Holocaust, but “merely” equivalent to the traditional “blood libel” directed at Jews. That analysis should provide little comfort, as the Holocaust did not suddenly happen. It was a result of generations of continued calls of blood libel.
The issue of immigration and migration are clearly complicated, and in some ways, we Israelis are the last ones to teach lessons about inclusion. However, we understand there is a line one does not cross — i.e., once you demonize people, call them murderers and rapists, assert they are infecting your country, you are heading to an extremely dark place.
Hitler did not start off wanting to kill all the Jews. He just wanted to get rid of the vermin. I do not, for even a moment, believe President Trump is a Hitler. He is not evil like Hitler and he would never agree to do any of the truly horrific things Hitler did. Trump is merely an opportunist, exploiting the fears, and in many cases the racism of his supporters.
No, it’s not Trump I fear, but rather, the next generation. Trump is teaching a generation that it is ok to hate. He is teaching a generation that it is acceptable to call people you do not like, people not like you, vermin. It is incumbent on every Jew to speak out against this hate speech. Our people have been on the receiving end of such talk for generations. We know where it can end and we must do all in our power to stop it.