Shai Franklin
Partner with Gotham Government Relations

Don’t Compare Campus Situation to the Holocaust

American Jews do face a campus crisis, which we can help to either escalate or de-escalate, exacerbate or resolve. Whichever path we choose, applying a Holocaust lens won’t help students or American Jews in general, and it will reduce the Holocaust to a political slogan.

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One of the defining features of the Holocaust is the fact that police and security services were used to demonize, attack and murder Jews, against the backdrop of diminished freedoms for all. As scary as many campus incidents have been over recent months, this is not 1930s Germany. While there has been violence and dangerous rhetoric against Jews, the only individuals arrested so far have been those on the other side — not Jews. Even when a Jewish vigilante mob attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA, as police stood by and watched, only the protest campers got arrested. That’s not how I remember Kristallnacht.

Those banning books and demonizing immigrants have been among those calling for even stronger measures against anti-Israel agitators. That’s right, apologists for the 2017 Nazi march in Charlottesville and for shutting down freedom of expression so we can “make America great again,” have now joined the campaign to condemn and restructure — and to defund — institutions of higher learning. To protect Jews.

Rather than evoking a second Holocaust against Jews, having these allies on our side to arrest and ban our critics should at least give us pause. And to the extent that changes and extreme measures are needed, there’s no need to frame them as stopping a genocide of the Jews. Certainly not when police are violently removing and arresting our antagonists, nor when Israel’s Gaza operation has killed anywhere from 13,000 to 35,000 Palestinians.

This Holocaust framing only makes sense if the goal is to further chill the spirit of independent scholarship and intellectual debate on campus, and to preempt Western and United Nations sanctions against Israel and international indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. And to help Jews feel like we’re still the world’s only true victims. For his part, Netanyahu has long sought to reshape America in his image, and letting all hell break loose in Gaza and on American campuses during an election year can’t hurt that agenda.

What does get hurt is the kind of future American Jews would want for American society and for our own children in both countries, if we weren’t simultaneously so traumatized and exhausted and livid at this moment.

What also gets hurt is the Holocaust as a symbol and lesson to ourselves and for all humanity. If the effective lesson is that Jewish safety necessitates the paring down of our democratic norms and culture, or that only Jewish suffering really matters, then there is no transcendent meaning to the Holocaust for Jews or for anyone else. If the legacy of the Holocaust dictates that any criticism of Israel and especially expressions of anti-Zionism are intrinsically antisemitic, then we have become the new tyrants. And for those who say some criticism is acceptable, please note how many Jews are even calling President Biden — arguably the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the Oval Office — an antisemite merely for taking issue with Netanyahu’s decisions on Gaza and the West Bank.

Conflating this year’s Holocaust commemorations with October 7, and with the situation on campus, may empower some activists and politicians and make us feel like we’re somehow expiating the Holocaust. But the police and the leadership at every level of government are on our side. Columbia University President Minouche Shafik is being condemned for not arresting or suspending enough pro-Palestinian protesters, even as the faculty senate is clamoring for her resignation because she’s been too harsh. We have a Jewish spouse in the White House, and we recently laid to rest Joe Lieberman, the first Jew ever on a major U.S. party’s national ticket. When Joe attended Yale, the Ivy League was still emerging from Jewish quotas.

All this doesn’t mean that it can’t happen here, but there’s no evidence that it is happening here now, or that we are even in the early stages.

What is definitely happening, and what has been unfolding for most of the past decade, is a slide into authoritarianism and legitimizing of xenophobia. Yes, we need to ensure safety and safe spaces on campus, something the critics of “wokeism” were ridiculing until recently, and something the gun lobby still opposes. But we don’t need to jettison our values or trivialize the Holocaust to make our case, and we shouldn’t allow others to do so in our name. It won’t win us a single new ally, it demotes the memory of the six million, and it betrays what we and the State of Israel have claimed to stand for ever since.

About the Author
Shai Franklin, a consultant and lobbyist with U.S. and overseas clients, has served as an executive with American and international Jewish organizations.
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