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Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Jews Love Dead Canaries

Dara Horn’s thought-provoking new book, People Love Dead Jews has been much discussed. But one point she makes is worth questioning – that we should stop claiming that anti-Semitism is the “canary in the coal mine” of hate, the notion that when acts of animosity start with Jews, they invariably escalate to other groups.

Horn said, in an interview,

How degrading it is to yourself to make that argument, the whole “first they came for the Jews” idea. You’re forced to erase and denigrate yourself in order to gain some kind of public empathy. Because then what you’re saying is that we should all care when Jews are murdered and maimed because, you know, it might be an ominous sign that real people might later get attacked.

Her point has validity. Why should hatred against Jews be condemned only because it portends other, supposedly more evil hatreds?  Why should subsequent attacks on other groups be seen as an escalation?  All hate is, or should be, equally vile – and it’s troubling that after the Colleyville synagogue attack, many people didn’t act that way. I will grant that.

But there is another aspect of the canary-in-coal-mine analogy that is quite valid.  The dead canary is not warning us about the escalation of hate, but the degradation of truth.

See what Deborah Lipstadt, who simply must be approved as America’s special envoy to monitor antisemitism, wrote in 1993 in her seminal book, Denying the Holocaust:

Those who care not just about Jewish history or the history of the Holocaust but about truth in all its forms, must function as canaries in the mine ones did, to guard against the spread of noxious fumes. We must vehemently stand watch against an increasingly nimble enemy. But unlike the canary we must not sit silently by waiting to expire so that others will be warned of the danger. When we witness assaults on the truth, a response must be strong, though neither polemical nor emotional.  We must educate the broader public and academe about this thread and historical and ideological roots. We must expose these people for what they are.

This week is the fifth anniversary of the Trump Administration’s first major lie (aside from the size of the inauguration). It was the 2017 International Holocaust Day proclamation that left out any mention of Jews, an enormous error that emboldened White Supremacists everywhere. My guess is that it was inadvertent, a result of the incompetence and confusion that marked those first weeks (and beyond) of the Trump White House. But of course, the last thing Press Secretary Sean Spicer could do was to admit an error and clean it up. That was just not done in the Trump White House.

That was a classic “canary in the coal mine” moment. As I said explicitly in in my recent book, Embracing Auschwitz:

Holocaust denial is the canary in the coal mine of Orwellian doublethink, the mother of all fake news, in that not only does it defy all standards of empirical science and reject meticulously documented history, which any act of historical denial might do, but in this case, doing so also attempts to whitewash the greatest moral crime ever perpetrated. There is, and there never has been, a greater, more bald-faced lie than the denial of the Holocaust. That fact alone warranted an official immediate White House retraction.

That retraction never came, and 30,000 lies later, it still hasn’t come. How fitting that all the lies began with a lie told about the Holocaust, a case of Holocaust denial, a simple lie of omission rather than commission, whether intentional or not.

And so, Dara Horn, I respect what you are saying. Jewish deaths should not be seen as noteworthy only because they portend threats against other groups. They are not the appetizer to the real meal. “First they came for the Jews…” should not be the reason people stand up for the Jews. They may or may not eventually come for you, but you should defend Jews because anti-Semitism is evil, not because of the canary’s warning.  And we should fight hate wherever it is found.

But Holocaust denial is a special form of evil – it is an attack on truth itself, and one that can lead to other attacks, until truth becomes so degraded that even an armed  insurrection in broad daylight and a free and fair election can be questioned. No lie is more malignant than Holocaust denial. If the veracity of Auschwitz is allowed to be defiled by denial, no truth is safe.

What culminated on January 6, 2021, began on January 27, 2017, with the croak of a dying canary, and a noxious act of Holocaust forgetting on, of all days, the international day of Holocaust remembrance.  

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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