The Spectator

A New Slur

Calling people “Holocaust-obsessed” is the new holocaust denial.

Adolf Hitler and his staff salute the teams during the opening ceremonies of the XI Olympic Games on August 1, 936 in Berlin
Adolf Hitler and his staff salute the teams during the opening ceremonies of the XI Olympic Games on August 1, 936 in Berlin

Photo by Getty Images.

Is there an algorithm for suffering? One that calibrates how much empathy we should feel for the victims of genocide? What degree of concern is “rational”? What degree is excessive, “obsessed”? Should the degree to which we grieve about, analyze—and react to the threat of—mass murders be calculable objectively?

It would make things easier if we could just take number of actual dead, say, (or the number the killers wanted dead), times the percentage of victim-group killed, maybe multiplied by the logarithm of cruelty of the methodology of mass killing, divided by the number of decades in the past the crime occurred. (Time is a factor: Hitler was famously quoted as saying, in 1939, “Who, after all, speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?” After all, the Holocaust took place seven decades ago, the Armenian horror a little more than two decades before Hitler’s remark. Lucky for him there were few “obsessed” with this mass murder at the time.)

If there were an algorithm for suffering perhaps we would be able to judiciously appraise the claims that there are some among us (mostly Jewish) who are “holocaust obsessed.” It’s the new fashionable meme for those who don’t want to be overly troubled by the memory of the death camps and looming threats of a second holocaust. The term enables those who use it to suggest that those more concerned than they are “obsessed” in an unseemly way.

It’s the word “obsessed” that seems problematic to me. It implies a bright line between legitimate interest and something else, something over-intense, feverish, and counterproductive. But where is that line? How much time should we spend worrying about the threat of future Holocausts and genocides, not just those involving Jews.

The much-lauded German novelist W.G. Sebald has been quoted saying “no serious person thinks of anything else.” This was obviously a form of hyperbole designed to jolt people out of complacency. But it raises the question: How much does a serious person think about the Holocaust? What does it mean to be “obsessed” and what does it mean to give the Holocaust an appropriate place in our political and cultural consciousness?

I admit I was stunned in exploring this question to find no less than 272,000 Google hits for “obsessed with the Holocaust.” And it’s not just racist sites (including David Duke’s) or anti-Zionist sites like Mondoweiss.

Increasingly the word “obsessed”—as “obsessed with the holocaust” or “holocaust obsessed”—has entered contemporary discourse, often used by Jews as an epithet to describe other Jews. It may have entered the mainstream as far back as the publication of Peter Novick’s 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life, in which he accuses American Jews as a whole of exploiting the Holocaust in bad faith, either as a “victimization Olympics” or for political (primarily pro-Israel) purposes.

The term “holocaust-obsessed” appeared in The New Yorker in an article about Israeli politician Avraham Burg who, according to David Remnick, “describes the country in its current state as Holocaust obsessed. …” Too much attention to the extermination of 6 million Jews oh so long ago, just because 6 million or so more are being threatened with exterminationist rhetoric today.

It’s lately become a trope of novelists and memoirists who seek to show how much more sophisticated they’ve become about the whole thing.

And recently the epithet has become a focus of the debate over the Israeli response to Iranian nuclear intentions. It was a prominent “peace activist” there, Uri Avnery who applied the phrase “holocaust obsessed fantasist” to current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

(Netanyahu had said not long ago, “It’s 1938, Iran is Germany.”)

Demonstrating that it has become a widely recognized shibboleth on both sides of the discourse over American Israeli relations, Jonathan Rosen, in his astute New York Times Book Review critique of Peter Beinart’s Crisis in Zion offered a caustic assessment of those self-proclaimed enlightened moralists who accuse others of a “Holocaust-obsessed” mentality.

And the term has entered the realm of high-profile literary culture in the widespread discussion of Nathan Englander’s highly praised short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. In the title story, for instance, you can find an American wife described as “a little obsessed with the Holocaust.” (Although, as we’ll see, it’s a bit more complicated.)

Much of the recent use of the phrase has been prompted by people comparing Iran today to Hitler’s Germany. I should mention that I am not necessarily in favor of a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear capacity. I think the issue is insoluble and either way I see a catastrophe coming. But I just don’t have patience with those who try to exclude the real historical catastrophe from relevance by denigrating any concern with it as “obsession.”

In any case, the dismissive epithet does service not just for anti-Semites or anti-Zionists but for Jews who don’t like the association with victimhood, so parochial, so ghetto, so shtetl, so shameful to the faux-sophisticate universalist citizen of the world.

Is it better, then, to be “somewhat interested” in the holocaust, rather than “holocaust-obsessed”? Moderately interested? Temperately troubled? How much is the correct amount of interest one should devote to rapidly receding history? How much should the charge of obsession affect the way we look at the victims of collective hate murders in the present: 9/11, the Oslo slayings and the Sikhs, for instance. Do they qualify for a heightened degree of concern since the killers obviously—had they the means—would have wanted to murder many, many more? How should it affect the way we view exterminationist threats not yet realized?

It’s so convenient, isn’t it, to deplore those who are said to be “holocaust obsessed.” It allows one to avoid all the troubling implications of the past for the future. It allows Jews to avoid having to be a Debbie Downer at dinner parties when the subject comes up, usually in the context of discussing the kind of threats to the state of Israel that are even more explicit and realizable today than those to the Jews of Europe in the prewar era. It’s so unchic, so indicative of “ethnic panic.” It makes you think of that scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen feels like he’s been transformed into a black hat Hasidic at the dinner table of Annie’s Christian family.

Consider that Nathan Englander story in which a husband calls his wife “a little obsessed with the Holocaust … here we are twenty minutes from downtown Miami but really it’s 1937 and we live on the edge of Berlin.” His is a self-subverting condescension since no one thinks the danger of a second holocaust will come from “downtown Miami” (or to America at all) but from the exterminationist threats to the people of downtown Tel Aviv. (Is it an accident this downer of a wife is named Deb?) Frankly I don’t attribute this caricature to Englander himself; it’s too simplistic for such a good writer. I suspect he’s just as much caricaturing the thick-headed husband who disparages his wife in this way.

But the portrait of her irrational fear of an American holocaust comforts those who might otherwise have to be concerned about the genuine potential of a second holocaust in the Middle East.

Jewish prisoner during World War II.
A picture released on April 7, 1961, taken during World War II in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, shows Nazi leader and war criminal Adolf Eichmann (2nd R) smiling while German officers cut a Jewish prisoner’s hair locks

Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Imagine: worrying about extermination threats just because Hitler made extermination threats which he carried out. No reason to get all obsessed because another anti-Semitic leader who is seeking nuclear weapons makes similar threats, right? No reason to be troubled about the exterminationist anti-Semitic rhetoric that pervades the airwaves and the cyber realm of every other nation in the region.

Anyone who seeks to draw comparisons with the warnings of a “Final Solution” in the 1930s and the situation today—in other words to take history into account—is met with scorn as “Holocaust-obsessed.” Or accused of “hoarding the Holocaust,” as Peter Beinart has put it.

Indeed using “holocaust-obsessed” as an epithet has become, in effect, the new Holocaust denial. The new holocaust denial doesn’t deny the holocaust happened, it just denies it should have any historical relevance today. In an afterword she wrote for an anthology I compiled, Cynthia Ozick spoke about an English writer who castigated Menachim Begin for invoking the Holocaust murder of a million Jewish children as a reason for ordering the Israeli attack on Saddam’s potential bomb-making nuclear reactor in 1981. She called the castigation a denial of the very essence of historical discourse: making connections. “Is the imagination’s capacity to ‘connect’ worthy of such scorn … ?” she asked.

By the way, you can always tell one of this new breed of Holocaust denier by the way they claim that careful parsing of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threat to “wipe Israel off the map” or “wipe Israel from the page of time” (depending on how its translated), doesn’t really mean he wants to harm a single hair on the head of single Jew. See, if you read it carefully it’s nothing to worry about. He just wants to change the governmental set up! You know, so the state of Israel will no longer exist and thus not appear on the map (or the page of time). They cling desperately to the notion that it’s not a sinister euphemism like, say, Hitler’s “Final Solution.”  

Speaking of which, there’s a lesson in the way “Final Solution” was euphemized to Hitler’s benefit. While researching the archives of an anti-Hitler newspaper for my book on Hitler explanations, I discovered that euphemism, “Final Solution”—“Endlösung” in German—had been used by the Nazi party, and published in the Munich Post —as far back as 1931. But evidently there were those back then who didn’t want to see through the euphemism just as there are those who don’t want to see through the sinister euphemisms in Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements today. The fact that Hitler successfully cloaked his exterminationist intentions in such euphemisms should of course not cause us to look askance at Ahmadinejad’s. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, as they say. Shame on those who don’t get this for fear of being called “holocaust-obsessed.”

In the past I’ve had occasion to call this “Holocaust inconsequentialism”: Yes, it happened, we’re all so sorry, but the fact that the world allowed and the entire continent of Europe collaborated in industrialized mass murder shouldn’t have any consequences for how we view the present situation. Or for how we assess the nature of human nature. But “holocaust inconsequentialism” only differs from Holocaust denial in that it is practiced by more sophisticated types who would never consider themselves (and mostly aren’t) anti-Semites. In fact most are Jews and not, I should add, “self-hating Jews,” as some have called them. Rather they are inordinately self-loving Jews, who like to pride themselves as having transcended their parochial pasts, not shackled to the supposed limiting shtetl or ethnic mentality, but rising above all that unpleasantness to a realm of Pure Kantian Ideal. Unaware of the blindness that believing only the best about humanity entails.

If we agree on the fatuousness of those who fling “holocaust-obsessed” around as an epithet for anyone holocaust-concerned or -cognizant, how obsessed, concerned, affected should one be, then? There remain serious questions about the tragedy that are worthy of further consideration. Indeed in the past few years newly available archives of former Eastern European police states such as Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine have opened a Pandora’s box of new Holocaust questions and exacerbated old debates, mostly involving the often shocking complicity of Eastern European anti-Semitic populaces in the machinery of extermination and the wartime and postwar “nationalist” pogroms against Jews that ran parallel to Hitler’s Final Solution. (It wasn’t only Germans who were enthusiasts for extermination. Far from it.) It’s all very ugly, as this essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the divisive conflicts among Polish historians demonstrates.

Most salient recent debate has focused on Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which I wrote about here in Slate and which raises a whole other series of questions about comparative evil—and comparative responsibility—in Stalin’s and Hitler’s mass murders and their different methodologies of mass murder: Stalin apparently preferred deliberate mass starvation—often leading to cannibalism—to Hitler’s gas chambers. The tactic raised his body count, according to most estimates, above the Führer’s, and also raised the question of whether his mass slow death was more or less cruel than the Nazis’ quick shooting and gassing. Recent review essays by Frederic Raphael in the London Times Literary Supplement and Christopher Browning in the New York Review of Books demonstrate the complexity of the questions the newly opened archives prompt, questions about how the nations of Europe reacted (or failed to react) to prewar threats of extermination and their wartime complicities in the extermination.

Reading their arguments and the debates they invoke makes me wonder if we’re “holocaust-obsessed” enough. If there still are many more questions about the phenomenon to pursue. The nature of human nature for instance. George Steiner once told me he believed the Holocaust “removed the reinsurance on human hope,” meaning the conceptual safety net beneath which our belief in the capability for evil could not go. Now we know it can go far lower. But how far below does this unimaginable hell stretch?

One thing the new evidence has done is re-enforce a perception I’ve had that Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” description of Eichmann—the concept of “banality of evil” itself—is now looking ever more foolish. I’ve argued that Arendt arrogantly and ignorantly bought into Eichmann’s defense that he was “just following orders” in a way that absolved him from the “radical evil” that she, Arendt, once believed in. When it turns out Eichmann was a bloodthirsty Jew-hater who, even after the war was effectively lost, was trying desperately to extract every last Jew from Hungary to be murdered. Above and beyond the call of duty that “following orders” implies.

How holocaust-obsessed should we be? Perhaps if we were more “holocaust-conscious” (a term I’d prefer), we wouldn’t have stood by as Rwandans were slaughtered. Or waited till after Srebrenica to care about the Bosnians. Perhaps if we were more Holocaust-conscious the historically ignorant and often racist idiots who promote the idea of “American exceptionalism” (America was established and ordained in grace and glory by God and was never complicit in sin) might take note of the fact that this nation was founded upon two genocides—that of the Native Americans and that of the African-American slaves. Whose death toll over three centuries is almost incalculably high.

And perhaps if we were more “holocaust-obsessed” and surveyed the way genocides have spread over the landscape of history, covered the map of the world like bloodstains, we would be less Pollyannaish about the future. Perhaps we’d be more alert to intervene before the killing started or at least before it finished. Perhaps, as I’ve suggested in my most recent book, we’d realize that any nuclear war even a “small” one is a genocidal event. A definition that should call for more urgency than a sluggish crawl toward arms control.

But the second point I’d like to make—the second big question about the algorithm of suffering—is the broadening of holocaust concern beyond one’s “own” holocaust. I know there are excesses in this line—in emphasizing the similarity of all mass murderers—excesses that can trivialize the unimaginable magnitude of the suffering of the European Jews, and they’ve recently been well-documented by Indiana University’s Alvin H. Rosenfeld in a book called The End of the Holocaust. I’ve written in praise of the book, particularly his stance against all the weepy attempts to turn the Holocaust into a lesson about the “triumph of the human spirit” in the face of evil and other such clichés. The obscenity of such execrable phenomena as the unbearably self-congratulatory Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful.

But it was something I read in another review of the Rosenfeld book, by a scholar I admire, Walter Reich, that raised the issue of “transferability,” which I think deserves consideration.

Reich—who holds the Yitzhak Rabin memorial chair in international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University, will always have my respect for doing a rare thing in Washington: He resigned as head of the U.S. Holocaust Museum because he refused to give a man responsible for the murder of Jews, Yasser Arafat, a tour of the Holocaust Museum as the State Department had asked him to. Realpolitik is one thing, Reich was in effect saying, but this is a bridge too far.

I’ve often found his thinking to be unexpected and provocative (consider his essay on the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in the New York Times). In any case he wrote his essay in praise of Rosenfeld’s book for the last print edition of the Wilson Quarterly.

There was a paragraph early in the essay that caught my attention.

He writes of Rosenfeld: “he shows how the horror of the Holocaust has been minimized and even disparaged by those who want the public to focus on their own historical traumas and are frustrated by the Holocaust’s power to eclipse other tragic national experiences.”

This passage I think poses the real difficulty the fools who throw around the epithet “holocaust-obsessed” fail to see.

It has always seemed to me important not to use the holocaust to separate Jewish experience from the “historical traumas” and “tragic national experiences” of others. Important to err on the side of commonality and solidarity with other victims rather than to spend time arguing about what sets us apart from them.

It works both ways. Reich called my attention to an eloquent—and angry—column by The Washington Post’s Colbert King, in which a non-white, non-Jewish descendant of slaves expresses the rage he feels at the open expression of exterminationist anti-Semitism by the leaders of Iran—and the world’s culpable failure to respond. I recommend this to those who think such concern is limited to “holocaust-obsessed” neo-cons.

It’s a matter of choice, of emphasis. Why should we emphasize, even if it is true, the differences between our Holocausts and those of others even if they don’t measure up in body count or evil of the perpetrators exterminationist designs? Are the differences more important than the tragic similarities? Must we invoke the Passover night question: “Why is this night different from all other nights” to ask and answer “why is our holocaust different from all other holocausts?”

I don’t think so. I don’t think it diminishes what happened to one people if it leads to empathy for others—and to proactive intervention to prevent looming threats of genocidal mass murder.

That’s another kind of holocaust inconsequentialism. A removal of “our” Holocaust from history. From historical connection to others. And while it’s not a prescription for blithe spirits, perhaps we’d be better off if we were more holocaust-obsessed, in the sense of being concerned with all holocausts, historical and potential, and the profound flaws in human nature and human civilization that make them such a salient feature of our collective history.

While I was writing this I came upon, in that monument to civilization, New York’s Strand Bookstore, the semi-famous not-quite-forgotten short story collection by Delmore Schwartz, the Bellovian prodigy who died too young to fulfill his promise.

But almost everyone agrees on the merits of the book of stories named after the title story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”

Yes, and in nightmares too.