NEW YORK — Passions are high in the wake of Arizona’s adoption of the strongest anti-immigrant bill in the land. Demonstrations, calls to action, threatened boycotts and legal challenges have been some of the reactions since Gov. Jan Brewer signed the controversial legislation, which among other troubling provisions requires police with “reasonable suspicion” about one’s immigration status to demand documentation.
Without doubt, the Arizona legislation is wrongheaded and disturbing on many levels. We have spoken out against the bill and, working with our partners in the Hispanic and civil rights communities, will continue to do so.
Let’s be clear: Arizona’s new law is misguided, bigoted, biased and flies in the face of the Constitution and federal immigration law. It is un-American and must be challenged at every opportunity.
But there is a point at which criticism of the legislation and the name calling crosses a line. A number of individuals speaking out against the Arizona bill have taken to using facile and fallacious comparisons to Hitler or Nazis. Some have portrayed Brewer as a modern-day Hitler, while others have described the bill as being reminiscent of Nazi policies that required Jews and others to carry identity cards.
We know that people are angry and frustrated, and are looking for ways to vent their anger. However, the discussion has no place for comparisons to the Nazis, for analogies to National Socialism or for suggestions of a new “Holocaust” unfolding in America.
It seems to happen with greater regularity in American political debate today than ever before: When anger reaches a fever pitch on a particular issue, out come the inevitable comparisons to the Holocaust. It has become a rule of thumb, an all-too convenient catchphrase of the times. If you want to cast aspersions on a political figure, liken him or her to Hitler. If you want to cast their political agenda in the worst light imaginable, say it is “like something out of the 1930s.”
We saw this during the health care debate, when signs appeared at rallies showing the president’s visage defaced with a Hitleresque mustache or with his signature “change” emblem from the campaign turned into a swastika.
What is so unsettling about such comparisons this time is that they are coming not just from extremists on the far left and far right — those we have come to expect to trod out odious and inappropriate Nazi gibes whenever it suits their agenda. Some are coming from our friends and allies with whom we have worked closely in the past on immigration issues. They also have come from mainstream elected officials, religious leaders, editorial cartoonists and others whose opinions we value and respect. They are also being heard from the mouths of everyday people on the street.
Such comparisons serve not only to delegitimize and trivialize the deaths of 6 million Jews and millions of others and soldiers who fought to defeat Nazism. They also play into the hands of those who support the Arizona law. For as in the health care debate, the comparison is totally inappropriate. It caricatures those opposed to the measure as extremists and undermines the argument for meaningful immigration reform. Those who use it so lightly should know better.
More than 65 years have passed since the world learned of the full extent of Nazi atrocities with the liberation of the concentration camps in Europe. As we have moved further away from that time and the memories have faded, Nazi comparisons have become more commonplace in our political discourse.
This trend has been fueled in part by groups on the left, like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who once used imagery comparing the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust to the slaughter of cattle, and Lyndon LaRouche’s political organization, which produced placards of Obama with a Hitler mustache during last year’s town hall meetings, as well as on the right, including some Tea Party activists who have openly compared Obama to Hitler.
The Internet and the rise of social-networking sites also have played a role in processing and popularizing Nazi imagery. A search on the word “Hitler” on YouTube calls up dozens of videos. YouTube acted recently to remove dozens of Hitler parodies based on the movie “Downfall,” a German film about Hitler’s last days.
In the videos, Internet users altered a scene of a Hitler rant in his bunker near the end of the war to include subtitles that had nothing to do with the original film. Hitler thus was seen ranting about airlines charging passengers for checked luggage or venting dissatisfaction with a Major League Baseball team’s performance.
Even with the removal of the “Downfall” parodies, dozens of highly offensive videos employing Hitler and Nazi imagery remain.
The Internet features far too many “Nazi this” or “Hitler that” blogs, videos, social-networking pages, discussion groups and online games to inventory. For example, Facebook has a group titled “who’s the most hitler teacher of school” and a blog called “Obama is Literally Hitler.” These user-created groups misuse historic World War II imagery for shock, entertainment or other purposes. Food, sports, transportation, clothing, education and religion all have Nazi themed, titled or defined sites.
Ignorance about the Holocaust is also to blame. We need to do a better job in the schools teaching our children about the history of World War II and the Holocaust. We also need to ensure that our children are raised as responsible citizens, not just consumers of information but skilled navigators of the complex world, both online and off, where these images are increasingly commonplace.
It also is incumbent upon our political leaders on both sides of the aisle, and on both sides of the immigration debate or whatever the hot-button issue of the day, to be responsible for their words, to consider their criticism carefully and to refrain from bringing Nazis or the Holocaust into the discussion.
(Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.)