Lately, when it comes to a provocative analogy, the Holocaust seems to suit almost any subject.
From the recent charge by U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) that the absence of adequate health care is equal to a “Holocaust in America,” to Rush Limbaugh’s comment last August that President Barack Obama’s health care logo was “right out of Adolf Hilter’s playbook,” Holocaust imagery and metaphors seem to have become de rigueur, regardless of party affiliation.
Survivors of the Holocaust, along with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, have decried the link of subjects such as health care, abortion and animal rights to the atrocities of the Nazi murders, claiming that such comparisons desecrate and trivialize the Holocaust.
On Oct. 13, following White House criticism of his network, Fox News, television and radio personality Glenn Beck compared Fox to Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, and compared other news networks to its silent onlookers.
Last week, prominent Christian leader Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, apologized to the ADL for comparing proposed health care reform measures to “what the Nazis did” and for bestowing a Josef Mengele Award on Obama’s chief health care advisor.
Though some Republicans have lately used images of Obama depicted as Hitler in the health care debate, the use of Holocaust imagery to make a political point is not the sole province of the political right.
This week, J Street, the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement, canceled a poetry session at its upcoming conference after it was revealed that in one of his poems, scheduled speaker Josh Healey had wondered whether “the chosen people” have been “chosen to recreate our own history, merely reversing the roles with the script now reading that we’re the ones writing numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza?”
And, a few years ago, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals resorted to Holocaust imagery in a media campaign it called “Holocaust on your Plate.”
One of the reasons these metaphors are becoming so commonplace is because they are successful in garnering publicity by calling sensationalized attention to a cause, said David MacDonald, professor of political science at Guleph University in Ontario, and author of “Thinking History, Fighting Evil: Neoconservatives and the Perils of Analogy in American Politics.”
“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and a marketing strategy that works to get attention,” MacDonald said.
“They [some Republicans] didn’t compare Obama to Stalin or Pol Pot,” MacDonald noted, saying the Holocaust has a unique impact on an audience. “That would not get the same attention. And Obama did react to it. [The publicity generated] becomes useful to the next group of people that want to do the same thing.”
“It’s a strategy that works and keeps working,” MacDonald said.
Although the strategy works in garnering attention, MacDonald said, “the trouble is it becomes over-used.” In a public debate on a political issue, he said, if one side uses Holocaust imagery, it becomes fair game for the other side to use it as well.
“It becomes a tit for tat strategy of re-defining the way the debate goes on. It becomes a vocabulary of name-calling, but it does not necessarily mean anything about how America views the Holocaust or Jews or anti-Semitism,” MacDonald said, although he cautioned that if the trend of overuse of Holocaust imagery continues, whether American views of the Holocaust were changing as a result of the overuse “may need to be looked at.”
Holocaust imagery is used in political discourse because it is powerful, said Kathleen Blee, chair of the sociology department at the University of Pittsburgh. Citing the work of sociologist Arlene Stein at Rutgers University, Blee said that Holocaust metaphors are proliferating because they “evoke people’s passionate and emotional responses, and that can be channeled into political energy.”
Jewish efforts to raise awareness of the Holocaust have been so successful that its reference is recognized — and thus used — more than other modern day atrocities, said Alexander Orbach, associate professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Pittsburgh.
“I think [use of Holocaust imagery] is related to the Holocaust itself,” Orbach said. “It’s just an issue that keeps surfacing. We don’t have very much in reference to the Soviet Gulag, or the Rwanda catastrophe. When someone makes a reference to the Holocaust, you’re not going to get a question mark with the audience. The Holocaust has become part of the public consciousness. Anyone wanting to get attention makes reference to it.”
Time, as well as a general decline in civility, have led to the overuse of Holocaust metaphors, said Rabbi Scott Aaron, community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“There is a lack of civility in general coming from a base place in discourse,” Aaron said. “We are allowing people to be offensive to each other in order to hurt each other and to make their point.”
He believes time also has played a part in fostering the prevalence of Holocaust metaphors.
“Generations are distancing themselves from the Holocaust. Fewer and fewer people know a World War II veteran, much less a Holocaust survivor,” he said. “The Holocaust becomes a piece of history and it becomes a malleable point rather than a personal experience.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)