Bringing up the subject of the Holocaust at a dinner party can be a downer. Genocide is an unpleasant and apparently insoluble problem, and, when Jews raise it, they run the risk of seeming parochial, even narcissistic.
Sophisticated, cosmopolitan people don’t want to be thought of as “Holocaust-obsessed,” and applying the lessons of the Holocaust to current events -- particularly those that have to do with the special concerns of Jews, and not Kurds or Tutsis or Tibetans -- is sometimes understood as a form of distasteful special-pleading. “Holocaust-obsessed” is, in fact, a new insult, one meant to sting and to bully into silence.
One person who is undeterred by the accusation is the writer Ron Rosenbaum, who has just published the most important essay I’ve read this year. Rosenbaum, the author of “Explaining Hitler,” writes in Slate that “Holocaust-obsessed,” a term that shows up with disquieting frequency in mainstream discussions of Jews and Israel, is meant to marginalize those who believe that vanquishing genocide is the most urgent issue facing humanity, and that the Holocaust holds specific lessons about the way in which Jews should understand hateful rhetoric directed against them.
“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,’” Rosenbaum writes. “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.”
Two challenges -- one philosophical, the other political -- confront those who argue that one can be too concerned about the Holocaust and its meaning. Rosenbaum quotes the German novelist W.G. Sebald, who said of the Holocaust, “no serious person thinks of anything else,” by way of arguing that the mechanized extermination of 6 million Jews crystallizes the most acute problem confronting civilization: How do we combat the desire on the part of some groups to exterminate other groups?
For Jews, the issue Rosenbaum raises is more immediately concrete: Is it a sign of “Holocaust obsession” to be preoccupied by the violent rhetoric directed by the leaders of the Iranian regime against the 6 million Jews of Israel?
“Imagine: worry about extermination threats just because Hitler made extermination threats which he carried out,” Rosenbaum writes. “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.”
Rosenbaum’s essay refocused my attention on the largest issues raised by the Iranian regime’s apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons and its ferocious Jew-hatred. It is possible to lose the plot amid the welter of International Atomic Energy Agency reports and artfully crafted Iranian denials and intricate discussions of sanctions and endless news coverage of the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama.
But what is happening here is something virtually without precedent in our allegedly enlightened age: A member-state of the United Nations, Iran, regularly threatens another member-state, Israel, with annihilation. It’s important to bear in mind a fundamental asymmetry: Israel doesn’t seek Iran’s elimination. Iran seeks Israel’s.
Regime apologists will note that Iranian leaders talk about the elimination not of “Israel” -- a word they generally refuse to utter -- but of the “Zionist regime,” which, to the naive and the cynical, implies the replacement of one government with another. This is a pernicious euphemism. Without the “Zionist regime” -- which is to say, the democratically elected government of Israel, its armed forces and security services, and the courts and structures of state -- the Jews who survived the onslaught that “dismantled” their government would face immediate dispossession, and perhaps much worse.
Rosenbaum, an expert on Hitlerian euphemism, told me that one difference between Nazi rhetoric and that of the Iranian regime is that the Iranians’ words are blunter, especially when compared with pre-Kristallnacht Nazi language. Rosenbaum notes, in particular, the Iranian reliance on epidemiological metaphor when describing Israel: This year, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Israel is “a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off.”
Which returns us to Rosenbaum’s central question: Is it obsessive for a group of people who not long ago saw a third of their number slaughtered to worry when the leaders of Iran call Israel a cancerous tumor? Or is it the natural and appropriate response of a people who, conditioned by history, choose to err on the side of caution?
(Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s highlights: the editors on applying Mitt Romney’s business sense to defense and on Libor-rigging; Ramesh Ponnuru on why we shouldn’t forget about Social Security’s problems; William Pesek on South Korea’s presidential election; Fouad Ajami on Obama’s callow cruelty on Syria extending to Lebanon; Stephen Smith on the inflated cost of U.S. commuter trains.
To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at email@example.com.