Family Separation Isn’t The Holocaust. But It’s Evil Enough To Warrant The Comparison by the Forward

Family Separation Isn’t The Holocaust. But It’s Evil Enough To Warrant The Comparison

“Other governments have separated mothers and children,” the former CIA director Michael Hayden wrote above a black-and-white photograph of the railways tracks leading toward the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Hayden is perhaps the most high-profile but by no means the only person in recent days to have reached for the Holocaust in order to condemn the human rights violations currently being committed at the United States’ southern border.

The Holocaust has become the yardstick by which all human evil is measured. To compare a contemporary politician to Adolf Hitler is to impress upon them an indelible mark, while to give disasters equivalence to the Holocaust is to stress their horror and urgency. It demonstrates the extent to which Holocaust awareness — at least on some base level — has become ingrained in American society, either through education or public forms of commemoration and memorialization.

Due to its institutionalization, the custodianship of Holocaust commemoration has become diffuse and the question of who gets to define Holocaust memory is now an open one. “In transforming the Holocaust into the greatest example of genocide and the most profound lesson on the threat of dehumanization,” Anshel Pfeffer wisely observed earlier this year, “Jews have…lost some control of the narrative.” In its universalization, the Holocaust has been shorn of, just as Elie Wiesel warned Simon Wiesenthal it might, its essential Judaic centrality.

Opinion | Family Separation Isn’t The Holocaust. But It’s Evil Enough To Warrant The Comparison

About this there is much to be bemoaned. Hitler and Holocaust comparisons are often lazy and lead to bad arguments — reductio ad Hitlerum. The more the darkest hours of the 20th century are used as a stick to beat others, the less force their memory has. If everything is the Holocaust, then nothing is. (This is to say nothing of the tendency of anti-Semites to engage in what Bernard-Henri Lévy has called competitive victimhood — the negation of Jewish suffering — and false comparisons between the Holocaust and the plight of the Palestinians.)

Simply as a matter of fact, to label the catastrophe occurring on the southern border “another Holocaust” is patently false. It does not constitute genocide, and the term “concentration camp” has been used with regretful abandon. Too often, non-Jews have ignored Jewish concerns about attempts to redefine the Holocaust. Still, that people like Hayden would think to draw on the Holocaust in discussing human rights violations on American soil does demonstrate a certain victory for Holocaust education and commemoration.

For the phrases attached to Holocaust remembrance — never again and never forget — are imbued for non-Jews (for it is not for Jews, as Howard Jacobson has said, to learn the lessons of the Holocaust) with certain obligations and imperatives. Among them is to oppose the far-right wherever it exists and in whatever form it regenerates — and this includes its present alt-right and populist incarnations. Another is the responsibility to protect and prevent, to oppose all violations of human rights — not only because of what is happening now, but also because of what could occur in the future. The précis to the Holocaust was the gradual and systematic nullification of the rights of Jews in Europe, which too few thought to oppose or even notice until it was too late.

Without such impulses, there is the danger that Holocaust commemoration simply becomes a piece of performance art, devoid of context and meaning. It cannot be said that the center-right in Austria, for example, is living by the principles inherent in “Nie wieder — niemals vergessen” when they welcome the far-right back into government. The same can be said about Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini’s call to first register and then expel thousands of Roma, the Hungarian government’s manifestly anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros and the utter lack of compassion found in many European governments’ policies toward refugees from the Middle East.

Opinion | Family Separation Isn’t The Holocaust. But It’s Evil Enough To Warrant The Comparison

The United States is not immune to such hypocrisy, either. The Clinton administration opened the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. in February 1993, at a time when it was doing next to nothing about the bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In February 1994, Susan Sontag critiqued Americans for “crying over Schindler’s List and saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to let the Nazis kill six million Jews again,’” while arguing that “nothing can be done” about another genocide in Europe. The southern border is neither the Holocaust nor Bosnia, but it is at least welcome that a certain consciousness of history is prompting people to speak out with determination and resolve.

Consider the circumstances: Refugee parents are being separated by the state from their children, who, traumatized, are corralled in inhumane conditions in warehouses where the lights never go out, as the president describes these vulnerable people as criminals “pouring into” and “infesting” America.

The precise comparison itself is not apt — that much is clear. But if the circumstances of the Holocaust allow people to make the connection between this present potential humanitarian disaster and human evil, then in spite of the aforementioned costs, of which there are many, surely Holocaust education and commemoration has not been in vain.

Liam Hoare is a freelance journalist based in the U.K.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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