Email from Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
We share your concern, and are glad you share ours, about how the “constant, trivializing use” of terms like Hitler, Nazi, Gestapo, and Holocaust in debasing civility and political discourse in America and other democracies. Given the relentless criticism of us for decades for supposedly harping to excess on the misuse of Holocaust-related language and imagery, we at the Wiesenthal Center have often felt like a Cassandra who foresees a danger that most everybody else chooses to ignore.
The Wiesenthal Center was founded in 1977 and our earliest focus on the misuse of the Holocaust was the Soviet Union's ongoing campaign to depict Israeli leaders and soldiers as latter day Nazis. That culminated in our major exhibit called Portraits in Infamy that we presented in Europe. It wasn't until Gorbachev came to power that that viral practice was dropped. Unfortunately, the infection was passed on to the Arab World where today, tragically it is an accepted part of the mainstream view.
Domestically, Wiesenthal Center Dean Marvin Hier started speaking out on this issue in the 1980s when our focus was not the political left, but right wing extremists who targeted—sometimes lethally—abortion service providers as perpetrators of “a new Holocaust.” In virtually every statement since then, Rabbi Hier has made clear that the language that trivializes genocide and inflames contemporary hatreds is wrong and dangerous—whether it comes from the left or the right.
Our special concern has not been with criticizing particular individuals or organizations complicit in this troubling phenomenon, but in tracking alarming global trends as debasement of the terminology and meaning of the Holocaust has spilled over from the Middle East into the Western academia and media and from the political fringe into the mainstream.
We watched the initial stirrings, around the time of the 1983 Beirut Marine Barracks Bombing, when perhaps for the first time an American President was equated with Hitler by Middle Eastern fanatics who, on other occasions, expressed undisguised admiration for the Fuehrer. In 2002, we saw an award-winning British cartoon depicting Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a Nazi cannibal devouring Palestinian babies in some sort of perversion of the Passover ceremony become a popular image in American college newspapers.
Equally outrageous was the “Hitler as Sharon” shorthand used in European protests to demonize the Jewish state’s prime minister. Indeed, Dutch Jews reacted angrily when one of Dutch society’s elite, Gretta Duisenberg, wife of European Central Bank President Wim Duisenberg, publicly equated the Fuehrer with Israel’s democratically elected Prime Minister and genocidal Nazis with Israelis. Upon returning from the West Bank to Amsterdam she declared: “The cruelty of the Israelis knows no bounds . . . . The Nazis never went so far during the Dutch occupation.” Asked whether he supported her claim that Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza was even worse than the Nazi occupation of Holland, during which 100,000 Jews—the vast majority of Dutch Jewry—were deported to their deaths, Mr. Duisenberg said he supported his wife “100 percent".
In 2004, we became concerned about the MoveOn.org cartoon equating President Bush with Hitler—but not because it was the worst example of its kind or because we believed that organization a leftwing reincarnation of the Storm Troopers. Instead, our reason was that this was the first time that such toxic language and imagery entered America's political and media mainstream. We were pleased when MoveOn.org distanced itself from it. For the record, I am including below the January 7, 2004 press release from the Wiesenthal Center related to the Moveon.org ad.
In 2003, the year before the MoveOn.org ad flap, Rabbi Hier told Lisa Fernandez of the San Jose Mercury News that he was “worried that anti-Semitism isn't just a fad with some segments of the left. He sees it globally and on the right as well, pointing to French Jews who were beaten for wearing yarmulkes and statements made by conservative commentator and former presidential candidate Buchanan linking the war in Iraq to top Jewish aides in the Bush administration.”
We don’t believe in “moral equivalence,” but we do agree with the equal outrageousness of conservative stalwart Grover Norquist’s linking of the estate tax with “the morality of the Holocaust” and liberal media mogul Ted Turner’s lament that his inability to buy a major network made him feel like “those Jewish people in Germany in 1942.”
Perhaps you are correct to sense some hesitation on our part about what to do now that hyperbolic distortions—kidnapping the language of the Holocaust to sensationalize media debate and demonize political opponents—has become pervasive and an equal opportunity blood sport in our increasingly polarized body politic. You may—or may not—be correct that the most egregious examples today are on the right and in conservative media rather than on the left and in liberal media. We haven’t seen convincing documentation—one way or the other. What’s clear is that there’s an epidemic raging, and nobody sensible is altogether sure how to stop it.
Organizations like ours can, of course, continue to turn out reams of condemnatory statements about this or that individual or organization at one or the other extreme so that we’re perceived as even-handed, but we fear that won’t solve the problem.
We wonder whether it might be better for decent people in the political , intellectual and journalistic communities to join with us in adopting a Best Standards Code pledging not to equate our opponents with Nazis or portray participants in contemporary controversies as somehow like either the perpetrators or the victims of the Holocaust.
George Orwell warned us long ago about the totalitarian turn politics can take when the English language is debased. As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of Orwell's warning, we better watch out lest we warp back into "1984." In fact, it was 1984 when Simon Wiesenthal chastised both sides of the global conflict then raging because "Nazi war criminals have been the chief beneficiaries of the Cold War." We didn't get any praise from the political right for that statement, but that didn't matter to Mr. Wiesenthal or to us.
January 7, 2004
In a statement today, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned the recent rash of targeting political opponents as Nazis. "These attacks, coming from both the left and right, are an insult to the millions of victims of Hitler and his Third Reich, as well as to the millions of brave US servicemen and women who laid their lives on the line to fight Nazism. It is a cheap effort to score political points by appealing to the lowest level of stereotyping, and at a crucial point in world history does nothing more then obscure the very real issues that we all face in todays world."
Rabbi Hier, reacting to recent incidents involving MoveOn.org and an op-ed piece in the New York Post urged politicians and the media to "Act responsibly, to reject these smear tactics and to avoid cheapening the memories of the Holocaust."
The Wiesenthal Center is one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations with over 400,000 member families in the United States. It is an NGO at international agencies including the United Nations, UNESCO, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe.