Is there an algorithm for suffering? One that calibrates how much empathy we should feel for the victims of genocide? What degree of concern is “rational”? What degree is excessive, “obsessed”? Should the degree to which we grieve about, analyze—and react to the threat of—mass murders be calculable objectively?
It would make things easier if we could just take number of actual dead, say, (or the number the killers wanted dead), times the percentage of victim-group killed, maybe multiplied by the logarithm of cruelty of the methodology of mass killing, divided by the number of decades in the past the crime occurred. (Time is a factor: Hitler was famously quoted as saying, in 1939, “Who, after all, speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?” After all, the Holocaust took place seven decades ago, the Armenian horror a little more than two decades before Hitler’s remark. Lucky for him there were few “obsessed” with this mass murder at the time.)
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.” 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.
It's the word "obsessed" that seems problematic to me. It implies a bright line between legitimate interest and something else, something over-intense, feverish, and counterproductive. But where is that line? How much time should we spend worrying about the threat of future Holocausts and genocides, not just those involving Jews.
The much-lauded German novelist W.G. Sebald has been quoted saying "no serious person thinks of anything else." This was obviously a form of hyperbole designed to jolt people out of complacency. But it raises the question: How much does a serious person think about the Holocaust? What does it mean to be "obsessed" and what does it mean to give the Holocaust an appropriate place in our political and cultural consciousness?
I admit I was stunned in exploring this question to find no less than 272,000 Google hits for "obsessed with the Holocaust." And it's not just racist sites (including David Duke's) or anti-Zionist sites like Mondoweiss.
Increasingly the word "obsessed"—as "obsessed with the holocaust" or "holocaust obsessed"—has entered contemporary discourse, often used by Jews as an epithet to describe other Jews. It may have entered the mainstream as far back as the publication of Peter Novick's 1999 book The Holocaust in American Life, in which he accuses American Jews as a whole of exploiting the Holocaust in bad faith, either as a "victimization Olympics" or for political (primarily pro-Israel) purposes.
The term "holocaust-obsessed" appeared in The New Yorker in an article about Israeli politician Avraham Burg who, according to David Remnick, "describes the country in its current state as Holocaust obsessed. ..." Too much attention to the extermination of 6 million Jews oh so long ago, just because 6 million or so more are being threatened with exterminationist rhetoric today.
And recently the epithet has become a focus of the debate over the Israeli response to Iranian nuclear intentions. It was a prominent "peace activist" there, Uri Avnery who applied the phrase “holocaust obsessed fantasist” to current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Demonstrating that it has become a widely recognized shibboleth on both sides of the discourse over American Israeli relations, Jonathan Rosen, in his astute New York Times Book Review critique of Peter Beinart's Crisis in Zion offered a caustic assessment of those self-proclaimed enlightened moralists who accuse others of a "Holocaust-obsessed" mentality.