Calling People Holocaust-Obsessed Is the New Holocaust Denial

Scrutinizing culture.
Aug. 24 2012 4:20 AM

A New Slur

Calling people "Holocaust-obsessed" is the new holocaust denial.

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And the term has entered the realm of high-profile literary culture in the widespread discussion of Nathan Englander's highly praised short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. In the title story, for instance, you can find an American wife described as “a little obsessed with the Holocaust.” (Although, as we'll see, it's a bit more complicated.)

Much of the recent use of the phrase has been prompted by people comparing Iran today to Hitler’s Germany. I should mention that I am not necessarily in favor of a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear capacity. I think the issue is insoluble and either way I see a catastrophe coming. But I just don't have patience with those who try to exclude the real historical catastrophe from relevance by denigrating any concern with it as "obsession."

In any case, the dismissive epithet does service not just for anti-Semites or anti-Zionists but for Jews who don’t like the association with victimhood, so parochial, so ghetto, so shtetl, so shameful to the faux-sophisticate universalist citizen of the world.

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Is it better, then, to be “somewhat interested” in the holocaust, rather than “holocaust-obsessed”? Moderately interested? Temperately troubled? How much is the correct amount of interest one should devote to rapidly receding history? How much should the charge of obsession affect the way we look at the victims of collective hate murders in the present: 9/11, the Oslo slayings and the Sikhs, for instance. Do they qualify for a heightened degree of concern since the killers obviously—had they the means—would have wanted to murder many, many more? How should it affect the way we view exterminationist threats not yet realized?

It’s so convenient, isn’t it, to deplore those who are said to be “holocaust obsessed.” It allows one to avoid all the troubling implications of the past for the future. It allows Jews to avoid having to be a Debbie Downer at dinner parties when the subject comes up, usually in the context of discussing the kind of threats to the state of Israel that are even more explicit and realizable today than those to the Jews of Europe in the prewar era. It’s so unchic, so indicative of “ethnic panic.” It makes you think of that scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen feels like he’s been transformed into a black hat Hasidic at the dinner table of Annie’s Christian family.

Consider that Nathan Englander story in which a husband calls his wife “a little obsessed with the Holocaust ... here we are twenty minutes from downtown Miami but really it’s 1937 and we live on the edge of Berlin.” His is a self-subverting condescension since no one thinks the danger of a second holocaust will come from “downtown Miami” (or to America at all) but from the exterminationist threats to the people of downtown Tel Aviv. (Is it an accident this downer of a wife is named Deb?) Frankly I don’t attribute this caricature to Englander himself; it’s too simplistic for such a good writer. I suspect he’s just as much caricaturing the thick-headed husband who disparages his wife in this way.

But the portrait of her irrational fear of an American holocaust comforts those who might otherwise have to be concerned about the genuine potential of a second holocaust in the Middle East.

Jewish prisoner during World War II.
A picture released on April 7, 1961, taken during World War II in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, shows Nazi leader and war criminal Adolf Eichmann (2nd R) smiling while German officers cut a Jewish prisoner's hair locks

Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Imagine: worrying about extermination threats just because Hitler made extermination threats which he carried out. 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.

Anyone who seeks to draw comparisons with the warnings of a “Final Solution” in the 1930s and the situation today—in other words to take history into account—is met with scorn as “Holocaust-obsessed.” Or accused of “hoarding the Holocaust,” as Peter Beinart has put it.

Indeed using “holocaust-obsessed” as an epithet has become, in effect, the new Holocaust denial. The new holocaust denial doesn’t deny the holocaust happened, it just denies it should have any historical relevance today. In an afterword she wrote for an anthology I compiled, Cynthia Ozick spoke about an English writer who castigated Menachim Begin for invoking the Holocaust murder of a million Jewish children as a reason for ordering the Israeli attack on Saddam's potential bomb-making nuclear reactor in 1981. She called the castigation a denial of the very essence of historical discourse: making connections. “Is the imagination’s capacity to ‘connect’ worthy of such scorn … ?” she asked.

By the way, you can always tell one of this new breed of Holocaust denier by the way they claim that careful parsing of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threat to “wipe Israel off the map” or “wipe Israel from the page of time” (depending on how its translated), doesn’t really mean he wants to harm a single hair on the head of single Jew. See, if you read it carefully it’s nothing to worry about. He just wants to change the governmental set up! You know, so the state of Israel will no longer exist and thus not appear on the map (or the page of time). They cling desperately to the notion that it’s not a sinister euphemism like, say, Hitler’s “Final Solution.”  

Speaking of which, there’s a lesson in the way “Final Solution” was euphemized to Hitler’s benefit. While researching the archives of an anti-Hitler newspaper for my book on Hitler explanations, I discovered that euphemism, “Final Solution”—“Endlösung” in German—had been used by the Nazi party, and published in the Munich Post —as far back as 1931. But evidently there were those back then who didn’t want to see through the euphemism just as there are those who don’t want to see through the sinister euphemisms in Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements today. The fact that Hitler successfully cloaked his exterminationist intentions in such euphemisms should of course not cause us to look askance at Ahmadinejad’s. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, as they say. Shame on those who don’t get this for fear of being called “holocaust-obsessed.”