“Every young person holding a placard to protest my parents and myself—I challenge you now: Go away and look at everything I have said and written in the last 46 years of my life and find one sentence that is anti-Semitic,” Sebastian Gorka said yesterday before walking out of a panel at Georgetown University. “You won’t find one.”
Gorka is right. But who cares? More specifically, why do I care? I’ve spent much of the last two months talking about Sebastian Gorka, and I’m tired. When I raised objections to the ludicrous assertion—repeated frequently and loudly by numerous media outlets—that the senior aide to President Donald Trump is some sort of crypto-Nazi, I was accused by many people of being a Gorka apologist.
Let’s get some things out of the way. I’ve never met Sebastian Gorka and don’t know much about his work on Islam or terrorism. I’m also not a fan of his boss, Donald Trump, which I’ve made clear in one or two or three hundred articles this past year.
What I object to—and what my interlocutors maddeningly refuse to engage with—is the effort to use history and Jewish memory, in particular, the crimes of the Holocaust, in the service of partisan political tricks. The falsification of history, in particular, the history of the Holocaust, is something that all Jews should object to because it is both the foundation and also the most frequent justification for Holocaust denialism. Indeed, it gives aid to Holocaust deniers—in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe—by using the same methods they do and giving credence to their loathsome rhetoric, which seeks to erase history by insisting that all crimes are the same, whatever their scale.
What I am asking readers to do here is to resist, for a few minutes, the social-media-driven knee-jerk outrage du jour, and instead consider the far weightier issue of how these arguments play into an abuse of history.
This week on NPR, Congresswoman Nita Lowey referred to Gorka as “a sworn member of a Nazi-allied far-right Hungarian group known as the Vitezi Rend.” Growing up in the Bronx, Lowey and her parents were fortunate enough not to have been caught up in the destruction of European Jewry, but they must have known at least some Holocaust survivors who came to America after the war. If they talked to the survivors about their experiences, they surely concluded that the societies from which they came were sick. They probably also heard, at least from some people, that not everyone who lived in Poland or Hungary or other Nazi killing grounds was a Nazi, and that the Nazis themselves were German conquerors who held Europe by force, even if they also found plenty of willing, and often eager, local accomplices.
So where did Lowey, and others, get the idea that Gorka himself is “a sworn member” of that infamous “Nazi-allied” group, the Viteszi Rend? According to Lowey, she got it from the Forward, which since February of this year has published no fewer than 39 pieces about Gorka reported by numerous staffers in Hungary and in New York, all of which attempt to posit some link between Sebastian Gorka and his family and Nazis and—judging by the speed with which they are picked up by Democratic Party social-media operatives and elected officials—appear to be part of an ongoing, well-organized, well-funded partisan communications effort. But what matters most about the Forward’s reporting isn’t the very little that’s there on the page, but the much that isn’t.
To read the newspaper’s reporting, you’d believe that Vitezi Rend, the organization to which Gorka is accused—despite his repeated denials—of having “sworn” or “pledged” his “lifelong allegiance,” is an unequivocal stand-in for the SS. The group is indeed listed by the U.S. Department of State as having been “under the direction of the Nazi government of Germany”—and this statement is true, in the sense that the entire Hungarian state was directly or indirectly “under the direction” of the Nazis once they directly occupied Hungary.
But because the narrow, legalistic use of language can be dangerous when applied to the messiness of history, it is important to look more closely, especially since Hungary’s history during WWII is a layered and complicated one.
Hungary’s leader since the country’s independence, Miklos Horthy, did collaborate with Hitler, and he did co-operate, on at least one occasion, with the Nazi plan for the extermination of European Jewry. In August of 1941, Horthy agreed to deport roughly 20,000 Jews without Hungarian citizenship who were seeking refuge in his country; most of them were slaughtered by the Nazis. But otherwise, Horthy refused to act against Hungary’s 800,000-strong Jewish community. He continued in his refusal until the Wehrmacht invaded his country and forced his compliance in March of 1944, before finally toppling him.
A self-described anti-Semite, Horthy was nonetheless appalled at Hitler’s plan to slaughter his country’s Jews. “I was aware that the government in the given forced situation has to take many steps that I do not consider correct, and for which I can not take responsibility,” he wrote to a colleague shortly after the Nazis took charge. “Among these matters is the handling of the Jewish question in a manner that does not correspond to the Hungarian mentality, Hungarian conditions, and, for the matter, Hungarian interests. It is clear to everyone that what among these were done by Germans or by the insistence of the Germans was not in my power to prevent, so in these matters, I was forced into passivity.”
You can attack Horthy, as serious historians and novelists have done, just as you’re free to question the motives of Rudolf Kastner, a leading Hungarian Jewish leader who paid the Nazis a fortune to save the lives of a handful of Hungarian Jews while failing to warn the rest of their impending doom.
But here’s the point: Vitezi Rend was not a Nazi organization or an organization made up of Hungarians who favored the Nazis. It was a military honor society founded by Horthy in 1920 as a way to bestow favors on soldiers who’d proved themselves on the battlefield, and, presumably, to help safeguard the country’s independence and to serve as a bulwark for Horthy’s brand of Hungarian nationalism. As such, the organization represented a fair cross-section of Hungarian military personnel whom Horthy and the state wished to honor, including military lifers, far-right nationalists, left-wing nationalists, Nazi enthusiasts, and others of all stripes. The Vitezi Rend most likely had among its members military officers who helped the fascist and the violently anti-Semitic Arrow Cross movement—which Horthy banned, and in whose favor he finally was removed from office—brutally murder the Jews of Budapest in the streets by the tens of thousands. It also had among its members people like Vilmos Nagy de Nagybaczon, a Hungarian general who, in 1965, was named a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for his efforts to protect his nation’s Jews.
Asserting that the Viteszi were somehow the same as the Arrow Cross means that you’re guilty of more than historical ignorance. If your zeal to score political points leads you to reduce the complex and often-repugnant history of an entire people to a triviality, you’re guilty of the same vile logic motivating so many of the real enemies of the Jewish people, who assert that all the crimes committed in WWII by anyone are equivalent, and therefore cancel each other out. To be a Communist is the same as having been a Nazi because both parties committed terrible crimes. Partizans who fought Hitler in the forest to avenge their murdered families are the same as local militias who used Jews as target practice at the Nazi killing pits because members of both groups killed at least some innocent people. It’s this logic you see at play in Lithuania’s campaign to purge itself of its history of collaboration with the Nazis by accusing Jewish partisans like Yitzchak Arad, the former director of Yad Vashem, of war crimes. It’s the logic of Holocaust deniers and others for whom the truth is incidental to ideology. And it’s the kind of logic we must never, ever accept. Sadly, the Forward has applied the same dubious tactic when addressing Gorka’s contemporary political affiliations, portraying him as an ally of groups like Magyar Garda, a right-wing militia which he in fact denounced, and pegging him as just another variety of Jew-hater by vague affiliation. That’s like arguing that conservatives opposed to Trump, like myself, are really allies of Steve Bannon because we both take pride in militaristic iconography, like eagles and flags, that many Americans may find threatening and distasteful.
So, let’s be clear: Jewish history, memory, and identity are not and should never be allowed to become cheap political props. When activists take on the mantle of Anne Frank to bash the president, or when a reporter who traveled to Tehran at the Iranian government’s invitation and came back to report he’d found no anti-Semitism whatsoever lobs a manipulatively eliding accusation of Nazi affiliations against a public official, the sanctity of our past suffering is tarnished and our moral claim is reduced to a talking point. Nothing can be more dangerous or more loathsome. And nothing, regardless of your partisan orientation or feeling about Sebastian Gorka—or Donald Trump—should be resisted more fiercely.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.