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Why Are James Fallows and His Commenters Annoyed by the Holocaust?

The ugly accusation that Jews ‘use’ the Shoah to drive nations to war migrates from the swamps of the right to the foreign policy left

James Kirchick
March 19, 2015
(Tablet Magazine)
(Tablet Magazine)

“True or not, the Holocaust story has been put to many uses, some of them mischievous. It is currently being used to extort reparations and blacken reputations.” So declared the late Joe Sobran, conservative polemicist and former National Review editor, to an innocuous-sounding organization called the Institute for Historical Review. It was the summer of 2002, just over a decade after conservative eminence William F. Buckley, Jr. denounced both Sobran and Pat Buchanan in a 40,000-word essay titled “In Search of Anti-Semitism.” With this coruscating piece, Buckley effectively wrote the two men out of the mainstream conservative movement, in the same way that he had exiled the John Birch Society three decades earlier. In the years following Buckley’s denunciation, Sobran floundered in the extreme right fever swamps; his appearance at IHR, America’s premier Holocaust denial outfit, was a particularly humiliating low, even as Sobran’s allowance that “the Holocaust story” might be “true” made him an outlier among his newfound friends.

As the above remark attests, though, Sobran wasn’t really interested in determining whether “the standard numbers of Jews murdered are inaccurate” or if Nazi Germany, “bad as it was in many ways, was not, in fact, intent on racial extermination.” What bothered him were the methods in which he believed Jews “use” the memory of the Holocaust to further nefarious political ends, invoking the suffering of their ancestors as a warrant to inflict suffering on others. “Jewish life is an endless emergency, requiring endless emergency measures and justifying everything does [sic] in the name of ‘defense,’ ” Sobran said. “Jews and Israel can’t be judged by normal standards, at least until Israel is absolutely safe—if even then.”

Jews—individually, through their communal organizations, and in the form of the State of Israel—rhetorically deploy the Holocaust as a form of diplomatic extortion, as an excuse for behavior that, were it perpetrated by any other state or national group, would be judged illegitimate and immoral. “In short, the Holocaust has become a device for exempting Jews from normal human obligations,” Sobran said. “It has authorized them to bully and blackmail, to extort and oppress. This is all quite irrational,” he continued, “because even if six million Jews were murdered during World War II, it doesn’t follow that the survivors are entitled to commit the slightest injustice.”

Sobran was clearly an anti-Semite, which is historically a particularly deadly form of racism—for Jews, of course, but also for the individual minds and larger societies that become infected by it. Tip-offs to his condition can be found in his use of phrases like “even if”—suggesting that admitting to the basic historical facts of the Holocaust was a dangerous concession to bristling hordes—and the dark warning that the survivors of this crime, if it even happened, must not be “entitled” by good people to commit the “slightest injustice.” Finally, on the terrible chance that they—among the most brutalized people on earth—were permitted to commit even a small offense, it should be enough to damn them all, once more, to perdition.

Yet what was once a line of argument employed only by a handful of far-right haters like Joe Sobran is finding a new and more welcoming home among the progressive and realist foreign policy sets, whose views increasingly overlap in their wariness toward the state of Israel and its alliance with the United States—and a corresponding impatience with the idea that anything ever happened to the Jews, which might incline reasonable people to treat their claim to past, present, or future victim status seriously. The idea that there is a slippery slope that takes bright, worldly people who would never imagine themselves bigots—from being annoyed by the inconvenience of one Israeli government policy or another to being annoyed by Jewish fears or claims to victimhood to suggesting that the Holocaust wasn’t actually such a big deal anyway—may not make any rational sense. That it makes emotional sense, to a startling number of people, is a measure of how deeply embedded traditional anti-Semitic tropes are in contemporary liberal Western societies, including America.

Leading the brave charge against Jewish conniving in recent months has been Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows. In reaction to the controversy surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress earlier this month, Fallows published a long series of blog posts in February and early March, not only disputing the suitability of appropriating the Holocaust with regard to the risk posed by Iran to the Jewish State, but implying that certain actors are deliberately exploiting the Nazi genocide to manipulate U.S. foreign policy for predictably uncouth purposes.

“I am deadset against my country drifting into further needless unwinnable wars,” Fallows wrote in one of his first posts on the subject, by means of explaining his intense interest. What bugs Fallows is that his intellectual adversaries keep on invoking the Holocaust, that old conversation stopper, to exaggerate the problem posed by a nuclear Iran, just as “they” did with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word ‘existential,’ I know 90 percent of what will come next,” Fallows wrote on Feb. 20. After reading through his correspondence, the dean of the Atlantic’s foreign correspondents has become weary of such tiresome comparisons, found in “most of the angry mail I receive” on the subject. It doesn’t take much imagination to name the people who are the cause of his consternation.


Fallows’ annoyance at receiving letters from fearful Jews is matched by his confidence that the current situation in the Middle East bears no relation whatsoever to the fact that the Jews of Europe were exterminated en masse in living memory while the rest of the world—with the exceptions of rare individuals here and there, some Huguenots in France, a small minority of Catholic Poles, and the country of Denmark—did nothing to stop it. “Rationally these situations have nothing in common—apart from the anti-Semitic rhetoric,” he wrote on March 3, casually writing off the Mullahs’ frequently expressed anti-Semitism, and their suborning terrorist organizations that wage war on Jews both inside and out of the Jewish State, as just so much talk. Yet the idea that there is no connection between Iranian rhetoric and current or future Iranian actions is not obvious—or no more obvious than it would be if the Iranian government threatened to wipe any other group of people off the map. Imagine the good will Tehran could engender if it cut out the weekly incantations of “Death to Israel,” stopped denying the Holocaust, and ceased funding terrorist organizations committed to the murder of Jews around the world. That Tehran doesn’t do these things—enduring harsh economic sanctions and international isolation as a price—suggests that it takes its anti-Semitism, religious obscurantism, and regional expansionism quite seriously.

Fallows’ argument has the odd effect of demanding that Jews treat what are obviously serious and heartfelt threats as though they aren’t serious at all—a demand that it is hard to imagine Fallows or anyone else making of any other group that had any practical or historic cause to feel threatened. Instead of being a reason why Jews might legitimately be scared, the Holocaust is perversely transformed into a reason why Jews—alone among all other groups of people on the planet—should rise above petty concerns about their own “existential” chances, or else become the targets of Fallows’ annoyance.

What about concerns of a nuclear Iran? To assure readers that he is no less cognizant than Netanyahu and other hysterics of the threat posed by nuclear weapons proliferation, Fallows mentions his support for the “Global Zero” initiative, a coalition of elder statesmen that supports the woolly headed proposition of total international nuclear weapons disarmament—an impossible and therefore meaningless project. “Global Zero” rests upon the demonstrably false assumption that the gradual elimination of nuclear arms by the states that already possess them will convince nuclear-aspirant regimes to stop their pursuit of WMDs. Yet as Josef Joffe and James W. Davis pointed out in Foreign Affairs in 2011, “if there is any correlation between the behavior of the haves and that of the have-nots, it is in the reverse direction”—that is, erstwhile non-nuclear states have gained nuclear weapons in spite of the United States and Russia reducing their stockpiles. “It is hard to be sanguine about a plan to convert the wayward by way of example,” the two wrote. “Global Zero” may be a nice idea in theory, but it’s utterly impractical.

Fallows’ answer to such criticism is to accuse those who disagree with him of “warmongering.” The logic of his argument gives Jews a peculiar choice: Either you agree with me, or else you become fair game for a classic anti-Semitic stereotype, which you will confirm through your own obstinacy. Worse, Fallows asserts, is that for all of Netanyahu’s banging on about the Holocaust, the Israeli leader—that wily hypocrite—does not actually believe that Iran poses an “existential” threat to the Jewish State. Instead, Fallows writes, Netanyahu invokes the Holocaust for chauvinistic reasons having to do with Israel’s place in the regional power hierarchy: “It is in American interests (as I have argued) to find some way to end Iran’s excluded status and re-integrate it with the world, as happened with China in the 1970s. And it is in Israel’s interests, at least as defined by Netanyahu for regional-power reasons, that this not occur.

To be a warmonger out of unreasonable and misplaced fears that impel you to manipulate the entire world into wars is one thing; to do so out of sheer lust for power is straight out of Christopher Marlowe, or Henry Ford. Alas, trafficking in classic anti-Semitic tropes under the guise of reasoned argument about American foreign policy is hardly unique to Fallows—John Mearshimer and Stephen Walt got there first. But what makes Fallows special is his ability to combine hauteur with the style of Dear Abby advice column, in which he throws the burden of his own noxious beliefs on sometimes anonymous correspondents. In the midst of a Feb. 13 discourse on Netanyahu’s speech and the malignant and mesmeric powers of the Israel Lobby over members of Congress, Fallows posted an email from one unnamed reader speculating as to “how much of the dark money being invested into 501(c)(4)’s has its origins in foreign treasuries.”

But of course the correspondent didn’t stop with the word “dark”: “The analogy to a virus or a cancer springs to mind,” whose “ability to neutralize our own self-protective evaluative and deliberative mechanisms very directly resembles an auto-immune disorder.” After likening the pro-Israel community to a parasite on the American body politic, in language eerily reminiscent of Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove (who, intended as a parody of the aforementioned Birch Society, complained of “an international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids”), Fallows’ correspondent assured him that, “I am not anti-Israeli, anti-Jew, anti-semite [sic]; I’m actually part Jewish by culture, though not by faith.” To say that such stuff would be at home in Der Stürmer is not in any way an exaggeration; it is literally true.

The following month, Fallows cited “a history professor at a university in the Southwest,” who wrote that invoking the Holocaust is “the historical equivalent of hollering” and that “its use is nearly always intended to cut off debate or critique, to seize the moral high ground, and ideally to incite panic.” Nearly always: Holocaust education in schools, commemorations marking the liberation of Auschwitz, documentaries about Kristallnacht, it all has very little to do with actual human suffering but everything to do with Jewish special pleading. Whereas Fallows sees Netanyahu as merely a cunning politician, he does allow that there are many people who genuinely believe what they say when they speak of the Holocaust and the Khomeinist regime in the same breath. Unlike Netanyahu, for whom he evinces pure scorn, Fallows merely pities these people, who are capable of arguing only from gut emotion, unlike the veteran China cheerleader and journalistic eminence James Fallows. “These differences in historic model are deep and powerful, and people with one model in mind are not going to convince people with the other mental picture” (italics original) he wrote on March 3. The point is not difficult to decipher: Foreign policy cannot be trusted in the hands of these traumatized, emotion-laden, forever-stuck-in-the-past Jews (many of whom, to be sure, are well-meaning, just terribly misinformed).

Interestingly, there are some people whose obsessive invocations of the Holocaust are fine with Fallows. In 2013, he rose to the defense of Max Blumenthal, author of a book about Israel that depicts Jews as Nazis and their state as akin to the Third Reich. Asked about such comparisons at an event, “Blumenthal’s answer was that he used these terms purposefully, to draw the universals from the ‘never again’ message of the Holocaust,” Fallows wrote approvingly. “Logically, he has a case,” for “the lessons of respecting rights and avoiding group discrimination should be more broadly applied.” In his praise of Blumenthal’s book, which he compared to classics such as The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath in its being a “polemic” against “injustice,” Fallows has been joined by others who favorably cited Blumenthal some 300 times on a leading anti-Semitic website, as well as David Duke, who has also enthusiastically endorsed Blumenthal’s lurid exposés of Jews and their malign powers. In short, Fallows is fine when the likes of Max Blumenthal invokes the Holocaust as a means of calling Jews the new Nazis; he just has a problem when Jews mention it in conjunction with Iran, or in any other connection that might impede the Obama Administration’s Middle East policies.

To top it off, Fallows then quoted a German reader—nice touch!—who asked, “Why should the nations around Israel permanently accept the nuclear threat of Israel with no option on their side,” as if Israel had ever threatened to annihilate any of its neighbors. The sentiments voiced by Fallows’ interlocutors are essentially indistinguishable from those expressed by Joe Sobran and his predecessors in open bigotry, and the anonymity with which he cloaks them reads as a tacit acknowledgement that what they had to say might still be seen as distasteful in certain precincts. I guess we should be thankful at least for that.


As Fallows and Sobran before him have argued, the Holocaust is indeed being used as a club—not by Jews but by their antagonists. Rather than a bludgeon wrought to beat the world into seeing them as perpetually on the brink of yet another attempted extermination, the Holocaust is today employed to discredit its victims and their descendants as hysterical children perpetually crying wolf. Sobran complained of being “bullied” by Jews, which is another tip-off: In fact, it is the Jews who are being bullied in this discourse. They’re the ones being told that their historical ordeals and suffering are overblown and exploited for low political gain and as an excuse to wage war on innocent Muslims. “In a peculiar way, the Holocaust story has promoted not only pity, but actual fear of the Jews,” Sobran said, blaming Jewish power for his descent from the heights of conservative journalism to insignificance. “It has removed them from the universe of normal moral discourse. It has made them victims with nukes.”

This line of argument is hardly new. For decades, it found its most fertile soil in Europe, where some employed it directly as a means of liberating themselves from actual historical guilt. One such incident was the firestorm created by German novelist Martin Walser, who, in a 1998 speech accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, condemned the “Holocaust Industry” and its “exploitation” of “Auschwitz,” which, he said, had been turned into an “always available intimidation” or “moral club” with which to beat Germans of his generation (Walser was born in 1927). German novelist Gunther Grass ignited a similar scandal in 2012 when he published a poem titled “What Must Be Said,” which sought to unshackle Germans from the constraints imposed by their history and encourage them to speak the necessary truth: that it was Israeli nuclear weapons, and not Iran’s quest to obtain them, that truly “endangers an already fragile world peace.” Like Walser, Grass insinuated that Germans were being prevented from speaking honestly due to a muzzle foisted on them by international Jewry. German support for the Jewish State, Grass wrote, “may be providing material for a crime / that is foreseeable,” the result being that “our complicity / will not be expunged by any / of the usual excuses.” This from a man who built a career upon scolding his fellow Germans for failing to confront their Nazi past, and yet hid his own membership in the Waffen-SS for five decades.

Here in America it is now a tenet of contemporary identity politics that the sufferings of Jews are not treated with the same sensitivity or sympathy as are those of any other ethnic, religious, or sexual minority group. Progressives would never dream of treating representatives of the African-American community with such callousness when black leaders discuss the present-day effects of slavery or Jim Crow, nor would they mock and belittle gay men for speaking of the indignities their community has suffered as a result of HIV-AIDS. Yet Jews talking about the Holocaust—let alone its contemporary implications for the Jewish State—are fair game for ridicule, psychological analysis, belittlement, and unadorned bigotry. Nowhere was this combination of sophomoric in-crowd bullying and accompanying historical ignorance more evident than in a tweet sent by MSNBC host Chris Hayes during Netanyahu’s March 3 address to the U.S. Congress:

It is always Munich, 1939. Always and forever.

— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) March 3, 2015

Hayes was asked on Twitter if he would be so dismissive in describing African-Americans discussing the present-day implications of slavery. “As daft as this slavery analogy is,” he replied, “let’s run with it and turn it around. Imagine if every single domestic policy proposal by conservatives was greeted by liberals saying they were trying to bring back slavery. That would be, unedifying, I think.” Of course, when the vice president of the United States did just that, telling a largely black audience that Republicans would “put y’all back in chains,” there was no outcry from Hayes and his fellow shiny-Twitter-friendly progressives. And of course Hayes would never level accusations of historical exploitation against blacks: After all, five decades of American liberal social policy—from the Great Society to affirmative action to calls today for reparations—has been predicated upon redressing the legacy of slavery and institutionalized discrimination. In Hayes’ world, only Jews and their traumas are fair game for such disparagement.

For a useful marker by which one can measure the depths of the toxic pit into which our current discourse had fallen, one could do worse than go back to the one article on Jewish Holocaust hysteria that got it right: “Hitler Is Dead,” by Leon Wieseltier, published in The New Republic. Written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, at a time when the furies unleashed by a catastrophic terrorist attack and the Western response brought about a surge of anti-Semitism and wild speculation in seemingly respectable quarters about octopus-like Jewish power over the American government, Wieseltier described a Jewish community “sunk in excitability, in the imagination of disaster. … Holocaust imagery is everywhere.” As an assessment of the threats facing world Jewry, one could argue that it has not aged well over the ensuing 13 years: Published in May 2002—five months before an Iranian opposition group’s revelation of secret nuclear facilities brought Iran to the attention of the International Atomic Energy Agency—“Hitler Is Dead” does not take into account the nightmarish potential of an Islamic theocracy equipped with nuclear weapons. But it’s not like the actual prospect of a nuclear Iran was even necessary to render such a picture imaginable. (In 1993, the narrator in Philip Roth’s novel Operation Shylock says that, “The destruction of Israel in a nuclear exchange is a possibility much less far-fetched today than was the Holocaust itself fifty years ago.”)

All the same, Wieseltier never implied that the subjects of his critique were being deliberately dishonest and attempting to “use” the Holocaust to hoodwink honest gentiles. He wrote understandingly of his fellow Jews, warning them against the perils of reducing every contemporary threat to that of Nazi Germany. This was most important in terms of dealing with the Arabs living under their military occupation: It would be disastrous for Israelis to essentialize Palestinians, despite anti-Semitic currents, as Nazis. Israel must, after all, learn to live alongside them. Wieseltier did not accuse Jews of being duplicitous, or claim that their pain and trauma weren’t sincere. Overreacting and perhaps paranoid, yes. Faking it for personal and political gain, no.

On the discrete point of whether or not Iran represents the same type of threat as Nazi Germany did, reasonable people can—and should—disagree. There are significant differences in the two situations, not the least of which is that Jews now have a state with a strong military and a nuclear arsenal, and the diaspora lives under governments that are committed, at least rhetorically, to combating anti-Semitism. On this particular point, Netanyahu has indeed appeared to be blundering and simplistic (“It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany,” he said, nine years ago), seemingly believing that he is the 21st-century incarnation of Winston Churchill. That’s his failure—and whether it’s a failure of rhetoric or perception, it is a consequential one. But criticizing a politician, even stridently, is different than accusing “Jews” or “right-wing Jews”—a category that unhinged from actual political affiliations has come to mean “Jews who disagree with me”—of exploiting the great historical crime that befell the Jewish people for crude political ends, an ugly accusation that according to the new math of victimhood allows the accuser to proclaim him or herself to be the victim of a global Jewish conspiracy. That sort of nutty, bigoted stuff used to be the exclusive province of Joe Sobran and his friends at the Institute for Historical Review. At least, it was their exclusive province—until certain top-shelf progressives decided to make it theirs, too.


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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.

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