On Thursday, Israel will mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah. As has been the custom for over six decades, a 2-minute air raid siren will be blared across the entire country and citizens from all walks of life will interrupt their daily routines for a moment of solemn reflection. Jan. 27 of this year also marked the decade anniversary of the United Nations-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which member states are encouraged to commemorate. Though an Israeli initiative, International Holocaust Remembrance Day has gradually been subjected to the universalizing prescriptions of those who would water down the particularly Jewish aspect of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.
The evolution of two different days of Holocaust commemoration and the ways they increasingly run counter to each other are symptomatic of the seizure of Jewish history and suffering for ulterior purposes. This victim displacement appropriates the most traumatic experience in Jewish history, pointedly erases the specificity of the events supposedly being commemorated, and then harshly chides Jews for inserting their own particularistic concerns into the discussion. At a certain point, these phenomena become a continuation of a specific form of oppression and erasure rather an antidote to “hatred.”
Imagine a remembrance of slavery that did not acknowledge the suffering of African-Americans—or a commemoration of the AIDS epidemic omitting the experiences of gay men. Such acts of dissociation would be inconceivable, the subjects of rightful denunciations and outraged protests. Yet in recent years, that is precisely what has been going on with regard to the Holocaust and its chief victims, the Jews. Last month, Britain’s National Union of Students (NUS)—which claims to represent some 7 million students across 600 campuses—debated whether it should even commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. That this was a subject for argument is absurd enough; the actual proceedings were scandalous. “Of course there shouldn’t be anti-Semitism,” said a student speaking against the measure, offering the sort of throat-clearing assertion from which anti-Semitism almost inevitably follows. “But it’s not about one set of people.”
The fracas took place against a backdrop of resurgent anti-Semitism in British higher education and politics. Earlier this year, a co-chairman of Oxford University’s Labor Party club quit after claiming that a large number of its members “have some kind of problem with Jews.” Meanwhile, at the same convention where it debated the propriety of commemorating the Holocaust, the NUS elected as its president a young woman named Malia Bouattia, who had previously opposed a declaration condemning ISIS, railed against the “Zionist-led media,” and advocated in favor of violent Palestinian “resistance” against Israel. Responding to critics in the pages of the Guardian, Bouattia began by noting that she is “the first black woman” and “the first Muslim” to be elected president of the NUS; the unspoken purpose of sharing these biographical details is that it is therefore impossible for her to be a bigot.
While the NUS measure endorsing Holocaust commemoration eventually passed, Darta Kaleja, a student at Chester University, no doubt spoke for many of her student comrades when she complained, to loud applause, that she wasn’t against commemorating the Holocaust per se but rather “prioritizing some lives over others. … In my five years of UK education … not once were the genocides of Tibet, Rwanda, or Zanzibar taught to me and my peers.” This is as logically fallacious as it is morally obscene; in no way does Holocaust remembrance obviate educational efforts about other slaughters. (On the contrary, the homepage of Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day Trust includes links to informational resources on the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.) One might expect Kaleja to be of Muslim or Arab extraction given the widespread resentment in those communities toward the memorialization of Jewish suffering. She is apparently from Latvia, however, where the locals did an especially thorough job of wiping out their Jewish neighbors without much prompting from the Germans.
The vociferous endorsement of Kaleja’s sentiments by a roomful of left-wing students demonstrates the confluence of three distinct types of Holocaust minimization: the Eastern European nationalist attempt to “obfuscate” the extermination of 6 million Jews by relativizing it as just one of many “genocides” committed during World War II, the traditional Arab-Muslim denial or diminishment of the Holocaust as a grossly exaggerated event that pales in comparison to Israeli crimes, and a new progressive narrative that expunges Jewish suffering in its account of an amorphous, context-free misdeed—no worse, and holding no more meaning, than any other episode of mass murder—inflicted upon some generalized notion of “humanity.” With respect to the latter, some go so far as to label the Holocaust an instance of “white on white crime” that, because its victims did not hail from the “global South,” is undeserving of recognition.
Sometimes, the speaking of a Holocaust without Jews can be innocuous, the result of a muddle-headed utopianism that desperately avoids singling out any one group’s suffering as having been worse than any other’s. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau omitted any mention of Jews or anti-Semitism in his first commemorative statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was not due to any conscious bigotry on his part but a sort of purblind, mushy progressivism. Still, it is distressing that the sort of Holocaust revisionism that was always the sole province of the far right and Arab nationalists—simultaneously denying the Shoah while hijacking it to bully Jews as “the new Nazis”—is, in newfangled form, becoming a badge of progressive virtue.
To understand the perverse logic of the Holocaust without Jews, one must work backward from the political end goal of those pushing it: the de-legitimzation of the Jewish State. For if the Holocaust isn’t about Jews, then Jews have no claim on their history, or reason to fear anti-Semitism, or the need for a state. The complaint used to be that Jews abused the Holocaust as a shakedown. Now, the Holocaust—at least as much as it was as a crime targeting the Jews above all others—doesn’t exist at all.
Labeling Muslims “the new Jews” of Europe when anti-Semitic crimes are at a postwar high—and almost entirely the doing of Muslims—is a particularly egregious form of this confiscation of Jewish history and inversion of reality. (In many schools across Europe, teachers report that they have difficulty teaching the Holocaust for fear of reprisals by Muslim students.) So too are the sanctimonious reprimands by soi-disant arbiters of good taste like the Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, who scold Jews for invoking the Holocaust to contextualize contemporary anti-Semitic incitement. This most recent Holocaust Memorial Day, just a day after Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khameini posted a video on the Internet questioning whether the Holocaust even happened, the leading Scottish Nationalist Party politician Alex Salmond used a commemorative event at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to scold not the Iranians but Israeli Knesset Member Michael Oren, who had criticized European governments for hosting the Iranian president on his whirlwind tour across the continent. There was a “time and place for international politics,” Salmond intoned. “Someone had to say what a lot of people who attended the service were thinking.” Well, bully for him, then.
In this era of hypersensitivity about “cultural appropriation” (which, taken to its extreme, has seen college campuses erupt in protest over yoga classes and the serving of bad Asian food in dining halls), it’s noteworthy how often the greatest crime in human history is casually manipulated by those who purport to be concerned with “oppression.” But to the mandarins of the progressive left, the Holocaust’s meaning is always and necessarily to be found in its “universalism.” According to this historical interpretation, the evil of the Nazis can be located in their abandonment of the European cosmopolitan tradition and descent into bestial particularism and nationalism—the very qualities that Israel, foremost among the nations, is charged with embodying today. This sleight of hand has the miraculous effect of clouding the causes of the Holocaust so that anti-Semitism is relegated to a background role, if it is mentioned at all. Harping on the fact of six million dead Jews, then, becomes weirdly tribal, even Nazi-like; asserting Jewish peoplehood is too close to asserting Aryan-ness, the disastrous results of which Europeans have been expiating for the past seven decades. It doesn’t matter that there is no Israeli Auschwitz, or anything even approaching it; the particularism and nationalism of Israel is enough to imply everything that has followed or at least could follow. Israel is the carrier of the European disease that wise Europeans have transcended through their enormous, Christ-like suffering, and formation of the European Union.
Last November in Sweden, the organizers of a Kristallnacht commemoration chose not to invite Jews lest the universal lessons of the Holocaust be marred by the official participation of the people who were its primary victims. Yet the left-wing activists who organized the rally had no problem with Palestinian flags or posters equating the Star of David to a swastika, both of which make annual appearances at an event ostensibly called to remember the genocide of Jewish people.
Erasing Jews from the history of the Holocaust makes the likening of them to Nazis more palatable. In the upcoming documentary film Let My People Go, Marcel Ophuls promises to expose modern-day Israel like he did Vichy France in his classic, The Sorrow and the Pity, telling similarly “unpleasant truths.” Ophuls teamed up with Eyal Sivan, an Israeli filmmaker self-exiled in Paris who speaks of anti-Zionist Jews as a righteous minority akin to anti-Apartheid Afrikaners or members of the French resistance. To capture the full enormity of the Jewish State’s depravity, the two traveled to Germany to meet with what Robert Mackey, the blogger then of the New York Times, called “young Israeli dissidents” who fled the Jewish State, in the words of Sivan, “seeking refuge from Israel’s politics in Berlin.”
For the dwindling true-believers in a post-national Europe, it is hard to imagine a story that could be more satisfying than Jews fleeing their Nazi-like nation-state for the utopia of Berlin, whose residents have learned the lessons of their past as the stiff-necked Jews manifestly have not. For anyone not quite so enamored of the EU, it is hard to imagine a story that is at once so magnificently self-flattering, and which lets Europeans off the hook so completely for their repulsive historical crimes—while further enabling the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism that made those crimes so deadly.
Today’s progressive narrative of the Holocaust without Jews is not altogether different from the last, great leftist attempt to deny the truth of the Shoah. After WWII, the Soviet Union and its puppet communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe solemnized the Nazis’ victims as “anti-fascists,” lumping in together the 6 million Jews who were, by dint of their birth, singled out for execution, alongside the communists and socialists who were targeted because of their political disposition. Emphasizing the specifically anti-Semitic nature of the Holocaust, communists worried, would work against their political purposes as the populations over which they ruled were quite anti-Semitic themselves—and had by and large looked away, or even eagerly participated, as their Jewish neighbors were carried off to the gas chambers. Ever amoral, the communists utilized anti-Semitism in much the same way Muslim regimes have exploited Jew-hatred to mobilize discontented populations; from the 1952 “Doctors’ Plot” to the infamous Slansky Trial that same year to Poland’s 1967-1968 Jewish purge, communist authorities raised the phantom menace of nefarious Jewish power, usually under the guise of “anti-Zionism.” In his 1971 study Anti-Semitism Without Jews, Hungarian-born Austrian writer Paul Lendvai detailed the cynical ways that communist governments incited their people against imaginary Jewish threats in lands almost entirely depleted of their Jewish populations—and how those conspiratorial hysterias spoke to a deeper societal sickness having little to do with Jews. “The very fact that what we are witnessing is essentially an anti-Semitism without Jews is an all the more alarming symptom of moral pollution and political disintegration,” he wrote. “The fewer Jews there are, the more the fight against racial hatred becomes primarily, almost exclusively in the interest of non-Jews.”
If anti-Semitism without Jews is a marker of “moral pollution and political disintegration,” then so too is the Holocaust without Jews an indicator of ethical rot. The lessons of the Holocaust are indeed universal, and Jews—contrary to the anti-Semitic stereotype of a selfish people hungry for the world’s pity—have been at the forefront of applying its lessons to latter-day manifestations of bigotry, intolerance, and genocide. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for instance, has an entire center devoted to the prevention of genocide, and practically no commemoration of the Holocaust—be it a book, a film, or a religious service—lacks mention of contemporary struggles against injustice.
Yet the Holocaust’s universal meanings are not inconsistent with an appreciation of its singularity, both in terms of process (the first and only time a modern state carried out an industrial-scale, mechanized mass-mass murder with the aim of exterminating an entire people) and victims (primarily, but not exclusively, Jews). Indeed, these unique aspects of the Holocaust complement one other in distinguishing the event from any other crime against humanity. Without independently acknowledging both the universality and the historicity of the Holocaust, we will fail to understand what happened, and to whom—and how to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again, to anyone.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.