(RNS) — Quick Arabic lesson.
The word is “zalla.”
Translation (into French, of course): “Faux pas.”
That would pretty much define what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas committed recently in Germany.
A reporter in Berlin asked Abbas if he was ready to apologize for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes during the Olympic Games in Munich exactly 50 years ago.
Standing next to Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, the 86-year-old Abbas retorted by accusing Israel of having committed “50 Holocausts” in Palestinian areas from 1947 until today.
The German chancellor condemned Mr. Abbas’ words. Abbas later walked back those comments, stating that he had only intended to highlight Israel’s “crimes.” Meanwhile, the German police are investigating Abbas for possible incitement to hatred.
Shocked? Of course, you aren’t, especially if you have paid any attention to Abbas’ public career. Many years ago, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Holocaust denial.
Oh, by the way, he was for it.
But, it is not as if Mr. Abbas is alone. He joins the ever-growing club of those who engage in Holocaust distortion.
It comes in the following forms:
- Holocaust denial: It didn’t happen.
- Holocaust minimization: Yes, it happened, but it wasn’t 6 million.
- Holocaust equalization: Yes it happened, but it was no different from other genocides and ethnic cleansings, like slavery or the Armenians or Cambodia or Rwanda.
- Holocaust reversal: Yes, it happened and now the Jews are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews. (That would be the Abbas variety — and all too popular in the anti-Israel crowd.)
- Holocaust marginalization: Yes it happened, but other people were also killed in the concentration camps.
I would add to this list: Holocaust trivialization — when people make inappropriate comparisons to the Holocaust.
My own list:
- Some years ago, it was discovered that a pet cemetery on Long Island had not been burying the dead pets but simply leaving them outside on the ground. Yuck. The singer, Janet Jackson, opined: “This is just like the Holocaust.” No, Janet, it isn’t.
- Again, some years ago, a bunch of trees were cut down in the Bronx, New York. This decision upset local residents. One of them said: “This is just like the Holocaust.” No, it isn’t — not even close.
- In 2003, there was a PETA-sponsored exhibition, “Holocaust on Your Plate.” It suggested: “The very same mindset that made the Holocaust possible — that we can do anything we want to those we decide are ‘different or inferior’ — is what allows us to commit atrocities against animals every single day.” Whatever you might think about killing animals for food, this is not the same as the Holocaust.
Then, there are those who make inappropriate comparisons to the Nazis.
A synagogue member once protested to me that he resented the fact that synagogue leaders had done research into him in order to figure out what they might ask of him for the annual campaign. “This is sort of like what the Nazis did.” No, it isn’t even close.
I feel the same way when we call our political opponents “Nazis.” I have heard people use this epithet to describe Donald Trump — and it is wrong, no matter how much I disagree with him and his actions.
To quote the title of a wonderful book: “I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like.”
Except, I don’t like this one: the Holocaust as metaphor.
As much as I dislike these distortions of the Holocaust, there is an equal, parallel danger.
That would be if Jews chose to keep the implications and the lessons of the Holocaust only to themselves.
If there are to be no larger lessons of the Holocaust, for the world and for Americans, then why commemorate it in public time and in public spaces?
This was the very triumph of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — to put the memories of the Jewish people into the very heart of Washington, D.C.
Not just anywhere: the museum is at the intersection of Museum D.C. and Government D.C. This museum is the antithesis of its neighbors. The Holocaust is about how government can become demonic; how a cultured society could descend into evil; and how technology (the Museum is a short walk to the Air and Space Museum) could become its handmaiden.
But, more than that, for a moment, let us leave aside the preponderance, still, of genocides. In that sense, our memory of the Holocaust has been insufficient to prevent mass deaths. That is bad enough.
Recall that the path to Nazi domination was paved with the bricks of contempt for democracy, culture and the life of the mind.
- The march on Charlottesville should have been a wake-up call.
- The attack on Tree of Life Synagogue should have been a wake-up call.
- Jan. 6 should have been a wake-up call.
- The popularity of QAnon and other conspiracy theories should have been a wake-up call.
- The antisemitic threats against the judge who issued the search warrant for Mar A Lago should have been a wake-up call.
- And yes, book bannings in schools should be a wake-up call.
So, no, Mr. Abbas, Israel has not perpetrated “50 Holocausts.”
But, in America, there have been far more than 50 warnings about a descent into fascism.
We are getting into the season of the blowing of the shofar.
Will we hear it?