What does it mean to say that you're "not into the moral uniqueness of the Holocaust?"
I keep reading this simple declaration, made a few days ago by Sasha Volokh, a blogger I generally respect, and my level of frustration only increases. I've probably let it simmer too long already.
I try to think of a single interpretation of that statement that I can wrap my mind around and make sense of. Was it intended to be a trivialization of the Holocaust? Or of the author's feelings about the Holocaust? Or simply a carelessly phrased lament that other atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and others seem to be trivialized by the overwhelming attention paid to the Holocaust?
I'd have been inclined to assume the latter if not for the fact that Sasha finds himself in agreement with this very offensive statement by Clayton Cramer (link with extreme reluctance):
Some people try to see the Holocaust as special; unfortunately, there was nothing terribly special about it. It was larger and better organized than the Armenian genocide; it was specific to an ethnic group, unlike the atrocities in the Soviet Union, Red China, and Cambodia. It has received far more attention than similarly monstrous atrocities throughout history, perhaps because Jews in the U.S. have been in especially influential positions in the publishing and media business. This doesn't mean the Holocaust is unimportant, and I don't begrudge the efforts to make sure that we never forget. It does mean that the lesser known atrocities of the 20th century need more popular attention.
I've included the entire quote because I wouldn't want to be accused of taking Mr. Cramer out of context. Like others who make similar statements while loudly proclaiming their utter lack of antisemitic intent, Cramer surrounds his assertions of disproportionate Jewish control of the media with assurances that he stands firmly opposed to genocide as a matter of general principle. Well, good for him.
There are various forms of Holocaust denial. The most elementary, on both a psychological and an intellectual level, is the refusal to acknowledge that the event happened at all. It's also the easiest to refute, and so most of the civilized world (and I use that term narrowly) either ignores it or dismisses it out of hand.
There are other variants, though. One of them claims that the Jews themselves (ourselves) were secretly behind the atrocity. Another asserts that the numbers have deliberately been exaggerated for political purposes. Yet another was raised by David Bernstein in the post to which Sasha was responding, i.e., the reduction of the Holocaust to a "political persecution of Jews, some scattered killings, . . . a cruel thing that happened." Trivialization.
But one of the most subtle and insidious forms of Holocaust denial is the transmutation of the word "Holocaust" into a non-specific, generalized term that simply refers to the program of mass-murder perpetrated by Hitler's regime during the Second World War, of which Jews were only a part, albeit a substantial part. Sounds good. Sounds fair, non-partisan. Sounds like alternate reality.
There have been volumes, libraries, in fact, written about this subject. There's a reason why the Holocaust, the Holocaust, the systematic murder of over six million Jewish people in a fully acknowledged and unequivocal attempt to rid the entire world of every last Jew, every last piece of every last Jew, every last memory of every last Jew . . . there's a damn good reason why that event has spawned a whole genre of literature, of analysis, of theological and philosophical speculation, of arguments and counter-arguments, by Jews and non-Jews alike, in a futile attempt to find the answer to one not-so-simple question. How could it happen?
Not unique? Not special? Only if you deny the essence of the event, the reality of the event, can you possibly reach that conclusion.
I'd suggest some required reading. But the short list would be longer than this entire post. Elie Wiesel, try starting there. Raul Hilberg, Lucy Dawidowicz, Nora Levin, Gerald Reitlinger, LÃ©on Poliakov, Chaim Kaplan, Emil Fackenheim, Richard Rubenstein, Eliezer Berkovits. Read Primo Levi, who tried, against the odds, to rail against the dilution of the specific and unique lessons of the Holocaust while fully acknowledging the horror and shame of other atrocities.
Or read this twenty-year-old review of Roy and Alice Eckardt's book "Long Night's Journey Into Day: Life and Faith After the Holocaust." I haven't read the book. But it's a study of the implications of the Holocaust from a Christian perspective. And I found this part of the review particularly apt:
Understanding the Holocaust as Christian event, however, does not reduce the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish event. In their chapter entitled "Singularity," they discuss the moral uniqueness of the Holocaust and how, within this uniqueness, the Jewish experience was "uniquely unique." How so? It is undeniable that the Final Solution (die EndlÃ¶sung) formed the critical core of the Holocaust. The Final Solution was not an attempt to destroy some or even many Jews. Rather, it was an act of violence fueled by a fury aimed at the obliteration of the Jewish people as such. Non-Jews had options. But Jews seeking escape via conversion or even by swearing fealty to Hitler ultimately met the same fate as any other Jew. The Nuremberg Laws insured that. But how can the authors affirm the Holocaust as "uniquely unique" vis-a-vis the Jews without denigrating other acts of genocide?
They decry any attempt to subject different forms and cases of human suffering to "competitive criteria." They state that "human suffering is not a quantitative matter subject to some form of objective measurement, but is instead a qualitative condition to be apprehended in existential terms, through the faculty of sympathy." So they call for an approach to the Holocaust which uses a dialectic of continuity (the Holocaust and the solidarity of all human beings in suffering) and discontinuity (the "uniquely unique" experience of the Jews in the Holocaust). They contend that only by employing such a dialectic can we avoid the obscenity of addressing Holocaust survivors by reminding them, for example, of the horrors of the Vietnamese, or the equal obscenity of reminding the Vietnamese sufferers about Auschwitz. Rather, the dialectic of continuity/discontinuity allows the one remembrance to feed the other remembrances. It is their hope that by keeping this dialectic in mind, readers will not construe their stress upon the moral singularity of the Holocaust and its "uniquely unique" Jewish aspect as an "implicit insensitivity to non-Holocaust sufferers." Readers of this volume will find no cause to accuse the authors of insensitivity.
Readers of this blog know that I'm opposed to political correctness in all its forms. But there's a difference between being politically incorrect and historically inaccurate. There's a difference between being insensitive and being hateful. And it doesn't surprise me in the least that this discussion, complete with all-too-predictable references to Jewish control of the media, has evolved out of the controversy over Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion." There will be more to come.
Solomon, on whose blog I first noticed the comments referenced above, sensibly declined to go here. Fools rush in, they say. Some things, you can let pass, others not. For me, this was a not. I hope I've been able to clarify why.
Update: In response to Solomon, Sasha explains what he meant by "moral uniqueness." I still disagree with both the tone and the content of his original statement, but least I now understand where he's coming from. I also disagree that Clayton Cramer isn't "saying what you think he's saying." We've been through this before. It doesn't need to be rehashed again here.
To reiterate, this isn't a debate about who suffered more or which atrocity scores higher (or lower) on some scale of horror. And, please -- it has nothing to do with which act of genocide was more "important." I don't even begin to understand how to think in such terms. To quote again from the book review cited above,
". . . human suffering is not a quantitative matter subject to some form of objective measurement, but is instead a qualitative condition to be apprehended in existential terms, . . ."
Actually, the uniqueness isn't in quantity or quality but in the very nature of the event, considered as a whole. I may try to tackle this in more detail in a subsequent post.
Further update: Meryl has already tackled it, here.