Every dispute about the uses and misuses of Holocaust imagery should begin and end like this one: In recent years, survivors’ organizations were perturbed that some Christian translations of the Bible use the word “holocaust” instead of the more modern “burnt offering,” as in “This is the established holocaust that was offered at Mount Sinai” (Numbers 29:6). Long before the Shoa, “holocaust” was a common term for a burnt offering, or any act of complete destruction.
The Catholic Church, for one, could have held its ground and insisted no offense was meant by the inclusion of the word in one of its standard English Bibles. Instead, heeding the survivors’ objections and recognizing that words and meanings evolve over time, editors of the New American Bible — Revised Edition, to be released on March 9, have replaced the word “holocaust” with “burnt offering.”
The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants welcomed this gracious move. “Holocaust survivors view this subtle but meaningful change as a sensitive gesture by the Catholic Church for which we are grateful,” its vice president said in a statement.
Despite this and a generational revolution in the relationship between Jews and the church, tensions remain — over efforts to beatify Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII, for example. But church leaders deserve praise for refusing to level accusations about “political correctness” or “language police,” and for quietly altering that which caused others pain.
Every politician or pundit who has misappropriated the Holocaust, or wrenched a historical term out of context, or carelessly tossed around references to Nazism, should learn a lesson from the Catholic Church: Words matter, and groups and individuals are entitled to be heard and heeded in matters of language.