Remembrance is a deeply emotional element in modern Jewish life, but exactly what it means can be slippery, and often explosively controversial. Do we work to keep Holocaust awareness alive primarily as a way of honoring the memory of the millions of Jewish victims of the Nazi madness and protecting the Jewish future? Or should we also focus on using its lessons to help prevent future genocides in a world where mass murder remains an ever-present threat?
The Holocaust was in so many ways unique — in its scale, in the industrial efficiency of its killing machine, in the fact that it took place in a supposedly advanced society. But the human impulses that led Germany to embrace mass murder continue to produce new horrors in diverse places.
Is the message of the Holocaust unique, or does it have broader application? When the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in 1993, many of its founders believed both elements were part of its mission. In a world all too willing to forget, and with revisionists actively seeking to distort memory in pursuit of their anti-Semitic fantasies, honoring the Jewish victims and giving voice to their stories remains as important today as when the museum opened its doors; that’s why the word “memorial” is in its name.
But many of the founders and the survivors who told their stories to museum visitors also saw their role as custodians of memory as a way of applying the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s world. “Never again,” they argued, can’t just apply to Jews. Holocaust museums, memorials, and academic centers, by graphically and accurately telling the story of what happened to Europe’s Jews, could and should play a role in a more expansive application of the slogan.
Particularism versus universalism: That’s always been the tension within the remembrance community, and finding the correct balance has always been extraordinarily challenging.
The recent furor over comments by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) calling immigrant detention camps along the southern border “concentration camps,” and the Holocaust Museum’s response that it “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,” illustrates that complex dynamic.
The museum’s statement prompted a sharp response from several hundred Holocaust scholars, who — in an open letter — said, “The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.”
Yes, but when do statements that use the Holocaust as a frame of reference cross the line and become an inappropriate exploitation of memory to score political points? Not an easy distinction, but an important one.
It’s beyond question that the facile Holocaust analogies that politicians from every point in the political spectrum can’t seem to resist are deeply offensive. Likening every policy we abhor to Nazism, every politician we revile to Hitler, is an affront to the memory of Holocaust victims and a dilution of the critical lessons the world should have learned from that horrific chapter.
But it is also true that when we carry particularism to extremes, we diminish the ability of that memory to help make this a better world, violating the hopes of so many of the museum’s founders.
Comparing today’s immigrant detention centers and the incarceration of children to the Holocaust — the attempted extermination of a people — clearly crosses that line. But using powerful language — “concentration camps,” a term coined long before Hitler — to criticize policies that seem to many to echo some horrors of the past — is that an acceptable use of memory?
Difficult distinctions, to be sure. People in public life — commentators, activists, and politicians — need to be much more careful with their language, more thoughtful in their application of historical lessons. At the same time, our Jewish community, still in pain over the tragedy that befell us more than 70 years ago, needs to remember that the historical record preserved in museums, memorials, and academic centers can and should play a critical role in healing a world in which the genocidal impulse has not been extirpated.
That, too, is a way of honoring the memory of the Jewish dead.