Distortions of the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

In recent weeks, a U.S. Senator compared his opponents to the Nazis, the Pope compared abortion to the Holocaust, and an Egyptian government newspaper compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler.

Such analogies pollute public discourse by trivializing the brutal horrors committed by Hitler’s henchmen and by grotesquely distorting the individuals or policies whom they target.

The problem with the Nazi regime was not that it limited legislative debates, which is what West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd was accusing the Republicans of doing when he invoked the image of the Nazis.  Whatever one may think of abortion, it is not comparable to the Nazi genocide of six million Jews.  And no American president can be compared to a maniacal dictator who caused the deaths of more than forty  million people in his campaign to conquer the world.

It only worsens matters that these inappropriate Hitler analogies are sometimes used as partisan political cannon fodder.

Senator Byrd is a Democrat.  Republicans condemned his Hitler analogy.  But if Democrats had condemned it, that would have been an important demonstration that such analogies are beyond the pale.  Sadly, Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy called Byrd’s statement “excellent–well thought-out, reasoned, compelling, legitimate and persuasive.”

Last year, Democrats criticized a New York Post columnist for comparing Governor Howard Dean’s supporters to “Hitler’s Brownshirts,” and denounced conservative talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger for comparing some day care centers to “something out of Nazi Germany.”  Republicans, too, should have spoken out against those comparisons.

Pope John Paul II’s new book compares democratically-elected parliaments that have permitted abortion to the “legally elected parliament which allowed for the election of Hitler in Germany.” Imagine what a powerful message it would convey if a Catholic leader or organization had taken issue with that analogy.

An especially dangerous aspect of this problem is the circulation of Hitler analogies in the Arab world.  When Arab government-sponsored publications compare American or Israeli leaders to the Nazis, they help incite hatred, and potentially even violence.

Consider that when Time Magazine recently named President Bush its Man of the Year, the Egyptian government daily Al Akhbar responded by pointing out that Adolf Hitler was also once chosen as Time’s Man of the Year (in 1939).  The government-controlled media in Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority, and elsewhere in the Arab world also frequently compare American and Israeli leaders to Nazis.  When was the last time U.S. officials publicly rebuked them?

There was a brief ray of hope earlier this year, when the State Department’s new report on Global Anti-Semitism included Israel-Nazi analogies in its definition of antisemitism.  The report stated that in addition to direct attacks on Jews or Judaism, “The demonization of Israel or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue.”

But then the State Department’s report itself made little use of its own definition when analyzing antisemitism in Arab countries, where Israel-Nazi analogies, and much worse, are commonplace.  The section about Iceland was 387 words long, even though the report noted only one instance of antisemitic harassment and one hostile cartoon there.  By contrast, Saudi Arabia was given just 182 words, and only 86 words were devoted to the Palestinian Authority.   Compare that to Armenia (194 words), Brazil (149 words), and Azerbaijan (142), where there is little reported antisemitism and no evidence of government-sponsored antisemitism.

Hitler analogies must be consistently and forcefully denounced.  That means Republicans and Democrats alike speaking out, even when the offenders come from their own camps.  It means being willing to take issue even with revered religious leaders when they make inappropriate statements.  And it means U.S. officials speaking out, even when the offenders are governments with whom they are hoping to improve relations.

March 2005