Memory, by its nature, drifts toward obscurity. With regard to the Holocaust, however, the Jewish community and decent people of the world swore to ensure that neither the mind-shattering scope nor the ghastly definition of the Holocaust ever be allowed to fade. It is only if we ‘never forget’ that we can earnestly declare the sacred mantra, ‘Never Again.’
Still, there’s little doubt that Holocaust memory is ailing in modern America. A study covered by the Washington Post, to give one example, found that two-thirds of American millennials are unable to identify the term ‘Auschwitz,’ while one-fifth had never heard of the Holocaust at all.
Worse than being forgotten, Holocaust memory is now under undeniable assault.
The cultural siege on Holocaust memory saw significant escalation recently, when during a live stream on Instagram, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — who commands an audience of nearly eight million followers on Twitter and Instagram alone — demeaned and debased the Holocaust by comparing the annihilation of millions of Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps to detention centers run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the U.S.-Mexico border. “The U.S. is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are,” she said, decrying a “fascist” administration and invoking the words, “Never Again.”
From there, things would get worse.
On the following Saturday, The New York Times published a full-page ad condemning Ocasio-Cortez for her ignorance, inaccuracy, and insensitivity. The ad was placed by The World Values Network, the organization I founded and lead, which defends and promotes Holocaust memory, the State of Israel, and Jewish values in the American media.
With the departure of the Sabbath, I opened my phone to discover we were facing torrential attack.
Electronic tirades poured into our E-Mail servers as unintelligible rants clogged our answering machines. On social media, activists shared links to a crowd-campaign bent on getting our ‘hate-ads’ banned from The Times (the virulently anti-Israel Code Pink being behind it).
Coming mostly from kooks and anti-Semites, these messages were easy to overlook. Harder to ignore were the ranks of leading political and cultural figures cheerleading Ocasio-Cortez.
The Times’ Charles Blow led the opinion section with a spirited defense of Ocasio-Cortez; the title being “Trump’s ‘Concentration Camps.’” Even the famously Jewish Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York rose to defend not only her use of the term concentration camps but her cries of ‘Never Again.’ “One of the lessons of the Holocaust,” Nadler explained in a tweet, “is ‘Never Again’ – not only to mass murder, but also to the dehumanization of people, violations of basic human rights, and assaults on our common morality.” Iran, parenthetically, would have been a far better target for the slogan, considering they hang gays from cranes, deprive their entire nation of basic rights, and regularly promise a genocide of the Jews in Israel. Still, none of that stopped him from defending his decision in a 5,200-word essay, published online and without so much as a mention of the words ‘Never Again.’
Even Michael Godwin — the namesake of ‘Godwin’s law,’ which proposes that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”— rose to defend her. Though he introduced the law to prevent Holocaust-hyperbole, he’s now become its greatest living proof: in 2016, this self-appointed Holocaust imagery-czar urged Americans to “go ahead and refer to Hitler when you talk about Trump,” and, last October, he granted permission for people to call Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro “a Nazi,” after declaring in the Washington Post, “sure, you can call Trump a Nazi.”
Even when the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — the highest American authority on there subject — unequivocally condemned the use of Holocaust analogies when talking about any other event, more than 140 genocide and Holocaust historians penned an open letter urging the Museum’s director to retract his statement.
The controversy reached a possible peak this past Sunday in New Jersey, where hundreds of Jewish activists from the irreverently-named organization Never Again Action blocked a highway leading to an ICE Contract Detention Facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The NAA mission statement, tweeted this past Thursday, underlines the group’s belief that “as Jews, we were taught to never let anything like the Holocaust happen again.” That’s a fair point; but by likening ICE to the SS, they’re helping Americans forget how bad the Holocaust really was, which is the essential prerequisite for evil striking twice.
Due in no small part to this chorus of support, AOC doubled-down on her word-choice, citing the “expert analysis” of the scholar Andrea Pitzer. In a recently released book, Pitzer took the liberty of defining concentration camps as “the mass detention of civilians without trial.” Of course, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Cambridge Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum all disagree with such an oversimplified definition of the triggering term. Moreover, speaking to Chris Hayes in the wake of AOC’s remarks, Pitzer would herself suggest using more sensitive terminology, such as ‘irregular’ or ‘extrajudicial’ detention centers. Hayes agreed: “Let’s just call them ‘detention camps,’” he tweeted, “and focus on what’s happening in them.”
Representative Ilhan Omar, who used the words ‘some people did something’ to describe the 9/11attacks, would offer an even simpler, and even more inane definition for the term ‘concentration camps.’ Speaking to a journalist while sauntering the halls of Congress, Omar explained that “there are camps, and people are being concentrated.” Her insensitivity would soon eclipse her insensibility; “I don’t know why [concentration camp’] is a controversial thing to say.”
Ultimately, Americans are not Nazis and belittling the extermination of European Jewry should be, for any politician, an impassable offense. That such a mercenary and utilitarian approach to the Holocaust has become the call of a new liberal crusade — comprised of key media figures, dozens of politicians, scores of academics, and hundreds of New Jersey Jews — should be alarming and outrageous to those whose loyalty to the victims of the Holocaust forbids them from allowing their sacrifice to be turned into a political dishrag.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the internationally bestselling author of 30 books. He will shortly publish “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.