Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review April 29, 1999 / 13 Iyar, 5759

Julia Gorin

"Never again"? This isn't exactly what we had in mind

IT'S NOT THAT I BELIEVE Jews have the monopoly on suffering. But some comparisons to the Holocaust are beyond offensive--especially when they're used to manipulate public support for a war that is as absurd as it is unjust.

Jews have been very generous with terms like Holocaust and genocide. We've tolerated loose tossing around of the words before. Why? Because we don't want to fulfill the stereotype of the Jew who thinks he has the exclusive lease on such expressions, we usually just shrug and think, "Everyone's entitled."

Econophone In fact, it's precisely to avert the stereotype that my fellow tribesmen decline to object to the word's application in the current context of Kosovo. Nor do they object to the war which the misuse of the words has helped fan. The only Jewish exception here are Russian-Americans, who are more familiar with the history of the Balkan region than most Americans. These are Jews who lately find themselves dismayed and disoriented as they watch their adopted country, which has done right by them against an empire which oppressed them, take sides in a foreign skirmish where the oppressed are not as easily discerned from the oppressors.

Their abandoned motherland, meanwhile, has already sent an opposing fleet into the Adriatic Sea and has equipped Serb forces with surface-to-air missiles. How embarrassing it would be if a fallen empire which is financially dependent on the U.S. sends its benefactor scurrying back and emerges the moral victor. What long-lasting damage this would do to our place at the international table. And all because of manipulative word-play which no one questioned.

There's genocide, and there's ethnic rivalry. Europe is rife with the latter. It's been plagued by it throughout history. But never have the two words been used so interchangeably until the 1990s.

What we've delved into is an age-old conflict between two groups, where one has been agitating for something for years and has led attacks on the other for it, opening the floodgates to mutual injustices.

In contrast, I don't recall reading that Jews in the 1930s wanted to detach Berlin and keep it for themselves. In German towns where Jews might have been the majority, I never heard of them killing minority German citizens. Nor do I recall any guerilla German-Jewish leaders listed on the State Department's international terrorist roster.

Speaking of which, who even knew that our Secretary of State had met with a spokesman for the Kosovo Liberation Army, which U.S. diplomats had dismissed as a terrorist organization only one year ago. In fact, not only did Madeleine Albright meet with such a figure, but, as she announced, she was rather charmed by him.

What could have charmed her so? Did he give her a compliment of some kind? Could he have said, "Gee, you don't look Jewish."

Whatever the exchange, was it at this point that our definition of terrorism got murky?

After all, it has been the KLA's open mission to break Kosovo away from Yugoslavia and make it part of Greater Albania, cleansing the area of its remaining Serbs in the process. With Islamic extremist organizations, various Albanian crime syndicates, and Iran financing them toward this end, the rebel group has been assassinating Serb officials and kidnapping and murdering Serb villagers. The Serbian government has responded by weeding out KLA members from among the Albanian civilians they've been using for camouflage. In clashes, many such civilians have gotten hurt or moved.

A NATO-led humanitarian mission would have been one thing if, indeed, Albanians were being brutalized and were desperately trying to escape just with their lives--like the Jews we turned away in World War II. But in today's scenario, both sides are long-time enemies who have taken part in ethnic hatred and violent conflict against each other. The Albanians are not being systematically annihilated, without provocation, because of who they are. The adversaries are much more the moral equivalents of each other than the Jews and the Nazis were.

While that shouldn't diminish our sympathy for the innocent sufferers among them, the contrast should at least give us more pause than it has so far.

But as things stand, the Albanians have the American public's unconditional empathy. The refugees will be given safe harbor here and abroad, regardless of any alliances they might have forged with generous anti-Western terror groups who could one day call upon them to return the favor on our shores. At the same time, we will be adding to enemy ranks the Serbs--WWII allies whose villages the Nazis burned when they wouldn't give up the 500 downed U.S. airmen they were sheltering.

Speaking of the Serbs, could we really have expected them to give up their land just because someone else wanted it? And why are we helping that someone else get it? Because Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright envision a placid Europe where borders, national pride, independence and history are irrelevant?

Make no mistake: Words have power. Ones like genocide have enough power to galvanize a country's divergent political mindsets behind an all-out war in the Balkans. Enough power even to redeem a man who will try to secure a legacy--any legacy beyond perverting the country--no matter what the cost.

As NATO implodes on itslef and destabilizes Europe, Bill Clinton will have his legacy, and it will be wreaking havoc long after he's gone.

Meanwhile, farther east, Israel has been criticized for its ambivalence toward the NATO mission. As long as we're drawing parallels to Jewish history here, that should come as no surprise. Many Israelis are probably wondering what will happen next month when Yassir Arafat declares Palestine an independent state and begins a Jihad against them for the land his people believe is rightly theirs.

Should such a time come to pass, and the PLO and Hamas, like the KLA, shield themselves from Israeli retaliation with Palestinian women and children, what then?

Next year in Jerusalem?

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a Manhattan writer and stand-up comic.


©1999, Julia Gorin