Jewish World Review August 15, 2005/ 10 Av,
The devil in the details of Holocaust images
Harry Belafonte was asked the other day whether Colin Powell and
Condoleezza Rice had raised black opinion of the Bush administration. He
opened his mouth and let nonsense out: "Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in
the hierarchy of the Third Reich. Color does not necessarily denote quality,
content or value," he told Cybercast News Service. This was both
inaccurate there were no Jews in the hierarchy of Nazi Germany and it
smacked of more than a little ethnic bigotry.
Dick Gregory, being a stand-up comic, was even more perverse. He
observed at an Atlanta civil rights rally that black conservatives "have a
right to exist, but why would I want to walk around with a swastika on my
shirt after the way Hitler done messed it up?" Blacks in brown shirts?
Woody Allen made a reach, too, in an interview with der Spiegel,
the German news magazine, trying to level the killing field in the name of
moral equivalence. "So in 2001 some fanatics killed some Americans, and now
some Americans are killing some Iraqis," he said. "And in my childhood, some
Nazis killed Jews. And now some Jewish people and some Palestinians are
killing each other. . . . History is the same thing over and over again."
Woody is often funny, but sometimes he can be an oxymoron.
James Dobson, director of Focus on the Family, belongs to
another category altogether. He compared embryonic stem cell research to
Nazi death-camp experiments: "Ultimately, one life will be sacrificed to
benefit another. That's evil." It's fair enough to think federal funding of
such research is wrong; millions of Americans do. But the motives behind the
research are not evil. Josef Mengele was evil. James Dobson is a decent and
thoughtful man, but his exaggerated comparison is neither decent nor
thoughtful, and merely demonstrates how difficult it is to argue hot-button
issues in a reasonable and thoughtful way.
Stem cell research can and I think should be debated on moral
terms, as a slippery slope for society. The issue is not whether stem cell
research should be done but whether the government should fund it.
Researchers who work with private money to seek cures for disease are
neither immoral nor monsters.
Hitler and the Third Reich have become the standard for
measuring evil, but we easily and often turn them into abstract symbols
lacking neither nuance nor moral subtlety. The president has said he would
veto any legislation that provides federal funding for stem cell research,
and this deserves full debate. Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Bill Frist of
Tennessee, both conservatives (and religious, too), are outspoken in support
of federal funding. Surely Mr. Dobson does not mean to suggest that these
two friends stand in the aura of the Nazis.
Recent portraits of Hitler, Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele have focused on them as human beings who lived ordinary lives before the Third Reich, fleshing out their biographies as men rather than abstract images of evil. How they became human monsters requires specific attention to detail, not distorting generalizations. When Robert Jay Lifton was researching his book "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide," an Auschwitz survivor asked him: "Were they beasts when they did what they did? Or were they human beings?" Replied Mr. Lifton: "They were and are men, which is my justification for studying them, and their behavior."
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