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Jewish World Review May 2, 2000

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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A Justified Obsession

Understanding anti-Semitism and Holocaust remembrance in the Internet age -- WHILE READING THE NEW YORK TIMES on a recent trip to Philadelphia from New York for a day of speeches, press interviews and fundraising, Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman counted seven stories in the newspaper with a Holocaust theme.

From reports about the verdict in the David Irving Holocaust-denial libel suit to news about the disposition of stolen assets to discussions of the Holocaust in the arts section, it seemed as if the Holocaust was the talk of the Times on that day.

It was a far cry from the time when remembrance of the 6 million and the crimes of the German Nazi regime was the preserve of survivors and other Jewish activists.

Foxman, who is himself a child survivor of the Holocaust, told me that once he, like other survivors, had worried that no one would remember. Now, it seems that everyone is looking for an angle to write about the Holocaust. My question for the ADL head about all this coverage was simple: Was this good for the Jews?

His reply was direct. He admitted he was not sure.

The embrace of the Holocaust by the mass media and the entertainment industry is a puzzling phenomenon. How is it that in a world that gives every evidence of having not learned very much from the blood lust that characterized the history of the 20th century, everyone seems to care so much about the Holocaust?

A person like Elie Wiesel, who was once merely prominent in the world of Jewish letters, has long since graduated to being the world's most unavoidable Jewish celebrity.

And where once the only major Holocaust memorial was located in Israel, today, state-of-the-art Holocaust museums are proliferating around the globe like major-league sports franchises.

It is difficult to see most of this interest in the Holocaust as anything but a positive trend. For the survivors, there must be a special satisfaction in seeing all of these archives, memorials and museums coming into being, even as they are about to exit the stage themselves.

But then, why do some of us still worry about the transformation of world opinion from indifference about the subject to one of fascination?

Is it that we still instinctively distrust the mass media and the entertainment industry that exploits the Holocaust, even as they educate the public about it?

Does so much non-Jewish attention on the Holocaust leave it especially vulnerable to those who would twist its historical meaning and transform it into a universal parable that downplays the Jewish tragedy?

I would answer that there is plenty of evidence in the increasingly large genre of Holocaust films and literature to justify the former concern. And there is all too much evidence of the overuniversalizing of the Holocaust in the scholarly world as well as popular culture to confirm the latter, as well.

The point is, many of us have lost perspective about the events of the Holocaust as well as about anti-Semitism. In a world where any prejudice is likened to the greatest of all hate crimes — the Holocaust — responding to run-of-the-mill nastiness is bound to be disproportionate and incoherent.

An example that comes to mind is the recent storm over the sale of the book version of the anti-Semitic canard The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by online booksellers like and

The whole point of online warehouse sellers like Amazon is that you can actually order virtually anything in print, anywhere in the world and have a reasonable expectation that it will arrive at your door within a few days.

And that includes the ravings of anti-Semites and other lunatics.

The focal point of the controversy was that the blurb for the Protocols, which is a century-old hoax, on the site was a non-judgmental promotional paragraph supplied by its "publisher." Writers like columnist Leonard Fein wrote about this outrage and soon the bookseller was forced to first clarify the blurb and then replace it with an honest introduction to this infamous fraud.

As Foxman explained it to me, the Anti-Defamation League went to and was able to educate the firm. The point wasn't to ban sales of the book, a slippery slope down which Jewish groups should never venture. Rather, what was needed was to show Amazon where its responsibilities lay. Truthful labeling, not book banning, was the appropriate response.

The problem was, the Internet culture that spreads a story such as this like wildfire brought down a blizzard of criticism on as well as on, which also sold the book even after the company had a chance to make amends. Before the news of the reasonable settlement that the ADL had worked out with had gotten out, the Internet was swarming with protest messages that saw this relatively minor issue as the thin edge of the wedge in the rise of the Fourth Reich.

I will not denigrate anyone for being outraged by this incident or any instance of hate directed at Jews. But the willingness of so many to overreact to every incident is in some ways just as troubling as the traditional Jewish approach of pretending there is no danger in the face of mortal threats.

Our approach to Holocaust memorialization, just like our approach to any contemporary outbreak of Jew-hatred, must be more than emotionalism or trendy politics.

The Holocaust isn't just any sad event. It was a specific historical event that came about because of a whole range of historical factors. Most importantly, a remembrance of the Holocaust that fails to understand it as a natural result of Jewish powerlessness will ultimate distort that history into one that will truly render it a useless lesson to us and the world. The fact that so many people were willing to get so excited about Jorg Haider, the Austrian neo-Nazi, and yet are so complaisant about the fanatical anti-Semitism that still masquerades as anti-Zionism is troubling.

Moreover, a Jewish frame of reference that sees a new Holocaust lurking behind each American political opinion we dislike or group we distrust and not only those whose specific purpose is to destroy an entire people will similarly make it an empty show that does no honor to the victims. Calling Jerry Falwell a Nazi, as some do, trivializes the Holocaust.

And, speaking of Holocaust-denial only when it comes from the lunatic fringe in America or Europe and avoiding our gaze when it pops up elsewhere such as governments in the Arab world simply because that doesn't fit the needs of the peace process, makes a mockery of our principles.

We must remember, but with a purpose. Our understanding must go deeper than our fears. And our commitment must be not to marble monuments and buildings but to the living Jewish people and its needs in Israel and here in the diaspora.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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