The H Word

While the term ‘holocaust,’ with its great evocative power, is never far from the headlines, the ‘H-word’ and other terms associated with WWII have been creeping into the public discourse with an alarming frequency. Recently, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), speaking against taxes, invoked the Holocaust, likening it to the economic crisis that Americans face: “we are seeing eclipsed in front of our eyes a similar death and a similar taking away.”

The Minnesota Republican’s rhetoric is often bombastic (she has dubbed the president’s health care plan “a monster”), but in using Holocaust imagery, Bachmann may have crossed a line she wasn’t aware of. For the public response—and the response within Congress—to her analogy was swift and critical.

In October of 2009 Richard Land, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention told an audience “I want to put it to you bluntly, what they are attempting to do in health care, particularly in treating the elderly, is not something like what the Nazis did, it is what the Nazis did.”

And a little over a year after Land’s unfortunate analogy, Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, railed against NPR executives for calling for the resignation of commentator Juan Williams: “They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. These guys don’t want any other point of view. They don’t even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda.”

The most recent public invocation of Holocaust terminology was in the fracas over the award of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner by City University of New York. On May 2, the CUNY board rescinded its offer of a degree to Kushner in the wake of CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld’s accusation that Kushner was “anti-Israeli.” A media firestorm erupted, including letters from thousand of academicians supporting Kushner’s right to freedom of expression, causing the CUNY board to reinstate Kushner’s honorary degree.

Wiesenfeld’s obsession with finding ‘anti-Semites’ everywhere has been well-chronicled in the press and he even told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that “my mother would have called Tony Kushner a kapo.” As Wiesenfeld’s mother survived a concentration camp, it seems that he feels entitled to compare Kushner to a kapo—one of the Jews who collaborated with the Nazis and served them in the camps.

This is not to say that the use of richly descriptive and evocative terminology descriptive of humanity’s worst moments is never appropriate. As the world’s current multiple conflicts are more frequently described as ‘the outbreak of WWIII,’ this tendency to invoke the powerfully descriptive terms of the past is strengthened. Today, the possibility of nuclear war—waged either by unstable state actors or by non-state entities like terrorist groups—is again part of our consciousness. And over a half century ago, in trying to describe the human toll of such a war, the phrase ‘nuclear holocaust’ emerged in the first post A-bomb years.

Thus between 1945 and 1950, American and English writers used the word holocaust as it had been used in the King James Bible: as referring to ‘an offering consumed by fire.’ The Bible was speaking of animal sacrifices. Later, the use of the word was extended to refer to humans consumed by fire. They were victims of ‘a holocaust.’ But this was not the Biblical reference invoked in the initial Jewish discourse about the victims of the Nazis.

Another Biblical word, ‘Shoah,’ denoting total catastrophe, was used (in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish circles one heard the word ‘Hurban,’ or destruction, the word used to describe the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem). When the word ‘Holocaust’ was suggested, some Jewish scholars objected to its theological connotations, for it seemed to imply that those Jews murdered constituted a type of sacrifice to God, an implication more than likely lost on Representative Bachmann.