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Hatred and revulsion for distinct ethnic and tribal groups, and the cleansing operations and genocides that accompany these obsessions, are obviously all-too commonplace phenomena. In recent historical times alone we have seen the Turkish genocide of its Armenian population, the Cambodian hecatomb, the Hutu massacre of nearly one million Tutsis, the Serbian slaughter of Bosnian Muslims, the Sudanese carnage in Darfur and other parts of the country, the ongoing bloodbath in the Congo and, of course, the still unassimilable abomination of the Holocaust.
The question that often arises among those who want to diminish the scale of Jewish suffering involves orders of magnitude and, so to speak, degrees of unimaginableness. What makes the Holocaust different in “the roll-call of genocides” (to use Theodore Dalrymple’s phrase) and assures it a signal place in the history of human evil? Have not other peoples beside the Jews suffered persecution, segregation, pogroms and official campaigns of extermination? Are six to seven million Ukrainians starved to death by Josef Stalin in the forced collectivization program known as the Black Famine any less to be mourned than six million dead Jews at the hands of Adolf Hitler? Do Jews have a monopoly on affliction?
Trading in such mass obituaries is always grotesque, but the issue comes up again and again whenever Jews, or those who sympathize with their trials, define the Holocaust as an unprecedented atrocity in the annals of collective suffering. Historian Peter Novick, for example, regards the Jewish focus on the Holocaust as a form of cultural pathology, an aspect of Jewish narcissism and an attempt to acquire the cachet of victimhood. Have not other minority groups endured equivalent or near-equivalent tragedies? The late Nobel laureate José Saramago, a diehard communist and one of the world’s most notable antisemites, wrote in the Spain’s leading newspaper El Pais, “educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted…will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner… Israel wants all of us to feel guilty, directly or indirectly, for the horrors of the Holocaust.” Philosopher Pascal Bruckner recognizes the seductiveness of this argument; however, unlike Novick and Saramago, he deplores the growing propensity to cheapen the Holocaust among those who deem Jewish memory as “the potential for winning an inalienable immunity or irresponsibility,” and as “purloining the maximum misfortune and declaring yourself its only legitimate owner.”
This anti-Jewish proclivity and “envious hatred,” Bruckner contends, is really a movement to confiscate the Holocaust for disreputable purposes, to open “a kind of perpetual line of credit for immorality.” It is the gambit practiced by the “Serbian extremists” and, for that matter, by the Palestinians and their supporters, who claim a “Holocaust” of their own as a “source of unlimited moral and political advantages” that gives them “permission for all forms of abuse.” The abuse, we might say, is a double one for it leads not only to the “ambiguity of the ethnic theology” predicated on a false identification to advance a political or religious cause, but deprives Jews of the density and meaning of their own history and expropriates their suffering. In this way, the Holocaust is, once again, relativized and debased.
If we assume that Novick, Saramago and their congeners are right, what, then, would distinguish Jews from their fellow victims of unparalleled barbarism? Are there really no gradations of evil? One answer to this question that is frequently met with has to do with the bureaucratic and industrialized nature of the monstrosity perpetrated against the Jewish people. The Shoah was meticulously planned at the highest levels of government, a blueprint for infamy carefully prepared and a complex technology devised to carry it out. This is certainly true, for even Stalin’s Black Famine relied upon a comparatively simpler process. Stalin merely increased grain quotas for State procurement, thus depriving Ukrainian farmers of the means of subsistence. Though savagery is what it is, there is something incommensurable about the closely meditated intricacies of the Nazi Endlösung, or Final Solution. Stalin did not wish to depopulate Ukraine; Hitler’s consuming passion was to destroy an entire people, and he developed a detailed and methodical strategy to accomplish his purpose.
And yet there is much more to the matter than scientific malice and administrative elaboration. Unlike the Ukrainians who succumbed to a political calculation, Jews were targeted for who and what they were or believed to be, decimated on racial grounds as a people of impure blood contaminating the racial purity of a “superior” nation, much like the gypsies and the “defectives.” “And still there is a difference,” writes Norman Cohn in Warrant for Genocide. “The Jews were hunted down with a fanatical hatred reserved for them alone,” the killed amounting “probably to more than two-thirds of all European Jews.” But it is not only a matter of brute numbers—the tally of Mao Zedong’s murdered innocents far eclipses that of Hitler’s or Stalin’s victims. Yet, as with Stalin’s policy concerning the Ukrainians, Mao did not set out to liquidate the Chinese people. Neither wanted to erase a “nation.” Hitler did. This is a fact that cannot be scanted and casts its lurid shadow over the Holocaust. And still there is a difference. Nor, as I have suggested, is it exclusively a question of cold, administrative calibrations in which human beings are transformed into abstract ciphers.
The dimension of Time must also be taken into account.
For the campaign against the Israelite has an inordinately long pedigree, going back to the Egyptian captivity, the Babylonian exile, the Roman wars and dispossession, the mass killings of Jews during the First Crusade, the Edict of Expulsion from England during the reign of Edward I, the Alhambra Decree in Spain ordering the expulsion of the Jews, the Chmielnicki massacre in 17th century Ukraine, and the innumerable purges in between and since, in both Christian and Muslim lands, leading to its culmination in the Holocaust.
In other words, Jews have the unique status of being singled out for millennial execration, malevolence, hostility and extirpation. It is a prejudice that knows no surcease. The spectre of discrimination, xenophobia, pogroms and even annihilation never disappears and always threatens to re-emerge, as it has once again today with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran vowing to “wipe Israel off the map” in a second Holocaust. As I have written before, the destiny of the Jews, unlike other minorities, “is to be eternally unsafe in this world,” which is precisely the factor that differentiates the Jewish people from other peoples on the historical continuum of human ignominy. It keeps happening.
There is yet another element to reflect upon. The religious wars that drenched the European continent in blood for centuries are now, for the most part, a thing of the past and have been superseded in the West by secular antagonisms expressed as an ideological conflict. The Cold War is over, presumably, but the culture wars persist. The battle between socialism and conservatism, the left and the right, Democrat and Republican, transnationalism and nationalism, statism and individualism, and, yes, between Europe and Israel, as well as between a left-oriented, terror-appeasing American presidency and Israel, is gathering momentum with every passing hour. Religious violence still exists, of course, but this is largely a prerogative of the Islamic world, manifest in the divide between Sunni and Shi’ite and the ubiquitous desire to exterminate the Jews. As Jonathan Kellerman writes in a symposium hosted by Commentary magazine (June, 2010), “the war being waged against Israel by the Muslim world is, at the core, a religious dispute. Radical Islamists no longer talk about Zionists, they come right out and broadcast their goal of eradicating worldwide Jewry.”
Thus, the forces at work in the contemporary world render Jews even more vulnerable than is usually the case, for they are now assaulted on two fronts: by secularists on the left who regard Israel as a colonial implant in the Middle East and by Muslims commanded by the Koran and the Ahadith to kill Jews wherever they may be found. Jews are perhaps the only people in the world who live in the crosshairs of two implacable enemies, one avowedly secular and the other driven by a theological mandate. The paradox is as mordant as it gets. Coming or going, for the Jew there is no acquittal, no peace and no relenting. If the secular left doesn’t get him, the Islamic right will—or devote itself to trying. It is a vise of world-historical proportions. And this means, clearly, that the menace Jews have always had to face will continue to flourish and quite possibly to augment.
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