What We Talk About When We Talk About the Holocaust // Both dachshunds and Great Danes are canines

To expand upon an oft-quoted maxim, a botanist might be intimately familiar with various types of trees, with their seasonal changes, life spans, what sorts of soil they thrive in and what insect pests can harm them—and yet never have appreciated the grandeur and mystery of a forest.

My “missing the forest for the trees” nimshal here is a Hebrew University professor of history—a holder, in fact, of the college’s Rabbi Edward Sandrow Chair in Soviet & East European Jewry—named Jonathan Dekel-Chen.

It pains me to criticize the professor. His adult son, Sagui, who lived on Kibbutz Nir Oz, which was destroyed on October 7, is among the hostages being held by Hamas. The anguish felt by Professor Dekel-Chen and all the relatives of other kidnapped Jews is our anguish as well.

But a recent guest column from the Hebrew U. academic in The New York Times begs for a baring of its essential, striking shortcoming.

In his essay, Professor Dekel-Chen derides the use, when speaking of Hamas, of terms like genocide or references to Nazis and the Holocaust. He is “appalled” by the use of such terminologies in that context, calling it “excruciating” and “deeply offensive.”

Conceding that the October attack “was indeed the deadliest single day for world Jewry since the Holocaust,” he nevertheless objects to comparing the two in any other way, calling such comparisons “cynical” and not “historically accurate.”

His argument is based on unarguable differences between the “Churban Europe” era and our own. Anti-Semitic protesters, he points out, “have almost no support from powerful politicians, industrialists and financiers, the kind of people who bankrolled and facilitated the rise of National Socialism in Germany.”

Neither, he claims, are they unified under a single leader; nor are they protesting within a failed state like Weimar Germany was in the 1930s.

Moreover, he notes, attacks on Jews in pre-war Eastern Europe “were almost always cases of mob violence, which at times local officials or the police encouraged,” unlike the butchery of October 7. And, Mr. Dekel-Chen adds, there was then no “sovereign Jewish state with an army.”
All of which, of course, is entirely true. But cataloging dissimilarities needn’t imply true difference. Great Danes, French poodles and dachshunds are markedly different from one another, but they all are dogs.

And such is the larger truth that Mr. Dekel-Chen elides.

When speaking of October 7, invocations of the Holocaust are not attempts to create some point-to-point parallel between the two horrors. They are, rather, an effort to contextualize them, to place the Hamas attack and the mindless hatred for Jews that it unleashed across the globe and at American universities on the same spectrum, not in the same basket, as the mass murder of Jews 80 years ago.

What eludes the professor’s carefully-focused telescope is the single black thread of murderous anti-Semitism that runs through the fabric of history.

Jew-hatred is a shape-shifter. It has come from political entities on the right and on the left; from one religion in one era and from another in another; from governments and individuals and gangs and societal movements.

The ostensible reasons for the hatred, moreover, vary wildly with time and place, from Amalek’s visceral animus to Greek orator Apion’s claim that Jews engage in human sacrifice and cannibalism to the Christian blood libels of the Middle Ages, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to the Nazi race-based canards about Jews, to those popular in some Muslim circles today. But the target is always the same: the Jews.

Drawing specific parallels between the Third Reich and the Hamas terrorists indeed fails if the analysis is only of the particulars of the two. But that is focusing on the diseased trees and not the foul-smelling forest of Jew hatred that stretches without pause from the distant and not-so-distant past into the present. That is what connects Hamas and the Holocaust—and countless earlier expressions of anti-Semitism.

May the professor’s hostage son, and all those being held by this particular generation’s Jew-haters, soon be able to rejoin their families.

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