As a well-known aphorism tells us, a spurious comparison to the Holocaust devolves an argument to a standstill. But a well-placed comparison to the Holocaust can be a call-to-action, can help to highlight bias and create change.
Last week, Nicholas Kristoff wrote a fascinating piece for the New York Times on the ongoing crisis at the US southern border. He compared the policy of separating immigrant families at the border to the separation of black families during slavery and of Jewish families during the Holocaust. Kristoff wrote not in his own words but in the words of former enslaved individuals (survivors of American slavery), slave-owners, Holocaust survivors, and current detainees and officials. The comparison was stark and powerful.
The piece engendered hundreds of comments, most of which were positive. However, several people strenuously objected to the comparison to Nazi Germany. “How dare you compare the most evil of evil — Hitler and those Nazis — to the treatment of children from South American countries,” railed one commentator. “Many of the Jewish children died horrific deaths at the treatment of the Nazis! … The holocaust that happened in Germany was the worst of the worst terrible events that almost cannot be compared!” (emphasis mine)
“The comparison of anything to the Holocaust is beyond offensive,” complained another. “Is anyone being shot, exterminated, gassed, burned in ovens, or systematically being starved to death? … And, no, I am not Jewish. My Jewish friends, are you not angry about this constant use of the Holocaust to fit someone’s narrative?” (emphasis mine)
I got a similar response on the Teach the Shoah Facebook page when I posted about this situation. “This situation is nothing like the Holocaust,” was the comment. “If it was, we would start by executing every illegal immigrant to cross our borders.”
The fallacy of the end-point comparison
In some ways, all of these people are correct. The separation of families at our southern border does not resemble the end-point of the Holocaust. No one is being murdered. No one is being beaten. No one is being mistreated, starved, or enslaved.
But the Holocaust did not begin with gas-chambers, killing pits, or slave labor. The Holocaust began with discriminatory laws that treated Jews as second-class people. The Holocaust began with propaganda comparing Jews to vermin, infesting Germany, destroying German culture from within. The Holocaust began with the imprisonment of innocent people considered to be “dangerous” to the state.
I sincerely doubt that when those things happened, anyone in Germany imagined that gas-chambers, killing pits, and slave labor would follow. They had no idea the depths of evil that people are capable of. But we do.
“Although not every act of bias will lead to genocide, it is important to realize that every historical instance of genocide began with acts of bias.” I am not expecting genocide to follow this particular act of bias. But I shudder to think what sort of violence might follow, what sort of carelessness with the lives of children.
The problem with treating people differently
It is true that no one was beaten, murdered, or starved at the US southern border last week. In fact, the migrants and their children were fed, sheltered, and protected. However, we treated those families in a way that we would find totally unacceptable for our own families to be treated. We justified it by saying that they are different, they are not like us.
The problem with allowing groups of people to be treated differently is that we begin to think of them as different from us. We stop thinking they deserve the same rights we do. At that moment, that was the right to not have your children taken from you, the right to not be lied to about what is happening to your children, the right to have some control over what happens to your children. What rights will we decide they can do without next? No, they are not citizens, but they are human beings.
The comparison to the Holocaust becomes clearer here. The Germans began by taking away small rights from Jews – the right to go to school, the right to shop anywhere they liked, the right to decide whether someone knows you are Jewish or not. Before 1933, the Jews were sufficiently well integrated into society that a planned boycott of Jewish stores failed because most people did not care if the store-owners were Jewish. By 1940, after years of incremental losses of rights, the Jews were sufficiently separated to be pushed into small ghettos and starved to death. We know where this story can lead.
Holocaust comparisons as a call-to-action
So, is it offensive to compare things to the Holocaust? As the saying goes, “If you mention Nazis in a discussion, you’ve automatically lost the debate.”
If a comparison to Nazis is used as trolling, then you have lost the debate. Name-calling of any sort signals the end of the discussion, whether the name is “Nazi” or “racist” or “idiot”. Name-calling is the indication that rational discussion is over.
There is, however, another way to use a comparison to Nazis in a discussion: as a call-to-action. If we can use a comparison to the Holocaust to recognize the signs of building hatred and bias, then perhaps we can rally people to act, and to make a difference.
No, I am not angry at the “constant use of the Holocaust to fit someone’s narrative.” If we believe that any comparison to the Holocaust is offensive, then we will never learn the lessons of the Holocaust. We will be unable prevent it from happening again, because we will not recognize the early warning signs. We will fail to prevent the bias, and thereby fail to prevent the gratuitous suffering that may follow.
The purpose of Holocaust education is to be able to make accurate and apt references to the Holocaust. We must make these comparisons, and we must use them as a call-to-action to stop bias before it leads to suffering and violence.