Ian Buruma: Denuding the Holocaust of Meaning by Applying It to Political Enemies

Roundup: Talking About History

Ian Buruma, in the Financial Times of London (4-23-05):

When a respected public figure in Washington DC describes the view that people should pay tax on large amounts of inherited wealth as “the morality of the Holocaust”, one can only conclude that something has gone seriously wrong with political debate. The statement was made by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, board member of the National Rifle Association of America and general booster of conservative causes.

Norquist elaborated on his astonishing statement to the journalist Terry Gross, who pointed out that estate tax only concerns those who inherit more than $2m: “the morality that says it’s OK to do something to a group because they’re a small percentage of the population is the morality that says that the Holocaust is OK because they didn’t target everybody... “

Reading about the famously rightwing Norquist, I was reminded of Ken Livingstone, the leftwing London mayor, who compared a reporter from the Evening Standard to a German war criminal, and then, when he was told that the reporter happened to be Jewish, to a greedy concentration camp guard. Either Livingstone and Norquist are both mad, which I very much doubt, or these historical references have been drained of all meaning. Anything undesirable seems to be associated with the Holocaust. We are all Nazis now.

Why didn’t Ken Livingstone feel any need to apologise for his offensive language? Not because he believes that concentration camps or war crimes are trivial, but because, as he put it, he detests racism as “a uniquely reactionary ideology”. Since he has always detested racism, Livingstone can happily liken a Jewish reporter doing his job to a German war criminal. As for anti-Semitism, Livingstone, writing in The Guardian, made it clear he was against it, and then switched the subject to Israeli “ethnic cleansing” of Arabs.

Racism is indeed a terrible thing. Notions of a racial hierarchy have justified many evils, from slavery to the extermination of Jews. Even though 19th-century pseudo-scientific racism was a European invention, discrimination on the grounds of skin colour or other ethnic characteristics has existed in many places for a very long time. But since the Nazi genocide racism has come to be viewed as the main, if not the only, source of atrocious behaviour. The ultimate paradigm of modern evil is the Holocaust. As a result almost every form of human brutality is now seen through the prism of Auschwitz. This has had the double effect of diminishing the horror of the Holocaust itself, and hindering legitimate debates on political differences by invoking the taint of racism.

Racism exists, but not all Israeli policies towards Palestinians, however harsh, are inspired by racism. And as Livingstone points out, protesting a little too much perhaps, not all criticism of Israeli policies is the result of anti-Jewish prejudice. ...


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