Is It Possible to Think Too Much About the Holocaust?

By Jeffrey Goldberg

No, the answer is no -- it is not possible to think about the Holocaust too much. You don't have to be W.G. Sebald, the German novelist, who has argued with only a touch of hyperbole that "no serious person thinks of anything else," to understand that finding a way to purge the impulse that leads some groups to seek the physical elimination other groups is an enormous challenge facing our species, a challenge we have obviously not yet met. It's not even a challenge we particularly want to talk about. When the leadership of Iran, for instance, uses genocidal language -- language lifted from themes explored at length in "Mein Kampf" -- to discuss the "problem" of the so-called perfidious Zionist entity, and in response, much of the world shrugs its shoulders, and even accuses Jews who mention the obvious historical echoes heard in Iranian regime invective of ethnic panic and hysteria, we know that we are very far from Sebald's definition of a serious person.

I bring all this up because Ron Rosenbaum has written an extremely important essay for Slate, in which he dismantles the argument that Jews (and non-Jews, as well) who take regular note of Iranian eliminationist rhetoric are neurotic special-pleaders. Rosenbaum's essay should be read in full, but I wrote about it a bit in my Bloomberg View column this week:

(W)hat is happening here is something virtually without precedent in our allegedly enlightened age: A member-state of the United Nations, Iran, regularly threatens another member- state, Israel, with annihilation. It's important to bear in mind a fundamental asymmetry: Israel doesn't seek Iran's elimination. Iran seeks Israel's.

Regime apologists will note that Iranian leaders talk about the elimination not of "Israel" -- a word they generally refuse to utter -- but of the "Zionist regime," which, to the naive and the cynical, implies the replacement of one government with another. This is a pernicious euphemism. Without the "Zionist regime" -- which is to say, the democratically elected government of Israel, its armed forces and security services, and the courts and structures of state -- the Jews who survived the onslaught that "dismantled" their government would face immediate dispossession, and perhaps much worse.

Rosenbaum, an expert on Hitlerian euphemism, told me that one difference between Nazi rhetoric and that of the Iranian regime is that the Iranians' words are blunter, especially when compared with pre-Kristallnacht Nazi language. Rosenbaum notes, in particular, the Iranian reliance on epidemiological metaphor when describing Israel: This year, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Israel is "a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off."

Which returns us to Rosenbaum's central question: Is it obsessive for a group of people who not long ago saw a third of their number slaughtered to worry when the leaders of Iran call Israel a cancerous tumor? Or is it the natural and appropriate response of a people who, conditioned by history, choose to err on the side of caution?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/08/is-it-possible-to-think-too-much-about-the-holocaust/261711/