How Not to Talk About the Holocaust

A simple guide to discussing Jewish genocide

Illustration showing circular black-and-white pictures of scenes from the Holocaust—a swastika, a woman looking hopeless, a man wearing a shtreimel and glasses
Getty; The Atlantic

It’s rarely a good sign when the Holocaust trends on social media, and this week was no exception. On Sunday, in an interview with 60 Minutes, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi declared that he needed more evidence to determine whether the Holocaust took place. “There are some signs that it happened,” he said. “If so, they should allow it to be investigated and researched.” That same day, on Twitter, a writer engaging in the usual internecine feuding on the left falsely claimed that America’s entry into World War II accelerated the Holocaust; a pile-on predictably ensued.

As a grandson of Shoah survivors who is named after one of its victims, I certainly found these spectacles discomfiting. But they are far from unique. Indeed, it seems as though every month we are subjected to another politicized paroxysm over the Nazi genocide, in which the millions murdered are victimized once more by partisans who instrumentalize their deaths for contemporary political debates.

To be fair, it can be quite difficult to discuss the Holocaust, a travesty so vast that it defies description. But we can know what not to say. To that end, here is a handy five-point guide explaining how not to talk about the Holocaust. Feel free to share it on social media the next time you see someone trying to dragoon the calamity’s victims into their latest political pet peeve.

1. Don’t compare things to the Holocaust that aren’t the Holocaust. In some senses, this is obvious. Whatever one thinks of them, vaccine passports are not the mechanized murder of millions of Jews and other undesirables. Mask mandates are not the Nuremberg Laws. But these are easy cases.

The truth is, some things do warrant comparison to the Holocaust. Personally, I can think of no more relevant frame for understanding China’s heinous treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population. But just because some things can be likened to the Holocaust doesn’t mean they should be. The reason is sadly simple: When you compare something terrible to the Holocaust, the argument inevitably becomes about the comparison rather than the terrible thing you intended to decry. Instead of raising awareness about an atrocity, you end up distracting from it.

Invoking the Holocaust seems like a shortcut, but it is actually a dead end. The term Holocaust has rhetorical power because so many people already understand its awfulness. By definition, contemporary catastrophes do not have that cachet, and any effective advocate needs to use specifics and facts to impose the urgency of their cause on the public. Skipping this step and jumping straight to Holocaust elides the hard but necessary conversation required to educate and motivate outsiders to action.

2. Don’t erase Jews from the story of their own genocide. Two out of every three European Jews were murdered by the Nazis, emptying a continent that was once a center of Jewish life. Almost eight decades later, the global Jewish population still hasn’t recovered from this body blow, and is lower than it was in 1939. Yet acknowledging this fact sometimes seems beyond the capacity of commentators.

Political leaders as diverse as Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau have issued public pronouncements on the Holocaust that failed to mention its Jewish victims. (Trudeau quickly clarified; Trump did not.) In 2017, Canada had to revise an $8.9 million Holocaust monument after officials belatedly noticed that its plaque omitted Jews. Jeremy Corbyn, the onetime leftist leader of Britain’s Labour Party, once co-sponsored a motion to replace the country’s Holocaust Memorial Day with a “Genocide Memorial Day.”

Some of these instances of Jewish erasure are more sinister than others. Often, the brevity of social media leads to unintended offense. In other cases, well-intentioned people are simply trying to draw universal lessons from specific Jewish suffering. But all of these incidents are part of a disturbing pattern in which Jews are excised as inconvenient accessories in the accounts of their own murders. Too often, Jewish persecution serves merely as a pivot to matters seen as more important.

It doesn’t have to work this way. The Holocaust is an indictment of humanity’s treatment of its Jews and its capacity for hatred of the other. The event has both particular and universal implications—and those who press us to pick between them are presenting a false choice.

3. Don’t deny the Holocaust. On 60 Minutes, Iran’s president did not explicitly refute the Holocaust. He simply demanded more historical research into one of the best-documented events in human history. In this, Raisi followed a long line of Holocaust revisionists who insist that they are not disputing the event but, rather, just asking questions about it. These individuals organize under tendentious titles like “The Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust” while presenting only one side of the debate.

The farce is even more transparent in Raisi’s case. After all, there are still Holocaust survivors alive today, many of them in Israel, not far from Tehran, waiting to be asked about their experiences. These people are the living proof that Iran’s president purportedly seeks. The problem is that Raisi and the regime he serves have spent decades threatening to murder them. Iran’s government has erected a countdown clock to the destruction of Israel—home to 7 million Jews, half the global population. It has masterminded terrorist attacks against Jews around the world and run cartoon contests for Holocaust deniers and other anti-Semites. And in case anyone thinks this is merely some sort of perverse performance art, the regime has made sure to emblazon its actual missiles with the words Death to Israel.

Life is short and social media is shorter. When your intent is to deny the Holocaust and taunt its victims, save us all time and just say what you mean.

4. Don’t blame the Holocaust on the Jews. This past May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked how his country could credibly claim to be “denazifying” Ukraine when the latter is led by an elected Jewish president. “I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood,” he replied, later adding, “Some of the worst anti-Semites are Jews.” While these claims may sound bizarre, they are far from isolated.

As I wrote at the time, ever since World War II, people have attempted to pin the Holocaust on the Jews. A 1938 Gallup poll found that 54 percent of Americans believed that “the persecution of Jews in Europe has been partly their own fault.” Another 11 percent said it was “entirely” their fault. In other words, as Hitler rose to power and implemented his anti-Semitic architecture, a large majority of Americans blamed European Jews for their own oppression.

This victim-blaming has persisted to the present day. David Icke, one of our era’s most prolific conspiracy theorists, has claimed that wealthy Jews bankrolled the Holocaust, asserting, “The Warburgs, part of the Rothschild empire, helped finance Adolf Hitler.” (Icke has also said that “Hitler was a Rothschild.”) The anti-Semitic book in which this passage appeared was later enthusiastically promoted by the author Alice Walker in The New York Times.

Along similar lines, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, devoted his entire doctoral dissertation to the conspiracy theory that “Zionist” Jews had collaborated with the Third Reich in order to spur Jewish immigration to Palestine. (The dissertation also claims that no Jews were murdered in the Nazi gas chambers, and that the overall number of Jewish victims was exaggerated by several million.)

Others do not go so far as to blame Europe’s Jews for their own genocide, but instead try to use their murders to attack their descendants, insinuating that this or that group of Jews “failed to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.” But Auschwitz wasn’t a philosophy seminar with some unfortunate fatalities. And the Holocaust was not some moral test that the Jewish world failed, but a moral atrocity committed against it.

In all of these cases, those who weaponize a people’s greatest trauma to bludgeon them once more inadvertently reveal the very inhumanity that made such brutality possible in the first place.

5. Don’t reduce anti-Semitism to the Holocaust. One reason the Holocaust is so frequently, if incorrectly, invoked in our discourse is that it is the instance of anti-Semitism that has most penetrated the public consciousness. This awareness is generally a good thing, but it has its drawbacks. In particular, because most people associate anti-Jewish prejudice with systematic genocide, they tend not to recognize anti-Semitism when it manifests in its more common but less extreme expressions. When you set the bar for bigotry at mass murder, most of it doesn’t make the cut.

In actuality, the Jewish people have been around for millennia and experienced many forms of prejudice prior to Hitler. Indeed, the Holocaust would not have been possible without the centuries of anti-Jewish conspiracies, literature, and stereotypes that came before it. In this way, the Nazi genocide was not an aberration in the history of anti-Semitism, but rather its culmination. Just as American racism rests upon a deep-seated bedrock of white supremacy, Europe’s Nazi machinery was constructed upon an ancient edifice of anti-Jewish ideas. Razing the toxic topsoil is an important first step toward undoing these wrongs, but without uprooting the foundation, the insidious infrastructure will just grow back.

Fortunately, there is a straightforward solution to this problem: Teach the Holocaust in the context of anti-Semitism, as a component of the curriculum rather than its entirety. Understand the Nazi genocide as hatred’s consequence rather than its essence—not as an extreme exception but as part of a continuum.

If the past is any guide, these rules have probably already been broken in the time it took you to read them, particularly on social media. But if instead of invoking anti-Semitism unseriously, more people chose to discuss it in all its complexity, we might finally learn not only how to talk about the Holocaust, but how to prevent things like it from happening again.