This has been a bad month for American Jews who believe that the Holocaust is something more than a cheap talking point to be used by politicians for transient political ends.
First, there was Ben Carson, the Republican presidential aspirant who most polls put at second place among Republican voters. Speaking about the Holocaust in a CNN interview earlier in the month, Carson argued that “the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.” According to Carson, the Nazis, like all tyrants, had as their first thought, the need to disarm their civilian populace. The Holocaust, therefore, stands for Carson merely as a lesson about the need for civilian populations to bear arms.
The contention is both wrong and wildly beside the point. It’s wrong because the first Nazi gun regulations were not implemented until 1938, after five years of rule. Even then, the rules only required handgun registration, but did not apply to other arms. Rather than the first thing on the minds of the Nazis, gun control was an afterthought.
The argument is also beside the point. The destruction of European Jewry occurred outside of Germany and outside of any system of law, let alone German law. German Jews constituted a minute percentage of the populations killed by the Nazis. The majority of the victims resided in Eastern Europe in Poland and the Soviet Union. They came under German control only after Nazi armies, accompanied in Russia by death squads, defeated Polish forces and drove back the Soviet armies. Most Jews, under military occupation of a foreign power, had no opportunity to resist.
Second, there were the comments of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, about Amin al-Husseini, who was appointed as mufti of Jerusalem by the British Mandate authorities. In a speech to the World Zionist Congress, Netanyahu described a purported conversation between Husseini and Adolf Hitler. According to the transcript released by his office, Netanyahu said:
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’
The idea that Hitler needed convincing to order the Holocaust is preposterous. Although there is evidence that Hitler and the mufti met on one occasion, the mass killings of Jews had already begun in Eastern Europe before the meeting ever took place. There is no evidence of what was discussed at that meeting. It was bad enough that Husseni approved of what Hitler was doing, but the idea that he was an important instigator is simply untrue.
Netanyahu’s statements were so offensive that German Chancellor Angela Merkel felt the need to remind Netanyahu that Germany was in fact the author of the Holocaust. The prime minister was also ridiculed on social media. The director of Yad Vashem and other scholars pointed out the absurdity of the prime minister’s comments.
There are depressing similarities between Carson’s comments and Netanyahu’s. In both cases, politicians exploited the tragedy of the Holocaust to make a political point unrelated to the event. Carson used the “gun control caused the Holocaust” argument to influence the American gun control debate. Netanyahu used the “Holocaust was the Arabs’ idea” to attempt to prove a linkage between current Arab hostility and previous European genocide. Both Carson and Netanyahu were willing to invent or distort history to make their analogy. Both did so after careful thought, rather than in off-the-cuff gaffes.
The trivialization and manipulation exhibited by Carson and Netanyahu in the past couple of weeks should be troubling to the American Jewish community and its institutions. We should demand that our friends and allies show some respect for facts when they talk about this subject. If we don’t, we forfeit any moral right to object when our adversaries misuse the subject.
David J. Gottlieb is professor emeritus at the University of Kansas School of Law and an adjunct professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law. He is a member of the International Council of the New Israel Fund. The views expressed in this article are his own.