Posted by: sean | May 13, 2009

Using the holocaust

pope yad vashem - smallI like Tom Segev a lot. Everything that I’ve read by him has been excellent, and I’m really looking forward to reading his take on 1967 this summer. So when I read this piece about the Pope’s speech at Yad Vashem, I was pretty disappointed:

[I]n last night’s speech, he inexplicably said Jews “were killed,” as if it had been an unfortunate accident. On the surface, this may seem unimportant: Israelis often use the same term, and they do not need the pope to tell them about the Holocaust, which today is a universal code for absolute evil.

But the word the pope used is significant because someone in the Holy See decided to write “were killed” instead of “murdered” or “destroyed.” The impression is that the cardinals argued among themselves over whether Israelis “deserve” for the pope to say “were murdered” and decided they only deserve “were killed.” It sounded petty. Even the recurring use of the term “tragedy” seemed like an attempt to avoid saying the real thing.

The verbal stinginess Benedict displayed last night also diminishes the impact of anything he might say about Palestinian suffering. Had he said what he needed to on the Holocaust, he could have said more to condemn Israel’s systematic violation of the human rights of residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

I don’t mean to be insensitive, but surely there are more pressing problems between the Mediterannean and the Jordan River than whether someone says that Jews were killed or murdered in the holocaust over sixty years ago. As a matter of fact, this is exactly the sort of whining that makes people fed up with hearing about the holocaust in the first place. (Personally, genocide studies is my field, so I never get tired of hearing about it.)

Furthermore, the connection that Segev makes about “verbal stinginess” and the impact of comments about Palestinian suffering really rubs me the wrong way. So would Segev have us believe that it’s necessary to preface any commentary on the treatment of Palestinians with strong words on the holocaust?

This sort of attitude is exactly the kind of thing that helps fuel holocaust denial. When the holocaust is used as political capital, it becomes cheapened, just one rhetorical weapon among many, which does a disservice to the memory of all those who were murdered.



  1. yes, you are insensitive. you’re entitled to your opinion but ladling your ideological preconceptions on top of segev’s piece just makes a hash of things. repeat after me: this has NOTHING to do with the palestine question. that you would conflate the two artificially speaks volumes. and as for your snide comment that this is the sort of thing that fuels holocaust deniers – puh-leez. spare us. i don’t think david duke or david irving or some other ranting reactionary (east and west, take your pick) need this as a pretext.

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