In his anticipated speech of 4 June at Cairo University, President Barack Obama affirmed the fact and the horror of the Holocaust before an audience whose nation and whose people have created a cottage industry around Holocaust denial.
“Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”
The president then went on – predictably, and of political necessity – to acknowledge the plight of the Palestinian people.
“On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation.”
This was to be expected. However, this observer is not the first to note a subtle yet glaring inaccuracy in the president’s remarks: The seemingly innocuous phrase on the other hand implies equivalence, the same kind of moral equivalence that has been eroding our political and social values for decades. And, ironically, the source of which can be traced to the Holocaust itself.
But first the facts.
In 1937, the British Peel Commission devised the first plan for the partition of Palestine. Although its terms would have granted Israel much less than its 1948 borders, the Jews accepted its terms. Arabs leaders rejected it out of hand.
In 1939, the British White Paper limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 15,000 per year and that, after 5 years, granted absolute autonomy over the region to Arab authority. The Jews, albeit under protest, accepted its terms. Arab leaders rejected it out of hand.
In 1947, when the United Nations recognized the formation of the modern State of Israel, the Jews begged their Arab neighbors to remain in the country and live along side them as friends. The Mufti of Jerusalem, who had allied himself closely with Hitler during the Second World War, urged all Israeli Arabs to flee the country so that the Arab countries would be unhindered in their campaign to drive the Jews into the sea. More than two-thirds of Arab “refugees” fled Israel without ever seeing an Israeli soldier.
Those same displaced Arabs, and their children and grandchildren, have continued to live as refugees scattered among the Arab nations, the only displaced people ever to be denied repatriation by countries of their own ethnicity. In 1960, King Hussein of Jordan remarked that “Arab leaders have approached the Palestine problem in an irresponsible manner…. they have used the Palestine people for selfish political purposes. This is ridiculous and, I could say, even criminal.”
Equally ridiculous, and equally criminal, to equate the displacement of a people – originally by its own choice and perpetuated for political gain by its own leaders – with the massacre of millions of innocents as part of the attempted genocide of an entire nation.
The tragic irony here is how the Holocaust has made every crime, every distortion, and every deviation of the last half-century diminish to insignificance by way of comparison. Such bedrock values as “right to life” and the established definition of marriage inevitably lost their sanctity in a world that could stand by and allow such an atrocity. The work ethic and individual responsibility lost their value in a world in which the living could be dispatched with such mechanical efficiency. Personal dignity and modesty lost their meaning in a world where human beings could be so piteously degraded.
And in the most perverse twist of all, as if trying to restore some semblence of moral direction to a morally challenged world, the Holocaust has become synonmous with every perceived evil, whereby practioners of every political and ideological platform will be condemned as Nazis by their opposite numbers, further diminishing the horrors of Aushwitz and Birkenau in a generation that already teeters on the brink of forgetfulness.
When every crime becomes an atrocity, when any policial position is made equal to Naziism, then the Holocaust loses all its meaning and its deniers have truly won. There is much evil in the world, and President Obama will not bring about its end either by allowing some evils to pale in comparison to others or by inflating every evil to the level of genocide.
If the leader of the free world demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to evaluate every incidence of evil according to its true value, how can we expect the rest of the world to do any better?