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Holocaust analogies are hurtful no matter what



The Holocaust was a catastrophe of such epic proportions that the Jewish world will never fully recover. There are still those alive who experienced the horror of it, and for whom it’s not just a distant memory or historical fact. It’s therefore not surprising that emotions run high whenever the subject is broached.

In this milieu, sensitivity around it can and should be expected. Yet, it has become increasingly common for different forms of Holocaust analogies and comparisons to be made.

However hurtful, not all Holocaust analogies are intended maliciously. For many, it’s used carelessly and for different gains, including the making of political points. However, some are obviously and intentionally offensive, and aim to evoke as much harm as possible. I think here of the placing of posters of Anne Frank wearing a keffiyeh around the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement during the so-called Israel Apartheid Week in 2018. It took the symbol of the innocence of the Jewish child who died in Bergen-Belsen. It’s clear that in this case, the context, message, intention, and appropriation of the Holocaust was consciously done to evoke the most hurt possible. And the hurt was, indeed, deep.

This past month, there have been a number of high-profile examples of analogies both here and in America. Christiane Amanpour used it as comment about Donald Trump, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) used it to comment on the Economic Freedom Fighters. There was a huge uproar in response to these comparisons, not least as both were made on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

While the intentions of Amanpour and the DA weren’t directed at the Jewish community, it was the Jewish community among others in both countries that protested. Again, Jewish communities were hurt.

This past month, there was also a parody in which the chief rabbi was portrayed as Hitler. Seemingly made by Jewish members in the community, it was intended as a spoof around a polemic that has been discussed in the community. While the intention may have been satirical, many members of the community were extremely hurt.

The deepest, darkest moments of our history shouldn’t be used to score political points or elicit cheap laughs. This is particularly egregious when the target is the chief rabbi. Nobody, whether they are leaders of the community or not, should be compared to Hitler. It’s clear that irrespective of the intention of those making comparisons, the effect on the Jewish community is the same: hurt, disbelief and anger. Inconsequential comparisons with the Holocaust undermines the unprecedented horror that it was.

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is often tasked with deliberating on how to respond to these types of offensive and hurtful incidents. And there is a great sensitivity in our community around our response. It’s our job at the SAJBD to determine the most appropriate response, and we take our role seriously. We look at where the content originates, the context in which it is said, the intention of those that say it, and how it’s felt by those who are targeted.

The SAJBD has years of experience in doing this, and consults broadly with fellow Jewish community organisations across the world, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee, as well as local and international academics.

One of the aspects we look at is how the message is received. While not all messages will be received by all members of the community in the same way, the level of hurt is the same.

What’s clear is those who make the comments shouldn’t be the ones who determine whether those comments are offensive or harmful or even antisemitic. For example, the BDS movement (and Jeremy Corbyn for that matter) deny wholeheartedly that their words, actions, and associations are antisemitic. In fact, they try to turn our accusations against us. And, no doubt, they will claim that “some of their best friends are Jewish”. But they are antisemitic.

Ultimately, though, all Jews have been affected in some way by the Holocaust. And it’s not for anyone (Jewish or otherwise) to use these terms lightly. It’s the reality of the Jewish people that we have learnt throughout our entire history that words spoken have consequences.

  • Mary Kluk is the president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and the director of the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

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