The unconscionable hijacking of the Holocaust

June 18, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Without an intellectual anchor, cultural institutions are carried along by prevailing intellectual winds, which blow from the left. Familiar exhibits of this process are universities, where various subjects are enveloped in fogs of politics and abstractions.

But now the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the problematic academic field of "Holocaust studies" are illustrating this process. The Holocaust is being exploited by academic entrepreneurs and factions with political agendas, all working to blur what the museum exists to insist upon -- the distinctiveness of the calamity that befell European Jewry.

The museum's mission is solemn and circumscribed -- the commemoration and study of the Holocaust in all its particularity. But the museum and the academic discipline -- if such it can be -- of Holocaust studies are becoming besotted with a repellent silliness about this most serious matter.

John Roth, philosophy professor at Claremont-McKenna College and designated director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, apologizes for a 1988 essay he says "created the impression" that he considered Israel's treatment of the Palestinians in Israel comparable to the Nazis' treatment of Jews. Here is what he said on the 50th anniversary of the Nazis' 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom: "Kristallnacht happened because a political state decided to be rid of people unwanted within its borders. It seems increasingly clear that Israel would prefer to rid itself of Palestinians if it could do so. . . . As much as any other people today, [the Palestinians] are being forced into a tragic part too much like the one played by the European Jews 50 years ago."

Holocaust 'studies'

Mr. Roth did more than "create the impression" he now regrets. His careless writings reflect slovenly thinking of a drearily familiar kind. It is the thinking of someone who has been too-much marinated in the flaccid leftist consensus of the campuses, where reckless rhetoric enhances prestige.

He exploited the Holocaust for vulgar rhetorical effect when the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan moved him to remember "how 40 years ago economic turmoil had conspired with Nazi nationalism and militarism . . . to send the world reeling into catastrophe that virtually annihilated the Jews of Europe . . ." Then, after coyly denying "clear parallels" between America in the 1980s and Germany in the 1930s, he implied parallels: "It is not entirely mistaken to contemplate our post-election state with fear and trembling."

During the 1988 campaign, he complained that the candidates were not addressing "the problems of the poor" and asserted a similarity to Nazi persecutions.

Mr. Roth might belong at the museum. Its director of education, Joan Ringelheim, has said "women and minorities, the working class and the poor, prior to and after the Holocaust, have often lived in conditions similar in kind (although not always in degree) to those in the Holocaust." Oh, not always.

Comparing Nazi misogyny and the exploitation of Jewish women by Jewish men, Ms. Ringelheim has stressed the extent to which "the sexism of Nazi ideology and the sexism of the Jewish community met in a tragic and involuntary alliance." So, the Holocaust was a serious episode of sexual harassment.

An empty flask

Holocaust studies generate many jargon-soggy analyses from others, such as this: "The manichean biologism of the Hitlerian cosmology is neither fluid nor primarily transcendental, though it does premise its empirical behavior on putative ontic truths, racial struggle being the imminent locus of adversarial transempirical actualities." Still, better such opacity than another scholar's assertion that the Holocaust was an environmental problem -- "thousands of pounds of human ash dumped into lakes and rivers."

The Holocaust is being hijacked, turned into an empty flask to be filled up with academic obscurantism and trendy political advocacy masquerading as scholarship. In the process, writes Gabriel Schoenfeld ("Auschwitz and the Professors" in the June issue of Commentary), the hijackers submerge the Holocaust into the muddiness of proliferating "victim studies." This, Mr. Schoenfeld says, traduces the museum's core mission of understanding and memorializing the Jews' tragedy "in all its uniqueness and specificity."

Mr. Schoenfeld recalls that in 1981 Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley, cautioned that a "topic or event, however momentous, is not an academic discipline." As the Holocaust becomes "academicized" (Mr. Alter's word) it becomes trivialized, reduced to just another instance of injustice.

The museum should be, as it is, a research center, and certainly the Holocaust is a suitable subject for academic courses. But nowadays every intellectual enterprise is conditioned by its context -- today's faddish, politicized, ax-grinding academic culture. That culture is seeping into the museum, diluting its noble gravity and single-mindedness.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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