(Contestation of Statements) The US Holocaust Memorial Museum & The Scholars’ Petition

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Who is a Nazi? What is a concentration camp? The politicians have done their damage throwing Holocaust bombs at each other, leaving the rest of us involved professionally in this line of inquiry to sort through and volatilize further the mess left behind. In the feuding between scholar-colleagues and institutional professionals, I tend to sympathize with the latter. I worry that my scholar-colleagues come to these kinds of discussions from the vantage point of truth and truth alone, and that truths and their expression do not fare well in public sphere politics. There’s the sense too that the institutional professionals have a more keen grasp on how things actually appear in public and they have a more keen grasp on diverse constituencies. And they may have the more professional grasp as to the tempos of discourse online.

A case in point is the recent back and forth between the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the many scholars who petitioned the Museum after Museum spokespeople issued a statement reject in toto all analogies to the Holocaust in the wake of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez calling the border camps separating families in the U.S. to concentration camps. The quick and sloppy statement from the USHMM was too much for the scholars who bridled, pushing back in defense of the comparative and advocacy work that are necessary components to the work of Holocaust scholarship and of Holocaust education, and to the very work of the Museum itself, at which and with which many of the scholars are associated or have worked in the past.

What we saw was mostly online, and what that was was an amazing contestation of statements in the overlap between politics, museum-institutions, university scholars, and the U.S. media.

The statement from Ocasio-Cortez is what started the momentum. On Instagram, she wrote: “The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border and that is exactly what they are.” And then she said, “I want to talk to the people that are concerned enough with humanity to say that ‘never again’ means something,” she added. “The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the ‘Home of the Free’ is extraordinarily disturbing and we need to do something about it.”

Adding to the roil online that this first statement boiled up, the USHMM put out the following statement on June 24 (2019):

“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary. That position has repeatedly and unambiguously been made clear in the Museum’s official statement on the matter – a statement that is reiterated and reaffirmed now. The link to the Museum’s statement is cited below (December 12, 2018). The Museum further reiterates that a statement ascribed to a Museum staff historian regarding recent attempts to analogize the situation on the United States southern border to concentration camps in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s does not reflect the position of the Museum. The Museum deeply regrets any offense to Holocaust survivors and others that may have been engendered by any statement ascribed to a Museum historian in a personal capacity.”

This was the statement that provoked the scholars into what they viewed as the necessity to take immediate action. The scholars’ critical takeaway against the USHMM statement was in opposition to the rejecting of any and all analogies, historical and contemporary,  to the Holocaust. In the rush to step in the breach, it would have been a very few who read this statement carefully or followed the link to the earlier statement from December 12, 2018.  The first point to note was that that original statement caused none of the public alarm that the June statement did in response to the very public character of the Congresswoman’s Instagram provocation. What also is worthy of notice is the concern expressed by the USHMM regretting any offense that Holocaust survivors and others might have registered by an individual historian at the museum who backed up the analogy drawn by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. In this now very public dispute, the USHMM was, it seems, exercised not by the question of historical truth, but to sympathy for the individual (private) feelings (i.e. interest) of (to put it lightly) a core constituency vital to the work of the institution.

The June 2019 statement referred back to this more detailed statement made by the USHMM in December, 2018 against Holocaust analogies, and which I quote in full.

Nazis seem to be everywhere these days. I don’t mean self-proclaimed neo-Nazis. I’m talking about folks being labeled as Nazis, Hitler, Gestapo, Goering — take your pick — by their political opponents. American politicians from across the ideological spectrum, influential media figures, and ordinary people on social media casually use Holocaust terminology to bash anyone or any policy with which they disagree. The takedown is so common that it’s even earned its own term, reductio ad Hitlerum.

This trend is far from new, but it is escalating at a disturbing rate in increasingly polarized times. The Holocaust has become shorthand for good vs. evil; it is the epithet to end all epithets. And the current environment of rapid fire online communication and viral memes lends itself particularly well to this sort of sloppy analogizing. Worse, it allows it to spread more widely and quickly.

This oversimplified approach to complex history is dangerous. When conducted with integrity and rigor, the study of history raises more questions than answers. And as the most extensively documented crime the world has ever seen, the Holocaust offers an unmatched case study in how societies fall apart, in the immutability of human nature, in the dangers of unchecked state power. It is more than European or Jewish history. It is human history. Almost 40 years ago, the United States Congress chartered a Holocaust memorial on the National Mall for precisely this reason: The questions raised by the Holocaust transcend all divides.

Neither the political right nor left has a monopoly on exploiting the six million Jews murdered in a state-sponsored, systematic campaign of genocide to demonize or intimidate their political opponents. Recently, some conservative media figures explicitly likened Parkland, FL students advocating for tightened gun control to Hitler Youth, operating in the service of a shadowy authoritarian conspiracy. This allegation included splicing images of these students onto historical film footage of Nazi rallies, reflecting the ease with which many Americans associate the sound of German shouting with a threat to personal liberties. A state representative in Minnesota joined the online bandwagon in these accusations.

Perhaps most popular this year have been accusations of “Nazism” and “fascism” against federal authorities for their treatment of children separated from their parents at the US border with Mexico. “Remember, other governments put kids in camps,” is a typical rallying cry from some immigration advocates. Even a person as well versed in the tenuous balance between national security and compassion, the former head of the CIA, took to Twitter to criticize federal policies toward illegal migrants using a black and white photo of the iconic train tracks leading the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Nazi comparisons have also been leveled against the federal government in connection with a travel ban on individuals from predominantly Muslim countries. Animal rights proponents have consistently decried what they call “the Holocaust on your plate” in critiquing today’s meat industry. The list goes on.

It is all too easy to forget that there are many people still alive for whom the Holocaust is not “history,” but their life story and that of their families. These are not abstract tragedies on call to win an argument or an election. They carry the painful memories of the brutal murder of a cherished baby boy, the rape of a beloved sister, the parents arrested and never seen again.

As the Holocaust recedes in time, some Americans (and Europeans) are becoming increasingly casual and disrespectful to the mass murder of millions. More dangerous, today the internet disseminates insensitive or hateful remarks with unprecedented ease and influence. Online discussions tend to encourage extreme opinions; they allow people to live in echo chambers of their own ideologies and peers. Weimar Germany — the period between the First World War and the Nazi rise to power — is an exemplar of the threats that emerge when the political center fails to hold, when social trust is allowed to erode and the fissures exploited.

Quality Holocaust education may have the potential to bridge some of the divides our nation is experiencing. It enables people to pause. To step away from the problems and debates of the present. To be challenged by this catastrophic event of the past. That is what good history education does. It doesn’t preach. It teaches. It engages at a personal level. It promotes self-reflection and critical thinking about the world and one’s own roles and responsibilities. That engagement is lost when we resort to grossly simplified Holocaust analogies. And it demeans the memory of the dead.

Writing in 1953, the British novelist L.P. Hartley said “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Comparing and categorizing are natural human impulses. We all use categories and analogies to navigate through life. But the nature of Nazi crimes demands that we study the evidence, alert ourselves to warning signs, wrestle with the world’s moral failure. When we reduce it to a flattened morality tale, we forfeit the chance to learn from its horrific specificity. We lose sight of the ordinary human choices that made genocide possible.

Careless Holocaust analogies may demonize, demean, and intimidate their targets. But there is a cost for all of us because they distract from the real issues challenging our society, because they shut down productive, thoughtful discourse. At a time when our country needs dialogue more than ever, it is especially dangerous to exploit the memory of the Holocaust as a rhetorical cudgel. We owe the survivors more than that. And we owe ourselves more than that.

Of interest in the scholars’ petition against the June 2019 statement was the argument that the position taken by the USHMM in June 2019 was itself anti-historical. It could be argued otherwise. In the December 2018 statement, the contemporary historical context to the resistance to analogies is sharply underscored. Of particular note: if you scroll down the December statement, the USHMM supports careful comparative work. There would seem to be an important but unobserved distinction between a “comparison” and an “analogy.”

Of particular note in the December 2018 statement is attention to the way that Holocaust discourse is especially riled up online. This is to say that the USHMM is keenly aware that their own resistance to analogies does not come out of nowhere and is not made in an absolute, but is politically and historically situated in our current moment, particularly in relation to online communication. About this latter point the scholars’ petition actually says nothing in relation to the current environment of rapid fire online communication and the instantaneous dissemination of viral memes, all of which lends particularly well to the sloppy analogizing resisted by the USHMM in the first place in response to something posted by an inexperienced but prominent Congresswoman on Instagram in the interest of making political hay.

This is the scholars’ petition as it appeared online at the New York Review of Books.

There first is the introduction to the scholars’ petition by the editors at the NYRB:

On June 17, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, posted an Instagram live video discussing the detention camps along the southern US border as “concentration camps” in which she used the phrase “Never Again.” This drew sharp criticism the following day from Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming, and others for allegedly misappropriating a slogan associated with the Holocaust. After several days of heated media and political debate, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum released a statement on June 24 condemning the use of Holocaust analogies. We received the following open letter addressed to the director of the museum, Sara J. Bloomfield, delivered by the signatories on July 1.

 —The Editors

Not a little disingenuous, the editors make it sounds as if only conservative Republicans opposed the analogy drawn by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, when in fact large segments of the Jewish community, including many, but by no means all, liberal Jews were riled up in the wake of the remarks.

And this is what the scholars signed off on:

We are scholars who strongly support the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many of us write on the Holocaust and genocide; we have researched in the USHMM’s library and archives or served as fellows or associated scholars; we have been grateful for the Museum’s support and intellectual community. Many of us teach the Holocaust at our universities, and have drawn on the Museum’s online resources. We support the Museum’s programs from workshops to education.

We are deeply concerned about the Museum’s recent “Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies.” We write this public letter to urge its retraction.

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences rely on careful and responsible analysis, contextualization, comparison, and argumentation to answer questions about the past and the present. By “unequivocally rejecting efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary,” the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is taking a radical position that is far removed from mainstream scholarship on the Holocaust and genocide. And it makes learning from the past almost impossible.

The Museum’s decision to completely reject drawing any possible analogies to the Holocaust, or to the events leading up to it, is fundamentally ahistorical. It has the potential to inflict severe damage on the Museum’s ability to continue its role as a credible, leading global institution dedicated to Holocaust memory, Holocaust education, and research in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies. The very core of Holocaust education is to alert the public to dangerous developments that facilitate human rights violations and pain and suffering; pointing to similarities across time and space is essential for this task.

Looking beyond the academic context, we are well aware of the many distortions and inaccuracies, intentional or not, that frame contemporary discussions of the Holocaust. We are not only scholars. We are global citizens who participate in public discourse, as does the Museum as an institution, and its staff. We therefore consider it essential that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reverse its position on careful historical analysis and comparison. We hope the Museum continues to help scholars establish the Holocaust’s significance as an event from which the world must continue to learn.

The petition is carefully parsed, although one suspects that the identification of the need to alert the public as being at the “core of Holocaust education” was a result of the quickness with which the scholars’ petition was formed. And to repeat, in no way did the USHMM in their June or December statement come out against comparative work, as opposed to analogies. This was not a fine point picked up in the scholars’ petition. One thing also of note is that the scholars’ petition did not in the process of defending comparative work in principle go on to support the particular analogy drawn by Ocasio-Cortez. Maybe that was the hay that the editors of the NYRB may or may not have wanted to make. But regarding the original statement that began this whole thing there might have been more disagreement, and the scholars were rightly concerned primarily to defend the canons of their own scholarly discipline. 

As for the afterlife of a carefully parsed scholarly intervention online and in the public sphere there’s this little epilogue. While the petition said nothing by way of support for Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s statement, that’s not how the media picked it up and reported the story. For example see here, and here, and here. In the version made public by the media, the scholars’ position supports the one made by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. It suggests that maybe scholars, invested in truth and method, pay less attention to what happens to their intervention out in the public where the fine methodological point gets lost. The scholars are easily lined up in support of the calling border camps “concentration camps.” Maybe what we learn is that the Museum officials were more aware and more self-aware than the scholars about the workings of the online lives we lead and the online life and political manipulations of Holocaust discourse.

As for the mission statement at the USHMM, it reads as follows:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is America’s national institution for the documentation, study, and interpretation of Holocaust history, and serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims—six million were murdered; Gypsies, the handicapped and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.

The Museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.

Chartered by a unanimous Act of Congress in 1980 and located adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, DC, the Museum strives to broaden public understanding of the history of the Holocaust through multifaceted programs: exhibitions; research and publication; collecting and preserving material evidence, art and artifacts related to the Holocaust; annual Holocaust commemorations known as Days of Remembrance; distribution of education materials and teacher resources; and a variety of public programming designed to enhance understanding of the Holocaust and related issues, including those of contemporary significance.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to (Contestation of Statements) The US Holocaust Memorial Museum & The Scholars’ Petition

  1. dmf says:

    I think the scale, fluidity/rapidity,heterogeneity, etc of social mediaspheres make it impossible to be aware of even current let alone future impacts, and even tho exacerbated/hyped-up in certain ways are a good reminder that “reader” responses have always given lie to fantasies of carefully curated/contextualized experiences for the masses.


    • dmf says:

      ps tragic that we are still so focused on the intentions of authors as opposed to receptions, another reminder that we have never been post structuralist in our practices despite not having really good explanations of how to still justify claims of structures/networks/etc as more than reifications.

    • zjb says:

      yes, yes, even as the vast scale of the mediasphere gives the lie to even the most carefully parsed “reader response”

      • dmf says:

        indeed, the sorts of analyses one sees of twitter data and the like are really limited/dumb.
        On a broader note I don’t think one can in/on Principle ( and in general) decide who is owed what in these matters or what is allowable or not, we can just be as clear as possible about what we are trying to do and be open to feedback, does at least for me raise again serious questions about how useful technical/complex research is for public consumption or use by lay people (one sees this all the time in the interactions between legislators and experts and their work products) and do academics have any real training/expertise in the fashioning of ready at hand heuristics?

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