By Marc Stier
The point of remembering the Holocaust is not to say that it was an utterly distinctive event in human history. Every historical event is distinctive in some ways, but systematic genocide of a people has, sadly, been found at many times and places in human history.
The point of remembering the Holocaust is not to give Jews a claim on the attention or sympathy of others. The point of remembering the Holocaust is certainly not to assert that our sins have been redeemed by our suffering or that of others.
The point of remembering the Holocaust is to ensure that it never happens again to anyone and any group.
We live at an extremely dangerous time. Some of us see parallels between the Trump movement and the fascism of the 1930s. And we see parallels between concentration camps in which immigrants are being held and those of the earlier time. We, of course, know that Trump is not yet Hitler and that concentration camps are not death camps. But we know that the worst of fascism didn’t arise overnight. And we also know that the worst happened because too many people didn’t have the imagination or foresight to believe that it could happen.
And so we keep pointing out the dangers even though some of you call us “unhinged” or “hysterical” or say we are “disrespecting the Holocaust,” all of which people said to me in the last couple weeks.
But, frankly, such folks are blind. They are like the interwar enlightened Polish Jews a friend told me a couple of months ago. They believed they were living in the best of times. And they were. As a result, they couldn’t see the dangers in front of them. Most of them wound up in death camps or were shot down in the street.
The hardest thing to do in political and social thought is imagine discontinuities and rapid change. And that’s why I’m going to keep warning about the tendencies in our political life that by my lights seem truly frightening.
I’d rather warn people of where we are going and be wrong than see a country I love despite its flaws come apart at the seams, more and more people wind up in concentration camps, and, even worse, the ideals we’ve never lived up to be destroyed and lost for centuries.
And if our warnings help prevent the worst, and some of you laugh at me in 10 years, I won’t care. Because the danger you can’t see is real today and I’m doing the right thing by warning about it.
Liberal democratic political communities that embrace diversity and tolerance are not as fragile as political theorists once thought. I wrote a paper a number of years ago that showed that they actually tend to stay in place longer than authoritarian regimes. But the habits of mind that sustain liberalism can be lost. I see them being lost every day — and not just on the right.
Most of us who live today have no idea how much better off we are than human beings in almost any other time and place. And we think it can’t be lost.
But it can be. And if invoking the Holocaust is one way to slap people in the face and get them to understand the danger we are in, it would be disrespectful to the memory of that dark time not to do so.
Marc Stier is a writer, teacher and political activist from Mt. Airy and a member of the board of JSPAN, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network.