Opinion | ‘Nazi’ Reference Serves as Teaching Moment

Conceptual background in memoriam of the Shoah Day, representing a granite star of David barbed wire.
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By State Rep. Jared Solomon

On April 21, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously passed HR 849 to designate it as “Holocaust Remembrance Day” in our commonwealth.

With actions like this, we in the Legislature seem to get everything right in how we show our support for and solidarity with the Jewish community and the issues important to us. Similarly, when the mass shooting at the Tree of Life building occurred in Pittsburgh, we rallied — condemning the attacker and vowing that we would redouble our efforts to ensure that instances like this never occur again.

On days when our august body stands united in our rejection of hatred in every form, I am filled with hope. We are saying in one voice that an attack on the faith of any of us is an attack on all of us.

For all the hope of April 21, May 4 illustrated how far we have to go. On that day during a committee meeting, my colleague, state Rep. Cris Dush, in a labored and hyperbolic attempt to warn about Gov. Tom Wolf’s opaqueness during the response to COVID-19, drew the comparison between the administration and the Nazi regime. If I (charitably) try to see his point, it is that when we are not transparent we risk becoming closer and closer to Nazi Germany.

Sitting across from Dush during that meeting, his words unmoored me, and I found myself almost in an out-of-body experience as I strongly and calmly rebuked my colleague from Jefferson County.

In the days since, after I rallied the leadership of our body to extract an apology from the man who two weeks prior had voted twice in favor of the Holocaust Remembrance Day resolution, I reflected: Why did this bother me so much? Why should Jews even waste our breath? After all, poor analogies are made all the time — especially in the Legislature — to various “isms”; as some of my colleagues see it, the specter of “communism” or “socialism” is never far away.

Part of my strong rebuke of Dush’s comments comes out of my personal story. My bubbe and my great-grandfather fled Ukraine during the pogroms. They settled in Philadelphia to face anti-Semitism in this country and struggled to raise a family. My grandfather fought against the Nazis in World War II, leaving his young family behind in the prime of his life. They fought against the anti-Semitism that the Nazi Party personified.

As I explained to Dush when we spoke in person the day after his comments, to draw lazy analogies to the Nazi Party from our current moment is to minimize the efforts of my grandparents to combat the very anti-Semitism that the Nazis represented. There is no comparison; full stop. But Dush’s tactic is a common one; Leo Strauss called it, “reductio ad Hitlerum” — invalidating someone’s position by comparing it to the Nazis or Hitler.

But what Dush did not understand is that it is not just the position of the governor that he was invalidating, but also the memory and history of the Nazis themselves. Beyond my personal response, there is a more global issue here. A deep-rooted appreciation of what it means to be Jewish has to delve into the fight that Jews have undertaken to make their plight seem historically significant.

Time and time again, people will say, “Jews are so successful now, moving to the highest echelons of society — what are you talking about? Anti-Semitism is a thing of the past.” Therein lies the problem — with each generation there is a general disbelief that animus toward Jews exists — which itself continues to perpetuate the anti-Semitism that continues today.

In particular, the horrors that Jews faced at the hands of the Nazi Party were physical as well as psychological, and the latter continues to torment Jews to this day. As we celebrated 75 years since their formal surrender, we know that we cannot let down our guard. After WWII, Jews began the fight to mourn for their place among oppressed groups.

There are always voices that want to take away our attempt to heal by denying that the horrors of the Nazi regime ever took place. People claim that it was part of an elaborate propaganda campaign; leaders of Iran, Venezuela and Poland have questioned the historical accounts of the Holocaust. These claims place Jews on the defensive, clamoring for acknowledgment, the ability to heal and moving on.

I want to be clear here I am not and will not do unto Dush that which I am saying he did to our community; I will not lump him with those who actively deny the Holocaust.

But I want to help him and others like him understand that without this appreciation of the Jewish context and history, it can be easy and it can make sense to blithely refer to the Nazis as a way to draw people closer to a particular point of view.

What needs to happen after the Nazi reference is a teaching moment for all of us — an appreciation of why an attempted rhetorical flourish hurt and failed to understand Jewish history, experience and attempts to heal.

State Rep. Jared Solomon
State Rep. Jared Solomon (Photo courtesy of state Rep. Jared Solomon)

When moving beyond the annual events such as Holocaust Remembrance Day — although important — we have a deeper understanding of how the Nazi reference brings up an historic moment that needs to be confronted in a meaningful way.

State Rep. Jared Solomon represents the 202nd Legislative District in Philadelphia County.

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