We can wonder about the firmness of President Obama’s red line as we watch it wobble, blur, and recede. But no one wonders about the sheer horror of events in Syria. The numbers alone should make us gasp: over 100,000 dead, over 6,500 of them children. There’s a temptation to compare; to call this endless spate of dying a “Holocaust.”
Some even dare to give expression to the idea, as did United States Secretary of State John Kerry on September 3, in response to a question from Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM). Udall asked, "What are the chances doing something will be worse than doing nothing?"
Kerry responded with a not-so-subtle reference to the voyage of the St. Louis in 1939, when Cuba and the United States both refused the majority of the ship’s Jewish “cargo,” refugees fleeing the Nazi killing machine.
“It's not a question of what will happen if we don't do it; it's a certainty. Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again, and the world says, ‘Why didn't the United States act?’ History is full of opportunity of moments where someone didn't stand up and act when it made a difference. And whether you go back to World War II or you look at a ship that was turned away from the coast of Florida and everybody on it lost their lives subsequently to German gas, those are the things that make a difference. And that's what's at stake here,” said Kerry.
Kerry’s response was inaccurate on more than one level. For one thing, not all the St. Louis passengers were killed, despite Washington’s denial of succor to the desperate. Also, Assad is killing his own people. It’s a case of Syrians killing other Syrians as opposed to Jews being killed because they’re Jews by gentiles.
Still, Kerry isn’t alone in making Holocaust references in regard to internecine Syrian strife. That same day, September 3, US Rep. and Democratic National Committee leader Debbie Wasserman Schultz also invoked the Holocaust during a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer. "As a Jew," she said, "the concept of 'never again' has to mean something."
If a Jew can make that analogy, why shouldn’t Kerry, whose paternal grandparents, were, after all, Jewish? And of course, if Kerry can say it and Wasserman Schultz can say it, why can’t as august a figure as Abe Foxman, director of the Anti Defamation League, draw parallel conclusions? “Our people have been exterminated by the use of gas. We cannot stand by without a reaction when we see gas being used to kill others,” said Foxman, on September 4.
Not to be outdone, the same day Foxman made his statement, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, 17 rabbis parroted the same notion in a letter they sent to Congress. “We write you as descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees, whose ancestors were gassed to death in concentration camps. We write you as a people who have faced persecution for many centuries, and are glad to have found a safe refuge where we can thrive in the United States.”
Many will point to these sources as symbols of truth and cite them to apply their own Holocaust analogies to the massive civilian casualties of Syria. But they will all be wrong, despite the fact that these voices all emanate from the Jewish community with the Holocaust signifying a property solely “owned” and administered by its victims, the Jews.
In Syria, however, there is no genocide. Instead we have a case of a tyrant versus several groups of rebels, many of them with ties to terror organizations. Should we back the guys who flew planes into American buildings or the despotic Assad regime?
This is no John Wayne movie where good guys wear white, the bad guys, black. There’s no clear knowledge of a group we can safely back which might effectively rule and which will do so with Western democratic norms of honor. More to the point, the aim of the internal Syrian struggle is not a Final Solution but an attempt by the ruling power to squelch dissent.
The numbers, too, terrible and tragic as they are, remain vastly disparate. The number 100,000 fails the Holocaust test for sheer lack of zeroes. There’s a reason for the gap and it is this: the killing of the Jews was a systematic planned genocide of a people, whereas Syrian casualties are the result of sporadic, chaotic, disorganized internecine fighting: the sad collateral damage of a power play, a fight for Assad’s supremacy as against self-rule but with too many actors pounding their less than innocent chests crying, “Self!”
It’s not genocide. And it is not fair to the memory of the six million to voice the idea. The Holocaust is a standalone event in modern history. Meaning no disrespect to innocent Syrian civilians, comparing 100,000 deaths with fewer than 2,000 deaths attributed to one or two incidents of chemical warfare is a terror that pales as against the millions marched to the gas chambers. The Germans killed the Jews in killing machines on an organized schedule, all with a single unified purpose: the annihilation of one people, the Jews.
The same, thank God, cannot be said of Syria.
Urging people to act because of a comparison which does not and cannot fit the situation exploits a narrative belonging to someone else. No comparison can ever be accurate and any attempt to do so negates and cheapens history. It is an ugly thing to twist the facts of the Holocaust, an event unparalleled in human history to suit one’s purposes. And it’s a lie.
In, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, by Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Lewis describes how two words have been, as he calls it, “re-semanticized,” those words being “fundamentalist” and “ghetto.” The original Fundamentalists were Protestants who, as separate from other Protestant denominations rejected liberal theology and biblical criticism. Neither can be said to be true of Muslim “fundamentalists,” yet the term “Muslim Fundamentalist” has entered our lexicon.
Lewis goes on to explain the origins of the word “ghetto,” meant to describe a neighborhood in a European city to which Jews were confined. “Now, (“ghetto”) is no longer European, it no longer concerns Jews, and it’s no longer defined by law,” says Lewis.
The meanings of these two words, “fundamentalist” and “ghetto” have been supplanted by new meanings which obscure the history behind them. Shall we do the same to “genocide,” thereby obscuring the Holocaust for good?
Whether or not the world needs to involve itself in one country’s terrible civil war is a question that can be answered many different ways. Some will insist the world insert itself while others will plead we should stay well away from Syria’s internal inferno. But whether or not the events in Syria are a Holocaust can be answered with a single answer, a loud and resounding no.
Varda Meyers Epstein is a communications writer at Kars for Kids, http://kars4kids.org/, a nonprofit car donation program that underwrites educational initiatives for children.