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The spectre of the "second Holocaust"

About the author
Michael Rothberg is Professor of English and Director of the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies at the University of Illinois. His most recent book is Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009). He is currently based in Berlin, where he is taking part in a collaborative research project on immigration and Holocaust memory in contemporary Germany supported by a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.

A few months ago, the Washington Post published a story recounting the attempts of the African American political theorist Danielle Allen to get to the bottom of the false claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Allen's Internet archaeology turned out to be as interesting as the actual answer - the origin of the claim seems to be a rather odd and anti-Semitic character named Andy Martin, who has recently reappeared in the Fox News "documentary" "Obama & Friends: The History of Radicalism." Allen's quest helped bring to view how smears circulate in our "new media" environment.  

If you've been following the American elections as obsessively as I have, you might also have noticed another odd, and even more inexplicable meme that has been circulating in Republican circles: references to the possibility of a "second holocaust." Most recently, an email was sent by Pennsylvania Republicans to Jewish voters in the state warning that "Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008. Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let's not make a similar one this year!"

According to the October 25 Associated Press story that reported this bizarre and offensive attempt to associate Obama with National Socialism and the genocide of Jews in World War II, the email further "warns ‘Fellow Jewish Voters' of the danger of a second Holocaust due to the threats to Israel from its neighbors and touts Republican presidential candidate John McCain's qualifications over those of Obama." 

Republicans have disavowed this particular email, but in fact the rhetoric it uses is consistent with statements that both McCain and Palin have been making in interviews and speeches. For instance, in a 19 September post on its "Political Radar" blog, ABC News reported that "Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin warned against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pursuit of nuclear weapons for a ‘second holocaust.'" According to Palin's remarks at a rally in Minnesota, "John McCain and I are committed to drawing attention to the danger posed by Iran's nuclear program and we will not waver in our commitment. I will continue to call for sustained action to prevent Iranian President Ahmadinejad from getting these weapons that he wants for a second holocaust."

Despite recent talk of Palin's tendency to "go rogue," it seems unlikely that she came up with this line of argument herself. Indeed, back in July, as MSNBC reports, John McCain went on Israeli television and, again a propos of Iran, declared, "I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust."  

In the final week of the campaign the attempt to link Obama to Iran and alleged threats to Israel has become one of the McCain camp's central talking points (second only to the anachronistic attempt to portray Obama as a "socialist"). The "death to Israel" smear is being repeated in advertisements, direct mail campaigns, "Joe the Plumber" pronouncements, and other detritus of the campaign's last gasp efforts.  

Now, you may think that the rhetoric of a "second holocaust" is simply one more desperate Republican ploy to win over Jewish voters in Florida and Ohio, or perhaps a natural response to a violent and unstable situation in the Middle East and to Ahmadinejad's troubling pronouncements about Israel and the Nazi genocide. But in fact the story is more interesting-and more disturbing.  

Through the McCain campaign, an established discourse of the Israeli "settler" right-wing has entered into the American election. In a 2003 article in Israel Studies, Arye Naor, an Associate Professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Ben-Gurion University and a former Cabinet Secretary under Begin, provides an account of the political framework in which the apocalyptic visions of today's Republicans can be located. Naor demonstrates how in the years since 1967 proponents of a Greater Israel have regularly invoked visions of a "second holocaust" as part of a strategy to reject all territorial concessions in the conflict with the Palestinians. Citing such figures as Yitzhak Tabenkin, a kibbutz leader, and Eli'ezer Livneh, a former Knesset member and founder of the "Greater Israel Movement," Naor traces a consistent discourse founded on "the comparison of the peace process to the Holocaust."

Second holocaust discourse suggests that Israel is going to be the victim of a new genocide perpetrated by Arab states. Proponents of this discourse "do not hesitate to argue that territorial concessions will pave the way to a second holocaust, one so horrific as to even surpass the Nazi Holocaust." The point of second holocaust ideology is to discourage the kind of political compromise that might end the occupation of the West Bank and halt the violence it has provoked, and instead to put forward a maximalist vision of Israeli sovereignty over historical Palestine. 

Why has a forty year old discourse of the hardline Israeli right entered into American politics in the 2008 election cycle? Is this just electoral opportunism or a sign of ideological continuities? As with the related "Muslim" rumor, it would be interesting to know the precise channels through which this attempted "Americanization of the second holocaust" has taken place. More importantly, what does the circulation of these messages and ideas suggest?

One interesting observation is that the discourse of the second holocaust functions differently, perhaps even inversely, in the United States and in Israel. In Israel, the pro-settler faction's invocation of the Holocaust is meant to connect today's Arabs with yesterday's Nazis as a means of putting a halt to political negotiation. In the US, on the other hand, the association seems to move in the other direction: a "second holocaust" is evoked not to associate Obama with Nazis so much as to associate him with Arabs.

Here this rhetoric joins up with the "Muslim" rumor (started, after all, by an anti-Semite). But the desired outcome of the American version is very much the same as the Israeli one: the delegitimation of certain candidates and certain political positions; in other words, a shrinking of the process of democratic dialogue in the name of an uncompromising ideology. 

This is a dark vision, although one rendered all too realistic by the recent direction of right-wing politics in the United States. Yet it's worth considering one bit of positive news - voters don't seem to be falling for it. According to the most recent polls, approximately three-quarters of Jewish American voters are supporting Obama, similar to the level of support for Kerry in 2004. One can only hope that this election year proves more resistant to smear tactics than the last.

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Michael Rothberg is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His latest book is Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (forthcoming from Stanford University Press). He is also the author of Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation and co-editor of The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings


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