Amid the array of hysterical reactions to President Obama’s Middle East speech — notable examples include Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney — one under-reported response came from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which blasted Obama for calling for Israel to return to the 1967 “Auschwitz borders”.
Referring to the 1967 lines as “Auschwitz borders” is an old rhetorical trope that dates back (in some form or other) to Abba Eban in the 1960s. The underlying thought is that Israel’s borders are “indefensible” (as Netanyahu suggested) without large chunks of the West Bank; this claim sits rather uneasily with the fact that Israel has in fact successfully defended the pre-1967 borders on multiple occasions, and that its military advantage over its neighbors has only increased since the Six-Day War. The “Auschwitz borders” line is merely a particularly rhetorically vile and emotionally manipulative way of stating this claim, with its implication that an end to the Israeli occupation would be in some way comparable to the Holocaust.
While the trope is noxious enough coming from your garden-variety Likudnik or American neocon, it is especially rich coming from the Wiesenthal Center, an organization whose mission includes “teach[ing] the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations” and which has taken a leading role in policing the bounds of discourse concerning the Holocaust. The latest Wiesenthal statement raises some salient questions for Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, the center’s leaders. For instance: if fully ending the Israeli occupation would be a calamity comparable to Auschwitz, what other contemporary world events can legitimately be compared to Auschwitz? Is it permissible to compare, say, Guantanamo Bay to Auschwitz? Is it permissible to compare the Israeli blockade of Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto? Is it permissible to compare Operation Cast Lead to the Holocaust?
More importantly, who gets to decide what constitutes a legitimate or illegitimate appropriation of the Holocaust for political purposes? Is it only Rabbis Hier and Cooper? If so, by what authority? Was there some sort of election in which they were appointed official custodians of the memory of the Shoah? If so, why is there no record of it?
The Wiesenthal Center has already been in hot water for its plans to build a “Museum of Tolerance” in Jerusalem on the site of an old Muslim cemetery. This latest statement displays a similar tone-deafness, in ways rather similar to the Anti-Defamation League’s self-marginalizing attack on the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last year. Given this record, one is forced to ask what purpose these Jewish civil rights groups are serving in this day and age. Both the Wiesenthal Center and the ADL seem to think that their mission is first and foremost to serve as enforcers of the Likud line in the international arena. If this is all they have to offer the world, perhaps they have outlived their usefulness.