Wiesenthal Center Determined to Go Down in Flames

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.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Beautifully articulated! Jews make up less than 3% of the US population. According to the definitive American Jewish Committee poll, Israel ranks seventh on the list of issues on which Jews cast their votes, with just three percent citing it as their top concern. 54 percent mentioned the economy, and many more cited health care, energy and a host of other issues. That self-appointed reprentatives of 3% of the 3% wield so much influence on foreign policy decisions vital to the future prosperity and security of the United States begs a multitude of unsettling questions…

  2. edited version:

    John Boye have you checked out the rest of the 2011 AJC poll? Also, noting the increased importance of Israel in US politics and that it climbed from seventh position to “fifth”.

    [Q6]. In the AJC 2010 Fall poll the Jewish political community **62%** “approved” of the Netanyahu government’s handling of Israel-U.S. relations.”

    [Q9.] AJC findings: For the November 2010 congressional elections **95%** thought Israel was IMPORTANT. (61%) Very Important, and (34%) Important.

    When the AJC or even J-Street polls the US Jewish political community’s attitudes towards supporting the policies of US President Barak Obama over those of Israel’s President Netanyahu then I will take notice.

    When the US Jewish political community is polled to see if they support Obama being an ‘even-handed’ and ‘honest broker’ when it comes to the I/P issue – then I will take notice.

    When the US Jewish political community is polled to see if they support Obama being able to use the withdrawal of aid, and sanctions to bring ISRAEL to the negotiating table, and to stop the ethnic cleansing by Israel — then I will take notice.

    In the meantime, all this hogwash about the ‘majority’ of American Jews supporting Obama because they are liberal and care about US national security and domestic interests just doesn’t compute. And especially when the most uber State of Israel partisan hacks who reside in Democratic party (& in Congress) are treated like Gods in far too many to mention Jewish grassroots community-based organizations — Organizations who are extremely VOCAL, and have extraordinary political access and influence.


  3. Sand, I was trying not to portray the ‘Jewish community’ in too bad a light. By highlighting demographic insignificance of the Israel-firsters vis a vis the total US population I hoped to demonstrate the hugely disproportionate influence thus wielded. That commentators feel they have to tip-toe around this ‘elephant in the room’ says it all for the success of the multitude of pro-Israel lobbies in gagging critics – usually by self-censorship. Even the most respected and established dare not risk the fate of Helen Thomas. The situation is unsustainable. How many innocents must be sacrificed on the altar of Jewish chosenness before their power is broken? Thank you for taking the time to respond.

  4. Interesting comments above. As to Mr. Luban’s piece, although I would like to agree with the sentiments expressed, the fact remains that the ultimate Palestinian goal is to reclaim all of Palestine, i.e., an end to the Jewish state. It’s quite understandable that the Zionist community reacts with horror to any serious American plan for a two-state solution. Given that the Palestinians will never agree to give up the right of return, and given, further, the demographic facts on the ground, any peace that precludes some sort of greater Israel will quickly lead to the end of Israel. Even a greater Israel cannot long stand. There is simply no squaring the circle possible here. The choice is between a democratic, multi-ethnic Palestine in which Jews, Arabs and others live together with equal rights, or no Jewish future in Palestine. A Jewish apartheid state will not last more than a few decades into the future.

    It’s positively disgusting to watch American politicians and journalists fall all over themselves proclaiming the importance of Israel to American interests. I have great sympathy for the Jewish people and their history of suffering and persecution, but Israel is no asset to America. In fact, Israel is, has been, and will always remain an albatross around our necks. To maintain otherwise is simply to talk nonsense in order to advance a political or religious agenda.

  5. I dont know, why the jews are so scared by the Palestinians. In the first place, in the long run, they will loose, because their population is growing much less than palestinians.
    And 2. They own America and fix the policies of the presidents in action.It is just ridiculous that they can feel inferior to a people without resources and everything else. They should go for a really democratic 1 state solution.

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