Holocaust universalization


"[The Holocaust] is not an example of man's inhumanity to man. It was man's inhumanity to Jews." - Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. 



The Holocaust was the industrialized slaughter of 6 million Jews and over one million Roma and Sinti by the Nazis and their collaborators. While the Nazis targeted many groups, only Jews — and in some countries, Roma — were subject to extermination as per the policies of the Final Solution. The Holocaust destroyed 66 percent of Europe’s Jewish population over the span of less than six years. 

Holocaust universalization is the tendency to treat the Holocaust as “public property,” stripping Jews of their unique experience. Instead, the Holocaust is treated as a tragedy that befell onto mankind, rather than a genocide that specifically and intentionally targeted Jews. It’s the tendency to use the Holocaust as a rhetorical tool, a tool of comparison, or political football. Some in the right says vaccines are just like the Holocaust. Some in the left says Israelis are Nazis. And then the right and the left denounce each other, accusing the other of exploiting the memory of the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Jews are silenced when we actually try to speak for ourselves. 

According to Holocaust historian Dr. Elana Heidenman, Holocaust universalization turns the Holocaust into “a joke, a mere moment in history that is no longer relevant unless through an exaggerated comparison, [and] terms of reference that have lost all depth and all substance.”

The universalization of the Holocaust erases Jews’ “right” to the memory and understanding of the Holocaust. The world largely treats the Holocaust as a “lesson to be learned,” rather than a genocide that decimated the Jewish community, which I will address in a later slide. How many people who invoke the Holocaust actually care about the plight of Holocaust survivors today? How many people who invoke the Holocaust are committed to unlearning their own antisemitic biases?



For two main reasons. 

(1) it is quite literally empirically damaging to the mental health of survivors, which I will address in a later slide, 

(2) it distorts the factual events of the Holocaust. Holocaust distortion is a form of Holocaust revisionism, which in turn is a form of Holocaust denial. 

Holocaust distortion, also known as Holocaust revisionism, is the distortion or denial of well-established historical facts about the Holocaust, without outright denying that the Holocaust took place.

According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, “Distortion of the Holocaust is rhetoric, written work, or other media that excuse, minimize, or misrepresent the known historical record.” Whether this is done intentionally or unintentionally is irrelevant, as in the end the impact is just as harmful either way.

A danger of Holocaust distortion is that from the outside, it might appear more credible than outright Holocaust denial. According to the IHRA Honorary Chairman Yehuda Bauer, “A half truth is worse than a full lie.”

Holocaust comparisons are inherently misleading. One of the main factors that makes the Holocaust unique is that it was an industrialized genocide. The Nazis quite literally used mass production and factory-like methods to exterminate as many Jews and Roma as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. They created killing factories. And they were constantly searching for ways to make mass murder more “efficient.” We’ve never seen this before or since.

You cannot equate, then, the killing of a Palestinian child from a bombing to the gassing of a Jewish child during the Holocaust. Both lives are equally as worthy, but the killing is inherently different, and for Holocaust education, this matters. Comparing things to the Holocaust that are not the Holocaust contribute to a sea of misinformation about what actually transpired during our genocide. 


Plainly, no. 

Yes, there are other injustices and atrocities in the world. Yes, there are other genocides. They are not the Holocaust. Please note I am not playing the oppression Olympics here or comparing traumas. Rather, I’m trying to emphasize the unique nature of the Holocaust.

You cannot divorce the Holocaust from the antisemitism that caused it. The Nazis persecuted Jews specifically based on antisemitic tropes and conspiracies that have been ingrained into the DNA of our societal institutions. The Holocaust wouldn’t have been possible without the 2000 years of antisemitism that preceded it. 

The Holocaust was possible because the Nazis animated the previously-existing and sometimes dormant antisemitism of German society and the societies of the countries they conquered. There’s a reason many of the worst massacres during the Holocaust were perpetrated not by the Nazis, but by collaborators. The Jedwabne pogrom comes to mind. There’s a reason the institutions that were supposed to protect human beings — ahem, the Red Cross — chose to look away at best and collaborate at worst. 

Comparing the Nazi dehumanization of Jews to anything else is to grossly misrepresent antisemitism and the Holocaust. 



There are many bigotries all over the planet, specific to those regions (e.g. anti-Armenian bigotry in Turkey or anti-Hazara bigotry in Afghanistan). But generally they are contained to those places. 

Antisemitism is different. 

Most people in the history of the world have never met a Jew. But thanks to the Christian Bible and the Quran, most people think about us way more often than they should. Jews — a very distorted perception of who we are, anyway — loom large in the entire world’s imagination. 

As I said, the Holocaust was only possible because the Nazis ignited pre-existing Jew-hatred in Germany, the places they conquered, and even humanitarian institutions like the Red Cross. The Nazis wouldn’t have been able to do that with any other minority, because these other hatreds don’t generally transcend borders from Europe to the Middle East to Africa to the Americas and more. The Nazis were able to get millions of people across borders on board on conspiracies of so-called Jewish power that they used to justify our extermination because those millions of people already believed those conspiracies. 

This is why the Holocaust was possible on such a large scale. As Elie Wiesel said, the Holocaust was not about man’s inhumanity to man. It was about man’s inhumanity to Jews. 



In the 79 years since the Holocaust, the non-Jewish world has widely used our very own genocide as a cautionary tale on human behavior. And while it’s true that the Holocaust can teach people many things, such as the manner in which a society can quickly descend into fascism, if the world actually genuinely cared about Holocaust victims, their main priority would be to tend to the destruction that the Holocaust left behind. For example: the world could prioritize learning about and eradicating antisemitism or helping Holocaust survivors, as about a third of Holocaust survivors live in poverty today. 

Instead, the Holocaust is used as a tool to convey a message — a message that generally has nothing to do with actual Holocaust victims. Anti-choice protestors march with images of Holocaust corpses, comparing abortion to the Holocaust. Social media posts see side by side images of children behind barbed wire in death camps and Palestinians crossing checkpoints in the West Bank, even though crossing a checkpoint to get to work is not remotely comparable to being imprisoned in a death camp awaiting death by gas chamber. Anti-vaxxers wear yellow Stars of David on their chests, comparing the treatment of Jews in the Holocaust to vaccines. At pro-Palestine marches, the Star of David in the Israeli flag is replaced with the Nazi Hakenkreuz (swastika).

But these comparisons are not harmless. Beyond being laughably inaccurate, they are also exploitative. Think about the most traumatic thing that has ever happened to you. Now imagine that trauma being depicted everywhere, all the time. How would you feel?

Studies have found that increased Holocaust exposure for second and third generation survivors correlates with higher incidences of mental illnesses or behaviors, such as disordered eating. In other words, when you so carelessly plaster Holocaust imagery everywhere, you are actively harming second and third generation Holocaust survivors.



None of this is to say that you shouldn’t talk about the Holocaust, or that you should view it as a taboo topic. You should talk about the Holocaust! It’s important for people to know. Rather, what we ask is that you discuss the Holocaust with the respect and care that such a topic deserves. Discussions of the Holocaust shouldn’t cause more harm than good, but unfortunately, in many cases, this is exactly what happens.

The first thing you must do when discussing the Holocaust is to actually center Holocaust survivors, or, in their absence, second and third generation survivors. It’s their story to tell, not yours. Pass the mic.

Second, gratuitous Holocaust “trauma porn” and Holocaust comparisons are extremely harmful and dehumanizing. Holocaust victims were real people, with full lives. Plastering the worst moments of their lives all over the internet for shock value, for example, is not education. It’s retraumatizing. 

The Holocaust can provide important context for other conversations, such as understanding how fascism or genocides work, but the Holocaust was not a “lesson” for Jews to learn; it was our most devastating genocide. The implication that the Holocaust was there to teach us a lesson is to say that there was a silver lining to the Holocaust, a teachable moment. There is no silver lining to our genocide. We did nothing wrong. It’s the perpetrators that should learn the lesson, not the victims. The main lesson the non-Jewish world should take from the Holocaust is the desire to eradicate antisemitism, and yet, it seems that very few actually do this. 


We live in a world where the non-Jewish world's perception of Jews is hyper-visible, but the actual Jewish community's thoughts, wants, and needs are practically invisible — or worse, silenced. 

Holocaust universalization is one such example. The Holocaust is so frequently used as a tool of comparison, but how many people have actually taken the time to learn of the thoughts, wants, and needs of actual Holocaust survivors?

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