The Victimization Olympics

American Jewish historian Peter Novick writes in his book The Holocaust in American Life:

…But the success of Jews in gaining permanent possession of center stage for their tragedy, and their equal success in making it the benchmark against which other atrocities were judged, produced a fair amount of resentment — “Holocaust envy.”

Discussing the refusal of the Smithsonian Institution to return the skeletons of thousands of Indians to the tribes that wished to rebury them, Clara Spotted Elk asked: “What would happen if the Smithsonian had 18,500 Holocaust victims in the attic?” A leading Holocaust scholar concluded his argument that the massacring of the Pequot Indians wasn’t really genocidal by noting that many Pequot survived: “As recently as the 1960s, Pequots were still listed as a separate group residing in Connecticut,” he said. “While the British would certainly have been less thorough, less severe, less deadly in prosecuting their campaign against the Pequots, the campaign they actually did carry out, for all its vehemence, was not, either in intent or execution, genocidal.” Commenting on this, an historian of American Indians wondered what the response would be to the argument that the Holocaust wasn’t genocidal because while the Nazis “could certainly have been less thorough, less severe, less deadly” in their policy toward Jews, after all, some Jews survived, “a number of whom even live in Connecticut.”

Armenian Americans were offended by what they saw as Jewish insistence on making the Holocaust “unique,” while portraying the Armenian genocide as “ordinary.” A Jewish magazine published a symposium in which Jewish writers responded to an Armenian who, in moderate language, questioned the uniqueness of the Holocaust and suggested numerous ways in which it paralleled the events of 1915. Lucy Dawidowicz (quite falsely) accused the Armenian of “turn[ing] the subject into a vulgar contest about “who suffered more.” She added that while the Turks had “a rational reason” for killing Armenians, the Germans had no rational reason for killing Jews. Other contributors offered various reasons why the Holocaust, unlike the Armenian genocide, was “special”: that it took place in the heart of Christian Europe; that anti-Semitism was “sui generis”; that what happened to the Jews, unlike what happened to the Armenians, “represents a new divide in human history.”

Armenians had other grievances. The designers of the Washington Holocaust Museum went back on earlier commitments to give significant space to the Armenian genocide as part of the background of the Holocaust. They yielded to those in the museum’s governing councils who objected to any dilution of the Holocaust’s “unprecedented” character. They yielded as well to the urgent lobbying of the Israeli government, which was anxious not to offend Turkey — at the time, the only Muslim country with which Israel had diplomatic relations. (Turkey has consistently denied that there ever was an Armenian genocide.) Israeli lobbying also led a number of prominent American Jews, including Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz, and Arthur Hertzberg, to withdraw from an international conference on genocide in Tel Aviv when the Israeli organizers, despite heavy pressure from their government, refused to remove sessions on the Armenian case.

Perhaps most infuriating of all to Armenians — given how forthcoming the American Congress had been with proclamations and funding for commemorating the Holocaust — Israeli diplomats and important American Jewish activists joined in a coalition that helped defeat a congressional resolution memorializing the Armenian genocide. Major Jewish organizations that had originally planned to support the resolution backed off and stayed silent in response to urgings from Israel. One veteran Jewish leader explained what motivated his lobbying against the resolution: “Many contend the Holocaust was simply a terrible event, neither unique nor particular. To compare…Armenians [in 1915] to the situation of Europe’s Jews in 1933 or 1939 is a dangerous invitation to revisionism about the Holocaust… If Jews say every terrible event…is genocide, why should the world believe the Holocaust is distinctive?” There were those in the American Jewish world who supported the congressional resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide. But it would be hard to quarrel with Armenian or other observers who concluded that, as far as “official” Jewry was concerned, some memories were more equal than others.

As so often in these years, the most-publicized conflicts in this realm were between Jews and blacks. Those that attracted the greatest attention featured Louis Farrakhan and his merry band. “Don’t push your six million down our throats,” Farrakhan said, “when we lost 100 million.” “The black holocaust,” said his aide Khalid Abdul Muhammad, “was a hundred times worse than the so-called Jewish Holocaust.” Though one would be hard-pressed to find blacks outside the Nation of Islam who would endorse this sort of trash talk, a sense of being perpetually one-upped by Jews, and of Jews’ having stolen from blacks their rightful place as America’s number-one victim community, was widespread…

The greatest symbolic affront was that while Jews had a federally funded museum memorializing their victimhood, proposals for a museum of the black experience never made it through Congress. Blacks were well aware of the irony… It was American Jews’ wealth and political influence that made it possible for them to bring to the Mall in Washington a monument to their weakness and vulnerability. Those who remained weak and vulnerable — who were oppressed here rather than there — lacked the wherewithal to carry off such a venture.

The most common Jewish response to the charge that Jews were intent on permanent possession of the gold medal in the Victimization Olympics has been to protest that it was others, not they, who were engaged in competition. Jews were the aggrieved party — “they are stealing the Holocaust from us,” said Elie Wiesel; others were illegitimately appropriating language and imagery to which they were not entitled… The use of the word “ghetto” for black slums were frequently cited as an example of “stealing the Holocaust”: “there is no barbed wire across 125th Street and there are no guard towers”; “no place in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago was even remotely like Buchenwald in 1938 or Warsaw in 1942 or Auschwitz in 1944. The most commonly expressed Jewish grievance was the use of the words “Holocaust” and “genocide” to describe other catastrophes. This sense of grievance was rooted in the conviction, axiomatic in at least “official” Jewish discourse, that the Holocaust was unique. Since Jews recognized the Holocaust’s uniqueness — that it was “incomparable,” beyond any analogy — they had no occasion to compete with others; there could be no contest over the incontestable.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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