An abhorrent rally Saturday night in Jerusalem's Shabbat Square featuring haredim, that is, ultra-Orthodox Jews, wearing yellow stars and simulated concentration camp uniforms brings to mind Walt Kelly's observation in the classic Pogo comic strip, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
"It's like how it started with the Nazis -- very slowly," said one of the ultra-Orthodox demonstrators, an American Yeshiva student named Salomon Hoberman, steadfastly insisting on his and his cohorts' right to discriminate against and even physically abuse women and girls.
It is important to recognize that this latest misuse of Holocaust imagery and Nazi analogies did not occur in a vacuum. In 1995, posters of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a Nazi uniform were displayed at right-wing Israeli demonstrations opposing any political accommodation with the Palestinians. In December of 2004, Gaza strip settlers compared Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza to the Holocaust and announced that they would start wearing orange stars in protest. Eight months later, Israeli soldiers were confronted in the Gaza settlement of Kerem Atzmona by Jewish children with yellow stars of David pinned on their chest, intentionally evoking images of Jews being deported to their death by the Nazis.
More recently, in May of 2010, a group of left-wing Israeli, Palestinian and Polish activists, including one Yonatan Shapiro, a former Israeli Air Force pilot, sprayed the words "Liberate all ghettos" in Hebrew and "Free Gaza and Palestine" in English on remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto.
No one should be surprised, therefore, when the ultra-Orthodox, some of whom have long compared Israel to Nazi Germany at anti-Zionist demonstrations in New York and elsewhere, chose to up the ante by employing ever more provocative and evocative tactics.
Even more troubling than Saturday's rally is the silence of so many ultra-Orthodox religious leaders in its aftermath. While certain Jewish religious leaders have voiced their dismay, most of the prominent hasidic and other haredi personalities seem to have developed convenient laryngitis.
Unfortunately, we have reached the point when politicians and media commentators eager for a sound bite on the evening news think nothing of exploiting the Holocaust and Nazi terminology, and apparently the crasser the better.
In the United States, the reactionary radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly likened President Obama to Hitler, with virtually no one in the Republican Party taking him to task. In Limbaugh's own words, as broadcast to his nationwide audience, "Obama's got a health care logo that's right out of Adolf Hitler's playbook"; "Obama is asking citizens to rat each other out like Hitler did"; the president "is sending out his brownshirts to head up opposition to genuine American citizens who want no part of what Barack Obama stands for and is trying to stuff down our throats"; and "Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate."
Others are no better. Participants in Tea Party rallies have brandished images of President Obama with a Hitler-like mustache and signs with "Obama" written under a swastika. The president of the Republican Women of Anne Arundel County in Maryland chose to write on the group's web site that "Obama and Hitler have a great deal in common."
The head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has said publicly that the Obama Administration's health care reform "is not something like what the Nazis did. It is precisely what the Nazis did." And Glenn Beck, another radio talk show host, disparaged the president's plan to expand the Peace Corps and its domestic counterpart, AmeriCorps, as "what Hitler did with the SS."
Not to be outdone, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has declared that the Obama Administration's policies represent "as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did." Really? Death camps? Gas chambers? Gulags? The brutal massacre of millions?
To be fair, Democrats and liberals have not been blameless in this regard. In September 2009, Alan Grayson, then a Democratic Congressman from Florida, called the healthcare crisis "this Holocaust in America." Last January, another Democratic Congressman, Steve Cohen from Tennessee who, like Grayson, happens to be Jewish, called the Republican rhetoric on healthcare "a big lie just like Goebbels. You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. Like blood libel. ... The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it -- believed it and you have the Holocaust."
All of these blatantly inappropriate Nazi and Holocaust analogies, whether made in Israel, the United States, or anywhere else, undermine our ability to bring the moral authority of Holocaust memory to bear when it really matters. The Holocaust and all it represents should only be invoked in our contemporary political discourse when human beings, Jews or non-Jews, are actually persecuted or threatened with destruction.
It is not enough to condemn the haredim who compared themselves to Jews in Nazi Europe at Saturday's rally, and then allow the incident to be dismissed and forgotten as merely another outrage in a succession of many outrages. Those who organized or took part in this obscene demonstration should be made permanent pariahs, as should the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and other leaders who refuse to denounce it. Desecrating the memory of the Holocaust is as reprehensible as spitting on a girl, and the social degenerates who do either have no place in a civilized society.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants