Food Network chef Alton Brown recently starred in his own Holocaust-related Twitter controversy. After angering some fans by sharing that he has voted for Republicans in the past, Brown wrote in since-deleted tweets, “Do you think the camp uniforms will be striped, like the ones at Auschwitz or will plaid be in vogue?” Someone responded, “Depends on what you’re worth going in,” to which Brown replied, “I have no gold fillings.”
Yes, a privileged American, enjoying a life of freedom, compared himself to Jews targeted for dehumanization and elimination. Brown referenced concentration camp prisoners' uniforms and the forcible removal of gold teeth to assert his own victim status. He has since apologized for “the flippant reference” to the Holocaust, saying it “reflect[ed] how deeply frightened I am for our country.” An apology is a positive step, but let’s be clear: Whatever problems one sees in 2020 America, we’re not living in Nazi Germany. More important, Brown’s comments aren’t the story of one man’s bad week on Twitter. Rather, they illustrate a troubling trend.
Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we’re living betwixt dangerous cross currents. On the one hand, too few Americans know the history of the Holocaust or what anti-Semitism is. On the other, a sizable segment of our culture lionizes victimhood. The result is a lot of people insisting that they’re the real Jews, persecuted and suffering.
A 2018 survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 11 percent of American adults “haven’t heard” or weren’t “sure if they have heard” of the Holocaust, and 22 percent of millennials said the same. Furthermore, 41 percent of all American adults and 66 percent of millennials “cannot identify what Auschwitz was.” A recently released American Jewish Committee survey on anti-Semitism found that only 53 percent of the American public “has heard of antisemitism and knows what it means.” Twenty-one percent said they had never even heard the term.
There’s a need for widespread education about Jew hate. However, it’s not clear our political, cultural, and media elites will do the necessary informing. U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has repeatedly compared Trump’s America to Hitler’s Germany. Actor John Cusack, who previously had his own Twitter anti-Semitism controversy, responded to the Million MAGA March by tweeting “Dutechland [sic] Uber alles.” Actor Alec Baldwin has tweeted, “Bury Trump in a Nazi graveyard and put a swastika on his grave.”
And then there’s the media. There’s minimal media coverage of anti-Semitism outside the Jewish press, but what there is can sometimes be harmful. For example, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour likened Trump’s presidency to Kristallnacht, which she called “the Nazis’ warning shot across the bow of our human civilization that led to genocide against a whole identity.” With that statement, Amanpour erased 6 million murdered Jews from a discussion about the Holocaust. After a public outcry, Amanpour expressed “regret” for linking Kristallnacht and Trump’s America, but said nothing about having replaced “Jews” with the generic “identity.”
Resurgent anti-Semitism is a growing problem, but insult is added to injury when people use Jewish suffering to cement their own victim status. In one sense, it’s not surprising, given the contemporary Western reverence for victimhood. However, since speakers typically have no personal connection to said suffering, and speak without empathy or understanding, it’s grotesque. It’s all the more notable that those claiming a Nazi revival are typically MIA when living Jews are stigmatized, harassed, or murdered. These individuals could spearhead rallies to spotlight contemporary anti-Semitism. However, you’re more likely to spot them behaving like Alton Brown, protesting the perceived injustices they face and casting themselves as the real Jews.
This spring, German anti-vaccination protesters wore yellow stars of David emblazoned with “unvaccinated.” Dr. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, called this “a banalization and distortion of the Shoah.”
Deutsche Welle reported, “Other anti-lockdown protesters have also dressed up in striped prisoner uniforms—drawing comparisons to concentration camp prisoners—and held up signs reading: ‘Masks will set you free’ or ‘Vaccination will set you free,’” echoing the “Work sets you free” sign at Auschwitz’s entrance. During a July phone interview, Dr. Klein added to that description: “There were posters that showed Dr. Mengele, the doctor of Auschwitz, with one of the leading experts of virology here.”
A search for “yellow star” on Twitter turns up similar comments from American and British anti-vaxxers. In the wake of the British government’s recommendation that people wear paper bracelets to signal they’re COVID-19 free, anti-vaxxers are casting themselves as a persecuted minority, imagining they’ll be forced to wear yellow stars. And it’s not just random people on Twitter. An Alaska state legislator “reportedly ranted about legislators being asked to wear a sticker proving they’ve passed the [COVID-19] screening,” comparing the sticker to a “yellow Star of David.”
There are also those who conflate masks with the Holocaust. An Idaho state legislator posted on Facebook that “a private business requiring customers to wear masks was, ‘too similar to not allowing Jews to shop when they were ‘required’ to wear the yellow star!!!’” A Louisiana lawmaker warned that Americans who refused to wear masks would “soon [be] painted as the enemy just as they did to Jews in Nazi Germany.” In Utah, a county commissioner and a state legislator responded to the governor’s mask mandate by comparing him to Hitler. And an Arizona state legislator compared wearing masks to the numbers tattooed on concentration camp prisoners; that legislator has since acknowledged “there might have been a better analogy.”
And who can forget Jim Clyburn’s comments about the Holocaust? In March 2019, while Rep. Ilhan Omar faced a trio of early anti-Semitism scandals, Clyburn told The Hill that Omar’s experience “is much more empirical—and powerful” than that of the children of Holocaust survivors. Clyburn said, “‘I’m serious about that. There are people who tell me, ‘Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors.’ ‘My parents did this.’ It’s more personal with her.’”
The examples are legion, and they all underscore points made by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, who passed away on November 7. In his final book, Sacks devoted an entire chapter to victimhood. He rightly acknowledged that “there are victims” but warned of “the politicization of victimhood: its transfer from individuals to groups, and from there to the public square.” The “culture of victimhood,” Sacks wrote, “involves the blurring of the boundaries between the personal and the political.” Sacks also noted the danger of “a politics of competitive victimhood . . . [including] what Bertrand Russell once called ‘the superior value of the oppressed.’”
“There is a difference,” Sacks continued, “between being a victim and defining yourself as one.” As Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eger observed in her autobiography, “Suffering . . . is universal, but victimhood is optional.” Eger believes that “‘No one can make you a victim but you.’”
That’s good advice. The question is whether Americans, and other privileged Westerners, want to take it.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. State Department speechwriter, is now an independent writer in metro Washington. Follow her on Twitter @Slowhoneybee.
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