Holocaust Comparison and Pope John Paul II

Earlier this year, there was much controversy over the late Pope John Paul II's comparison of abortion to the Holocaust. Pope John Paul II himself used the comparison to challenge arguments that permissive abortion legislation should be respected as the result of the democratic process. He contended that just because a position emerges from democratic processes does not mean that it is correct or even acceptable. In asserting this argument, he noted, that, just as modern democracies pass legislation permitting abortion in our day, it was a legally elected parliament that allowed Hitler's rise to power in Germany, ultimately leading to the Holocaust. Another Roman Catholic cardinal compared the Holocaust to the "millions of unborn children being murdered" in our time. The reaction of the Jewish community towards these statements was generally negative. There is a fundamental, paradoxical problem in attempting to learn from the Holocaust. To gain a lesson from the Holocaust demands comparison. To compare the Holocaust, though, refutes its unique, horrific, incomparable nature. Yet to not compare denies us and all Mankind the potential for a most significant and necessary lesson. Our challenge is to respond correctly to this paradox.

As a nation and as individuals, we are especially sensitive to the diminishment, in any manner, of the unique horrific nature of the Holocaust. Too often groups attempt to gain sympathy and appreciation for their cause by making Holocaust comparisons and then using the emotions this term elicits to advance their cause. In preserving a correct memory of the Holocaust, part of our mandate must be to ensure that comparisons to this abomination do not exploit Holocaust imagery to further a cause in which the issues that are at stake are unconnected to those of Holocaust education. Such exploitation redefines and remakes the Holocaust in the image of that cause, thereby diminishing the exceptionality and power of the lessons that the Holocaust can teach us. In meeting this mandate, our standards for comparison are high, and so they should be. The Holocaust must always be understood for the unique, extreme evil that it manifested. We must ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is not manipulated by various causes through inappropriate comparison. Yet, we must also ensure that this very same memory is also not lost or manipulated through the discouragement of comparison on any level and in any manner.

We must be careful how we compare but we must be equally careful how we challenge comparisons. For example, a leader of Germany's Central Council of Jews, in challenging the comparison of abortion to the Holocaust, further stated that such statements indicate that the Church does not understand the "tremendous difference" between genocide and women controlling their bodies. With this response this Jewish leader may have actually not only confused the issue but may have performed a tremendous disservice to the memory and potential lessons of the Holocaust. In his challenge of the comparison of the Holocaust to abortion, this leader interjected his personal moral view on abortion -- that it is a private issue belonging solely to a mother's jurisdiction. By asserting one specific view in the abortion debate - i.e. that it is an issue of "women controlling their bodies" -- he actually exploited our concerns about Holocaust comparison to advocate for this view. To someone with a liberal view of abortion, of course, a comparison of abortion to the Holocaust is not only unseemly but absurd. The clear intent of both Pope John Paul II and the Catholic cardinal was to use a comparison to the Holocaust to gain sympathy for their stand against the permissive, modern attitude toward abortion. They were using the Holocaust to advocate for pro-life. The Jewish leader, however, effectively was using our concern for comparisons to promote his pro-choice stand. The memory of the Holocaust was drawn into the abortion debate through a statement of comparison and a statement of non-comparison. As we protect the memory of the unique horrific nature of the Holocaust, we must ensure that our reluctance to compare also does not result in an inappropriate advocacy. Nevertheless, our overriding task must be to uncover the proper criteria for comparison.

It is at this juncture that we confront the paradoxical difficulty of any comparison. To ensure the Holocaust's proper place in the history of humanity demands the continuous recognition of its singular incomparability. Bluntly, nothing compares to the unique horrific nature of the Holocaust. Yet, if we enshrine the Holocaust and place it on a pedestal that challenges any comparison to another event, the educational effect of the Holocaust and its proper memory is also thereby potentially destroyed. We must also ensure that the Holocaust maintains its important and necessary role in teaching humanity of the potential of evil and for evil. Meeting such a goal, though, often demands that we make comparisons between the Holocaust and modern situations that do indeed pale in comparison. Our reluctance to compare is built upon the important principle that the Holocaust's unique horrific nature cannot be lost. Yet our reluctance to compare also cannot result in challenging every comparison and thereby weakening the potential lessons of the Holocaust. In remembering the Holocaust, this is the true and most difficult challenge that we must face.

In this light, a determination of standards and criteria that we can apply in evaluating comparisons should be recognized as a most important necessity. The difficulty is that the goal cannot be to find measures by which we can determine whether a comparison is inherently correct; applying such a test, nothing is comparable to the unique horrific nature of the Holocaust. Our goal rather must be to establish criteria by which we can determine if the comparison is legitimate within the goal of learning from the Holocaust and applying its potential lessons to other cases of evil. We must find the standards by which we can balance the need to maintain recognition of the unique nature of the Holocaust and the need to learn from the Holocaust about evil.

In such a process, it is important to first attempt to perceive the nature of a comparison from the point of view of the one making the comparison. For example, to the Roman Catholic Church abortion is not an issue of "women controlling their bodies" but a matter of murder, as the cardinal. If one wishes to critique the cardinal's use of a comparison to the Holocaust, apart from a critique of the substantial position that abortion is murder, one must view the comparison within the perspective of the Church, i.e. that abortion is murder. It is only within this context that we can determine whether there is any potential for the presentation of an important lesson from the Holocaust. It is also only within this context that we can assure that our own perspectives do not colour our view of the comparison and use a challenge of comparison to further our own agendas. Still, demanding that one evaluate a comparison from the frame of reference of the one making the comparison does not necessarily result in a comparison being acceptable. Even given the Catholic view of abortion, there are many reasons to find this comparison to the Holocaust highly problematic.

There is, however, an important second step that we must also consider in evaluating comparisons. In fact, it is based on this second criterion that I find the cardinal's comparison problematic while I find the Pope's not to be problematic. The second question that must be asked is whether such comparisons are being used duplicitously to advocate, in matters of moral debate, for a certain position. The cardinal was using sympathy towards the Holocaust to promote a pro-life agenda. While the cardinal may find the comparison appropriate, the Holocaust does not speak specifically to this issue. The use of the Holocaust was thus inappropriate.

The use by PETA of the Holocaust to promote animal rights is another example of this problem. The overriding response of individuals to the PETA campaign was built upon the inappropriateness of comparing the human suffering of the Holocaust to the animal suffering of the slaughterhouse; there is simply a difference between a human being and an animal. While I fully agree with this view, what is not recognized is that many within PETA challenge this very assumption. To these individuals, there is no difference between animal and human suffering; as such these individuals found the comparison appropriate. In fact, I was once talking with a strong advocate of animal rights and mentioned that, while the Torah also advocates for some animal rights, it also recognizes fundamental distinctions between human and animal. This individual responded with the comment that this is a major reason why he finds the Bible to be an "immoral" work. An argument against PETA, just as in the case of the Catholic cardinal, that is based on the inappropriateness of the comparison thus will fall, and did fall, on deaf ears. This is something that many could not understand. PETA and the Catholic cardinal felt, each in their own case, that their comparisons were appropriate. A vicious cycle thus developed; in fact, the greater the voice of revulsion was from the general population against the PETA comparison, the more adamant was the voice of PETA, because this was precisely their point: animals and humans are living beings and should be treated the same; what is horrendous in connection to humanity should be horrendous in connection to the animal kingdom. The strong disgust with PETA's comparison was precisely what PETA was trying to attack. As people were criticizing PETA for not distinguishing between animal and human, PETA was precisely advocating for equality between animal and human.

The broader problem and the one that should have been articulated in response to these comparisons is that the Holocaust was being hijacked to draw sympathy for a certain moral view that ultimately has no connection to the Holocaust. The Holocaust does not advocate a position on animal rights just as the Holocaust does not advocate a specific view on abortion. In such cases, the Holocaust is not teaching but is being used to serve an unrelated agenda. When the Holocaust teaches, the specific value lesson is direct. When the Holocaust is simply used, reference to it is made to generate sympathy which is then applied, without critical investigation of the similarity, to this other matter. Such uses of comparisons must be prevented on this issue alone.

This distinction may be seen as arbitrary and thus demands further clarification. Viewing the assumptions that would have to be accepted in order make a comparison may be a method by which to evaluate this matter. Is the reference to the Holocaust to teach a value based upon shared assumptions or is it developing sympathy in order to further an acceptance of a specific assumption? It would seem that many in PETA would accept a view that animal life equals human life. It is based upon this assumption that PETA made the comparisons that it did -- and for someone with this view the comparison with the Holocaust is understandable. The problem with its presentation to the general public is that it is calling upon this public to also accept this assumption. It was actually attempting to cause people to accept this view through the comparison with the Holocaust. It was engendering sympathy in an attempt to promote a value that animal life equals human life, and it had no right to use images of the Holocaust to advocate this view. The fact that specific Jewish individuals may have personally arrived at certain conclusions in regard to the animal kingdom as a result of the Holocaust, does not mean that the Holocaust can be used to advocate such a view. The Holocaust should not be used in a debate over other issues to advocate for one view over another. The Holocaust has its own moral significance and it is in the teaching of these lessons that the Holocaust must be remembered and be allowed to be compared to other tragedies.

The Pope however was using the emotions of the Holocaust to relay a concern for democracy and, in my view, this was appropriate. Obviously, a comparison to German democracy of the 1930's which did eventually evolve into dictatorship must be approached with some caution but, nevertheless, there is some basis for this comparison. Thus, we may still contend that the comparison of Hitler's ascent to power with abortion legislation is problematic -- both in terms of direct comparison and also in light of the unique horrific nature of the Holocaust. Yet, at the same time, given a Catholic view of abortion, it may not be totally inappropriate a comparison and there is a direct teaching from the Holocaust -- which could even reap greater fruits through a greater analysis of the points of comparison. Within Jewish thought there is also a concept of following the majority, but there is also a concept of recognizing a potential limitation to this acceptance of the majority. The majority can also be corrupted, as did occur in Nazi Germany. While, at the same time, I may again contend that taking this lesson and applying it to abortion legislation is possibly somewhat sacrilegious, it does have validity as a lesson from the Holocaust. The Holocaust did reflect and thus should teach us about the need for democracies to have constitutionally- entrenched checks on power. It does substantiate the Pope's contention that the results of majority rule should not inherently be accepted simply because they are the results of a majority vote.

My response to the Pope's statement still included two divergent emotions. I shuddered at the inappropriateness of the comparison, but I also felt some dimension of redemption in that the suffering of the Holocaust could convey such a powerful message. It was not only confusing but necessarily confusing. That is, unrelated causes which exploit Holocaust imagery, even inappropriately, do so precisely because they recognize the depth of horror in that imagery. They aim to borrow some of its power. And yet, in spite of their good intentions in many cases, it is nonetheless our generation's legacy and responsibility to challenge this practice, especially where such acts of borrowing take the power to a place too far from its origin.


Rabbi Benjamin Hecht