The metaphorical use of Auschwitz remains popular, especially among certain writers, perhaps because so much in the contemporary world seems so trivial beside it, and the writers in question are determined above all not to be trivial. The latest literary luminary to invoke Auschwitz is Portugal’s Nobel Prize–winning novelist, Jose Saramago. He did so last month while on a visit to Yasser Arafat’s compound, organized by the International Parliament of Writers. With him were Oliver Stone, Wole Soyinka, and Breyten Breytenbach, among others.
When Saramago drew a parallel between the plight of the Palestinians and Auschwitz, an Israeli journalist countered by asking him whether there were gas chambers in Gaza. Saramago replied, “I hope this is not the case. There are so many things being done that have nothing to do with Nazism, but what is happening is more or less the same.”
Quite apart from its startling lack of intellectual clarity, Saramago’s reply implies that there might be gas chambers in Gaza, and also that their absence would be a minor detail: Auschwitz and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are essentially comparable. The comparison is odious, shameful, wicked, and stupid in equal measure, and the man who makes it sullies his name forever.
Even a man as morally obtuse as Saramago must have understood the profound offensiveness of his words to all Israelis, with its population of refugees from Eastern Europe and people whose relatives were murdered during the Holocaust. And as offensive as it was for him to equate the Israelis with the Nazi murderers of Jews, his equation of the Palestinians with the Jewish victims of the Nazis—at the very moment that Palestinian suicide bombers were murdering innocent and defenseless Israeli civilians—was almost equally offensive.
Saramago’s failure to grasp either the practical reality or the moral significance of Auschwitz had a parallel a few years back when another supposedly important writer, Salman Rushdie, compared Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain with Nazi Germany. There was no Auschwitz in Britain, people rejoined after hearing his comparison. But this answer, in his view, proved just how far things had gone—that this should be the only possible defense of Thatcher’s Britain. That it was a matter of some importance whether there actually was or was not an Auschwitz in a country escaped him completely. To him, Auschwitz was merely a word in his vocabulary of moral outrage—a word he could use not merely to disagree with his politically conservative opponents but to demonize them.
What lies behind this trivialization of Auschwitz as a standard of comparison? After all, one task of public intellectuals is to put important matters into moral and historical perspective. False analogy obscures real thought, clouding reality in a fog of false emotion. The problem is that so much of what modern intellectuals write and say seeks more to establish their right-mindedness and breadth of sympathy than to elucidate truth. It is hardly surprising, then, that vehemence of expression should be mistaken for depth of feeling, and depth of feeling for genuine thought: and, of course, no metaphor could be stronger or more vehement than one that invokes Auschwitz. Only the vehement feel truly or deeply: and so an inflationary usage of Auschwitz as analogy sets in.
A man who compares the travails of a people with Auschwitz is not so much drawing attention to their plight as to the supposed depth of his compassion for them: a much more important matter in his own estimation. It is not a sign of generosity of spirit: it is a sign of self-absorption and egoism. It is the frivolous use of the murder of millions for small personal advantage. But it is a dangerous frivolity: for it prepares public opinion to accept uncritically pronouncements like Thursday’s Palestinian Authority condemnation of Israel’s military incursion into Palestinian-controlled territory to root out terrorists as “Nazi massacres against our people.”