Jonathan Milevsky: The terrible price of comparing Trump to Nazis

The net effect of comparing President Trump with the Nazis' chief propagandist is to make the Nazi campaign about dishonesty rather than about centuries of hatred

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When it comes to scholars venturing into public debates, they are more likely to gain attention if their statements build on their areas of research. After all, their credibility stems from their thorough familiarity with their particular field. It therefore comes as somewhat of a surprise when scholars undermine their own work with their public statements, as was the case with Prof. Deborah Lipstadt’s recent remarks about U.S. President Donald Trump.

In a tweet on the presidential election in the United States, Lipstadt, a prominent Holocaust historian, suggested that it is fair to compare President Trump to Joseph Goebbels. By using such an analogy, Lipstadt, who studies the Holocaust in public perception, can be said to have undermined her own research. This can be seen most clearly in view of her critique of Hannah Arendt’s coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, in Lipstadt’s own book, “The Eichmann Trial.”

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In the book, Lipstadt accuses Arendt of trivializing Eichmann’s crimes by focusing on individual acts and putting them in the context of the Nazi hierarchy, rather than seeing them against the background of European anti-Semitism. But if Arendt’s mistake was to trivialize Eichmann’s actions, Lipstadt does the same, just in reverse.

The net effect of comparing President Trump with the Nazis’ chief propagandist is to make the Nazi campaign about dishonesty rather than about centuries of hatred. Indeed, according to Lipstadt, anti-Semitism was part of the “bedrock” of European culture. And, although anti-Semitism has been on the rise as of late, the implied suggestion that Jew-hatred here in North America is anywhere near as pervasive as it was in Europe in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust simply cannot be supported by the facts.

Lipstadt also accused Arendt of having a preference for “turning a good phrase,” instead of “understanding its effect.” But Lipstadt did the same with her tweet. Making a dramatic association like she did — which is probably more effective now, given that people are less familiar with Goebbels than they were in Arendt’s time — is simply a way to leverage dark imagery to discredit Trump without due consideration.

It should be acknowledged that her position stems from her broader study of modern anti-Semitism and the association between elements of the far right and support for President Trump. However, in her own book, “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” Lipstadt acknowledges that Trump is “probably not an anti-Semite,” but that he enables anti-Semitism, which is in itself anti-Semitic. By her own words, does Lipstadt not see a difference between enabling anti-Semitism, if that is the case, and Joseph Goebbels, who sold the German people on Nazism and took the lives of his wife and children when he recognized his inability to live without Hitler?

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The irony of all of this is that, not unlike the attention Lipstadt credits Arendt for bringing to the Eichmann trial, Lipstadt herself, being a respected scholar and an outspoken defender of Jews, has brought more public attention to the Holocaust. But how will the Holocaust be perceived now that she has made this comparison?

The reality of the ever-fading memory of the Holocaust is that it lives in our minds in the context of evil. The memory itself, now primarily recounted rather than recalled first hand, is inextricably linked to the darkness in which it resides. That is to say that the stories from the Holocaust survived the camps in part because of the indelible image of darkness in which they were born. But if that darkness is haphazardly blanketed over other eras, the faces within it risk being forgotten. What can be worth that price?

National Post
Twitter.com/thelordgave

Jonathan Milevsky teaches Jewish history at the Anne & Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

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