[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
I was at Istanbul’s Neve Şalom synagogue the other night, in the midst of almost a thousand people. Some were Jews, some were not. But at that particular moment, we were all Jews – for we all shared the sorrow for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
One of the speakers, a member of the Turkish Jewish community, reminded everyone of the uniqueness of the Holocaust in the history of evil. She was right. The world had seen all sorts of brutal massacres and tortures, but the Nazis were the only people in history who crafted a whole “industry” to exterminate a whole people. Well-educated soldiers, civil servants, scientists, engineers and doctors sat down and designed transportation systems, death camps and gas chambers to annihilate millions of innocent men, women and children. They committed the most unspeakable crime in the most unbelievable way.
Today, it is not just a moral duty to honor the victims of the Holocaust. It is also an essential task to understand how such evil could ever happen.
Unlike most massacres and genocides in history, the Holocaust was not driven by a sudden burst of anger, fear, paranoia or revenge. It was rather driven almost purely by ideology. The Nazis saw the world as an arena of races, the most “advanced” being the “Aryan” one, which the Germans were believed to represent. The Jews were not only from a “lower” race, the Semitic one, they were also “corrupting” the Aryan blood by assimilating into German culture. So, they had to be “cleansed” from the whole “living space” of the Germans – and, ultimately, the whole world.
This ideology sounds totally crazy for us today, but in the 1930s it sounded quite “scientific” to many in Germany and even beyond. Social Darwinism – a pseudo-science – was the fashion of the day, and the “advanced” German society was easily captured by its racist themes. According to thinkers such as Leo Strauss, the excessive secularization of the German society before and during the Weimar Republic played a negative role here, uprooting the strong religious traditions that could have created more resistance to the Nazis’ “modern” madness.
This, I believe, must be a lesson for all those who still believe that societies must be solely guided according to “science and reason” – an early 20th century naïveté which is still quite popular among Turkey’s Kemalists. No, science does not give you any sense of right and wrong, whereas reason is insufficient and contradictory. The best “guide” so far has turned out to be the open society, in which reasons of all sorts along with religions and traditions compete with each other, balancing each other’s excesses.
The Holocaust also needs to be reflected upon in Muslim societies, where it has not been acknowledged enough. Here, the fact that Israel often uses the Holocaust to shield itself against all criticism, including the most legitimate ones, has created a temptation to overlook or sometimes even deny the Holocaust. But that is all too wrong. Quite the contrary, if Muslim societies want to have a higher moral ground on the Palestinian cause, they should in fact begin by being fair to the Jewish people, which should begin by respecting the victims in their history.
Another disturbing fact within some Islamic circles – the radical or bigoted ones, of course – is a sort of sympathy for the Nazis since they “gave a lesson to the Jews.” This is not only terribly immoral. It is also fully stupid and ignorant. For the Nazis were not just the enemies of the Jews. They were the enemies of all forms of Semitic monotheism, which naturally included Islam as well.
This is evident in especially the early writing of the Nazi ideologues – at a time when they were not looking for allies in the Arab world, such as al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem. In his influential book, “The Myth of the Twentieth Century,” Alfred Rosenberg warned white races “against the united hatred of colored races and mongrels led in the fanatical spirit of Mohammed.” In a Nazi essay on Islam, Genghis Khan, the Mongol despot that massacred millions of Muslims in the 13th century, was praised as a hero who saved the Middle East from its “Semitic oppressors.” And Adolf Hitler himself was explicit enough to call the Arabs “painted half-apes, who want to feel the whip.” (Quotes are from Bernard Lewis, “Semites & Anti-Semites.”)
So, perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad of Iran might wish to consider such facts about the Nazis, before hosting a Holocaust-denial conference next time – a denial which whitewashes the crimes of one of the most evil cadre in human history.
At the end of the day, no matter how much we protest the Israeli government for its decades-long policies of occupation and intimidation that has wronged the Palestinian people, we have to acknowledge the tragedy of the Holocaust. Its victims were innocent people who had no crime other than being Jews. And, in the face of such genocidal racism, we should all stand by the Jews.