Can the “Holocaust” turn into the “Shoah”?

textWhat does the word “holocaust” mean? And does the meaning change when that first letter is capitalized and it becomes “Holocaust”?

The answer, of course, is “yes.” With a large “H,” we are not talking about really large fires that cause a lot of destruction. We’re talking about The Holocaust, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Commission on the Holocaust, the Holocaust television miniseries and untold education programs, documentaries and liturgies of remembrance.

Which brings us to a solid feature story last weekend in the Palm Beach Post by reporter Charles Passy (who is not the religion-beat specialist), which details the efforts of some Jewish and non-Jewish clergy and scholars to begin using the Hebrew word “Shoah” — which means “destruction” — as the official term to describe the Nazi genocide of the World War II era.

After all, notes Passy, Steven Spielberg chose it as the name for the foundation he has created to tell the story of the survivors. The Vatican named a major report on the subject, “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.”

But there are many other layers to this complex story. After decades of urging the public to “never forget” the Holocaust, how do religious leaders and educators switch the very name of the event? In some cases, the word is on the cornerstones of buildings and in the titles of legal documents. But there are serious problems with this familiar name, notes Passy.

The knock against “Holocaust” is twofold. Many object to the word, derived from ancient Greek, because it translates as “burnt offering” — in the sacrificial religious sense, according to select scholars. And that leads to a horrific connotation when speaking of the atrocities committed against the Jews, who were often driven to the gas chambers, then cremated. How could their fiery end be considered a sacrifice?

“If it’s a burnt offering to God, then I don’t want to know the God at the other end,” says Michael Berenbaum, a leading scholar based at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

And what about that ordinary word — “holocaust”? Can it be used by those who oppose abortion? Or who want to debate handguns? Or protest the deaths of Palestinian civilians? The list goes on and on. Again, Passy notes:

As “Holocaust” seeps into the vernacular, the term has become attached not only to other genocides and mass slaughters — in Armenia, Cambodia and elsewhere — but also to a range of other events and movements. In an article for a Jewish publication, Diana Cole cited such examples as a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ “Holocaust on Your Plate” exhibit and, a Web site for “breast implant victims.”

Perhaps it would be better to substitute a Hebrew word, thus creating as strong a linguistic link as possible between the historic event and the Jewish people.

But is that practical? Is it too late? What would happen if this issue was raised with, let’s say, the committee that handles revisions in the Associated Press Stylebook? What if reporters started making the substitution on their own?

It’s a cliche, but in this case it’s true: Stay tuned. This is a story worth watching.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Emily

    This Holocaust-with-a-capital-H debate has been utterly ridiculous from the start. The Jewish community has long been involved in an exclusionary effort to ensure no other wronged ethnic group receives an ounce of public sympathy.

    Passy mentions the Armenians briefly as an example of the sacred Jewish term “Holocaust” having “seeped” into the wake of another tragedy. Never mind that the Armenian Holocaust — yes, I dare to capitalize — took place before Hitler entered into power; and though in terms of strict numbers, less died, in terms of percentages, far more (close to half the population of the world’s oldest Christian nation.) Never mind that Hitler watched the proceedings with great interest, and in fact used the Turkish plan of destruction as a pattern for his own. Never mind that he actually thought he would get away with the extermination of the Jews *because* Turkey faced only a brief public outcry and no lasting penalties. His famous quote: “Who, after all, remembers the Armenians?”

    Thanks to the Jewish community, no one does. No one remembers the Cambodians, either, or the Rwandans, or the Macedonians. Now, instead of acknowledging that ethnic cleansing continues to occur and should be stopped, Jewish scholars deem themselves too good for a term they previously embraced, and even coined!

    The question is not whether Armenia or Rwanda or the Nazi’s Final Solution is more horrific or terrible or worthy of commemoration. They all exemplified all of those things. The question is: does the Jewish comminity have more interest in preventing such tragedies from recurring, and working through the grief that has affected their survivors? Or do they hope, through their massive publicity campaign, to gain political and social sympathy for their specific demographic?

    Based on the information in this post, I think the answer is quite clear.

  • Chris Bugbee

    Lovely. Emily, not content with laying responsibility for the world’s indifference to genocide tagetting Cambodians, Rwandans and Macedonians to the monolithic entity she refers to as “the Jewish communiy”, sums up her argument by reducing assigning to all Jews the most cynical of motivations, i.e., [their hope] “through their massive publicity campaign, to gain political and social sympathy for their specific demographic.” How charitable.

  • Emily

    I would be thrilled to be wrong. But what other motivation could you possibly give these sorts of actions? Refusing victims of other holocausts a place in the National Holocaust Museum? (It had been planned that way, but at the final stages of planning, the museum’s benefactors — Jewish — changed their minds.) Needing a specific term for “their” holocaust to distinguish it from lesser ones?

    As with any generalization, “Jewish community” breaks down under rigorous analysis. No, every single Jewish man and woman alive is not to blame for this public oversight. But if I had seen anything to prove contrary — that Jewish leaders are mobilizing their public towards an effort to grieve and honor the fallen of *all* races and punish the perpetrators of the crimes that laid them to rest — I might have hesitated before using such a strong term.

  • Victor Morton

    There are a bunch of overlapping and contradictory reasons for “Holocaust uniqueness” and they have relatively little to do with “an exclusionary effort” by Jews or even the body counts themselves. Not all of them are noble in themselves (in fact some I think deeply immoral, but I can’t deny their historic import), but here they are: 1) the fact that it was done by a nation widely seen as the apex of Western Civilization, not some barbarous backwater; 2) the fact that it was performed with all due deliberation and bureaucratic efficiency, rather than a fit of rage; 3) the fact that the regime that perpetrated it collapsed in utter military defeat with the blood still wet on its hands; 4) “the pictures”; 5) the fact it could be more easily scripted into a “tolerance” narrative or morality-play that appealed to the world intellectual classes; 6) the fact that the perpetrating regime has spawned no ideological defenders and has become secular shorthand for “evil.”

    I think the reason many Jews want to keep the Holocaust unique is that they see it not as raising the other genocides, but as lowering the one against them (and indeed many Holocaust relativizers do explicitly say this). What we know about “compassion fatigue” on the one hand and “defining deviancy down” on the other suggests there are sound bases in human psychology for believing this might be the objective effect of loose use of the term “Holocaust” (like Al Gore saying “everything is a priority for this administration”; there is often no difference between “everything is X” and “nothing is X”). And at a time when anti-Semitism is surging in Europe and the Middle East, and when Holocaust denial is gaining a kind of respectability (fueled by vulgarized pomo philosophy and epistemological nihilism) … it’s not unreasonable to see a pattern.

    All that said, I don’t see trying the change usage to “Shoah” will be of much help. As long as the Nazi genocide of the 1930s/40s is seen as the concrete symbol of absolute metaphysical evil and as a conversation closer, then it’s a valuable flag to capture in contemporary discussion. Relativizers simply have to co-opt the word “Shoah” — talk about the Armenian Shoah or the Cambodian Shoah or whatever.