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In his address to the nation this week, President Obama spoke directly about chemical weapons in Syria and share his thoughts on “why it matters, and where we go from here.”
He said it matters, because of where humanity has been before: “In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.”
Secretary Kerry and Senator Harry Reid also brought up the Holocaust as an example of “when the world did nothing.”
Is it appropriate to invoke the Holocaust in these circumstances? Rabbi Marvin Hier says yes, “because we’re talking about gassing — we’re talking about the same element that the Nazis introduced in 1942.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW. In his address to the nation this week, President Obama spoke directly about Syrian chemical weapons, saying, quote, "why it matters and where we go from here." It matters, he said, because of where humanity has been before.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Obama isn't alone in evoking the Holocaust. Secretary of State John Kerry has also recently made reference to the Second World War, and on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was even more explicit.
SENATOR HARRY REID: Millions and millions of civilians and prisoners of war were murdered by gas in Nazi death camps: Belsen, Treblinka, Auschwitz. Never again, swore the world, never again would we permit the use of these poisonous weapons of war.
CHAKRABARTI: Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights center whose mission includes teaching the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. He joins us from the studios of NPR West. Rabbi Hier, welcome.
RABBI MARVIN HIER: Pleasure to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: So let me ask you rabbi: Do you think it's appropriate for politicians and the president of the United States to make reference to the Holocaust in the Syria crisis?
HIER: Well not in every situation, but in this situation, when you're talking about Syria using gas to murder 1,400 civilians, men, women and children, it would be almost impossible not to reference the Holocaust where gassing first entered the lexicon in a way never before heard of in the annals of mankind.
People think well, we look at the Holocaust where the tally was six million. No, the Holocaust began when they started gassing the first hundred. So therefore there is a historic reference that there's always a beginning to gassing, and if the United States would not have threatened military action, I believe that Syria would have contemplated gassing more people.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, is this what we mean when it's said never again?
CHAKRABARTI: I want you to help us unpack the moral complexity here. There are a lot of people who might say when a president uses reference to the Holocaust, he's just engaging in emotional manipulation and that it's not - the Syrian crisis is not really analogous to the situation in the early days of the Nazis' organized program of mass extermination.
HIER: Well, first of all nothing in history, I hope, will ever compare to what the Nazis did. Look, I've always said the following: We live in Southern California, and we experience a lot of earthquakes. I think the greatest earthquake that ever occurred since they've been tracking is I believe a 9.7 in Alaska. Does that mean that if we experience a 6.4 in Southern California we can't say it's horrible? We can.
CHAKRABARTI: Rabbi Hier, the legacy of the Holocaust is very, very real, but sadly, human history is just rife with acts of genocide and mass murder. Presidents at times have made reference to the Holocaust. At other times they have not. So is there a moral line when it is OK to do so?
HIER: To me it's OK to reference the Holocaust when you're talking about a genocide, but there are limits. In other words, you don't reference the Holocaust in something that we all understand is just a trivialization of the Holocaust. We know when that is.
I don't think that, you know, that you could really make a case that when the Assad regime gases 1,400 people that we should stay away from any references to the Holocaust because it's not comparable. I wouldn't accept that.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, here's why I'm asking, because the fact is that sometimes politicians and national leaders deliberately do not mention the Holocaust, even when a genocide is so plainly ongoing. I mean, there are examples such as Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds in the 1980s or the Rwandan genocide or the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.
So I mean, doesn't that make a president's use of the Holocaust more of a political act rather than a morally courageous one?
HIER: Look, as I said before, I personally have no objection. I would use the Holocaust reference to all the genocides that have occurred after the Holocaust. Those were horrible atrocities against humankind. But there is a time when many political leaders crossed the line, and they used Nazis and the Holocaust where it has no comparison.
But the Syrian situation, I think, merits the reference because we're talking about gassing.
CHAKRABARTI: Rabbi Hier, the Simon Wiesenthal Center mission includes teaching the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. So the moment we find ourselves in right now, what lessons should we be learning?
HIER: Well, we should learn the following: It's very difficult to predict history. If you look back to the turning point when the world stood at the brink in World War II and the Holocaust occurred, when the Nazis threatened to take over all of mankind, you would be amazed at how many brilliant people thought that you could do business with Hitler.
You had all the editorial writers at the Times of England all saying let's make a deal with Hitler. In retrospect when we look at that, how could so many intelligent people have gotten it wrong? And we may have it wrong now.
CHAKRABARTI: Am I hearing you say - are you dubious of the diplomatic efforts that are going on right now?
HIER: I know - let's take three countries, and I'll name them: Iran, Syria and even Russia. Their greatest expertise is how to say yes when it really means no.
CHAKRABARTI: Well Rabbi Hier, there's a final question I'd like to ask you because earlier this month, you sent a letter to every single member of Congress in which you wrote, quote, "we urge you to vote for a limited strike. This may not be a perfect solution, but it will send a dramatic signal to the Assad regime and all others that you will have to pay a very high price if you continue to perpetrate such crimes against humanity," end quote.
Now you know from the polling from the polling that's been going on that a majority of the American people do not feel the same way. So I wonder, for people listening now who just heard that quote from your letter, what would you tell them if they're wondering rabbi, are more bombs and death really the answer?
HIER: Look, I recognize that the United States, we've had many wars. We're tired about Iraq, especially when the information wasn't correct. But gassing in the hands of tyrants and dictators, that is the most dangerous thing that mankind faces. It's never popular to take on a tyrant.
What did the polls say in 1940 when Churchill made his decision? The polls were all against it. In the beginning, Chamberlain was a very, very popular man. But history has often taught us that, you know, if you operate on the basis of polls, I'm afraid that mankind may not have made it.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He's speaking to us from NPR West. Rabbi Hier, many, many thanks.
HIER: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we want to know what you think about what the rabbi said. When do you think it is appropriate to evoke the Holocaust? Let us know at hereandnow.org. The news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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