If there is any group that should know the uniqueness of Nazi evil and should not want the evil of the Holocaust cheapened for political purposes, it is the Jews. Yet, there is at least a 50-50 chance that if you read or hear a public personality use Nazi imagery to describe conservatives, the person is a Jew. Specifically, a Jew on the Left.
Of course, non-Jews on the Left also compare conservatives to Nazis, and some non-Jews on the Right will sometimes compare the Left to Nazis, but there are three important differences.
First, however many or few tea party banners compare President Obama to Hitler (and such comparisons are as reprehensible as they are self-defeating), conservative public figures -- such as politicians and prominent columnists -- almost never compare liberals to Nazis, while public figures on the Left often compare conservatives to Nazis.
Second, among liberal Jews, the percentage that believes that Americans on the Right are just a step or two away from being Nazis seems to be greater than the proportion of liberal non-Jews who believe that.
Third, when Jews on the Left call conservative Americans Nazis, they mean it in its literal sense -- they really do regard the conservatives they compare to Nazis as racists comparable to Nazi anti-Semites. On the other hand, when conservatives use the term, it is meant to signify non-democratic or dictatorial policies, regimes or individuals -- e.g., Seinfeld's "soup Nazi" or Rush Limbaugh's "feminazis" -- not as potential or likely mass murderers.
Why is this? Why do so many Jews see conservative/Right-wing Americans as Nazi-like?
The answer lies in the rhetoric of the Left and in Jews' fears.
Leftist rhetoric routinely depicts opponents of the Left in extreme terms. Opponents of race-based affirmative action are racists. Opponents of same-sex marriage are homophobes. Opponents of illegal immigration are xenophobes, racists and engaged in Nazism (that is the word that Cardinal Roger Mahony used to describe Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law). And so on.
But there is an additional explanation for why liberal and Leftist Jews use "Nazi" and "Holocaust" rhetoric to depict conservatives.
Jews, Right or Left, have been seared by the Holocaust. And most, if not all, believe a Holocaust could happen again -- hardly an idiosyncratic belief given Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declared aim of annihilating the Jewish state.
Where liberal and conservative Jews differ is where each group thinks the greatest danger to the Jews lies. Jews on the Left are certain that the greatest threats to Jews come from the Right. Conservative and centrist Jews believe that dangers to the Jews can come from the Left, from the Right, from Islam, from a renewal of Christian anti-Semitism, indeed from anywhere, but that at this moment, the world's Left is far more an enemy of the Jewish people than the world's, not to mention America's, Right.
Why would a New York Times columnist use the term when talking about American tea partiers?
Because when Rich and most other Jews on the Left see Right-wing non-Jews, they see swastikas. It is an inversion of the famous scene in Woody Allen's film "Annie Hall" in which the WASP character is depicted as seeing the Woody Allen character as a Hasidic Jew. Most American Jews on the Left -- like Leftist professors on college campuses -- inhabit an insular universe, where regular, let alone intimate, contact with conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, is almost non-existent.
Last week, another Jewish liberal, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., in attacking the tea partiers, specified "white Christians" as people who fear members of all other religious and racial groups. And this past September, Grayson, referring to Congress not having passed health care legislation, said on the floor of Congress, "I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't voted sooner to end this Holocaust in America." In Grayson's view, 12 percent of Americans not having health insurance constitutes a "Holocaust."
Another liberal Jewish commentator for The New York Times, Linda Greenhouse, who teaches at Yale Law School, likened the situation of illegal immigrants in Arizona to that of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Denmark. As if being deported to Mexico for illegally entering Arizona is comparable to being sent to Auschwitz for being a Danish Jew.
Another Jew on the Left, George Soros, said at the Davos conference in 2007, "America needs to follow the policies it has introduced in Germany. We have to go through a certain de-Nazification process." As Martin Peretz wrote at the time in The New Republic: "He believes that the United States is now a Nazi country. Why else would we have to go through a 'certain de-Nazification process'? I defy anybody to interpret the remark differently."
And Seth Meyers of "Saturday Night Live" asked, referring to the new Arizona law, "Could we all agree that there's nothing more Nazi than saying 'Show me your papers'?"
These are only a few examples.
Jews who compare conservative Americans -- tea partiers, global-warming skeptics, supporters of Arizona's illegal-immigrant law, former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, conservative Christians -- to Nazis and the Holocaust not only smear decent Americans -- who, as it happens, are far more pro-Jewish and pro-Israel than most Americans on the Left -- they also cheapen the horror of Nazism and the Holocaust.
But in the closed world of the Left generally and of the Jewish Left specifically, there is an Auschwitz under almost every conservative bed.
As a Jew who has devoted much of his life to fighting anti-Semitism -- from being sent by Israel to the former Soviet Union to aid Soviet Jews, to writing a book on anti-Semitism ("Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism"), to serving on the board of directors of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum -- I have always found any trivialization of Nazism and the Holocaust offensive. That Jews would do this -- to fellow Americans, no less -- and solely in order to serve their Left-wing politics is worse than offensive. It is immoral.