Does history repeat itself? Or does it just rhyme?


(re: “When they came for me, no one was left to speak up,” Jan. 27)

Charles Moerdler writes movingly of the horrors of the Holocaust and the narrow escape his mother made with her young son — himself.

There is no question the Holocaust was an abomination and an incredibly traumatic event for those who survived it.

For many survivors of traumatic events, everything gets interpreted in light of it. Trauma can be understood as a condition where something so overwhelms the psyche that it cannot be processed. It maintains an iron grip on the person’s emotional life.

Everything is interpreted and experienced in light of the traumatic events. The fear and anger aroused kills critical thinking. Thus, for the ex-combat veteran, the innocent loud noise “is” the enemy firing.

This appears to be what happened to Mr. Moerdler, where everything is perceived in light of the Holocaust. Despite being Jewish myself, I did not live through his experience, and I can’t condemn him. But I can try to correct some of the misperceptions he expresses because of that stuckness.

Mr. Moerdler sees signs of a pending new Holocaust, or something similar. While there have been anti-Semitic incidents — mainly vandalism, verbal attacks, some punches thrown — there is no evidence of us turning into a new version of Nazi Germany. Yes, in the last dozen years, there were four incidents where Jews were targeted and killed, done either by crazy people — one by a guy previously diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic — the other by the Black Hebrew Israelites, who claim they are the real Jews, while Mr. Moerdler and I are imposters, or white supremacists, or Klansmen.

The most deadly was at the Pittsburgh synagogue, which the killer claimed to have attacked because the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was helping Central American immigrants. (They’re my kind of Jews.) On the other hand, as Yogi Berra put it, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” especially with the neo-Nazi fans of Trump, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

Mr. Moerdler quotes Santayana: “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to relive it.” But what are the lessons? Lessons are open to interpretation — everyone has a different one. Historians argue all the time.

I would use another quote, allegedly from Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

The rhyme is tribal — for lack of a better word — hatred, whether based on race, religion, ethnicity, a nation state or ideology. That, unfortunately, is not going away, although if we acknowledge its roots in our evolved human nature, we can try our best to contain it.

Over time, victims and victimizers keep changing. One of the most dangerous beliefs in the world is that of essential goodness — Because “we” were victimized, we can’t see how we may come to victimize others. We’re the good guys. Forever.

In the present context — because Jews were the victims in Europe — they can’t be seen as victimizers anywhere. Ever.

Moerdler equates Putin — the ex-KGB agent, who I have no love for, to put it mildly — with Hitler. Yes, he is a dictator. Yes, he’s a bad guy. Yes, he threatens some countries next to Russia — specifically Ukraine — and longs to “make Russia great again.” But he is not going to try and conquer all of Europe and incinerate millions of Jews or Europeans.

Yes, the Eisengruppen — the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum calls them a Nazi “task force, a special action group” — were murderous Nazis that slaughtered Jews indiscriminately. But unless you are to equate any group that uses the word “group” (group therapists?), “squad” (police squad cars), “task force” and the like as a symbol of Nazism, the so-called “squad” — the term, I believe, was humorously adopted — of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and the recently added Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, have zero to do with Nazi death squads.

They aren’t for killing anyone.

Bowman is my representative, and I don’t think he is out to do me harm. Bernie Sanders and I — both Jewish — have been as critical of Israel as the so-called “Squad.” Many Jews are critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Should we all be linked to the Nazis?

Some people who mistreat others should be criticized — even if they are Jewish. Even if Jews were victims in the Holocaust.

Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. And in no way is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians equivalent to the Holocaust. But Amnesty International recently described Israel — justifiably, in my opinion — as an apartheid state, due to its “oppression and domination against the Palestinian people.”

Other human rights groups have said the same. All anti-Semites, I guess, and anti-a whole lot of other things due to their criticisms of various regimes.

Mr. Moerdler says if you don’t want to be called an anti-Semite, stop acting like one. But he equates all criticism of the state of Israel’s actions as hatred of Jewish people — including, I would presume, him in the United States. I don’t hate the Russian people because of what Putin is doing. I don’t like religious/ethnic states, especially when they oppress the non-chosen ones — be they Israel, Saudi Arabia, China, Myanmar, and the like.

But I don’t hate Jews, Saudis, the Han population of China, or Burmese Buddhists.

What I and many other Jews learned from the Holocaust is that “never again” should we allow one group of humans to oppress or slaughter members of other groups. Be they Jews, Palestinians, Uyghurs, LGBT folks, and the like. That is the humanistic side of the Jewish tradition, and it demands we apply the same ethical standards when judging our own group.

But as the saying goes, you put two Jews together, you get three opinions. So, on this subject, you now have two opinions: Mr. Moerdler’s, and mine.

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Peter Wolf,