When is a holocaust not THE Holocaust?
The word holocaust was barely out of Rep. Alan Grayson’s mouth Wednesday afternoon when conservatives – and a few liberals – began crying foul.
Grayson was less than 24 hours removed from his caustic Republicans want you to “die quickly,” speech, and now he was making holocaust references on the House floor.
“I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't voted sooner to end this holocaust in America,” he said Wednesday.
It touched a nerve, and made some in his own party uncomfortable.
“I wouldn’t have done it,” said Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, who is Jewish.
Now Republicans want Grayson – Bronx raised and Jewish himself — to apologize for the apology and for inappropriately invoking the word.
“Congressman Grayson should apologize to the Jewish community and the families of those whose loved ones were brutally executed,” fumed Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, a Jewish Republican.
But is there a difference between talking about the Holocaust and talking about a generic, lower-case “holocaust?”
The text of Grayson’s statement, e-mailed to reporters, showed the word beginning with a lower-case “h,” not as a proper noun referring to the systematic execution of Jews by Nazis.
For some Jewish lawmakers, there’s a big and appropriate distinction. For others, the word is so loaded that the generic term is as offensive as the specific one. There also appears to be a generational split, with older Jews more likely to cringe at the term.
“I don’t believe that the use of the word holocaust is sacrosanct. There’s a plain-English meaning,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who is 45. “I think Congressman Grayson was using hyperbolic language because this has been a debate that has been dominated by the extremes.”
Jared Polis, a 34-year-old Jewish Democrat from Colorado, approached the question the same way.
“There have been many tragic holocausts,” Polis said.
Older Jews seem uncomfortable with any rhetorical use, arguing it is hard to make a distinction between a holocaust – total devastation, particularly by fire — and the Holocaust.
“To me, there’s only one Holocaust, and I think excessive use of that word has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, 62, who represents the Bronx neighborhood where Grayson grew up. “I know that wasn’t Congressman Grayson’s intention at all. I wish he would not use that word.”
Cohen, 60, is on Engel’s side.
“I just think the Holocaust is uniquely associated with the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jewish people and others,” he said.
The Grayson holocaust reference wasn’t the first time the specter of the Third Reich has been raised in the health care debate. References to Nazis and Adolf Hitler are on the rise among elected officials, talking heads and town hall participants and tea party activists. Last year, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) suggested that President Barack Obama’s civilian corps plan echoed those of past dictators.
“That's exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it's exactly what the Soviet Union did," Broun said, according to the AP. "When he's proposing to have a national security force that's answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he's showing me signs of being Marxist."
In August, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh likened the administration’s health care insignia to a Nazi symbol. Also in August, a vandal painted a swastika on a sign outside the Smyrna, Ga., district office of African American Democrat David Scott.
But does Grayson have more latitude to use the term holocaust because he is Jewish?
“I don’t know,” Cohen said.
Liberal MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow pressed Grayson three times before getting an answer about whether Grayson regretted using the term holocaust.
“It may not have been the best choice of words,” he finally conceded.