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When Evil Becomes Banal

Last winter, a colleague and I were featured in a URJ on-line discussion on the challenges of music written by composers – and texts themselves – that were and are considered anti-Semitic. How should we, as Jewish professionals and Jews, approach such music? While the initial focus had been on Handel’s “Messiah” with its triumphant vision of Christianity overtaking Judaism, it quickly moved to noted anti-Semitic composers such as Wagner. Just recently, the New York Times reported that a motion was filed demanding that the Los Angeles Opera’s citywide festival – in conjunction with its new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle next spring – “be broadened to include less objectionable composers, like Puccini and Mozart because it was, according to the petitioner (Michael D. Antonovich, a member of the LA County Board of Supervisors) an affront ‘to specifically honor and glorify the man whose music and racist anti-Semitic writings inspired Hitler and became the de facto soundtrack for the Holocaust.’”

Nazi imagery provokes violent emotional and sometimes physical responses – as it should – and in every generation, we need to grapple with our response.

Yet there are those who insist on bringing Nazi imagery into American political discourse. The issue may be health care reform: Fox News reported that “Town hall audiences and conservative bloggers protesting a Democratic-sponsored bill on health care reform have used the offensive imagery to liken President Obama's plan to how the Nazis treated prisoners in concentration camps,” imagery that has been denounced by major American Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Congress and the Anti Defamation League. It may be the Rush Limbaugh “femi-nazi” image or his comparing President Barack Obama's health care logo to Nazi imagery. It is the imagery invoked by too many parts of the political spectrum.

Whatever it is, and whoever uses it, its use is frequently wrong, inflammatory and also an affront to the memory of the men, women and children whose lives were destroyed.

Yes, we must keep the Shoa alive so that it cannot be repeated, just as we must every act of racism, bigotry and evil. But we would be wise to avoid making Nazism and the Shoa our knee-jerk response every time we disagree with someone or some thing.

Cantor Penny Kessler


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