When Mike Huckabee uttered his inflammatory remark that with the Iran nuclear deal, President Obama is “marching the Israelis to the door of the oven,” national director of the Anti-Defamation League Jonathan A. Greenblatt responded “Whatever one’s views of the nuclear agreement with Iran – and we have been critical of it… comments such as those… are completely out of line and unacceptable.” Chair of the Democratic National Committee and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz observed “Cavalier analogies to the Holocaust are unacceptable.”  Former press secretary to President George W. Bush Ari Fleischer explained, “Within the Jewish community, the Holocaust, the words associated with it, are unique…. even a sympathetic politician… needs to be culturally aware of the unique words that should apply only to the Holocaust.”

Huckabee, who was rebuked once before by the ADL for referring to abortion as a holocaust, has not backed down in the face of this widespread and bipartisan criticism.  The metaphor was profoundly inappropriate, but it is important to gain clarity about why.  It is not because the Holocaust is off-limits for discussion.  It has lessons to offer us about the present, but those lessons are about responsibility, not fear.

Some voices have long insisted on the uniqueness of the Holocaust.  Historian Lucy Dawidowicz contended that the Holocaust is unique in human history and should not be “blurred” with the “accelerating violence and terror of our time.” Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel agrees, and admonishes that anyone who did not experience it cannot possibly “transform [it] into knowledge.”  This posture has not, in my view, served Jews or the cause of justice particularly well.

In law, comparisons—analogy and distinction—are bread and butter.  Amherst College professor Lawrence Douglas has illustrated how the “unprecedented” horror of the Holocaust introduced an obstacle at Nuremburg to proving guilt in a medium that relies so heavily on precedent.  When survivors of German industrial slavery sued German corporations in the 1990’s, the discourse of incomparability fostered an environment hostile to plaintiffs’ claims, resulting in their dismissal from judicial forums and a paltry (per survivor) diplomatic settlement.  

Moreover, “uniqueness” permits evasion of social responsibility for contemporary injustices. I was raised to understand the fight against injustice as a—not exclusively, but still consummately—Jewish value, rooted partly in our own history of persecution.  I see no reason not to compare the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide or to “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia.   The refusal to compare these atrocities can only be a self-indulgent insistence that one’s own suffering is more monumental than anyone else’s.  Such willful obtuseness to our common humanity cannot possibly be the lesson we take from the Holocaust.

That said, all Holocaust metaphors are not created equal.  The officer who gave you a parking ticket is not a “Nazi.”   The Holocaust spawned a profusion of moral questions, one of which is when and how to invoke its referents to address contemporary problems.  How can we not ask whether the murder of over two hundred thousand Syrians more closely resembles the Holocaust or the war in Vietnam?  The former taught us the hazards of waiting to intervene, while the latter cautions against embroiling our soldiers in a bloody and unwinnable civil conflict.  Should we avert our eyes from the insights that such costly history offers us?

Invoking the ovens in which Jewish bodies burned is a transparent effort to manipulate Jewish fear.  Most Jews are not so easily swayed. According to a survey by J Street, sixty percent of American Jews support the Iran deal.  Huckabee has tweeted quotations of anti-Semitic extremists to substantiate his hyperbole, but fearing “only fear itself,” American Jews seem to be keeping our wits about us.  Most prefer to go about life without panicking over each peep of the lunacy we all know is out there.

Huckabee is an Evangelical Christian preacher who boasts of his many visits to Israel and Auschwitz. His devotion to Jewish survival would be touching if he were not exploiting a history of mass murder, enslavement, starvation, theft and cultural desecration to appeal to (according to a 2005 Pew poll) the two-thirds of white Evangelical Protestants who believe in Israel’s prophesied centrality to the End Time.

Huckabee did cross a line, but not because we can never discuss or learn from the Holocaust.  Rather than exploiting a terrible history for political gain, we should confront that history soberly in service of our responsibilities to the present.

Libby Adler is professor of law at Northeastern University