It used to be, when someone described someone else as a “Nazi,” you pretty well knew what they meant. Adding the prefix “neo” might clarify the historical juncture, but it would not obscure the fundamental definition of “Nazi” – as in, someone who espouses and/or acts in line with the ideology of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In those simpler times, a Nazi was a Nazi, period.
Not so today, when the word gets bandied about as if it were the most basic of schoolyard insults, hurled without any concern for its meaning or history. Anyone can be a Nazi these days, even Jews. In fact, considering the broad usage of the term in the current parlance, everyone probably is a Nazi. Nearly 30 years ago, when Seinfeld invoked the term out of context – “No soup for you!” – the joke was obvious. For those who wield “Nazi” today, it’s no joke at all.
If it’s too late to save “Nazi” from death by bloat, perhaps there’s time to refocus our energies on another expression that is quickly heading for a similar fate.
On May 20, the Twitter account “The Jewish Worker” posted an online poll titled “America’s Biggest Shande 2019.” Organized in the form of your typical sports tournament bracket, one of the poll’s sections, labelled “Kapo,” featured several American Jews associated with the Trump White House, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, as well as Trump’s Israel adviser Jason Greenblatt and White House policy adviser Stephen Miller.
The Jewish Worker (real name: Daniel Sieradski; and no, there isn’t any actual publication called “The Jewish Worker”) was making a clear insinuation. In a similar vein, the Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley has likened Jewish members of Trump’s team, among others, to kapos (concentration camp prisoners who supervised other inmates).
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the aforementioned Friedman, in addition to being maligned for being a “kapo,” has also employed the label against others. In a 2016 op-ed for Israel’s Arutz Sheva, he wrote in reference to a left-wing American Jewish group, “Are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no. They are far worse than kapos.” Friedman later said he regretted his choice of word, blaming it on the “inflammatory rhetoric” of the U.S. presidential campaign. By contrast, the Jewish Defence League of Canada appears to use the term unapologetically: its website describes “modern Jewish kapos” that it protests against.
And lest you think this is some sort of weird social media phenomenon, mostly for kids and with little relation to the real world, in March, an ultra-Orthodox activist in England made waves when he labelled an ultra-Orthodox rabbi a kapo in a widely disseminated letter. At issue was the teaching of LGBT subjects in schools, which both men involved, in their own ways, oppose. (Adding to the story, the accuser is a known supporter of British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose Jewish supporters have also been publicly called kapos.)
Language evolves, but some words are frozen in time. Jews are responsible for guarding the history behind words like “Nazi” and “kapo.” Based on the evidence, we should be doing a better job of it.