A few weeks ago, I and three rabbinic colleagues were among the 3,000 people who heard President Obama speak about health care in Raleigh, N.C.
On the way out, we passed a demonstrator who was holding a sign that said, “ObamaCare = National Socialism” (a.k.a. Nazism). I confronted this protestor telling him that, as a rabbi and as a Jew, I found his sign particularly offensive.
I mentioned that I accepted his right to disagree with the president and to express such disagreement. However, comparing Obama’s health care plan to the rule of the Nazi party in Germany was terribly hurtful to Jews who had lost one-third of their population, six million souls, to the Nazi death machine. Indeed, it is an affront to us all.
When I lived in Israel, I had the opportunity to meet on several occasions with a woman named Ruth Eliaz, an Auschwitz survivor.
Most pregnant women and women with young children were sent directly to the gas chambers as soon as the cattle car transports arrived at Auschwitz. Ruth, pregnant at the time, wasn’t showing and was selected to be a worker. As her pregnancy continued, she tried her best to cover her stomach knowing that if she were to be discovered, she would be sent directly to the gas chamber. Eventually the pregnancy could not be hidden any longer. Ruth was taken to the infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele.
In Auschwitz, Mengele conducted horrific experiments on Jews. Mengele told Ruth that he had something special in mind for her and that he would allow her to continue the pregnancy to term. After Ruth gave birth to a baby boy, she began to breastfeed the child.
Mengele had her brought to him whereupon he strapped her to a gurney and injected her breasts with poison so that she would not be able to feed her baby. The purpose of this “experiment” was to see how long a newborn baby could live without being fed. After several days of seeing her child suffer, Ruth could stand it no longer and smothered her own child.
This terrible story actually has somewhat of a decent ending. After the war, Ruth made it to Israel, where she married and had two more children.
I relate this story because we need to truly understand what “health care” meant for Jews who had the misfortune of living under the rule of National Socialism.
Recently, Rush Limbaugh weighed in on health care, calling grassroots supporters of President Obama “the real brownshirts.” His web site has an Obama health care logo next to a Nazi symbol.
Legitimate disagreements – yes. But comparing the proposals under consideration to Nazi policies is beyond the bounds of proper political discourse.
In 1996, I met Leah Rabin, the wife of the Israeli prime minister. The prime minister had been assassinated a year earlier by a lone Jewish gunman. Prior to his assassination, Prime Minister Rabin’s opponents had held demonstrations wherein signs were held up of his face pasted on a picture of a Nazi SS uniform. Ms. Rabin blamed her political opponents for not forcefully condemning such hysterical propaganda in their own ranks, which had created the atmosphere necessary for the crazed assassin to be cultivated.
Folks, we are dealing with fire.
The health care debate in our country is at a critical crossroad. A lot is at stake for our future, but the way in which we need to find a solution to this problem needs to be civil and respectful.
I would like to suggest a few additional assumptions upon which the current discussion needs to be based.
- Scare tactics based upon false information have no place in this discussion. For example, it is a gross statement to say that encouraging doctors to speak with their patients about a “living will” is a government plot to kill elderly people. The Nazis referred to this type of propaganda as their “Big Lie” technique; they would repeat a falsehood so often until the public accepted it as true.
- Our current system of health care is not as good as we think it is. According to the World Health Organization, while the United States spends more money on health care than any other nation, our overall rank is 37th in terms of the quality of health care for the entire population.
- Doing nothing is not an option. Currently 18 percent of the gross national product is siphoned toward health care – the highest rate in the developed world. By doing nothing to curb this growth, health care premiums and deductibles will continue to rise and fewer small businesses will be able provide health care as a benefit to their employees.
- Finally, the figures for the cost of health care from the Congressional Budget Office need to be taken seriously. Current plans in the House that could add a trillion dollars to the deficit are not acceptable. Cost-cutting measures are a critical component of any heath care reform or expansion of coverage. By the way, the president himself has stated that he will not sign a health care bill that is not revenue neutral.
We are living during a very difficult time as far as health care is concerned. Finding a solution will necessitate not only a lot of creative thinking, but will also require a lot of civility and respectful debate.
Perhaps most important, it will require a lot of prayer, for we will need God’s help as a nation to take us from where health care is today to the place where it ought to be, a place wherein all of us, as holy manifestations of the Divine, will have access to high quality and affordable health care.
Fred Guttman is rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.