Dead reckoning (part 3)

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The Independent Online

There are no conspiracies on The Independent's subs desk; just a tough, no-nonsense rule that our articles follow a grammatical "house style" and conform to what is called "common usage". And the Jewish Holocaust, through common usage, takes a capital "H". Other holocausts don't. No one is quite sure why - the same practice is followed in newspapers and books all over the world, although it has been the subject of debate in the United States, not least by Finkelstein. Harvard turned down a professorial "Chair of Holocaust and Cognate Studies" because academics objected to the genocide of other groups (including the Armenians) being lumped together as "cognate". But none of this answered the questions of my Armenian friend. To have told him his people didn't qualify for a capital "H" would have been shameful and insulting.

There are no conspiracies on The Independent's subs desk; just a tough, no-nonsense rule that our articles follow a grammatical "house style" and conform to what is called "common usage". And the Jewish Holocaust, through common usage, takes a capital "H". Other holocausts don't. No one is quite sure why - the same practice is followed in newspapers and books all over the world, although it has been the subject of debate in the United States, not least by Finkelstein. Harvard turned down a professorial "Chair of Holocaust and Cognate Studies" because academics objected to the genocide of other groups (including the Armenians) being lumped together as "cognate". But none of this answered the questions of my Armenian friend. To have told him his people didn't qualify for a capital "H" would have been shameful and insulting.

A debate then opened within The Independent. I wrote in a memo that the word "holocaust" could be cheapened by over-use and exaggeration - take the agency report last year which referred to the "holocaust" of wildlife after an oil-spill on the French coast. But I said that I still had no answer worthy of the question posed by my Armenian friend.

One of the paper's top wordsmiths was asked to comment - a grammatical expert who regularly teases out the horrors of definition in an imperfect and savage world. He cited Chambers Dictionary, which stated that the Jewish Holocaust was "usually" capitalised. And, said our expert on the paper, "It is in the nature of a proper noun to apply to only one thing." Thus there may be many crusades but only one Crusade (the Middle Ages one). There may be many cities but the City is London. Similarly the Renaissance.

"There can be only one Holocaust," he wrote. "Is the Holocaust really unique? Yes. It was perpetrated by modern Europeans. Its purported justification was a perversion of Darwin, one of the great thinkers of modern Europe. Above all, in the gas chambers and crematoria it manufactured death by modern industrial methods. The Holocaust says to modern Western man that his technological mastery will not save him from sin, but rather magnify the results of his sins. There have been acts of genocide throughout history and some of them have killed more people than the Nazis did, but we call the Nazi holocaust 'the Holocaust' because it is our holocaust."

Must we, our grammarian asked, "commit grammatical faux pas and overturn an accepted usage for which there is ample justification? Finally, where does it end? Are, for instance, the crimes of Stalin against minority nationalities in the Soviet Union not just as bad as the Armenian slaughters? What of the Khmer Rouge? Rwanda? The Roman destruction of Carthage? Are these also to be 'Holocausts'? If not, why not?"

Powerful arguments, but ones with which I disagreed. The Jewish Holocaust, I wrote back, should be capitalised not because its victims were European Jews, or those of any other race, but because its victims were human beings. Human values, the right to life, the struggle against evil, are universal - "not confined to Europeans or one ethnic or religious group, or involving those who distorted Darwin's theories of biological evolution". It was, after all, The Independent's editorial policy that the world must fight against all atrocities - a belief which underlay our demand for humanitarian action in East Timor and Kosovo. This did not mean that I regarded Timor and Kosovo as holocausts, but that we should never accept the idea that one group of victims had special status over others. I spend hours telling Arabs that they must accept and acknowledge the facts of the Jewish Holocaust, but if we are now to regard this as a specifically European crime, as "our" crime, I have few arguments left. The Arabs can say it is none of their business.

As for the question, "Where does it end?" Yes, what about Armenia? And Rwanda? If Armenians are disqualified from a capital "H" because they only lost one and a half million, what is Rwanda's sin of exclusion? Religion? Race? Colour? When Armenians in Israel speak of their people's suffering, they use the Hebrew word Shoah - which means Holocaust.

The Independent's editor suggested that we should debate these questions in an article in the paper - this is the article - but the issues, of course, remain unresolved. "Common usage" is a bane to all us journalists but it is not sacred. It doesn't have to stand still. My father fought in what he called the Great War - common usage which was later amended, after 1945, to the First World War. Similarly, I believe, the Holocaust. In the aftermath of my January remarks on the Armenian genocide, The Independent published a denial of that same genocide by a Turkish Cypriot academic, in which we printed the word Holocaust with a capital "H". The world did not end. The Turks did not complain. Nor did any members of the Jewish community. Indeed, only last year, a prominent academic at the Hebrew University's Armenian studies programme in Israel talked of the Armenians and Jews having "suffered holocaust".

In the meantime, Holocaust - or holocaust - denial continues. President Chirac has declined to endorse the French parliament's acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide and forthcoming Holocaust conferences have not invited Armenians to participate. Mr Blair doesn't mention the destruction of the Armenians. They don't count, literally. Common usage - and our concern for Turkish sensitivities - has seen to that, even though genocide is anything but normal. Germany dutifully acknowledges its historical guilt for the wickedness of the Jewish Holocaust. Not so the Turks. Armenians accept that a few Turks - courageous, outstanding men - risked their lives in 1915 to shelter their Armenian friends and neighbours, just as "righteous gentiles" did for the Jews of Europe. But Turkey cannot honour these brave men. Since the Armenian Holocaust supposedly did not exist, nor did they. A holocaust rather than a Holocaust helps to diminish the suffering of the Armenians. What's in a name? What's in a capital letter? How many other skulls lie beneath the sands of northern Syria? Did the Turks not kill enough Armenians?

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