WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jewish groups are calling on U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, to apologize for using Holocaust terminology in attacking Republicans.
Cohen, addressing the House of Representatives Tuesday night in a debate over a Republican bill to repeal last year’s heath care reforms, likened GOP claims to tactics used by the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.
"They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels,” he said. He also called the Republican claims a "blood libel."
"The National Jewish Democratic Council criticizes the comments of Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), which compared Republicans to the Nazis and unfortunately reintroduced the Holocaust into the health care debate," said the umbrella body for Jewish Democrats. "As we have said repeatedly, invoking the Holocaust to make a political point is never acceptable — on either side of the aisle."
J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that endorsed Cohen in the last election, also called on Cohen to apologize.
"J Street strongly opposes the use of Holocaust imagery and Nazi metaphors in American political debate," the group said in a statement. "We have spoken out strongly in the past when it was used by those who we oppose politically, and we also ask our friends to refrain from using such language. We call on Congressman Cohen to apologize for these remarks, and urge him and all American political leaders to refrain from the use of such imagery in the future."
J Street and the NJDC both condemned former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican, last week when she used the term "blood libel" to describe attempts to link pitched right-wing rhetoric to the Jan. 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Cohen told the Washington Post that he would not apologize for his statement, which he said was appropriate to the situation.
"I said Goebbels lied about the Jews, and that led to the Holocaust," Cohen was quoted as saying. "Not in any way whatsoever was I comparing Republicans to Nazis. I was saying lies are wrong," adding later, "I don’t know who got everybody’s panties in a wad over this statement."
He went on to say that "Lies are being spread, and it’s wrong. Goebbels was the master of political lies" and that "to lie to take health care away from people is despicable."
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said in a statement released Wednesday that using Holocaust analogies trivializes the dangers of anti-Semitism as well as the Holocaust.
"No matter how strong one’s objections to any policy or to the tactics of political opponents, invoking the Holocaust and the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people is offensive and has no place in a civil political discourse," he said.
"We respect Representative Cohen’s right to engage in vigorous debate about health care policy. We hope he will reconsider his offensive statement and we urge all members of Congress to reject such odious comparisons."
The Republican Jewish Coalition criticized Cohen, saying he has used Holocaust imagery in the past.
"This is a very disturbing development," read an RJC statement released Wednesday. "After leaders of both parties called upon their rank-and-file members to choose their words with more prudence and sensitivity in the aftermath of the horrible events in Tucson, Congressman Cohen’s outrageous use of Holocaust rhetoric should offend us all. Even the National Jewish Democratic Council frets that Cohen has ‘reintroduced the Holocaust into the health care debate’ after Jewish community leaders and others worked so hard to push it to the margins.
"Unfortunately, Congressman Cohen is not a first-time offender when it comes to debasing our discourse. He previously described the atmosphere at a demonstration in Tennessee as ‘the verge of Kristallnacht.’ In the spirit of recent bipartisan comments, Democratic leaders in the House need to prevail upon this habitually uncivil back-bencher to tone it down."