The dictionary defines the word "holocaust" as large-scale destruction, especially by fire. But the term has come to be associated almost entirely with the Nazi destruction of the Jews.
In what other instances is it appropriate to use the word? Should it describe any sort of widespread devastation, like that wrought by a tornado, forest fire, or earthquake? What about the horrors of the war in Bosnia?
According to Professor Ernst Haas, aside from certain select events, such as massacres in Armenia and Rwanda, the word holocaust should be reserved to describe the events of World War II.
The Robson Research Professor of Government at U.C. Berkeley was one of four panelists addressing "Bosnia and the Jewish Conscience" at a discussion Thursday of last week at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley.
In considering the analogy between the Holocaust and Bosnia, Haas cautioned against using the term holocaust to describe the Balkan bloodshed.
"In order to qualify as a holocaust, we've got to have more than just massive brutality on a grand scale," he told an audience of about 50. If the word holocaust is used indiscriminately, said Haas, who himself fled Nazi Germany as a child, "the word loses meaning, including moral meaning."
Rabbi Robert Daum, a doctoral student in Jewish studies at U.C. Berkeley, also expressed concern about the frequent use of the word holocaust. "We sometimes see in the paper that a three-alarm fire is a holocaust," he said. "I find this deeply troubling."
Such statements underlined a point made early in the discussion by Lehrhaus Judaica director Fred Rosenbaum, who has taught a number of courses on the Holocaust. "Nothing is more difficult, more vexing within Holocaust studies than the issue of uniqueness," he said.
Like the use of the term holocaust, the panelists debated about when it is proper to describe something as "genocide."
The word genocide was invented in 1942 as an attempt to categorize the Nazis' deliberate attempt to exterminate a people, explained Professor David Biale, director of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Because of the unthinkable nature of the crime, the word created to describe it has become a powerful one. "The newly labeled crime becomes a gold standard," Biale said. "If you can label a crime genocide, you have achieved more than labeling it a murder or war crime."
Biale agreed there are times when people use the word genocide frivolously. But "conversely, to limit ourselves too much ends up trivializing the suffering of others," he said.
Returning to the Bosnian conflict, Biale referred to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblance — the idea that we may not look identical to our family members, but our relationship to them is clear nonetheless.
So it is with Bosnia and the Holocaust, Biale said. "Even without gas chambers, we have here a deliberate attempt on the part of a particular group to perpetrate a kind of genocide on another group."
Anastasia Steinberg, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco, agreed. "Is the situation analogous? Certainly not," she said. "But there are enough similarities to urge us into action."
The question is, what shape should that response take? Steinberg suggested contacting representatives, contributing time and money to organizations involved in relief efforts.
Daum, former associate rabbi at San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom, agreed that Jews must do whatever they can to aid those suffering in Bosnia. But he acknowledged that the lingering pain wrought by the Holocaust makes it hard for some Jews to step back and objectively look at the suffering others are enduring in Bosnia.
"That is the tendency of someone who is still in mourning," he said. "The problem is we're trapped in a transitional time when we feel both compelled to be silent and to speak."
That pull, in fact, is what spurred Rosenbaum to assemble the panel in the first place.
While most Jews have been sickened by the degree of human suffering in Bosnia, some have also found themselves torn over which parties to support.
In World War II, after all, Serbs largely sided with Jews in fighting Nazi-allied Croatians, and in some cases Muslims. As a result of that history, some Jews have found it difficult to condemn the Serbs in the current conflict, even though the Serbs have been tagged as its primary agitators.
"I admit I'm completely confused and disturbed" by the situation, Rosenbaum said in his opening statement. "How are we to think of it?"
In Daum's view, it is precisely those Jews who may feel most conflicted — survivors and their children — whose voices on Bosnia could hold the most sway.
"We need to mobilize them as a moral force to do what only they can do," Daum said. He suggested that Holocaust survivors forge alliances with others who have shared experiences and concerns.
To describe his own sense of responsibility toward Bosnia, Daum quoted from the Talmud, which states that "to save one life is to save the entire world."
"For me, if there's a possibility of saving life, I think a certain urgency is lent to the situation," he said.
"If whatever efforts are undertaken result in one less rape or in one less murder, that would be an appropriate consequence."