Lessons from the Holocaust: racism, genocide and the Gaza crisis

The Holocaust was undoubtedly one of the most significant events in modern history, one that continues to influence today’s geopolitical agenda. Its legacy is still hotly contested, precisely because of its political magnitude; the struggle for meanings ascribed to language and historical events is ultimately the struggle for power. Is the most pertinent lesson from the Holocaust that, as a historically subjugated people, anti-Jewish sentiment presents a slippery slope to genocide? Or is it that when the power of a militarised state is directed at a group of people based on something as arbitrary as ethnicity, this can lead to genocide and therefore should be curbed? Need there even be any polarisation of these positions and are they mutually exclusive? Of course not. But the Holocaust is repeatedly invoked by both supporters and critics of the Israeli state.

In recent weeks a number of reports have been published remarking on an apparent rise in anti-Semitism across Europe. Anti-Semitism, like all racism, is abhorrent and unjustifiable in any circumstance, so if it really is on the rise that is an obvious concern. However, recent history is replete with examples of Israel-sympathetic media figures and lobbyists warning about “a new wave of anti-Semitism” at precisely the same time that Israel is coming under international criticism for aggressive foreign policy. Last month, The Independent’s Richard Ferrer invoked the spectre of the Holocaust to give the anti-Semitic incidents an even more chilling and sinister edge. As Ferrer warned ominously in the piece: “As Europe prepares to mark the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, the warning signs from history are hauntingly familiar.”

Ferrer makes the inference as an indirect attack on pro-Palestinian protestors, citing anti-Semitic chants. In this respect, Ferrer is deliberately using the emotive power of the Holocaust to semantically discredit not just the pro-Palestinian protesters in question, or the perpetrators of the anti-Semitism described in his article, but by extension any critics of the state of Israel. Genuine concern about an apparent rise in anti-Semitism is perfectly legitimate – it simply should not be tolerated. However, invoking the horrors of the Holocaust in regards to a handful of racist slurs is not merely disproportionate hyperbole, it is a cynical and very considered attempt to shut down the debate and deflect attention away from the atrocities being carried out by the Israeli state. He describes Hamas rocket attacks as a “genocidal, psychopathic obsession with Israel’s annihilation”. When you compare the three resulting deaths with the nearly 2,000 Palestinian lives taken by Israeli forces in the last few months, this assertion sounds absurd.

Giora Eiland, a retired major general of the IDF, made an even less subtle nod to the Nazis and the Holocaust when he compared the people of Gaza to the German populace who voted for Hitler, blaming them for Israel’s aggression. He said: “[Palestinians] are to blame for this situation, just like Germany’s residents were to blame for electing Hitler as their leader and paid a heavy price for that, and rightfully so.”

This invocation of the Holocaust by defenders of Israel is nothing new. Professor Norman Finkelstein has described at length in his book, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, the practice of using the Holocaust as what he calls an “ideological weapon”. Finkelstein talks passionately about how reprehensible he finds this discourse, having lost several family members to the Holocaust, saying he finds “nothing more despicable than to use their suffering to justify the torture and brutalisation that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians”. His contention is that the Holocaust is used to absolve Israel of any wrongdoing and furnish it with a right to defend itself by any and all means, even those considered illegal under international law.

It seems churlish in the extreme to cite the Holocaust to attack or discredit Palestinians and those showing support for their suffering, when within the Israeli state itself there is a growing narrative both in the mainstream media and in the upper political echelons that is sincerely engaging with the idea of a genocide of the people of Gaza. The Times of Israel recently ran a blog post titled “When Genocide is Permissible”, which concluded with the following question: “If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?” After causing an outcry the piece was eventually taken down.

In July, Ayelet Shaked, a senior member of the Jewish Home Party, part of Israel’s ruling coalition, published a Facebook post that called for Israel to declare war on the “entire [Palestinian] people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure”, which sounds very much like a legal definition of genocide. The post specifically calls for the murder of mothers and the destruction of homes, “otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there”. Similarly, Eiland wrote an op-ed for Ynet News titled “In Gaza, there is no such thing as innocent civilians”; treating an entire civilian population as enemy combatants with the full force of one of the most advanced militaries in the world would be tantamount to genocide.

Moshe Feiglin, deputy speaker of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), even released a step-by-step plan to remove all Palestinians from Gaza, including “concentrating” the civilian population in “tent encampments” – which sounds hauntingly like concentration camps – and “exterminating” any remaining resistance. In a letter addressed to Benjamin Netanyahu, then published on Facebook, Feiglin called for “conquest of the entire Gaza Strip, and annihilation of all fighting forces and their supporters… This is our country – our country exclusively, including Gaza.”

These comments reflect an underlying position that has been apparent in the more hawkish sections of Israel’s political elite for some time. But it’s not mere rhetoric; some actions of the Israeli state are also deeply disturbing. Aside from the widespread killing of civilians, which the UN has warned may be classed as war crimes because of a 70% civilian death toll since the start of Operation Protective Edge, Israel has long been accused of implementing a system of apartheid. Within the Israeli state, Arabs at least are afforded legal rights and are represented politically (though they are under-represented in the Knesset, with some 11% of seats going to Arabs compared to 20% of the population). However, within the occupied territories Arabs are treated as second class citizens with few rights. Noam Chomsky described the situation in the occupied territories as “much worse than apartheid – to call it apartheid is a gift to Israel”. Human Rights Watch has described a prevalence of “serious human rights violations” in the occupied territories.

In 2012, it was revealed that Israel had calculated the number of calories the population of Gaza needed, just enough to survive, and then only allowed that amount of food to pass into Gaza, which is effectively under blockade, with Israel controlling the flow of people and goods in and out. While these combined actions don’t warrant the term genocide, they do amount to repressive, almost totalitarian control, which is arguably comparable to the situation in the Warsaw Ghetto, which was of course a precursor to it.

It’s no surprise that the Holocaust remains a highly emotive issue. Commentators who draw parallels between Israel and Germany under the Nazis are roundly denounced as anti-Semitic. But this has nothing to do with ethnicity; this is a discursive battle over meanings, a power struggle over interpreting the actions of the Israeli state. So long as Israel’s defenders use the Holocaust to either deflect attention away from – or worse, justify – its unfettered aggression towards the Palestinian people, its detractors will continue to contest that narrative. Any comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany currently require a pretty large semantic leap, but they would be much easier to dismiss if people in very high positions of power within the Israeli state weren’t so openly discussing the prospect of a genocide of the Palestinians, and if its actions weren’t so flagrantly controlling and aggressive. As the examples above of referring to the Palestinian people as “enemy combatants” and “little snakes” demonstrate, the real danger is that the Palestinians be completely dehumanised in the eyes of the Israeli state. Once you start to dehumanise an entire group of people – as the Jews in 1930s Germany found out – anything can become “permissible”. That’s a lesson worth heeding.

Image: Checkpoint 300 in Jerusalem. Courtesy of Andrew E. Larsen, used under Creative Commons Licence.

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