Jewish pain is Zionist gain

Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood - Beyond Chutzpah
September 22, 2006

To Sir Iqbal Sacranie and the Muslim Council of Britain, commemoration of the Nazi genocide against the Jews of Europe is largely a device to engender sympathy for Israel. When the MCB's refusal to participate in Holocaust Memorial Day led to hints of prejudice this fed the conviction that the charge of anti-Semitism was being used to shield Israel from criticism.

These two books by Idith Zertal (translated by Chaya Galai) and Norman Finkelstein, both critics of Zionism, Israeli policy and the so-called "Holocaust industry", will comfort those who share this point of view. Zertal argues that "through a dialectical process of appropriation and exclusion, remembering and forgetting, Israeli society has defined itself in relation to the Holocaust". The ramifications of this go beyond the formation of national identity. By centring the nation's selfhood on Auschwitz, "Israel has rendered herself immune to criticism and impervious to a rational dialogue with the world around her".

In several case studies, Zertal establishes a rhetorical nexus between death, memory and territory in Israel's national story. The fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, as much as the endurance of the early settlers, was edited to produce a Zionist message. Much was left out, embroidered and even falsified. A selective narrative of the Nazi genocide was articulated in the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950 that empowered the state to prosecute Jews accused of low-level collaboration in occupied Europe, while exempting the Jewish leadership. The explicit intention was to deal with denunciations among the survivor population, but Zertal maintains that the law was really intended to assuage the guilt of Jews who lived out the war in Palestine and "purify" the new nation of supposedly corrupt elements from the diaspora.

Zertal claims that David Ben-Gurion decided to use the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961-62 to end the "silence" that had shrouded the past. He turned the trial into a morality play that demonstrated the need for Jewish statehood and took every opportunity to identify Arab countries with Nazism. By bringing the Holocaust into politics Ben-Gurion helped turn Israel "from a secular, nationally mobilised and collectivist society into a messianic-like entity displaying religious and meta-historic features".

In June 1967, Jews refracted the threat of war and the relief of victory through the Holocaust. A quantifiable military success became the miraculous deliverance from annihilation. From this point it became increasingly common for Israeli politicians to transpose Auschwitz onto local conflicts. Zertal provides numerous examples that illustrate the blatant misuse of history, culminating in the portrayal of Yitzhak Rabin as a Nazi, but her critique is only half the story.

During the decades when socialist Zionism was hegemonic, national redemption also hinged rhetorically on the "conquest" of the land through labour. Zertal ignores rival interpretations of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, although Jewish socialists, writing for the national press in Britain in 1943, drew parallels with the struggle of the Red Army. This line may have been marginal in Palestine but it is reductive to suggest that there was only ever one, Zionist version.

Unfortunately, Zertal is a reductionist and this leads her into self-contradiction. She insists that there was a "silence" about the Holocaust during Israel's early years and laments the "powerlessness" of the survivors to challenge it. However, she herself mentions several survivors who became prominent members of the Knesset and took part in the controversies about the Nazi era that rocked Israeli society.

The notion that Ben-Gurion set out to break the "silence" has been disproved by Hannah Yablonka, whose study of the Eichmann trial showed that Ben-Gurion was prodded into abducting Eichmann and realised the potential of a judicial process only after the operation met with success. As for dragging the Nazis into the Middle East, it is worth recalling that Anthony Eden liked to compare Nasser to Hitler. Israelis were not alone in misappropriating history.

Zertal constantly writes about Israel as if it were a unique case. But George Mosse brilliantly demonstrated that every European nation compensated for the mass slaughter of its menfolk in warfare by evolving comforting myths of transcendence and redemption. She repetitively summons egregious examples to prove her case that Israel is in thrall to Thanatos and all Israeli political discourse boils down to Auschwitz. Yet it was the suicide bombers who said that their tactic would ultimately succeed against the Israelis because "they love life but we love death". Zertal's dissection of myth and rhetoric can be acute, but it is partial.

Norman Finkelstein, by contrast, makes Zertal look like a paragon of even-handedness. In his book there are no defenders or advocates of Israel, only "apologists". According to him, there is a "consensus" that Israel was founded on ethnic cleansing and is systematically violating the human rights of Palestinians for the sake of perpetuating its occupation of their land. There is hardly a reference to the conflict between the two peoples that may explain the atrocities perpetrated on both sides.

Having conjured a "consensus", Finkelstein concludes that the only reason for not concurring is belief in the fallacy that the Middle East conflict defies rational analysis. Alternatively, critics are cowed by misuse of the Holocaust, which is used to justify any of Israel's security measures and the insincere accusation that criticism must be anti-Semitic. Finkelstein scores many hits on those who have branded criticism of Israel the "new anti-Semitism", but he acknowledges that there is "spill-over" from the Middle East. His response is not to challenge this wave of anti-Jewish feeling. Instead, he in effect endorses it and demands that Jews desist from supporting Israel if they want to avoid abuse and assault. Worse, he contributes to the febrile atmosphere with claims that powerful American Jews engaged in "a conspiracy" to "blackmail Europe" into paying reparations to Holocaust victims and their heirs.

Finkelstein holds that any publication or research defying the supposed "consensus" must rest on fraudulent evidence, and that such fabrications escape exposure only thanks to pro-Israel reviewers and scholars. This would be a grave charge, except that there is no "consensus" of the kind he identifies -scholars and experts who are not the victims of delusion or misinformation vigorously contest the history of Israel and its current policies. But Finkelstein's target is the work of ideologues, hacks, lobbyists and propagandists who vulgarise public discourse in America with their simplifications and distortions. His main bugbear is the lawyer Alan Dershowitz whose book, The Case for Israel , was a bestseller. Finkelstein demolishes it line by line, but there is nothing edifying in this. It is rather like watching two scorpions fighting in a bucket.

David Cesarani is research professor in history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood

Author - Idith Zertal
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 236
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 521 85096 7

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