A last lesson from the Holocaust: 'thou shalt not be a perpetrator, victim or a bystander'

April 19, 2002

Comparing current events in the Middle East to the Holocaust is misleading and counterproductive and perpetuates a tendency among Jews to think and act like victims, argues David Cesarani

During a recent fact-finding visit to the stricken West Bank, José Saramago, a Nobel prize-winning Portuguese writer, outraged Israelis by comparing the situation in Ramallah to Auschwitz. A few days later, after several synagogues in France were fire-bombed, probably by French Muslims, a leader of the French Jewish community likened the attacks to Kristallnacht , the Nazi pogrom against the German Jews in November 1938. Clearly, both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict feel compelled to invoke the Holocaust. But does this do any good?

Commenting on both incidents in the Jerusalem Post , Robert Rozett, the director of the library at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial and museum devoted to the Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews, objected to the abuse of the term Holocaust. Rozett pointed out that "any objective and reasonable observer can see immediately that Ramallah is not an extermination camp or part of a larger policy of systematic mass murder of an entire people". Kristallnacht was "a violent riot sponsored by the German government. As much as anti-Semitism in France is worrying, it is not an expression of official policy and has not been orchestrated by the government".

Rozett concluded: "The instrumentalisation of the Holocaust and the terminology associated with it obscures the real issues and ramifications of mass murder. It dulls our senses to events in the world that truly demand comparison to the Holocaust. Moreover, it desecrates the memory of the victims and trivialises the crimes of the perpetrators." Sadly, the practice of misappropriating history is deeply rooted among Jews in Israel and the diaspora, as well as among those opposed to Israel's policies or its existence. History, language and psychology are fatally intertwined in the Middle East.

The Nazi assault on the Jews, known in Israel as the Shoah, overshadowed the birth of the state. Over a quarter of its population in 1950 comprised survivors of Nazi persecution. The ghetto fighters were integrated into the self-image and outlook of the new Israeli Jew as farmer, worker, and warrior. Reminders of the catastrophe were never far away. The Nazi years erupted into Israeli politics, with violent debates over the acceptance of reparations from West Germany and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Bonn. A controversial law was passed to enable the trial of kapos , Jews who had collaborated with Nazi camp guards. There was a ferocious legal battle over the reputation of Rudolf Kasztner, a Hungarian Jewish leader who was accused of collaboration. Kasztner was later assassinated.

In 1953 the government ordained a day of commemoration around the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and decreed the establishment of Yad Yashem, instructively called the Memorial Authority for Martyrs and Heroes. This dichotomy typified the Israeli perception of the Nazi years. It was held that most Jews went like lambs to the slaughter in a chapter best forgotten, while a few deserved to be celebrated for their resistance. The destruction of the European Jews was taken as proof that anti-Semitism was a perpetual scourge, that the diaspora was a condition of powerlessness and that the Final Solution had been a tragedy waiting to happen. Israel was the answer to Jewish powerlessness.

When Adolf Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents in May 1960 and brought to Israel, the prime minister, Ben Gurion, determined that Eichmann's trial would be used to teach Israelis and the world a lesson about the Jewish tragedy. But the Eichmann trial had unexpected results. It gave a platform for survivors to tell their stories and explain how they had resisted in many ways a regime of such malevolence that it defied reasoned responses. Young Israelis felt sympathy with them. The experience of international isolation and the fear of destruction in the wars of 1967 and 1973 intensified this identification. Gradually, Israel was colonised by the mentalities of the diaspora that it had been founded to overturn.

The sympathetic identification with the Jewish victims of Nazism emerged fully in the 1980s under the incitement of Menachem Begin. In 1982 he compared Arafat to Hitler and dubbed Beirut his "bunker". It was Ariel Sharon who led Israeli troops into a bloody siege to exorcise the phantasm of Hitler-Arafat. Despite admonitions from intellectuals and survivors that this was a gross misuse of the Holocaust, the "lesson" was subsequently reinforced by educational initiatives that annually took hundreds of Israeli teenagers on tours of death camps in Poland. In 1993 I saw scores of them tramping through Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Israeli flag draped around their shoulders. For them the slogan "Remember" was a validation of Israeli power.

The very meaning of Israel and Zionism was distorted by this emphasis on the Shoah. Instead of seeing Zionism as a late-19th century secular, national liberation movement that aspired to build a socialist utopia in the ancestral homeland of the Jews, Israel was seen as merely a retort to European anti-Semitism and a bastion against the next wave of Nazis. Sovereignty and power were cultivated as the "lesson" of the Holocaust.

Yet there was always a counter-narrative drawing on the same experiences, especially after 1967, and the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza strip. Survivors and former refugees, such as Uri Avnery, led the calls for Israel to disavow occupation. To them, the rise of Hitler proved the importance of defending pluralism and democracy in Israel against ultra-nationalist and messianic settler groups. The subsequent history of the Third Reich taught that occupation breeds racism and brutalises the occupier. In 1982 a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, Shlomo Schmelzman, went on hunger strike at the entrance to Yad Vashem to protest against the use of his suffering to justify the bombardment of Beirut. The poet A. B. Yehoshua declared that after observing Israelis living with the occupation he could understand Germans who did not "know" about the persecution of the Jews.

The fight against distortion in Israel was carried out simultaneously with the struggle against a wider perversion. The USSR routinely obscured the anti-Jewish thrust of Nazi policy to avoid creating sympathy for "bourgeois" Zionism. When several Arab states became Russia's cold war allies, its propaganda spread the canard of ideological and practical collaboration between Zionism and Nazism. This campaign culminated in 1974 with the United Nations' adoption of a resolution equating Zionism with racism. Twenty years later the UN rescinded the resolution and apologised to Israel, but it had influenced generations.

Ironically, the left and the right shared a determination to denigrate and relativise the Nazi genocide. German nationalists and neo-Nazis argued that the Final Solution was only one among many genocides and that the Jews were engaged in special pleading. This line is understandably popular in the Arab world and among Muslims who have lionised Norman Finkelstein for his polemic The Holocaust Industry that takes it to an extreme. However, some Arab intellectuals have recently argued that for the Palestinians to be seen as the "victims of the victims", and to use the moral leverage of Jewish suffering for their own cause, it is essential to get the story of the Holocaust right.

So we have travelled full circle. Even dedicated anti-Zionists see the danger of misusing the "terminology of the Holocaust" when it is clearly inappropriate. It may make good shock propaganda to call the refugee camps "ghettos" and to dub the invasion of the Palestinian-administered areas a "Holocaust", but it dismays fair-minded people and alienates Jews who simply ascribe the hyperbole to eternal malevolence. The evidence suggests, rather, that instead of playing around with words it is more effective to acknowledge and respect the unprecedented suffering of the Jews in the mid-20th century and then draw the moral lessons from this.

Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust historian, has argued that in the light of the Shoah it is time to adopt three more commandments: "Thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never but never be a bystander". Most Israelis want to end the occupation, and abhor the role of perpetrator that sooner or later inevitably befalls the occupier, but they are determined not to be victims again either. If the world wants to avoid being a bystander, it needs to convince Jews that they do not face an existential threat and so stop them thinking and acting like victims.

In October 2001, the Palestinian leader Sari Nusseibeh castigated the policy of violent intifada and told a Jerusalem audience: "The secret is to get the Israelis to side with you." Amid the debris and horror of the latest onslaught against the Palestinians it may seem far-fetched to seek any degree of mutual understanding. But the curse of the Shoah means that Jews respond poorly to bombs or boycotts. It is possible to deny or relativise the Holocaust, but not to deny or relativise the pain that Jews feel when they confront their history. Doing so will only aggravate the trauma and shut down the possibility of empathy with a neighbouring people that has suffered dispossession, occupation, and massacre.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University and director of the AHRB Parkes Centre for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations. He is currently writing a book about the life, crimes and legacy of Adolf Eichmann.

Would boycotts of Israel help or inflame the Middle East crisis? Join the debate on www.thes.co.uk/commonroom

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