During Operation Cast Lead in the beginning of 2009 I received a few emails forwarded to me from an old Muslim friend from university in protest of the Israeli assault on the Gaza strip. I was in Israel at the time as I had just made Aliyah in Jerusalem where it was completely quiet; you wouldn’t have known that there was a war going on at all. Apart from when one read the news or received a call from an Israeli friend who told you that they were going to Gaza, and being new to the country and being very frustrated by all the bureaucratic tasks that you have been told you need to complete and not knowing where to go, the news that someone you know has to drop whatever it is they are doing and go to fight in a war is a bit of a strange thing to digest and harder as to how to respond from putting aside frustration and become concerned instead.
Returning to these emails that I received from my old friend, one of them was full of photos drawing a comparison between how the Nazis treated the Jews to that of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the headline at the top of the presentation read:
“THE IRONY OF HUMAN HISTORY-THE HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS FROM WORLD WAR II ARE DOING TO THE PALESTINIANS EXACTLY WHAT WAS DONE TO THEM BY NAZI GERMANY…AND EVEN MORE”
With forty-two pictures similar to the one above attempting through images presented out of their context drawing a comparison between Palestinian suffering and the Nazi Holocaust.
The Holocaust has become a weapon used by both Israelis and Palestinians in their conflict with one another. Firstly, lets look at the use of the Holocaust from Israel’s perspective. It is the biggest soft spot for the Jewish people today, it is also believed to be one of the biggest justifications for the establishment of the state of Israel, however, Zionism does not base Jewish claims to statehood on Jewish suffering but on either historic or religious claims, many believe that the movements success in achieving the objective of a state was a result of the Holocaust.
Palestinians however view the creation of the state of Israel as the Nakhba (catastrophe). Where around 750,000 Palestinians became refugees and lost their homes. For many years and in some instances still today the reason for this is still disputed by mostly pro Zionist historians. The Palestinian narrative claims that they fled in fear and hoped to return when the war was over only to find that they were not allowed to return, that Israelis had taken their homes or that they were destroyed. They also claim that many Palestinians did not leave but were expelled by Israeli forces from their villages.
The traditional Zionist narrative will claim that they were not expelled unless they had decided to attack the Jews when they were attempting to advance their positions, as well as that those who fled were fleeing at the call of the Arab leaders saying that they will soon return after they drive the ‘Jews into the sea,’ and that they are denied the right to return to their homes (even if they still exist) as punishment for siding with the enemy and that to do so would be irresponsible regarding Israel’s security.
This issue has been raised within the negotiations on a peace settlement where for Israel it is very much so a closed issue, viewing justice through their right to return as detrimental to the demographic make up of Israel and will affect the Jewish character of the state, Israel is willing to compensate refugees from that war and propose that they be resettled in a future Palestinian state. The traditional Zionist narrative will also mention how local Jews pleaded the Arabs to stay. Some pro Israel activists will counter the claim for compensation for Arab displacement with claims for compensation for Jewish expulsion from Arab lands during the same conflict where almost one million Jews from various Arab lands left or were forced to leave their homes as a result of the conflict with Israel.
They are most likely both correct in their claims, not all Palestinians fled for the same reasons, some may have been responding to a call to wage war against the Jews, others fled out of fear and some were expelled. This is the most catastrophic event for the Palestinians and unfortunately is the opposite for the Jews, Israeli independence marked justice and redemption for one people and an injustice to another.
For many years post Israeli independence, the world was by and large sympathetic to the Jewish position and accepted the Israeli narrative to history, particularly in light of the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. The Jewish people pledged that ‘Never Again’ would there be another Holocaust (well at least not to the Jews) and have gone to extraordinary lengths to remind the world of the evils of Nazism and to remember the six million Jews who were murdered in the ghettos and concentration camps as well as the importance of the existence of the state of Israel to ensure Jewish security.
Norman Finkelstein was the first to speak of Jewish exploitation of the Holocaust in his book The Holocaust Industry1, where he argued that the memory of the Holocaust was being used by Jewish organisations and Israel for financial and political gain. Finkelstein’s book claims that the Holocaust is used by Israel and Jews to justify Israeli oppression of the Palestinians through silencing criticism of Israel through accusations of a ‘New anti-Semitism’.
Both Israelis and Palestinians view themselves as the victim. And the difficult thing is that they both are. The Palestinians have responded in a number of different ways to Israel’s self-perception of victimhood. Some feel that what the Nazis did to the Jews was terrible, but why should the Palestinians suffer and pay the price? This argument seems quite reasonable, however it also raises other questions that threaten Zionist interests, the statement can be interpreted as that Israel only exists because of the Holocaust and denying Jews any historical claim to the land. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad suggested that a Jewish state be established in Europe, as they are the ones who persecuted the Jews.
Israel being a very small country and also as a result of its history of conflict is also to some extent paranoid. It is considered to be very fragile and any attempt that may be perceived to be challenging its legitimacy or what justifies its existence would be attacked. Israel’s narrative with the Holocaust seeming to justify its creation was by default denying the Palestinians not only their own traumatic experience but also the ability to call for justice for it.
Some pro Israel narratives will also link the Palestinians as the heirs of Nazism, by pointing to the alliance between Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and Adolf Hitler during the Second World War. This fact has not done the Palestinian people any favours, but has been exploited so as to claim that Palestinian society has been infected with Nazism like a virus having been transmitted. This certainly does not work out very well with the fact that Holocaust education takes place in Israel mostly during ones teenage years (as is also the case outside of Israel), including thousands of Israeli teenagers going to Poland. These experiences occur not long before most Israelis go to the army at the age of 18. One can only imagine how dealing with ones emotions when learning about the Holocaust can at times be very difficult to digest, and for some to be taking on board the linkage between the Palestinian leadership at the time and the Nazis not long before they are drafted can motivate one to see a legitimate target to gain some revenge.
Palestinians are in a very difficult position, for the facts here on this issue has provided the Zionists with a loaded argument against them, and to the extent that this has been cited by some to deny them the right to a state of their own at all, hence demonizing them as the new Nazis, who want to destroy Israel and are now raising new generations to hate with the help of newly discovered European anti-Semitic propaganda such as the Protocol’s of the Elders of Zion.
In the early years of Israels history any mention of Palestinian suffering and calls for justice would often be ignored. Calls for justice for people losing their homes seemed ridiculous to many Israelis. How could one call what happened to them suffering when the Nazis rounded up Jews, stole all their property, put them into ghettos, took away their names and gave them numbers, enslaved them, put them into concentration camps, took everything they owned, including teeth and hair, used them for medical experiments, made Jews kill Jews, burn them and use their ashes as fertilizer. What happened to the Palestinians seemed like a means to an end and a necessary evil that they would get over and find new homes. Many on the Israeli right and even some on the Israeli left in the past will still put forward the argument that the Palestinians were already given a state in Jordan and that they should go and live in it.
The Palestinians did not suffer as badly as the Jews did in the Holocaust as well as thousands of years of persecution behind them, it is no wonder that the Palestinians felt that perhaps in order to wake the world, Israel and the Jews up and act they need to convince people that their suffering is equal to that of the Jews suffering under the Nazis. This argument I believe is not a good tactic, however I can understand why it may have been adopted. The amount of times we see adaptations of the Israeli flag with a swastika in the place of the Magen David, or use of the terminology generally used to describe the Holocaust being used to describe Palestinian suffering, such as claims that a genocide took place in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield and that Israeli soldiers were throwing the Palestinian dead into mass graves, or cartoons comparing Israeli leaders to Hitler.
Trying to make a comparison between Palestinian suffering under Israel and Jewish suffering under the Nazis is one tactic Palestinian propagandists have employed by making use of the Holocaust and it has had a certain element of success. The claim coincides well with Freud’s theory of repetition; if someone is bullied then it is likely that in the future they will bully others. This theory can also be very appealing to Europeans in particular as it offers them the opportunity to not have to feel guilty for either collaborating with the Nazis during the war by handing over their Jewish populations or for not doing enough to try to save them. Coupled with alleged Jewish exploitation of that guilt. Germany continues to pay reparations to victims and to Israel, more than half a century after the war has ended. It may be one of the key factors that changed public opinion further towards sympathy with the Palestinians, particularly after the Six-day war in 1967.
Another tactic has been to join the bandwagon of Holocaust denial, and to attempt to downplay the suffering of the Jews so as to make people less sympathetic towards them. Even moderate Palestinians have been involved in such activities including president Mahmud Abbas, who wrote his doctoral dissertation titled Relations between Zionism and Nazism: 1933 – 1945 asserting that the Holocaust was a Zionist fantasy, that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis has been inflated by Zionists to increase their support and that the actual number is closer to a few hundred thousand and that they were murdered as part of a Zionist-Nazi plot. His thesis was then published into a book titled The Other Side: the Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism. In the mid 1990’s he gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper Maariv to clarify his position on the Holocaust to which he responded:
“When I wrote The Other Side…we were at war with Israel,” “Today I would not have made such remarks…Today there is peace and what I write from now on must help advance the peace process.”2
But for many Israelis all these efforts to equate Palestinian suffering with the Holocaust or claims that downplayed or denied the Holocaust or attempted to forge a link between the Zionist movement and the Nazi regime only further supported the narrative that the Palestinians would become the heirs to the Nazis as a result of the Mufti-Hitler alliance and what would follow. Trying to convince Jews that the state that seeks to protect them was behind the Holocaust is hard enough a claim to persuade Jews to accept coming from a Jew, it would have been nearly impossible to expect the Jewish masses to have even been willing to allow someone making such a suggestion a platform to speak, particularly Palestinians who were at war with the Israelis.
Jews have put literature exposing incidents and links between the Zionist movement and the Nazis forward too, with little success in persuading the majority. Ben Hecht wrote a very controversial book titled Perfidy3 writing about a trial that took place in the 1950’s in Israel that had accused Rudolf Kastner a representative of the Jewish Agency’s rescue committee of making a deal with senior Nazi officials to tell the one million odd Jews in Hungary to quietly get on the trains and that they were going to be relocated and it would be OK, but in fact the trains were going straight to Auschwitz, in exchange for saving nearly 1000 Hungarian Jews, mostly Kastners friends, family, members of his community and other like minded Zionist Jews. Kastner would become known as a hero who saved 1000 Jews on what was known as ‘the Kastner train’ and the Nazis who made the deal would have something that they could use to claim that they had attempted to save Jews after the war and avoid punishment at Nuremberg. He sacrificed the many to save the few. The Kastner affair was also discussed by Israeli historian, Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million, The Israelis and the Holocaust4. Kastners legacy today is now debated amongst scholars and he is not a name that is particularly well known, nor this story. The party in the book that come out on top and the most innocent and righteous are actually the Revisionist Zionists. Some have accused it of being a conspiracy theory and an attempt to slam the Zionist left by their opposition.
Former Knesset speaker and head of the Jewish Agency, Avraham Burg discusses the damage caused to Israel by Jews and Israel claiming ownership over the Holocaust and that it has not only made Israelis and Jews unable to see the suffering of the Palestinians but has subsequently led to Israel remaining indifferent to, denying other peoples genocides, not speaking out against them or even collaboration with such atrocities. Including Israel allying herself with the Serbs in Yugoslavia, not recognizing the one million Armenians massacred by the Turks, an event that inspired Hitler to carry out the ‘Final Solution’ against the Jews, not speaking up against China’s occupation of Tibet, nor against the one million Tutsi murdered in one week by machetes at the hands of the Hutu in Rwanda. Concluding that:
“During the past decade, the nations of the world internalized the profound meaning of the European Holocaust. They came to understand what we in Israel have not yet understood: the denier of the others holocaust will eventually have his own holocaust denied. Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, a brave anti-Nazi theologian, wrote a bitter song, often mistakenly attributed to Bertold Brecht, expressing the idea that if we didn’t speak up for others, there would be no one to speak up for us.”5
(Burg, A 2008:166)
The culture of de-legitimization has occurred on both sides not only with regard to Holocaust denial or Nakba denial, which Israel recently made commemorating the Nakba illegal, which I suppose is for the Palestinians the equivalent of suggesting that ceremonies on Holocaust memorial day be banned as well as Yom Haatzmaut celebrations. The denial of ones claims to the land goes beyond that of claims based on suffering but also on historical and genetic claims of being the indigenous people to the land.
Syrian President Assad used Arthur Koestlers book The Thirteenth Tribe6 about the Khazars, arguing that Ashkenazi Jews descend from Khazars, are of Turkic origins and have no claim of descent from the Biblical Hebrews. The book was originally written with the intention to discredit Nazi Race theory that Jews were somehow racially different in origin. The argument also attempts to define a Jew as someone who is a member of a religion and that a religious group are not a nation and therefore do not have a right to self-determination.
Zionists have their own claims that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, that Palestine is a term that the Romans invented to refer to the land of Israel to strip it of its Jewish identity, that the last indigenous people to have had independence in the land were the Jews and that it has been ruled by various empires ever since who had no right to the land in the first place. The term Palestinian before 1948 was also used more often than not to refer to the Jews living in Palestine, not the Arabs, and that the Arabs living in Palestine did not have a collective national consciousness before Israel existed but considered Palestine to be part of greater Syria. They claim that the Palestinians are not an historic nation like the Jews are, there was never a Palestinian state and that their identity as a people is a modern construct and that many of them are descendants of the empires that settled there over the years, as well as an increase in Arab immigration to Palestine as a result of the growth of the Yishuv and therefore the economy too.
Ariel Sharon illustrated the last point in his autobiography, when addressing an Israeli Arab audience, arguing that Israeli Arabs need to become full partners as citizens of Israel, including bearing the duties of all other Israelis, including military service, which was received with protest by many in the audience:
“ “So what citizens are we supposed to be then? Somebody else asked. “Be Palestinian citizens, citizens of the Palestinian state residing in Israel. Nobody will harm you, any more than anyone harms any other residents here.” “And what if we don’t like that idea?” “That is up to you,” I answered. “Sell your property, go somewhere else, stay here, live as inhabitants. But you cannot dictate what government we will have here unless you bear all the burdens. Equal rights, equal duties.”
At that point a young man made himself heard above the din. “What do you mean?” he said. “Why should we be residents? We were here long before you were.” “Where are you from?” I asked. “From Kfar Kara.” I knew Kfar Kara well, so I said, “What do you mean, you came here earlier than we did? What is your name?” “Masarwa!” he shouted back. “Yes,” I said (Masarwa is an Egyptian name, a common one in Kfar Kara), “your family came here from Egypt about 140 years ago. You were brought her by Ibrahim Ali, the Egyptian pasha who settled most of these villages then.” At this point the crowd quieted down.”7
(Sharon, A 1989: 546)
There is an element of truth behind both claims, but even more interesting is that these claims against each other (well at least the Zionist claims) were also not such widely held views in the past. The Zionist movement originally believed the local Arabs particularly the fellahin (the peasantry) to actually be the descendants of the biblical Israelites like themselves who had remained on the land whilst the other Jews were sent into exile but over time had converted to Christianity and Islam and had assimilated into the Arabic culture. Palestinians today often accept this belief but are not willing to rediscover their Jewish, Hebrew and Israelite heritage, a peace proposal put forward known as the ‘Engagement plan’ by Tsvi Misinai8.
The question that comes to mind is whether or not Palestinians may have attempted to deny the Holocaust because Jews were exploiting it or not? As a tactic it is doomed to failure and has only strengthened the Israeli right. The conflict between Jews and Arabs is bad and perhaps Jews as a result of their own suffering weren’t able to notice that they had hurt others indirectly, whilst they were trying to save themselves. Palestinian scholar, Rashid Khalidi, describes it as:
“The Jews of Europe were jumping out of a burning building, and no one can blame them for doing so. But they landed on other people. They landed on the Palestinians, and for that the Jews have to right their wrong.”
But they have not righted their wrong and instead of apologizing and helping them up they have continued to beat the injured people.
Or similarly as Law Professor at Tel Aviv university Chaim Gans compares it to that of a mortally wounded person who has no way of saving his life other than by breaking into a pharmacy to steal the required medicine.9
These may be relatively good analogies of the issue, but the way that the Jews feel about the Palestinians does not compare to what the Nazis thought of or did to the Jews. That is not to say that there aren’t racist Jews and racist Arabs, one finds such people in every society. The Nazis not only wanted to wipe out the Jews, but also to eliminate any influence that Jews may have had on their culture, simply anything to do with Jews, including having given birth to Christianity.
Israelis not only have things in common with Arabs but Israeli culture is very influenced by Arabic culture and no one is attempting to eradicate its influences, Israelis are not burning books written by Arabs, Israelis even use Arabic words in their day to day speech (not only when soldiers are on duty at checkpoints), as well as eating the same food. Did Nazi Germany allow for such places like Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace, a Jewish and Arab village in Israel) to exist in Germany for Jews and Germans to attempt to coexist? Did Nazi Germany have its own versions of B’Tselem or Machsom (checkpoint) Watch to observe whether or not the Nazis were violating human rights? Or was it possible for there to be Jewish political parties elected to the German government during the Nazi era, or recognition of Yiddish or Hebrew as an official language of Germany? In Israel there are no concentration camps, gas chambers or crematoriums.
There are similarities in their oppression, particularly with regard to humiliation and restricted freedom of movement, expression, civil and political rights and many other rights. The Palestinians have and are suffering, and it does need to be recognized and many Israelis and Jews recognize that suffering and do not want to occupy them, and want them to have a state of their own but they do have legitimate concerns for their security as well. All of Israel’s major political parties do not advocate transferring the Palestinians to other countries and certainly not of systematically planning to wipe them all out. Even Binyamin Netanyahu has conceded to accepting the establishment of a Palestinian state on condition that it be de-militarized. The Israeli Palestinian conflict is tragic more than anything else. There are those on both sides who want to just live in peace, but it will require both sides to recognize each others suffering.
De-legitimization and non-recognition must stop. I titled this piece “Where Palestinian propagandists went wrong,” whilst I realise that some Israelis and Jews too need to open their eyes and become more sensitive to the suffering of Palestinians, of which Israel is partly responsible, jumping on the bandwagon of Holocaust denial has done them no favours and unfortunately comparing their suffering to what the Jews suffered under the Nazis has and will probably still be regarded as not only ridiculous by many Jews and some non-Jews but also taken as an insult. Both sides at times have attempted to find a link accusing one another of being the heirs to Nazism, which is extremely unhelpful towards building the foundations for a peace settlement as it only serves to dehumanize the other.
I am sure that unfortunately there will be more operations and wars in the future, I can recognize the suffering of the Palestinians and be critical of Israel’s policies, but there are Jews and Israelis that have difficulty not seeing themselves as always being the victim, so I am asking Palestinians for both of our sakes to not bring the Holocaust into it. Please recognize that some of us are still traumatized and paranoid, it will only upset and anger them more and further reinforces their new fears that you want to “drive them into the sea.” Israeli author Amos Oz put it:
“Very often Arabs, even some sensitive Arabs, fail to see us as what we, Israeli Jews, really are – a bunch of half-hysterical refugees and survivors, haunted by dreadful nightmares, traumatised not only by Europe but also by the way we were treated in Arabic and Islamic countries. Half the population of Israel are people who were kicked out of Arabic and Islamic countries. Israel is indeed one large Jewish refugee camp.”10
(Oz, A 2004:19)
Such a request will obviously not be taken into consideration by the hardliners, but to the reasonable, moderate Palestinians I ask that the next time the Israeli government decides to do something disproportionate that causes many civilian deaths and casualties, please protest, please tell the world the terrible stories as I am in no way condoning Israel’s actions and you should know that it pains many Israelis and Jews to see it too. But please do not compare it to the Nazi Holocaust or as the email I received described it as “Exactly what was done to them by Nazi Germany… and even more.”
1 Finkelstein, N (2000) The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Verso: United States/United Kingdom.
2 Ernst Zundel: 1970s-1990s: Beginnings of Denial in Middle East Anti-Defamation League, 2001.
3 Hecht B (1961) Perfidy, Julian Messner Inc: Israel
4 Segev, T (2000) The Seventh Million, This Israelis and the Holocaust, Owl books: United States.
5 Burg, A (2008) The Holocaust is over; we muse rise from its ashes, Palgrave Macmillan: United States
6 Koestler, A (1976) The Thirteenth Tribe, Hutchinson and Co ltd: Great Britain
7 Sharon, A, with Chanoff, D (1989) Warrior, Simon and Schuster, Inc: New York
8 Misinai, T (2008) Brother Shall not Lift Sword against Brother: The Roots and Solution to the Problem in the Holy Land, Liad publishing: USA
9 Gans, C (2008) A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish state, Oxford University Press: United States.
10 Oz, A (2004) Help us to divorce: Israel and Palestine: Between Right and Right, Vintage: Great Britain