Gaza is not Warsaw
The comparison of Israel to the Nazis sums up the childish and dangerous ‘binary thinking’ that is rife in international affairs today.
Denouncing Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories as brutal ‘Zio-Nazism’, as a genocidal project and a process of inhumane ghettoisation akin to the experience of the Jews in 1940s Europe, is not new. But over the past week, such shrill and inaccurate historical equating has sunk to a newly degenerate level.
From the London protesters who called for an end to ‘the final solution’ in Palestine, to the former London mayor Ken Livingstone who said that the Israelis ‘will continue to create a Warsaw Ghetto in the Middle East’, anti-Israel campaigners are lazily using images of Nazi atrocities as readymade symbols of human oppression. They are doing it in order to denounce the violence in Gaza, which, however desperate, bears no resemblance in either form or scale to the Holocaust, the greatest crime of the twentieth century. As David Aaronovitch argued in The Times (London), the comparisons with the Warsaw Ghetto are ‘philistine’ (1).
Looking at the Middle East conflict from the outside, it might be tempting to fall back on shoving Jews, Nazis, Israelis and Palestinians into one simple narrative instead of going through the trouble of understanding what went on back then or what is going on right now. Some anti-Israel campaigners also find a perverse satisfaction in throwing the Jews’ recent tragic history back in their faces, with slogans like ‘Zionism = Nazism’, ‘Israel: The Fourth Reich’, and ‘from oppressed to oppressors’. These, by now tired, clichés can easily fit on to placards and plant a powerfully simplistic image in people’s minds of Jews ‘doing onto others what was done to them’.
As Aaronovitch rightly says: ‘This ahistorical hyperbole is… the product of a kind of binary thinking, the belief that there can only be two kinds of anything, and two possible responses: there’s the good and the bad; there’s the victim and the murderer.’ (2)
However, it is not only the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians that is understood through ‘binary thinking’ these days, and reduced to ‘good and bad, victim and murderer’. Disparate contemporary conflicts, each with complex roots and circumstances, are routinely transformed into black-and-white morality tales and likened to the Holocaust – think Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. And anyone who questions this representation, and argues that however awful these conflicts are they cannot be compared with the Holocaust, will likely be labelled a ‘denier’. That accusation also comes straight out of debates around Nazi crimes, evoking the phrase ‘Holocaust denier’. The reduction of Israel/Palestine to a simple, binary morality tale looks like the logical conclusion to the recent moralisation of international affairs.
Undoubtedly, Gazans are suffering terribly. Civilians are being maimed and killed, property is being destroyed, and any hopes of leading a normal life in Gaza have been crushed for the foreseeable future. Yet even a brief examination of what went on in the Warsaw Ghetto shows just how ignorant and opportunistic the Holocaust comparisons are.
Between 1941 and 1943 the population of the Warsaw Ghetto dropped from an estimated 380,000 to 70,000 as a result of starvation, disease and deportations to concentration and extermination camps (3). The rate of starvation in the ghetto was over 4,000 a month. In 1942, mass expulsion of the ghetto inhabitants began at a rate of over 5,000 Jews a day. Only some 55,000 remained in the ghetto. Some decided to resist, but the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was crushed after four weeks. According to German figures – which may have understated the resistance fighters’ resources yet still revealed their poor odds of winning any victory – the Nazis captured nine rifles, 59 pistols, and several hundred grenades, explosives and mines. Seven thousand of the captured Jews were shot, 22,000 were transported to death camps (4).
Israel is not dotted with labour camps and gas chambers, there is no plan to exterminate the Palestinians. Israel’s leadership has repeatedly said that their enemy is Hamas, not the Palestinian people, who are given advance warning of bombings through leaflets and mobile phone messages. It has been reported that Israel is offering some injured Gazans hospital treatment, which is certainly not something the Nazis ever did for Jews. None of that remotely justifies Israel’s bombing campaign, but it shows clearly that the Israelis cannot be compared to the Nazis who ghettoised Jews in Warsaw.
Some Jews, too, have compared Israelis with Nazis, and the Israel Defense Forces with the SS. The right-wing Jewish settlers who were deported from Gaza under then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s ‘disengagement plan’ wore orange Star of David patches similar to the yellow ones that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. They accused the IDF soldiers overseeing the evacuation of acting like Nazis.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Tony Greenstein, who describes himself as ‘socialist, anti-Zionist, anti-racist’, said to anti-Israel demonstrators in Brighton, England, last weekend: ‘The Gazan Palestinians are no different in kind from the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and it is no surprise that the Zionists, who collaborated with the Nazis during the war, should now seek to ape the persecutors of the Jews.’ (5)
Greenstein spoke ‘as a Jewish opponent of Zionism and their terror bombing of Gaza’ (6). The irony is that he has no qualms about rehashing a worn-out conspiracy theory, while defiling the memory of the Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and denigrating Palestinians by turning them into objects of a vicarious Western pity.
The Holocaust has become cheap currency in contemporary debates about international affairs. Even some of the commentators who now denounce any comparison between the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Holocaust have not hesitated to apply the analogy in other ways. David Aaronovitch and many others applied ‘binary thinking’ to Bosnia, arguing: ‘In front of our eyes, just about, with our full knowledge, thousands were taken to European fields — just as they had been 50 years earlier — and murdered en masse. It was the most shaming moment of my life. We had let it happen again.’ (7)
Meanwhile, the pro-Israel columnist Melanie Philips, while criticising the idea that Palestinians are being subjected to a planned extermination, has no qualms about calling Hamas’ rocket-firing a ‘truly genocidal assault upon [Israel’s] citizens’ (8).
Jewish organisations have also interpreted the term ‘genocide’ generously, often insisting that they have a special responsibility to ensure the Holocaust ‘never happens again’. The British Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, for instance, ‘commemorates the tragic loss of life in the genocides of World War II, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur’ (9).
We should resist the urge to indulge in ‘binary thinking’ – in relation to Israel and Palestine and all other contemporary conflicts. Those affected by them deserve not to be reduced to black-and-white pawns in Western campaigners’ sloganeering. Anyone who wants to uphold the memory of the Holocaust and understand today’s conflicts in their specifics – all the better to try to come up with some possible solutions – should stay well clear of the cynical use and abuse of Nazi atrocities.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
There’s no such thing as a ‘good lie’, by Tim Black
Who made Gaza into a bloody trap?, Brendan O’Neill
Whose war is it anyway?, Brendan O’Neill
War without ends?, by Mick Hume
The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild
‘We’re all Gazans now’, by Tim Black
The antithesis of anti-imperialism, Brendan O’Neill
Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza
(1) Hamas or Hannas, they’re not black and white, The Times (London), 6 January 2009
(2) Hamas or Hannas, they’re not black and white, The Times (London), 6 January 2009
(3) Warsaw Ghetto, Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project
(4) Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Encyclopaedia Britannica
(5) Brighton Demonstration Against Slaughter in Gaza, Indymedia, 3 January 2009
(6) Brighton Demonstration Against Slaughter in Gaza, Indymedia, 3 January 2009
(7) The meaning of Milosevic: how the Butcher of the Balkans changed us, The Times (London), 14 March 2006
(8) The mother of all mistranslations, Spectator, 29 February 2008
(9) See the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website
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