The Holocaust in Israeli Society

By Yahav Zohar - 

Apparently, following Israel's recent attack in Gaza there was an upsurge in anti Israeli propaganda comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. For those of us trying to affect change on the ground in Israel-Palestine such discourse seems both ludicrous and counter productive. Though millions live under the boot of a military bureaucracy which strives to deprive them of dignity and freedom, where courts convict without sufficient evidence, where torture and administrative detention are commonplace, we are still very far from the Nazi industrialized system of mass murder.
The comparison is deeply offensive to many, so much so that one banner with an Israeli flag and a swastika can paint a whole demonstration as anti-Semitic or just plain ignorant. Potential supporters are put off, and the proponents of the bombing of Gaza enjoy an easy out from answering hard questions on Israel's indiscriminate violence and intransigence.

My colleague Miri was upset enough by some of these images to actually write out in detail exactly why this comparison is false. This seemed to some of us a step too far - answering these accusations in such detail gives them credence beyond what seems due. Suffice it to say that they are false, ignorant and counterproductive.

It all seemed so ridiculous, so patently unworthy of mention until it struck me – these propagandists are not alone. There is a Middle Eastern country where inappropriate comparisons to the Holocaust are almost a national sport. A country where the word Nazi is used in conversation as a common derogatory name and even as a joke, and accusations of Nazism are thrown around in TV talk shows.

Comparisons to the Holocaust pervade Israeli culture so deeply we hardly notice them any more. Most recently, it was Prime Minister Netanyahu telling us over and over again that Iran's Mahmud Ahmadinejad is Hitler and the year is 1938. Most of us here in Israel felt the most ridiculous part of this statement was the indecisive, dishonest, poll-driven Netanyahu trying to cast himself as Churchill. Not enough of us even stopped to notice the manipulative use of the Holocaust for political ends. We're just so used to it.

Comparisons with the Holocaust have been used by the Zionist movement ever since the Holocaust took place. Egypt's Nasser was painted as another Hitler, and between him and Ahmedinejad there is a long line of similarly vilified Arab and Muslim leaders. The comparisons have not always been as direct as Netanyahu's, but they were always there. Israeli leaders painted any Arab resistance to their actions as antisemitism. Instead of dealing with Palestinian claims of dispossession and oppression, they got never tired of telling us that none of what 'The Arabs' say matters, since we know they all want to kill us all, to 'push us into the sea'. Why do all these people so irrationally hate us? 'Well', Israeli students and public are told, 'that's just the way it is. And if you don't believe us, look at the Holocaust.'

For this purpose, the Holocaust is constantly being pumped into our minds. In school, in children's books(!), on the radio, on television and in newspapers. The Holocaust is deeply imprinted in Israeli minds, even those who do not have any survivors or victims in their near or distant families seem to be traumatized. Israeli children often have Holocaust nightmares. Many cringe physically at the sound of German, and there is always the sense that it is hanging over us, about to happen again. There is very little effort made to teach the Holocaust as history, to put it in context or to draw lessons of humanism and anti-racism. Instead it is a vague and pervasive presence.

Young Israelis visiting Auschwitz for the "March of the Living"
Before they join the army, Israeli high-school kids often join school trips to Poland, where they visit one death camp after another, taken through the experience of genocide step by step. They travel on buses with armed guards and are constantly warned about the rampant antisemitism and the danger to young Jews should they wander away from the group. Without Israel's military force, they are told time and again, there will be nothing to stop another Holocaust.

Israelis use the Holocaust and Holocaust comparisons so much and so often, it seems almost natural that their opponents will. Put in this context, those posters of swastikas on Israeli flags are just the predictable mirror image of Netanyahu's statements on Iran, and those comparing Zionism to Nazism are following suit with Israelis making almost identical statements concerning Hammas. One can make excuses for both sides – Israelis are truly bearing a historical trauma, and the people of Gaza are truly suffering and being killed in unspeakable ways. But all these excuses, all these comparisons, help no one.

In the end, whether in one state, two states, confederacy, or whatever political solution is brought forth – Israelis and Palestinians will have to keep living together for many generations to come (until, God willing, interbreeding does away with this silly politics of separation). In order that the politics of racism and separation be brought down, we must first bring down the edifice of hatred. We must take an honest look at ourselves, our history and our neighbors, recognize wrongs done and see each other as the complex people and societies that we are. Swastikas, my friends, are not helping. There are enough real and living horrors for us to deal with without bringing the Holocaust into this.


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