The unspeakable, overwhelming evil of the Holocaust is a necessary element in any attempt to understand the history of modern Israel. The deliberate, systematic annihilation of six million Jews in Europe, after centuries of intermittent persecution and pogroms, led many Jews around the world to conclude, along with those who had already moved to Palestine since the late nineteenth century, that only in a homeland of their own would they have security. Howard Fast, in The Jews: Story of a People, wrote:
The meaning of Israel is clear. The Jew had experienced too much death, and a portion of the Jewish people decided that they would die quietly no more.1
The fundamental problem that haunts Jews and Palestinians to this day is that the land was already occupied, and the Jewish immigrants had to take it by force.
Visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem
During a seven-week stay in Palestine and Israel in 2008, I spent an afternoon in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the official Israeli museum complex commemorating the Holocaust. In this short time, I did not even finish viewing the historical museum, since I walked slowly, read all the panels while listening to the ongoing recorded description on my earphones, watched the Jewish schoolchildren as they looked with shock and disbelief at pictures of their forebears, and paused often to try to take in the unfathomable mystery of this evil. Horrific, overwhelming, shameful—words limp before the reality depicted so graphically in each of the exhibit rooms.
One panel contains the words of Kurt Tucholsky, “a German essayist of Jewish origin”: “A country is not just what it does—it is also what it tolerates.” This initiated in me a train of thought that I almost tried to suppress: I wondered about some possible connections between the exhibits on the walls and the Palestinian experiences that I had come to know as a member of the Michigan Peace Team. Would it be a dishonor to the Jewish victims to entertain the possibility of such connections, and to challenge the unconditional U.S. support (about $3 billion a year in military aid, plus billions in loan guarantees) for the Israeli government?
The question would seem to force itself on any relatively open-minded visitor to the Holocaust Memorial, especially in the wake of the three-week Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 that took the lives of 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including 300 children: What has the Jewish state since 1948 done to the Palestinians? And what are its citizens, many of whom are Holocaust survivors or their descendants, “tolerating”? This question is also at the heart of the debate within Christian churches concerning disinvestment from corporations that collaborate with Israeli policies and practices.
This is not to suggest in any way that the injustices suffered by the Palestinians can be compared to the Holocaust itself, which was an intentional and explicit campaign to murder European Jewry. It is true that, from its inception, Israel has dispossessed and continues to despoil hundreds of thousands of Palestinian residents, driven a large percentage of the population into refugee camps, and indeed killed thousands—perhaps more than half of whom are noncombatants—in military repression of the armed (and unarmed) Palestinian resistance movement that is struggling against foreign occupation. Indeed, many Palestinians are convinced that Israel deliberately plans to drive them all out of the West Bank and Gaza and, toward that end, is making life impossible for them in their homeland. But I didn’t hear anyone alleging that Israel intends to annihilate all Palestinians, as the Nazis intended for the Jews.
While the Holocaust itself cannot be placed in the same category as the Israeli occupation and repression of Palestine, some of the Nazi methods leading to the genocide suggest eerie parallels with Israeli practice regarding their subjects.
A large panel in the Yad Vashem historical museum shows a picture of the Warsaw ghetto wall with this caption: “Behind fences and walls, they cut the Jews off from their surroundings and their sources of livelihood and condemned them to a life of humiliation, poverty, degeneration, and death.” One cannot help but think of the enormous wall being constructed by Israel around the West Bank, in many places jutting into Palestinian territory and cutting the residents off from their farms and other “sources of livelihood.” The Palestinians are condemned to more “humiliations” than I had anticipated: having to stand on long lines, show I.D., present permits, and give handprints in order to pass through the wall to enter Israel—and even having to submit to such treatment, except for the handprints, as they pass through any of the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints within Palestinian territory.
To Bear Witness
With closing time fast approaching, I purchased the official guidebook of the Memorial, To Bear Witness, a large compendium representing many of the exhibits with their texts. In a preface, “To the Reader,” the editors note: “This book will lead the reader through the events, as they are displayed at Yad Vashem. The reader will share the bewilderment of Holocaust scholars in attempting to explain the almost total willingness of human beings to accept the dictates of a ghastly ideology and to commit mass murder without a second thought.”2
But who can explain the willingness of Jews in Israel and of Jews and gentiles around the world “to accept the dictates” of Zionist ideology, which is forthrightly based on ethnic discrimination, and to acquiesce to the “mass murder” perpetrated by Israeli forces, especially in Gaza, by economic strangulation and by indiscriminate use of firepower? (This mass murder, of course, is quantitatively and qualitatively very different from the shooting or gassing and cremating of millions.)
In his introductory remarks, the chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate expressed his hope that the “message of Holocaust remembrance …will retain its relevance and meaning, giving rise to a continual dialogue through which our heritage, commitment to Jewish continuity, the safeguarding of basic human values, education, and imparting the lessons to generations to come will be ensured.”3
Is the “message of Holocaust remembrance” retaining its relevance and meaning as a moral challenge to Israeli conduct today or just as a reminder to be wary of the evil lurking in the hearts of others? Has the Zionist way of showing “commitment to Jewish continuity” militated against the “safeguarding of basic human values,” which presumably must include a respect for the human and civil rights of other peoples?
Walls and Ghettos
“In all, the Germans established more than one thousand ghettos in Central and Eastern Europe,” according to the guidebook, which cites Friedrich Übelhör’s order to ghettoize the Jews of Lodz, Poland: “The Jews…shall be concentrated in a sealed ghetto….Guard units shall be posted…and the streets shall be closed by barriers and other obstacles….The harshest measures are to be taken against the Jews.”4
“In the spring of 1940,” continues the guidebook, the Lodz ghetto was sealed from the rest of the world by a wooden fence surrounded by additional barbed-wire fences. The Jews were packed into the ghetto with no electricity or water. Disease and starvation rapidly diminished their numbers.”
At many points, the Israeli barrier around the West Bank consists of barbed-wire fences rather than a wall. Palestinians in Gaza describe their small territory as “the largest open-air prison in the world.” Hamas, which won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and seized power in Gaza the next year, runs the inside of the “prison,” although Israeli forces have made frequent and deadly incursions. The perimeter, however, is totally controlled by Israel, except for the border crossing at the southern city of Rafah, which is sealed by the army of neighboring Egypt.
Like the Jews in the Lodz ghetto, Gazans often have “no electricity or water,” since the electricity supply comes from Israel and is frequently cut off, disabling the water supply and the sewage system. For these reasons, “disease and starvation” are diminishing the numbers of Gazans. This loss of life is also due to Israeli restrictions on the inflow of food, medicines, and oil, and to Israeli unwillingness to allow gravely sick Gazans out of their prison to be treated in the better Israeli hospitals.
In his order, the Nazi official Übelhör had explained the temporary nature of the ghetto: “The creation of the ghetto is, of course, only an interim measure….The final aim must in any case be to totally cauterize this plague spot.”5
As Jewish settlements on Palestinian land increase, both in number and in violent boldness, and as Palestinians in Israel continue to suffer violations of their human and civil rights, the residents of the Gazan and West Bank ghettos have reason to wonder about Israel’s “final aim” with regard to them. Is the Israeli military using its vast firepower on the Palestinians to “cauterize” them?
“Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, chairman of the Lodz Judenrat, believed that labor would give the Jews an opportunity to go on living and the hope to survive. Thus he established a multifaceted system in which the Jews of the ghetto worked for the Germans, including workshops that employed even young children. The Germans, however, regarded the ghetto’s output merely as a pause in the task at hand—extermination.”6
Many Palestinians used to be able to leave their ghetto every day to work in Israel, but the Israeli government has toughened its policy on granting work permits. Are the occupiers now moving on to some horrible “task at hand”?
Economic life becomes harder and harder for the people under occupation. And many Palestinians accuse Israel of state terrorism as they witness targeted assassinations by Israeli forces that frequently kill five to ten others in addition to the intended Palestinian, and as they experience the strangulation of Gaza as a terrorist military strategy aimed at civilians to force the Hamas authorities to stop the launching of rockets across the border into Israel.
Dawid Sierakowiak of the Lodz ghetto wrote: “Every day here is worse….Decree follows decree, and life becomes harder and harder.”7
In its section on the Warsaw ghetto, To Bear Witness quotes Israel Gutman: “The Jews were convinced that things could not get worse. The truth is that every stage, ultimately, was something worse and more terrible. This developmental dynamic is the very essence of terror.”8
Israeli “rule by decree” is common in the West Bank, especially in those areas designated as controlled military zones.
Dispossession Then and Now
Under the Nazi policy of “dispossession” the Jews lost homes, factories, and businesses. A cradle taken as loot is exhibited in the historical museum along with other family items stolen from the Jews. To Bear Witness contains pictures of such stolen property, with this explanation:
Despoiling the Jews was an integral part of Nazi policy. Property and possessions of European Jewry that had been part of their cultural life for hundreds of years were systematically plundered.
In 1938 the Nazis established the dispossession of the Jews in law. When the war began, the Nazis applied these policies of dispossession and theft to the occupied territories. They confiscated all types of property—homes, real estate, factories, businesses, and artistic and cultural treasures. In Eastern Europe the plundering continued in the ghettos.9
“Despoiling” the Palestinian Arabs living on land that would become Israel in 1948 was an integral part of Zionist policy and practice, along with driving them out of the new country into refugee camps, many in Gaza.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis “applied these policies of dispossession and theft to the occupied territories” of Gaza and the West Bank, colonizing these Palestinian territories with Jewish “settlers” who occupied land with the protection of the Israeli army.
Return of the Dispossessed
With the end of the war in Europe and their release from the death camps, European Jews found that they were “liberated but not free,” in the words of U.S. Army chaplain Abraham Klausner at Dachau, June 1945. “Many Jews who emerged from the camps, forests, and hideouts…to return to their homes received an enraged and hostile welcome,” according to To Bear Witness. “Much of the local populace was afraid that the Jews would demand restitution of the property they had stolen. In the first few months after the liberation, antisemitic gangs murdered approximately 1,000 survivors.” 10
Fear in the hearts of the Jewish Israeli populace that the Palestinians dispossessed in 1948 “would demand restitution of the property they had stolen” probably accounts for Israel’s firm refusal to allow the refugees and their descendants to exercise their “right to return”—one of the Palestinians’ key demands in the negotiations. Also, the “Jewish state” is committed to maintaining a strong Jewish majority among its citizens.
In another part of the Holocaust Memorial, the Valley of the Communities “highlights the names of thousands of Jewish communities destroyed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators and the few that suffered but survived in the shadow of the Holocaust….The great catastrophe that was the Shoah caused that rich world of Jewish life to suddenly disappear from sight and sink out of existence.”11
One of the labor pains associated with the birth of Israel was the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages in what the victims call the Naqbah, the “catastrophe,” that caused the rich world of Palestinian life “to suddenly disappear from sight and sink out of existence,” except for a small number of Palestinians who were allowed to remain in the new Jewish state. Now, they and their descendants constitute 20 percent of the population of Israel, and their vigorous birthrate is looked upon with alarm by the Jewish Israelis.
The harshness of this policy, as well as its need for organized violence, was recognized and accepted by its perpetrators.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, born in 1880 in Russia, was one of the founders of the Haganah (the Zionists’ paramilitary militia-army before the 1948 war). In his article, “Iron Wall,” published in Ha’aretz Daily in 1923, he stated plainly:
Settlement can thus develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an IRON WALL which they will be powerless to break down….A voluntary agreement is just not possible. As long as the Arabs preserve a gleam of hope that they will succeed in getting rid of us, nothing in the world can cause them to relinquish this hope, precisely because they are not a rabble but a living people. And a living people will be ready to yield on such fateful issues only when they give up all hope of getting rid of the Alien Settlers.
In a thought-provoking allusion to the European invasion and occupation of the Americas, the fighter remarked that the Palestinians “look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true favor that the Aztecs looked upon Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie.” In Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Jimmy Carter also noted this parallel, equating “the ejection of Palestinians from their previous homes within the State of Israel to the forcing of Lower Creek Indians from the Georgia land where our family farm was now located; they had been moved west to Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears” to make room for our white ancestors.”12
“We Are Not Blind Zionist Ideologues”
Many Jews in Israel and around the globe are working to end the occupation of the West Bank and the “siege” of Gaza. Various aspects of the historic persecution of their ancestors, such as the elements I have presented in this article, have challenged them to ask whether current Israeli policy is a tribute or a dishonor to the victims of the Holocaust.
In a public letter to his parents and their “Zionist friends,” David Mandelzys, a Canadian Jew, presented four questions raised by the celebration of Passover:
- Why, on this night we dedicate to remembering our own history as an oppressed people, do we justify Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians?
- Why, on this night when Israelis are free to celebrate, are the Palestinians locked down under curfew, as is done on most Jewish holidays?
- Why, here in Canada, where we are a minority amongst a Christian majority, do we advocate for and support a “Jewish State” in the Middle East, where the non-Jewish minority are treated as second class citizens?
- Why should anyone think that just because we say “next year in Jerusalem” at the end of our Seder, that we had a right to kick others out of their homes so that we could live there?
“You see, our generation is different,” he continued, “we are not blind Zionist ideologues. We did not take the lesson of kill or be killed from the stories our grandparents told us about the Holocaust or the anti-Semitism they faced. Alongside our lessons about Zionism and about why the Holocaust meant that Jews need a Jewish state for themselves, we couldn’t help but absorb the need to oppose racism, to fight oppression and to not justify the subjugation of one ‘people’ for the benefit of another.”13
Another person for whom an important lesson of the Holocaust is to refuse to justify the subjugation of another people is a Jewish Israeli activist who sent the following, accompanying a video, from Jerusalem in June 2008:
It won’t mean much to you if you are unfamiliar with the Old City in Jerusalem and if you don’t understand Hebrew. In both cases you will miss what the action is all about. So, let me explain.
What you will see in the video is a crowd of gung-ho happy young religious idealists marching through the Arab quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Let me repeat, the Arab quarter. From time to time you also see Israeli police and barricades, neither of which stop the young men from progressing in their march and chanting. And what are they chanting at the beginning? “Arabs go home,” meaning, “Arabs get out.” Sound familiar? Like “Juden raus,” i.e., the Nazis’ “Jews out”?
These young men indeed fit that much of the Nazi image well, except they appear to be less disciplined. Following that, these nice sweet young bullies start chanting loudly in the Arab quarter (let me repeat: in the Arab quarter) of the Old City, “Death to the Arabs.”14
African National Congress Visits West Bank: Some Said Worse, Some Said Same As Apartheid
In a July 2008 visit to Palestine, veterans of the South African anti-apartheid struggle said that
the restrictions endured by Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories were in some respects worse than that imposed on the black majority under white rule in South Africa.15
Members of a 23-strong human-rights team of prominent South Africans cited the impact of the Israeli military’s separation barrier, checkpoints, the permit system for Palestinian travel, and the extent to which Palestinians are barred from using roads in the West Bank.
Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC parliament member, said that the visit to Yad Vashem had been “extremely moving” because his mother had been a Holocaust survivor who lost many members of her family. “As you walk into Yad Vashem you see a quote that says in effect you should know a country not only by what it does but what it tolerates,” he said. “So I found it very shocking to then come here and see footage of teenagers heaping abuse on Palestinian children as they come out of school, and throwing stones at them. And that this should be done in the name of Judaism I find totally reprehensible. What the Holocaust teaches us more than anything else is that we must never turn our heads away in the face of injustice.”16
Conclusion: Time For U.S. Action
The Obama administration should heed the voices for peace of many Jewish groups, both in Israel and in the United States, who oppose the occupation of Palestine and who denounce Israeli human-rights violations. Thus far, Obama has been speaking out more forcefully than previous presidents against Israeli violations, especially the continuation of settlements on Palestinian soil; but he has yet to wield a twig, much less a big stick, in support of his words, seemingly intent on persuading the right-wing Israeli government to agree to put the brakes on the settlements.
That has been a laudable and understandable effort so far, but it has failed to get results. Now it is time for the U.S. government to act in defense of the national security of the American people. Whether the Israeli government is persuaded or not to make the changes required for a genuine peace (and those changes include more than just stopping settlement expansion), the United States must take serious strides toward ending its complicity with the crimes Israel is committing against the Palestinians.
- ↩ Howard Fast, The Jews: Story of a People (New York: Dial Press, 1968), 325.
- ↩ Israel Gutman, To Bear Witness: Holocaust Remembrance at Yad Vashem, eds. Bella Gutterman and Avner Shalev (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publications, 2005), 7.
- ↩ To Bear Witness, 9.
- ↩ Ibid., 88.
- ↩ Ibid., 84.
- ↩ Ibid., 90.
- ↩ Ibid., 88.
- ↩ Ibid., 98.
- ↩ Ibid., 192.
- ↩ Ibid., 262.
- ↩ Ibid., 306.
- ↩ Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).
- ↩ “Heating Up: The Battle for the Jewish Voice and the Jewish Soul,” Culture Magazine, May 30, 2008, http://www.culturemagazine.ca/activism/heating_up_the_battle_for_the_jewish_voice_and_the_jewish_soul_.htm and at http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2008/06/heating-up-battle-for-jewish-voice-and.html.
- ↩ Here is a link to a brief video: http://www.kibush.co.il/show_file.asp?num=27566.
- ↩ The Independent, UK, July 11, 2008.
- ↩ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/this-is-like-apartheid-anc-veterans-visit-west-bank-865063.html.