Deploying the Holocaust

by Mark Chmiel

Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, by Idith Zertal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.  Cambridge Middle East Studies 21. 208 pages. Biographies to p. 216. Glossary to p. 222.  Bibliography to p. 230. Index to p. 236. $30.00 cloth.  Published in Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 35, no. 3 (139), Spring 2006. p. 123.

In late summer of 2005 on the order of Ariel Sharon’s government, several thousand Israeli settlers departed the Gaza Strip. In protest, some settlers donned Star of David patches, which Jews had been forced to wear under Nazi domination. Settlers, among them Holocaust survivors and their children, contended that withdrawal would lead to another Holocaust.

Such an assertion of persecution and victimization in terms of the Holocaust has a long history, according to Israeli writer, Idith Zertal, in her recently translated book from Hebrew, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood. Zertal’s work explores the growing reliance upon Holocaust discourse in Israel, as she candidly states, “Politicians, journalists, and historians let themselves speak out in the name of the Holocaust dead. They/we all use Holocaust images for their/our purposes. Some of these images are threatening, others are trivial, all are distorting” (197).

Because, as Zertal says, the Holocaust period provides “inexhaustible reservoirs of images, arguments, and assertions,” Israeli political groups have battled one another to monopolize control of interpretation of those reservoirs, thereby gaining an inestimable symbolic power to advance their own agendas (42).

And in seeking to speak for the murdered millions and interpret the significance of their deaths, Israelis have been ready to remember aspects of the European Jewish story and ignore other aspects, which do not suit their purposes. One example of how the Holocaust was deployed in the 1940s and 1950s was the “Zionization” of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, Zertal argues, “by cloaking the rebels in the mantle of Zionism and transforming them into Palmach fighters, accidentally snared in the spheres of the Diaspora” (30-31).

In the 1950s, the remembrance of the Holocaust gradually became institutionalized in Israel. But it was the Jerusalem trial in 1961 of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann that laid the groundwork for the prevalence of Holocaust discourse in Israel. Prime Minster David Ben-Gurion sought a most dramatic pedagogic goal from the spectacle of the trial: to teach the younger generation of Israelis and the world what the Nazi persecution was and, consequently, to establish the legitimacy of the necessity for the Jewish state.  At the time of the trial, Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Agriculture, spoke frankly about the connection between the Nazi genocide and Israel:  “what is becoming clear at the Eichmann trial is the active passivity of the world in the face of the murder of the six million. There can be no doubt that only this country and only this people can protect the Jews again against a second Holocaust. And hence every inch of Israeli soil is intended for Jews only” (109).

Zertal links that watershed trial with the 1967 war, especially the weeks preceding Israel’s attack, as “the first test and application of this Holocaust discourse in the context of Israel’s wars” (92). Because of the bellicosity of threats coming from Arab leaders in the weeks before the war began, Israelis and many Jews worldwide feared an imminent catastrophe.  Israeli commentators regularly equated Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser with Hitler. There was also growing opposition from some Israeli elites to Prime Minister Levi Eshkohl’s seeming vacillation before the threat.  Then out of power, Ben-Gurion zeroed in on the neuralgic issue facing the Israelis:  “A war of annihilation. None of us can forget the Holocaust that the Nazis inflicted on us. And if some Arab rulers declare day and night that Israel must be annihilated—this time referring not to the entire Jewish people in the world, but to the Jews living in their land—it is our duty not to take these statements lightly” (119-120).

With regularity, the Holocaust horrors from European geography will be transposed to the Middle East conflict, and Israeli leaders will characterize perceived security threats from Arabs and Palestinians as tantamount to the possibility of utter destruction, Nazi-style.

Zertal identifies two different Israeli camps mobilizing the Holocaust for political ends:  “Whereas the central, hegemonic Holocaust discourse of the labor movement applied the images of the Holocaust and Nazism in particular to external enemies—mainly for purposes of fostering Israeli power and the ethos of its justice—Holocaust images employed by the opposing right wing were applied to the adversary within, the political rival” (168-169).  Israeli settlers mounted furious rhetorical campaigns against any negotiation with their enemies, whether that involved Begin’s departure from Sinai, or Rabin’s participation in the Oslo process after 1993. Rabin’s assassin was seen by some supporters as cut from heroic cloth like the Warsaw Ghetto fighters.  About the settlers, Zertal astutely observes, “In their world, where meaning is turned inside out, which projects on to others, the conquerors become the conquered, the persecutor are turned into the persecuted, wrongdoer into the victim, and this inverted order received the supreme seal of Auschwitz” (193).

The book ends with the aftermath of the Rabin murder, as the book was published in Israel in 2002. One hopes for an additional chapter in any future second edition to chronicle the ongoing use of the Holocaust vis-à-vis the Palestinians under the administrations of Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon.

In a separate chapter, Zertal examines the legacy of Hannah Arendt, who wrote a controversial book on the Eichmann trial.  In fact, Zertal sees her own book as a kind of homage to Arendt, whose critical thinking and universalistic ethics were so unwelcome in Jerusalem during the trial and elsewhere thereafter.  While Zertal wrote the following in reference to the Rabin assassination, her challenge can be applied to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as well:  “In order to confront evil and overcome it, it was necessary, first and foremost, to be capable of looking it in the eye, and not to stand before it in dazzled awe, nor to fall silent in shame or to invest energies in a search for consoling myths” (206).

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