by Mark Chmiel
If past behavior is any guide, Elie Wiesel must be having a fit. I’m not thinking here of the great loss to his Foundation from the audacious and criminal pilfering of Bernie Madoff. No, I am guessing he is outraged by the growing frequency, since late December 2008, of comparisons made between Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the Nazi period, specifically the Warsaw Ghetto.
Both intellectual commentators and protesting activists have made linkages between the human horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Gaza Ghetto, as well as between the ghettos’ resistance to their tormenters. On the web and via email a photographic juxtaposition is circulating that documents Nazi oppression of Jews and Israeli oppression of Palestinians. A Vatican official, Cardinal Renato Martino, said that increasingly Gaza resembles a “big concentration camp,” while Israeli officials expressed shock at such an offensive comparison.
Back in 1982 Israel carried out Operation Peace for Galilee, a massive bombing and invasion of Lebanon, resulting in an estimated death toll of 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians. During that summer and early fall, Wiesel was interviewed frequently about Israel’s Lebanon attack. Since the June 1967 war Wiesel had been an enthusiastic apologist for Israeli power; what he found so disturbing that summer was not the flagrant militarism of the Israeli state but the excessive analogies of Israel’s critics.
Wiesel’s own outrage was directed at those political and intellectual detractors whom he said “profaned the memory of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust by comparing Beirut with the Warsaw Ghetto … Israel’s soldiers with the Nazis; the military operation in Lebanon with the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis — obscene comparisons, twisted analogies, vile and base and rooted in hate.” For Wiesel, the Holocaust was so singular and unparalleled that it shouldn’t be debased by such scurrilous associations. The Holocaust, he believed, is above politics, existing in a sacred realm that ought to be respected.
Nevertheless, critics of Israel’s assault simultaneously undermined Israel’s assumed monopoly of victim status by pointing to its thousands of Arab victims as well as relativized the Holocaust’s incomparability, a double scandal for Wiesel.
And yet the future Nobel Peace laureate should have known how frequently the Holocaust had been invoked in fierce political struggles in Palestine and Israel from the beginning. David Ben-Gurion juxtaposed the Nazis and Arab leaders such as Nasser. From the right-wing, Menachem Begin used Nazi analogies to attack Ben-Gurion. Israeli leaders even retroactively “Zionized” the Warsaw Ghetto resistance fighters, seeing in them their own willingness to fight, rather than be passive like so many Diaspora sheep to the slaughter.
So, if Israelis from different camps have passionately invoked a whole range of Holocaust/Nazi images, references, and stories to pursue their political aims, others, not surprisingly, will also use some of those same references and images for their own symbolic and political ends. As Joseph Massad pointed out in his recent article, “The Gaza Ghetto Uprising,” the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising “was always inspirational to the Palestinians. In the heyday of the PLO as a symbol of Palestinian liberation, the organization would lay flower wreathes at the Warsaw Ghetto monument to honor these fallen Jewish heroes.”
There have been Israeli establishment figures who have deplored the use of the Holocaust to validate Israeli violence. One is the longtime Zionist leader Nahum Goldman who, in 1981, asserted that “[t]o use the Holocaust as an excuse for the bombing of Lebanon, as Menachem Begin does, is a kind of ‘Hillul Hashem’ [sacrilege], a banalization of the sacred tragedy of the Shoah [Holocaust], which must not be misused to justify politically doubtful and morally indefensible policies.” Thus, Wiesel opposed banal Holocaust discourse if it was used to criticize Israel’s policies, while Goldman contested that same rhetoric if it was to mobilize support for Israel violence.
More recently, former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg has addressed what he sees as the overwhelming presence of the Holocaust in Israel. In his book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise from Its Ashes, he writes, “We have pulled the Shoah out of its historical context and turned it into a plea and a generator for every deed. All is compared to the Shoah, dwarfed by the Shoah, and therefore all is allowed—be it fences, sieges, crowns, curfews, food and water deprivation, or unexplained killings. All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave.” For the Israeli Jewish people to heal, Burg contends, this Shoah-fixation must come to an end.
In his book, Burg quotes the famous teaching from Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to thee, do not do unto thy fellow.”
Who doesn’t hate hearing the relentless barrage of dehumanizing propaganda and stereotypes against oneself and one’s co-religionists … or being forced to become a collaborator against one’s own miserable people?
Who doesn’t hate being systematically deprived of normal life—school, work, leisure—by an occupying power with its arbitrary dictates… or trying to fathom the labyrinthine legalities of the bureaucracy that is methodically chipping away at your dignity and resources?
Who doesn’t hate being publicly humiliated by the arrogant troops of the invading conqueror … or seeing one’s children being terrorized by the enemy’s unpredictable raids and incursions?
Who doesn’t hate having no way to protect oneself and one’s family from the oppressors … or having one’s property and land expropriated by those who never let you forget that you are weak, and they are mighty?
Who doesn’t hate witnessing one’s family, friends and neighbors brutally massacred … or concluding in despair that no one in the world either knows or cares about the abyss one’s whole people is falling into?